Building a car community

Sparks fly: Doug Schroder spot welds the body of a new Honda Accord on the assembly line in Stoke, during the Nelson Motor Vehicle Assembly Plant's last months in 1998.
Sparks fly: Doug Schroder spot welds the body of a new Honda Accord on the assembly line in Stoke, during the Nelson Motor Vehicle Assembly Plant's last months in 1998.

Brian Ferris wanted experience before opening an upholstery business, John Miller needed a job after leaving university, and Monica Harvey wanted to buy a caravan for her family.

During its 33-year history, more than 4500 people worked at the Nelson Motor Vehicle Assembly Plant.

Some worked there for only a year, others much longer, but regardless of how long they stayed, each had their own reason for taking a job there.

The plant's closure in August 1998 -- a victim of the then National government's decision to remove tariffs on imported motor vehicles -- was a blow to not only the Nelson economy, but the 190 staff and their families.

Now, just over 10 years after the last Honda LS Accord rolled off the production line, many of those who helped to assemble some of the 160,406 vehicles that passed through the plant are this weekend getting together to reminisce about life there, and reflect on what has changed in the decade since.

About 300 are expected at events over the weekend, including six "originals" who were there when the plant opened in 1965, and others travelling from as far away as Australia for the occasion.

The Nelson Motor Vehicle Assembly Plant (ex-employees bristle when it is referred to as "the Honda factory") arose out of an ill-fated attempt by the Commonwealth Cotton Company to establish a cotton industry in the region. It turned out that the crop couldn't handle frosty Nelson winters, so in 1965 the factory shell, which had stood unused for about five years, was snapped up by a subsidiary of British Leyland and turned into a vehicle assembly plant.

In October that year, Triumph Heralds, Mk 1 Triumph 2000s and Leyland trucks started coming off the assembly line.

The plant specialised in completely knocked-down assembly, where vehicles arrived in pieces, mostly from overseas, and were put together.

Between 1972 and 1988, ownership of the plant switched between a handful of companies, but from 1980 output was largely concentrated on Honda vehicles, after the New Zealand Motor Corporation acquired the franchise in the mid-1970s.

The devotion to vehicles created by the Japanese motoring giant was cemented in August 1988 with the establishment of Honda New Zealand, which purchased the NZMC's 13 retail dealerships, the franchise, and the Stoke assembly plant.

Most ex-employees agree that the new owners brought a new level of efficiency and skill to the plant, though at the expense of jobs.

"When I started in the weld section, there were 23 people building 16 vehicles, and probably within eight months of the Japanese takeover there were 16 of us building 23," says Ferris, who after 13 years' service was made redundant when the plant closed.

Honda invested millions of dollars in the site, spending $20 million on a new paint shop and other improvements in 1991, and in 1995 adding an engine assembly line, the first and only one in New Zealand.

However, in 1997 Commerce Minister John Luxton announced an end to import tariffs, the protective mechanism that allowed New Zealand-assembled cars to be priced competitively with cheaper imported vehicles.

It was one hurdle too many for the Stoke plant, which 10 years earlier had, against the odds, been selected over the Panmure assembly plant when NZMC decided to close one of its two remaining plants.

In April 1998, Honda NZ announced that it would be closing the factory. The doors shut on August 21, with the loss of 190 jobs.

Miller, who was made redundant in 1993, says the closure was keenly felt throughout the region -- from Port Nelson, which had 40,000 tonnes of car parts arriving in containers each year, to New Zealand firms that supplied goods such as batteries and tyres.

"It's the food from the canteen, to the moving of goods. You think of the suppliers, the suppliers' suppliers ..."

It wasn't just them suffering, however. The plant brought together some of the brightest technical minds in the country, according to Paul Lewis, who spent a similar amount of time at the factory as Ferris.

"We've lost a huge technical expertise that we'll never ever get back. We can't re-establish what we've lost.

"Some of the best engineers and technical processors we had there, they were of a world class standard."

For most however, the greatest loss -- apart from their job, of course -- was the sense of camaraderie and togetherness the plant helped to foster.

Life at the assembly plant was something of a family affair for Harvey.

Her late husband Stephen was already there when she started working on the chassis line in 1974, and over the years their three children -- Debbie, Julie and Tony -- spent time there, albeit against their parents' wishes.

Harvey says it was important for them to separate their home life from work, though that was easier said than done, especially when mum got word that one of her daughters had been playing up and squirting water around the factory.

"Of course my hackles went up as mother, whereas I should have kept separate from it."

Julie was suspended for three days, but she wasn't the only one to learn a lesson. "You had to withdraw yourself from your own kids and keep your blinking nose out of it," Harvey says now.

Harvey eventually worked her way up to the position of foreman of the trim assembly line.

Some of the guys had a problem with having a woman in charge, though it didn't take long for Harvey to reassure them that she wasn't going to act like their mothers.

In about 1993, as a result of a round of redundancies, she was shifted into the canteen, something she admits was a bit of a comedown after nearly 20 years on the factory floor.

Around the same time, her husband became ill with cancer, so Harvey started a factory magazine called The Assembler, which she wrote while staying up late with him. It featured anecdotes on factory life, staff profiles, births and marriages, and cartoons.

Even management approved, with plant boss Hiroshi Ogawa insisting on receiving the first copy each month.

It says something about the atmosphere at the plant that even though layoffs were a constant menace, workers and management managed to remain largely upbeat.

Lance Walford, who spend 25 of his 27 years at the factory in the paint shop, says it was a close-knit environment where employees took pride in their work.

"It was quite satisfying building a motorcar which was world-class. Our quality was as good as anything around the world in the last 10 years of assembly."

Miller says Honda dealers throughout the country told them they preferred Nelson-assembled vehicles.

"We're not trying to blow our own trumpet, but we feel we did damn well."

He feels it was that reputation that saw Stoke triumph over Panmure when the NZMC was considering which factory to close.

The pride in their product translated into a happy working environment.

Walford still fondly remembers reaching the semifinals of the Nelson touch competition, and fierce inter-department indoor cricket matches.

"What I enjoyed about it was that work was work. You're the boss, but when you went out and played touch, you were just one of the boys."

That spirit remained strong as the plant wound down.

Naturally, they were hard days, and people were upset, but most were not bitter.

It helped in a way that everyone was losing their jobs -- both managers and those on the floor.

People moved on. Lewis helped his workmates find new jobs through the Honda Stoke Resource Centre, set up in the wake of the closure announcement, before signing on at Fulton Hogan. Walford went to India to help at a car assembly plant there before eventually buying a signwriting business.

Ferris says the closure of the plant prompted many laid-off employees to discover unfulfilled potential.

Some are now chief executives, others teachers, and one is a long-haul flight attendant.

The paint factory building has only just gone, after years of standing idle next to what is now the Mitre 10 Mega store -- the last remnants of an operation that employed thousands, now being replaced by Nelson's newest big employer: "big box" retail.

Over nearly 34 years of production, the Stoke site produced an impressive list of vehicles -- Triumphs, Leylands, Rovers, Jaguars, Daimlers, Austins, Bristols, Hondas and Land Rovers.

It turned over more than $100 million a year and employed more than 4000 people in total.

The cars hold a special place in the hearts of most of those who worked there.

Miller has a soft spot for Triumphs; Harvey for the first Honda Civic.

Many of them are on display this weekend, although they probably won't be the main focus.

Cars are cars, but catching up with mates you haven't seen for 10 years is not something you do every day.

"It's all about the people," says Walford. "It's not about Honda, it's not about NZMC.

"It's all about people getting together."