Humble beginnings, Rebecca Priestley

Enterprise and Energy: The Todd Family of New Zealand
Ross Galbreath
The Todd Corporation Limited, price unavailable,
ISBN 9781869341121


As a teenager in the 1980s, I had the occasional embarrassment of being driven to school in an ancient green and white Humber 80. By now it would be treasured as a classic car but back then it was the ultimate in uncool. I can now blame the Todd family for my schoolgirl shame! As Ross Galbreath’s history of the Todd family tells me, Humbers were assembled from imported parts in the Todd Motor Company factory in Petone, near where I lived.

This commissioned book is a change of theme for Galbreath. A pioneer in writing about New Zealand’s science history, his books include biographies of Walter Buller and G M and Allan Thomson, and institutional histories of the DSIR and the New Zealand Wildlife Service. Is a family of businessmen going to provide the same sort of colour and characters as his earlier books, with their gun-toting 19th-century naturalists? No. The strength of this book is not in its portraits of individual characters, but in its social and business history, particularly the stories of the automotive and oil and gas industries in New Zealand.

Galbreath traces the Todds back to a tenant farmer in Scotland, whose sons worked as spinners and weavers in the woollen mills. Charles Todd came to Dunedin on an assisted passage with his wife Mary and their five children in 1870. After working in a fellmongery, a goldmine and a stamping battery, Todd set up the first Todd business in New Zealand – a fellmongery and wool-scour at Heriot, Otago.

The first Todd motor business opened in 1913, doing repairs, hiring out cars and selling a few Fords from the Heriot Motor Garage – a corrugated iron building in the paddock next to Todd’s house.

That was the humble beginning of what eventually became New Zealand’s biggest motorcar business. In 1923 the Todd Motor Company, run by Charles Todd’s son (also called Charles), and his sons, began importing and distributing the Grey motorcar throughout New Zealand.

Galbreath describes the Grey as “a real lemon”, with problems with the body, the upholstery, the springing, the axles, the gearbox, the brakes and the engine. The Todds must have been great salesmen because the Grey sold more in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world. Their success selling the Grey opened doors for the Todds, who diversified into selling General Motors and Chrysler models. By 1930 they were the third largest car wholesaler in New Zealand, with their head office, showroom and garage taking up a city block on Wellington’s Courtenay Place.

Galbreath traces the history of the company over the next 50 years and reveals the remarkable – to today’s reader – degree to which it was influenced by economic policy. Early in the business’s history, a “British preference tariff” meant that while duty on cars imported from Britain came to 21.25 per cent, cars from the US, like the Chryslers Todd Motors imported, were taxed at 68.9 per cent.

The government introduced a new tariff concession in 1934 to encourage the assembly of cars in New Zealand from imported parts and local materials. Todd Motors promptly built a car assembly factory in Petone, which was soon assembling cars from Chrysler, Rootes and Fargo along with Plymouth trucks. When the Petone plant got too small, they built a new one in Porirua, capable of producing 22,000 cars and trucks a year; by 1980 it was the leading motor company in New Zealand, assembling and selling more cars than anyone else. But in the 1980s, as tariff production and regulatory controls were progressively removed, imports of built-up cars increased and profitability was reduced. In 1987 Todd sold to Mitsubishi for $97.5 million.

Galbreath also traces the history of the other Todd family businesses, like the aircraft agency – when NAC was looking to upgrade their fleet in 1959, Todd convinced the government to buy the technically superior but “foreign” Fokker Friendship – the Europa petrol company and their oil exploration business. The discovery of the Maui gas field, the result of a wildcat drilling venture by Shell BP Todd, was the main reason government plans for nuclear power were abandoned; discovery of a domestic source of fuel for electricity meant that plans for a nuclear power plant, on the New Zealand power plan through most of the 1960s and 70s, could be deferred.

But what about the people? While the characters are not as richly drawn as in Galbreath’s previous books, this is a family history as much as a business history. There is plenty of skiing, car racing, golf and water skiing and many family trips to Europe, but overall this wealthy family was hard-working and not prone to excess. I’d hoped for a few family scoundrels or misfits but if there were any they haven’t made it into this book. “The Todds, men and women both, were a strong-minded lot, and as well as seeing to business they took their parts in the issues and events of the time.” One of those issues was prohibition: the second Charles Todd was “an ardent prohibitionist”.

Two of the book’s most interesting characters are Kathleen and Moyra Todd. One a doctor, the other the victim of a broken heart, neither married, and they were constant companions. A young Kathleen Todd worked as a doctor and psychiatrist in the Auckland Psychological Clinic where her job was to assess children and recommend whether they be confined in a mental institution to prevent them offending, or admitted to one of the Education Department’s special classes.

Dismayed by the country’s backward attitude to child psychiatry, Kathleen went to London where she became the first New Zealander to be elected Fellow of the British Psychological Society. In later years, Kathleen and Moyra shared a house in Lower Hutt and devoted a lot of time and money to philanthropic projects.

Philanthropy was a big part of the family culture. Desmond, who was known for his “forceful and colourful language” as well as his humanity, used to give £100 at Christmas to give “the bums” at Buckle Street a “good Christmas dinner”. The book traces many individual acts of philanthropy as well as the work of the Todd Charitable Trust and the now very well-endowed Todd Foundation, which since 2004 has been giving grants of $1 million a year.

There are now 186 descendents of Charles and Mary Todd – all of whom have stakes in the business he founded, a business that, since the sale of Europa and the Todd Motor Company, is now mainly about managing the family’s investments.

This privately-published book is not available in bookshops, but copies have been deposited in libraries around New Zealand.


Rebecca Priestley edited The Awa Book of New Zealand Science, which won the Royal Society of New Zealand 2009 Science Book of the Year Award.


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