As my eyes adjust to the light in Neil Tolich’s Auckland workshop, I begin noticing one magnificent classic car after another. There is an early sixties Lotus 11, an E-Type Jaguar roadster, a Porsche 356 Speedster and two big luxurious vintage pumpkin-seed Citroëns. And then I spot the car I came to see – a 1968 Trekka; actually, two of them!
At first glance, you might think the Trekka is a vintage Land Rover, but on closer examination you realize that it is nothing of the sort. It is essentially a rather boxy roadster-ute with a removable top. All the panels are flat; its door latches look as if they came off an antique refrigerator, and the hinges would serve well on a garden gate. It also has a big flat windscreen, and a spare tyre mounted behind the front seat. The Trekka put the ‘U’ in utilitarian. But surprisingly, underneath all of this is an imported Skoda Octavia Combi chassis and drive train.
And as if Neil wanted to emphasise our ‘nicotine stain’ beige coloured Trekka test car’s exceeding stubbiness, right next to it is a rare and truly luscious red Ferrari Testarossa. At first glance it is like going from the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, but that isn’t really fair. Yes, the Testarossa is stunningly beautiful, as only the Italians can design a car, but it is also astronomically expensive, highly strung and only seats two.
The Trekka has its virtues too. It was cheap, and it could hold six people – or two adult sheep and a few 70-kilo bags of their droppings – with room to spare. And consider this; you wouldn’t want to take that Testarossa off into a muddy paddock as its minimal ground clearance would highcentre you before you got off the road’s verge. The Trekka would do just fine in the muddy south 40 though, providing you didn’t try to rock climb with it.
The Trekka was obviously designed for rural people and has as much practicality and versatility built into it as possible. And for Kiwis, another unique virtue for Trekka buyers was that agricultural machinery was taxed more favourably than automobiles at the time, so it made sense to make it useful to farmers. There was no room in their budget for frippery and foolishness either.
While you’d be expected to motor around in a Testarossa sporting a Jackie Stewart cap, Ray-Ban aviator sunnies and a Savile Row tweed jacket complete with an ascot, the proper attire for a Trekka would be a floppy stockman’s hat, black singlet, shorts and gumboots. I’m not dressed appropriately for our test drive, and I’ve never tilled the soil, but I want to drive a Trekka in the worst way.
Neil opens the bonnet using the lever sticking out the front of the grille, and then goes around to the mechanical fuel pump to provide a little pumping action to a small lever built into it. I begin to wonder why all the old mechanical fuel pump-equipped cars didn’t have a similar little hand pump so the starter wouldn’t have to grind away until the carburettor filled with fuel.
He tells me to twist the key and the 1221cc inline overhead valve four-banger comes to life immediately, sounding much like the engine in my 1966 Morris Minor. The Trekka’s little Skoda engine makes an unspectacular 47 horsepower (35kW) at 4600 rpm, but is torquey enough for fairly decent acceleration. On the dash, the big generic-looking round black and white gauges jiggle to life and tell me all is well. The clutch, brake and throttle pedal are arranged conventionally.
The transmission is a wild card. It is a standard four-speed, but first gear is to the right and up, second gear is directly below that, and third is back across the H gate to the left and up. High is then directly below that. Reverse is way over to the left and down. I wondered if the guys in the Skoda shop had the blueprints upside down? No one seems to know why they did things that way, but it all shifts crisply.
I motor out into Auckland traffic and give it a little throttle. There is plenty of bottomend torque, so we pull away easily, though the little engine starts to get buzzy pretty quickly, due to low gearing. Then I pop it into second, which is a little longer gear. When we get clear of traffic, we take the Trekka up through the other two gears and it gets to the speed limit without drama, though that feels close to top speed. Acceleration is appropriately agricultural...
The ride is soft and comfy. It is not at all like a Jeep or similar utility vehicles, because, as stated before, it has a passenger car chassis. There are the usual rattles, and a little drumming because of the all-metal interior, but one can converse with a passenger without shouting. Braking is reasonable, though I wonder what it would be like with a couple of sheep or a load of kūmara in the cargo tray. Its rear swing-axle independent suspension makes uneven surfaces manageable to some extent, but the Trekka is only two-wheel drive, so you would need to keep that in mind if you decided to go off-road.
The clutch is smooth and easy to actuate, and the transmission is precise and sure, because it is a top loader. Cornering results in a little lean, but it is not as bad as I would have expected, thanks to the car’s torsion bar front suspension. Hard braking could be a little tricky in a sudden stop due to the rear swing axles though. As with all swing axle suspension, the rear wheels want to tuck under as the nose of the car dives during hard braking. This can cause the rear end to raise and come around, possibly rolling the vehicle.
Another problem is that, under a heavy load, the rear end will squat, and its track will widen, causing the car to understeer through corners. I know these things from experience with early sixties Volkswagens, though I would never put another man’s rare classic (there are only 30 left) to such parlous tests. Besides, the Trekka was never marketed based on its high-speed handling characteristics.
So why did New Zealand – a country of just two-and-a-half million people (circa 1966) – decide to make its own automobile? It can be summed up in one word – economics. As with other non-automobile manufacturing countries, New Zealand placed tariffs and import taxes on cars brought into the country in order to stanch the flow of hard-earned currency flowing out.
The Trekka was actually accidentally conceived as a result of Phil Andrews Motor Lines, a Skoda importer and dealer in Auckland, who requested that an Octavia Combi be driven up from Wellington to add to their inventory. But as fate would have it, the driver rolled the car on the way, and what was left had to be trucked to the dealership.
Upon arrival they tore the Octavia down and discovered that – though the body was unsalvageable -- the chassis was intact. That gave the dealer an idea. Why not import the Skoda chassis and put their own locally produced body on it? If they could establish that the car was 80 per cent domestically made, they could get around all the tariffs, and undersell everybody else by a huge margin.
So, in 1964 they mocked up a prototype using whatever hardware they had at hand along with the wrecked Skoda chassis. The resulting vehicle ended up looking much like the production model, except it had dip-down doors and a two-piece windscreen. The dealer actually used the prototype as a parts chaser for years after that. Everything about the design was aimed at simplicity of production and utility. Styling didn’t enter into it. Ferraris have a near monopoly on elegance, but Trekkas are pure form follows function.
Essentially, the dealer imported the small – but upscale by Communist standards – sedan chassis and put a big box on it that made it look like a poor man’s Land Rover. This incongruous combination rides like a regular car but can haul a lot of stuff. It sounds surreal, but the result is quite good, given the parameters the dealer had to work with.
The Trekka was like Henry Ford’s Model T. It wasn’t beautiful, nor was it the best car money could buy, but it was cheap, fairly durable, and simple to maintain. Trekka began production in 1966, and by the time it wound down in 1973 they had built around 3,000 of them. That may not sound like much, but when you are marketing to a clientele of only two and a half million people, that means quite a few Kiwis bought Trekkas.
This little cube-shaped grandmother of the modern SUV was a source of pride for many people in New Zealand. Trekkas were also exported to Australia, Indonesia and Fiji. And five were even sent to Vietnam with the troops fighting over there at the time. These days Japanese cars dominate the landscape in New Zealand, and the Trekka is now regarded as an artifact from another era, but there is still a dedicated club of owners in New Zealand, of which Neil Tolich is a member. Neil says, “We were all pretty chuffed when the Trekka came out.”
But as with any new car, there were teething problems. Many buyers expected the Trekka to perform like a four-wheel drive vehicle, but that feature was never added, and indeed, the original differential was not up to vigorous off-road driving either. To remedy this, a limited slip differential – designed locally – was offered as an extra cost option. Also, the passenger car chassis, though comfortable, was somewhat soft for the loads the vehicle was designed to carry. And rust became a problem too.
Trekkas were available as open vehicles, or with cloth or fiberglass tops. In the back is a standard tailgate that drops down, and along the inside of the tray are built-in toolboxes over which upholstered bench seats could be placed. The spare tyre is mounted behind the seat, and easy to access. The Trekka is a basic vehicle intended for a rural farming environment, though many of them became urban delivery vehicles as well, thanks to their roomy cargo tray. Farmer’s vehicles were mostly open, but delivery vans usually had tops.
Neil surmises that if the company had made it clear that the Trekka was not a four-wheel drive off-road vehicle, but a great choice for hauling around light cargo and town deliveries, it might have been even more successful. As it was, in 1972 many of the tariffs and restrictions were eliminated for foreign cars, and more sophisticated and stylish Japanese and other imported autos gobbled up the Trekka market, so production ended.
But Neil still has a soft spot for the country’s only production car endeavour.
“It really did inspire in my era, a sense of Kiwi pride and loyalty to the product, and for a year or two, people were very keen to have them, but then all these stories came out about them being badly built,” he says. “If they didn’t get such a bad rap in their day, and right through until now, they would have been held in much higher regard. People hold Morris Minors in high regard – oh, we love our Morries, and we love our Fiat Bambinas – but we don’t love our Trekkas.”
As a result, this unique Kiwi car has fallen deeper into the cracks of automotive obscurity.
“There are tons of them left in swamps that got stuck and have just disappeared. There might be a badge left, or might be a radiator, but there’s nothing else. They’ve all gone, and so that’s it, I hope some people buy them and keep them here,” Neil says.
As we drive along Auckland’s hilly city streets, people who remember the days of the Trekka give us the thumbs up, and when we park, they come around for a look and take selfies with the car. It may not be photogenic, but it is symbolic of the Kiwi can-do spirit that has helped make this remote realm the beautiful modern realm it is.
After we put his Trekka through its paces and returned it to its place of honour next to the Testarossa, Neil graciously offered to buy us a lunch of good Kiwi tucker consisting of meat pies, fish and chips, and bacon and egg sandwiches, topped off with coffee or tea and sweet rolls.
Neil has raced classic cars as a hobby for many years, and his superb collection of famous sports racers is hard to top, but his Trekka is one of the rarest and most esoteric vehicles in his collection. Perhaps that is why he has two of them. Or maybe he occasionally needs to pick up a used engine or transmission for one of his other exotic rides.
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