General Motors right hand drive trucks, though unusual in the United States, have always been very popular in specific countries such as Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. These vehicles were not produced in the U.S. but came from GM’s large assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario. Due to reversed dash boards, the change in steering components, differences in starter linkages, and tail light locations, etc., the lower numbers of right hand drive production was kept at this one Canadian assembly plant.
In New Zealand, special marketing laws required at least 25% of each new truck had to be assembled or produced in that country. This was mostly to help provide more local jobs. Thus for many years the GM Canadian facility exported truck parts only to the New Zealand assembly plant in Petone near the capital city of Wellington. Hundreds of freight containers supplying GM truck parts regularly arrived at this New Zealand assembly plant. The specialized parts from Canada were engines, frames, suspension components, disassembled cabs and front sheet metal. The New Zealand plant then assembled the truck and furnished parts they could provide locally. This included (at least in the 1940’s) the wiring harnesses, window glass, a wood cab floor, some rubber parts, an optional flat wood deck, etc.
To keep within the 25% government parts and labor requirement, a truck bed with sides as supplied on U.S. vehicles was not included. A locally made wood deck could be added during assembly. Either with or without this deck, the two rear pickup metal rear fenders from the Canadian plant were wired or otherwise secured at the rear of the cab. The finished vehicle was delivered this way to local New Zealand GM dealers. The lack of a bed would also allow the budget minded buyer to construct his own deck or hauling platform and better afford the new truck.
A New Zealand trailer manufacturer during these early years used pickup rear fenders on their finished product. Their small general purpose trailers were usually equipped with these new metal pickup fenders. A retired 88 year old manager of this company remembers having standing orders with all New Zealand pickup dealers (not just GM) to purchase their extras. This saved additional expense on their completed trailers.
The photos below are of three excellent 1939 Chevrolet 1/2 ton’s, all assembled at the New Zealand plant.
Their right hand drive feature is unique to American readers, however, these Chevrolets have another very unusual characteristic. As with most 1939 New Zealand Chevrolet trucks, their cab was assembled in the New Zealand Petone plant from pre-stamped pieces, and are a mixture of two types of trucks. The rear of the cabs and door outer sheet metal are of the U.S. 1936-1938 design. The cowl, windshield frame, hood and grill are the 1939-40 style. Yes, they do weld together nicely into a single unit but the horizontal door and hood lines do not match. Reasons for the GM ‘cab mixture’ are not known at this writing, however, it is assumed keeping New Zealand’s costs low was the main factor. Quantities of older 1936-38 style rear cabs, roofs, and door stampings were either already available or the prior tooling still had much remaining life. The lower cost could then be passed on to the retail truck buyer. Just another way of producing the New Zealand 1939 GM truck at the lowest possible price!
Another theory for this unusual combination cab is due to the beginning of World War II. Because of New Zealand’s connection with Great Britain, they entered the war September 2, 1939 over two years before the United States became formally involved. No doubt being in the war created an immediate demand for all trucks in New Zealand. Rather than lose sales while the cab tooling changeover occurred at the Canadian supply plant (1938 to the new design 1939 body) GM continued with the prior sheet metal for their in demand export truck. Exact new styling was not necessary to overseas buyers when the war demand was so high!
Truck #1 – Owned and restored by Steve Jones, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org
A local newspaper ad brought Steve to this basically complete 1939 pickup. It had great potential for a complete restoration and was just what Steve had been wanting. It’s major two year rebuilding started in 1999 and most all work was done personally by the owner, Steve Jones. It is now authentically restored from the ground up. The only observable differences from its 1939 beginning are the addition of a non-New Zealand GM bed with sides and its whitewall tires. Steve even picked an original Chevrolet truck color, Armour Yellow.
One of Steve’s pictures, with this article, features the inside of the cab top without the headliner. Note: the factory welds where the early and late style sheet metal have been joined.
Truck #2 – Owned and restored by Steve Bright, Feilding, New Zealand
This 1939 was bought new by Steve’s grandfather. He used it for it’s first five years on a rural mail delivery route (during World War II) as well as helping with the family sheep and cattle farm. After the war it continued with farm duties plus collected cream from surrounding dairies for a local butter factory. This was done until 1950 when this little ’39 had reached a mileage of 200,000. It was then used for the next 25 years by members of the family on the farm or for trips to town.
Retirement occurred in about 1978 when major mechanical problems developed. It was placed in a barn after having logged over 350,000 miles!! It sat in this same storage place until 1990, when Steve decided to give it a major restoration in honor of his grandfather.
He has now rebuilt it to look like it’s off the assembly line. All worn parts were repaired or replaced. The exception is the hand made bed built during the restoration which results in a longer overhang in the back. The tonneau cover protects the bed bottom and merchandise being transported.
Though the truck looks and drives almost new, it is not a “trailer queen”. Steve Bright has driven it 14,000 miles in the past six years.
Editors Note:The above trucks were closely observed and personally driven during a recent trip to New Zealand. Each has the same unique features, so it can be assumed, they are correct from the factory.
An additional feature of these New Zealand 1939 Chevrolets: The gas tanks were below the bed and cab from the factory, not under the seat as in the U.S.A. The right side of the cab is even notched out to allow the tank to fit higher above the ground.
Steve Bright’s truck still has the original tank. Steve Jones truck gas tank was missing so he placed a replacement unit under the seat as on U.S. built 1939’s.
Truck #3 – Owned and restored by Graham Stewert, Wyndham, New Zealand
Contact Graham at 2 R.D., Wyndham 9892, New Zealand
This little 1939 1/2 ton is on New Zealand’s South Island. Its owner, Graham Stewert, has personally given it a complete restoration with all parts disassembled and then put back in place. Other than engine rebuilding and body repair, the owner did the work!
Graham bought this 1/2 ton un-restored in 2003 with only 76,350 miles. It immediately caught his attention because it was the same as his grandfather bought new in 1939. He well remembers grandfather using it for regular deliveries by the family dairy to homes and a dairy processing plant.
Thus, he decided to build it “bone stock” in memory of his grandfather and how it looked in 1939.
It is now the exact color as grandfather’s 1939 and the engine, transmission, differential, and interior, etc. is like Graham remembers in his younger days. It runs like new and is a pleasure to drive for fun transportation as well as to many vintage auto rallies.