Fifty years of Toyota in PNG: Charles Betteridge

Penny and I were recently invited up to Port Moresby by Toyota Tsusho in Brisbane to attend the 50th Anniversary of Toyota in PNG. We flew up from Brisbane on Sunday 22 September to Port Moresby, the main day/night was on Monday 23 and we flew back the next day (Tuesday 24) to Brisbane. We had left our Yaris at the Airport Motel in Hamilton (about 6 km from the International Airport) while we were up in POM and picked it up on our return then drove back home to Modanville.

My long association from the very first day that Burns Philp took on the Toyota agency on Friday 9 February 1963 is why they asked Penny and I up to this special 50th Anniversary, and I was to be the guest speaker at the gala function in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Port Moresby on Monday night 23 September.

Every bit of our expenses were paid for by Toyota Tsusho, our air fares, our taxi charges in Brisbane, our PNG visa costs, our accommodation in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Port Moresby, all our meals, etc., etc. We were on the 9th floor of the Crown Plaza Hotel: right next door to the Presidential Suite!! As a matter of interest, our room rate was AU$550 per night plus all meals!

This all started back in November 2012 when I made up a special 300-photograph photo album taken from my hundreds of slides and photos from the very first day in Port Moresby, and that was on Friday 8 April 1960. I had taken numerous photos during the thirty-plus years I was in PNG and a lot of these were to do with all the BPs and Ela Motors branches throughout PNG and the Pacific Island Nations over the years. I also made up a few DVDs for them from my original Super-8 movie films of Toyotas up in the Highlands of PNG and of their sixteen branches throughout PNG.

I personally hand-delivered all these items to them in Brisbane in late November last year and they were all very surprised at what I was giving them in the many photos and the few DVDs and all the historical events from February 1963 to February 2003 to do with Burns Philp/Port Moresby Freezing Company Limited and later, Ela Motors. These were the only historical photos and the history of it all that they were given. No one in the Brisbane Head Office knew that any of this material even existed!

When I arrived in Port Moresby on 8 April 1960 as a spare parts salesman for Burns Philp New Guinea Ltd, all you could see were heaps of British-made vehicles. At that time the Thiess Company of Australia were involved in building the roads, etc., up to the newly-found Bougainville Copper mine up in Panguna and they brought in directly from Toyota Japan their own Toyota FJ25 Landcruiser utilities for the mine site. You may recall that Thiess were heavily involved in the construction of the giant Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric scheme near Cooma in New South Wales in the 1950s.

Apparently, the deal struck between Thiess New Guinea operations and Toyota in 1960, was that Thiess were also to sell Toyota to the general public, but this wasn’t happening.

Toyota Japan approached Burns Philp in June and November 1962 to take on the Toyota agency, but was knocked back each time. A deal was finally struck on 5 February 1963 and the dealership was set up in the old Moresby Garage in downtown Port Moresby on Friday 9 February 1963. That was the day I was transferred out of BPs to the Port Moresby Freezing Company’s Moresby Garage to set up the new Toyota agency.

We took over the two Toyota vehicles from Thiess and the few spare parts they had, and I sold the very first Toyota for Burns Philp on 4 April 1963: a Toyota Tiara sedan, the forerunner to the famous Toyota Corolla sedans. The Tiara was one of the two Toyotas we took over from Thiess: the other vehicle was a Toyota RK45 Stout utility.

 That was to be the beginning of Toyota in PNG and the Pacific Island nations. Of the four of us who initially established the Toyota dealership, I am the only one remaining, the others having passed away since.

Actually, I thought that Toyota Tsusho might have held a 50th Anniversary of Toyota in PNG in February this year (2013), to coincide with the exact date when it all started, being 9 February, but apparently they held back. Then about a month ago I received an email from Toyota Tsusho’s Brisbane office inviting Penny and I up to the 50th Anniversary celebrations to be held in Port Moresby on Monday night 23 September and inviting me to be the guest speaker for that night. I was “gobsmacked” when I got the email and replied that we would be honoured to be their special guests on that night.

I had to prepare a ten-minute speech on my “Living and Working in PNG” and after about five attempts and sending “samples” on to the Brisbane office and making some small changes here and there for them, it was finally accepted.

Because it was a Gala night I had to wear a proper dinner suit. I have never owned one in my whole life, so I managed to hire one from a menswear store in Lismore to take up with me.

The week prior to the Gala night in Port Moresby, Ela Motors held a vehicle “Spectacular” of Toyota vehicles in the Port Moresby Sports Pavilion and it included a 1963 Toyota Landcruiser!

On the Monday morning 23 September, Penny and I were taken out to Ela Motors Badili Headquarters and it has certainly expanded. It’s been 23 years since Penny was last in POM and just over ten years for me.

I met up with several National staff still working in Head Office that I knew from the 1980s! It was so wonderful to see them again after over ten years (for me).

Port Moresby is now covered in high-rise buildings all over the place: mainly units of either single bedroom or two-bedroom units ranging from nearly AU$1,000 per week and up to AU$7,000 per week. I managed to speak to the actual owner of several high-rise units in POM and units and office space are at a premium in Port Moresby.

Unfortunately the same filth and garbage still lies beside the roadways and other places and security is a premium. For example, on the Monday morning (23 September) I just wanted to go out some 40 feet from the front of the Crowne Plaza Hotel to take a photo of what was once the single expatriate girls quarters “Burnsfels”, just a bit down Douglas Street from the hotel entrance. I was told not to go outside by myself (at 7.40 am) as it was still not safe even at that time to be outside. A security guard accompanied on that little walk! Burnsfels is now a Liquor Barn!!

The 50th Anniversary Gala night in the Crowne Plaza Ballroom was well attended with some 140 guests in attendance, including the Ambassadors of the Australian, British, New Zealand, Japanese, Korean and Chinese Embassies. A lot of top managers from many companies and organisations were also in attendance. The PM of PNG, Peter O’Neil, was supposed to have been in attendance but he declined at the last moment and instead sent his Minister for Transport along.

My own speech of my “Living and Working in PNG” went down very well and more so with the top managers from Toyota Japan that when I told them I was born on the 2 November 1937, and on the very next day, 3 November 1937, was when the Toyota Motor Company of Japan was founded! They were quite surprised at the closeness of our “births” and they stood up and clapped!!

It has been a very interesting few days for Penny and me. Such an important event like this happens but once only in a lifetime.

Compare the original “Burnsfels” single expatriate female staff living quarters that I took in 1960 to the present “Burnsfels” building that I took 53 years later, on 22c September 2013, during my recent visit to Port Moresby for Toyota’s and Ela Motors’ 50th Anniversary.

The original building is now an Inn and an SP Brewery Liquor barn!!

I do remember some of those wonderful young expat girls in those days in the 60s: and you simply took them to the “pictures” on Friday and Saturday nights to the old Papuan Theatre which was just a hundred yards or so down the road and the PMF Milk Bar was the place to be seen having big milkshakes right next to the Papuan Theatre. They were the days (and long nights) back then.

The photo of Burns Philp’s store in Musgrave Street after the disastrous fire in mid-2009 is a reminder of what was once a pinnacle of Burns Philp throughout PNG. I remember that store very well with the overhead “Punkahs” fanning the store: firstly by some native boys using their big toes with ropes attached so they could “power-up” the punkahs by moving their big toes back and forth. They were replaced with small electric powered motors in 1962 from memory.

The old Moresby Garage that used to be on the corner of Hunter Street and Champion parade was pulled down in early 1964 and Burns Philp built the “new” branch (see second photo) in Pascal Avenue in Badili. (Now known as Raskol Avenue: Ed.)

As Toyota sales and service increased they built a proper showroom and head-office department on the corner of Scratchley Road and Pascal Avenue (photo in 1985).

Ela Motors built another complete new branch out along Waigani Drive some five years ago; I have seen everything from its humble beginnings from inside a run-down garage in Port Moresby (Moresby Garage), right through to the biggest Automotive Distributor throughout PNG and the other Pacific Island Nations. In PNG and Honiara it’s known as Ela Motors and throughout Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa and American Samoa it is known as Asco Motors. The “Asco” stands for “Automotive Supply Company”.

I have been to every branch of Ela Motors and Asco Motors wherever they were located and have seen the many changes taking place – and still is.


50th Anniversary Speech

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen and Distinguished Guests.

Firstly, I would like to thank very much indeed Toyota Tsusho South Pacific Holdings, and Ela Motors, for inviting me and my wife to this historical event of Toyota’ s 50th Anniversary in Papua New Guinea. Tonight I would like to share with you a few stories of my experiences of living and working in Papua New Guinea.

I was born on 2 of November 1937 in Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, exactly one day before the Toyota Motor Company of Japan was founded.

My career in the automotive industry began in 1953 as a spare parts salesman for a truck and tractor dealership in Lismore. I moved up to Brisbane in 1957 to take on a specialized role in automotive electrical and diesel fuel injection equipment and parts.

In February 1960, I saw an advertisement in the Brisbane Courier-Mail newspaper where Burns Philp (New Guinea) Ltd required a spare parts salesman for their Port Moresby branch. Firstly, I had never heard of Burns Philp before, and I didn’t know where Port Moresby was, let alone knowing anything of New Guinea. I got a world atlas out, found Port Moresby in New Guinea and thought I would give it a try, so sent my letter off to them.

I was selected for the job and arrived in Port Moresby on Friday 8 April 1960. That was to be the beginning of my automotive career in Papua New Guinea.

To provide you with a little historical background, when I arrived in PNG, there was a Toyota sub-agent in Port Moresby: Star Service Station located at Boroko, and they were the sub-agent for the Thiess Company of Australia who was involved in the early construction of the Bougainville Copper Mine.

Thiess shipped their Landcruisers into PNG for the mine site and this included selling other Toyota vehicles as well, but very few retail sales were being made.

Representatives from Toyota Motor Corporation Japan approached Burns Philp in Port Moresby in June 1962 and again in November 1962 asking them to become the agent for Toyota in Papua New Guinea.

An agreement was finally reached in February 1963 and Burns Philp (New Guinea) Ltd became the distributors for Toyota through its subsidiary company, the Port Moresby Freezing Co. Ltd. The new Toyota distributor for PNG operated out of the Port Moresby Freezing Company’s Moresby Garage, and started off with just two vehicles and six items of spare parts, a very frugal beginning indeed.

When taking on the distributorship, Burns Philp had, however, made one specific condition, and that was that a minimum of ten Toyotas had to be sold by end of December 1963 or the deal was off. At 4.00 pm on 31 December 1963, we had sold only nine Toyota units. With only 30 minutes until the deadline, I am proud to say that I was very strongly involved in making sure the target of ten was reached, selling and receiving payment for the tenth Toyota at 4.20 pm on the very last day of the deadline! That was cutting it close indeed!

In those early days, expatriate staff were on a two-year contract. My two-year contract ended up being a thirty year contract for it was on 8 April 1990 that I decided to retire back home to near Lismore. I thoroughly enjoyed my thirty years in Papua New Guinea and was happy to return again 11 times between 1993 and 2003 on a consultancy basis for Ela Motors.

The most momentous event from my time in PNG was meeting my wife, Penny, in 1966. We married a year later in the old Catholic Church near Ela Beach. Our one and only daughter, Ursula, was born in Wewak in October 1975,– so my family and I certainly have a long historical link with Papua New Guinea.

Judo is also one of my passions and in 1961 I joined the newly formed Port Moresby Judo Club. I was very fortunate to visit Japan in 1965 to enhance my Judo training in Tokyo at the Kodokan. I was the first person ever from PNG to train in the Kodokan. During the six weeks I was there I took a few days off to visit the Toyota Motor Company operations in Nagoya and Yokohama. I was also the very first person from PNG to visit Toyota in Japan.

It was during this visit that I saw for the very first time the Toyota UP15S 800 Sports car designed by Tatsuo Hasegawa (a former aircraft design engineer during WW2). I fell in love with the vehicle and, on my return to PNG in late July 1965, I immediately ordered one of these famous sports cars. My Sports 800 arrived in Port Moresby in March 1966. This vehicle was a prized possession and also served as our wedding car.

There have been many other memorable occasions including witnessing first hand the changes to the Government, from its very first Legislative Assembly in 1962, to self-government and then independence in 1975.

I was also witness to a Royal Visit. I was in Kieta on Bougainville Island when Queen Elizabeth II and her family made their first visit to PNG in February 1974. Kieta was the very first port of call for the Royal Yacht Britannia. I photographed and filmed the Royal visit and sent copies of the photos to the Queen at Buckingham Palace and I received an official letter from her thanking me for my generosity, and advising that she had enjoyed her trip to PNG.

Mr Eiji Toyoda, of Toyota Motor Company in Japan, was another VIP visitor to PNG. Sadly, I received the news last week that Mr Toyoda died on the morning of Tuesday, 17 September 2013 at age 100. All at Ela Motors were very honoured when Mr Toyoda visited Port Moresby in July 1986. I was especially pleased to receive such a distinguished visitor and, in the few hours I spent with him, I found him to be a most honourable man indeed. I think the world has lost a great innovator of the automobile, and those very humble words he used to inspire his workforce, “Good Thinking, Good Products” still stick with me to this day. Mr Toyoda will be well remembered. I am sure you will join me in sending sincere condolences to his family and his Toyota family at this sad time.

Earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, tribal fights and even being shot at in Mount Hagen are further highlights of my action filled days in Papua New Guinea.

The biggest quake I’ve ever experienced was in Lae in November 1970. I woke up in the early hours to a deadly quiet. I’m a light sleeper and throughout any night in PNG there were always dogs barking somewhere, a cat fight somewhere else and the odd vehicle passing by. On this particular morning it was the utter stillness and quiet that somehow woke me. I then heard rumbling in the distance like an express train coming towards us; the house started to shake and sway.

The main shockwave knocked us to the ground; and the huge pine trees across the road were being whipped to and fro like a rag doll. The noise of the quake was incredible, but it was all over very quickly. I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t Lae that copped the full force of the quake, but Madang, over 300 km away! The quake measured 8.1 on the Richter scale.

Mount Hagen also proved to be an exciting challenge when I was based there between 1979 and 1983. One very action packed morning involved a very upset individual who started shooting randomly. As the Ela Motors branch was located next to the Police Barracks, we had a commanding view of the unfolding event. From the top of the steps I had a good view from about 60 meters away. The gunman looked right towards me, and probably thought that my camera was a weapon, so he let off two shots in my direction. The bullets hit the wall about three feet above my head. A close shave indeed and a little more excitement than I needed!

Another thrill of working in Mt Hagen was being heavily involved in test runs of new model Toyota vehicles including new model Landcruisers in 1980; new model Coaster buses in 1981 and testing of the FJ40/47 Landcruisers in 1983. All test runs were carried out in and around the Western and Southern Highlands of PNG, over very difficult roads and tracks.

Along with all these thrills and excitement, throughout my 30 years in PNG I came across many wonderful PNG National staff who worked for me in all the various locations and I thank them all very much indeed for their kindness and understanding to me and my family throughout those many years.

I will also never forget the stunning beauty of PNG from its incredible mountains, valleys, coastal villages, and remote islands, and those beautiful Birds of Paradise that I saw on my many trips around PNG.

When I look over the past 50 years I think back to the day when I sold the very first Toyota in April 1963 for the new Toyota dealer which became Ela Motors. It was to be the beginning of the most successful automotive distributorship ever in Papua New Guinea. I am proud that I was a part of it from the very beginning.

And lastly, I give my greatest thanks to my wife Penny who has been my wonderful supporter throughout our many years in PNG as we were transferred from place to place, and to put up with my very long hours of work.

THANK YOU.

Charles Betteridge.