Page 1: Biography
Military aviator, motor car importer and assembler, company director, military leader
This biography, written by Peter H. Hughes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
The company formed and managed by John Seabrook helped shape the motor car market in the Auckland province during the years when the automobile irrevocably changed the social landscape. He was born on 6 January 1896 at Oakland, California, USA, the eldest of 10 children of Marion May Tye and her husband, Albert David Seabrook. His father, who had been born in Melbourne and married in Auckland, was a journalist on the San Francisco Chronicle. After a spell in Fiji, the family settled in New Zealand around 1900. Albert joined the Auckland Star, eventually becoming advertising manager, and in 1908–9 built a home on a 37-acre property, Dreamwood Park, in rural New Lynn. These were ‘wild, carefree days’ for the children, who recalled milking cows and making butter. John (or Jack, as he was known) attended Avondale School, then Auckland Grammar School (1910–12).
As a teenager Jack Seabrook became interested in flying. After the outbreak of the First World War he worked his way to London and joined the Royal Flying Corps in August 1915. Commissioned the following March, he was promoted to lieutenant in April 1917, and on the formation of the Royal Air Force a year later, became a captain. Seabrook logged over 1,000 hours on reconnaissance sorties and as a flying instructor, serving on the western front (with No 60 Squadron) and in Egypt, where in October 1918 he crashed and was hospitalised for six months. For his service he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
On his return to New Zealand in 1919 Seabrook obtained the franchise to sell Leyland motor lorries in the Auckland province. In June 1920 he formed a partnership with Bill Fowlds, son of the politician George Fowlds; two years later Jack’s younger brother Philip was made an equal partner. Thus began a unique business relationship between the three men that was to last until 1970. All shared the same nickname, ‘Yik’, and were said to have started each working day with a handshake. In 1922 Seabrook Fowlds obtained the licence to sell their first motor car, the Jewett, a product of the Paige Detroit Motor Car Company.
In 1924 the partners made a decisive change: in a local market dominated by multiple franchises and American models, they surrendered their earlier allegiances to concentrate on a single franchise: Austin cars. They were aided by the advertising and promotional flair of Albert Seabrook. In 1927–28 the company formed the Austin Seven Car Club, which held monthly meetings and conducted rallies, and in 1928 an Austin Seven was reputedly the first car to reach the summit of Rangitoto Island – before there was a road. Numerous other endurance or racing records kept the firm and its cars, particularly the ‘baby’ Seven, in the news; advertisements claimed that ‘You buy a car but you invest in an Austin’. Jack Seabrook married Doreen Mary Alexina Carr at Remuera on 7 September 1926; they were to have a son and a daughter.
The company did well in the late 1920s and 1930s, establishing agencies throughout the upper North Island, from Kaitaia to Opotiki and Taumarunui. Tariff policy in the early 1930s made it cheaper to import ‘completely knocked down’ cars for local assembly, and imperial preference tariffs favoured British rather than American products. In 1936 Seabrook Fowlds began assembling cars from body shells at their Manukau Road factory. Although these operations were suspended during the Second World War, in 1945 the company joined with other Austin distributors to form a federation and establish an assembly plant at Petone.
Jack Seabrook had maintained his interest in aviation, serving in the New Zealand Air Force (Territoral) from 1923 to 1934. He became a foundation member of the Auckland Aero Club in April 1928 and won New Zealand’s first aerial derby at Mangere aerodrome a year later. In June 1940 he was recalled for military duty and appointed administration officer at the Royal New Zealand Air Force station at Rongotai, Wellington. In December he became commanding officer at Whenuapai, where an Elementary Flying Training School was established, and in November 1941 he was transferred to the Technical Training School at Hobsonville, again as commanding officer. Late in 1942 Seabrook was appointed New Zealand air attaché in Washington DC, where he worked closely with Walter Nash, New Zealand’s minister there. Seabrook returned to New Zealand in January 1944, and in April was promoted to group captain and transferred to the reserve of officers.
For most of the period from the 1930s to the early 1960s the New Zealand motor industry lacked the plant and heavy tooling to make many vehicle components, which meant that these needed to be imported. As such imports were tightly regulated by successive governments, there was a constant short supply of vehicles. This required a system of allocation to customers and in some cases led to ‘rank racketeering’. In order to broaden the firm’s base, and to counter the effect of import licensing controls, in 1963 the directors decided to float the company and begin a programme of planned diversification. Seabrook Fowlds acquired an engineering works and foundry, a coach-building firm, and a rental car company. It also took on the New Zealand agencies for Morane Saulnier aircraft (which Jack had flown during the First World War) and Rambler cars.
In 1970 the company restructured further, partly in response to British Leyland’s insistence that its New Zealand distributors merge. Seabrook Fowlds’s motor division was amalgamated with the New Zealand Motor Corporation, while its other activities were combined under the name Amalgamated Pacific Industries (API). Philip Seabrook died in 1972, but Jack retained his business interests well into his retirement, serving as chairman of API and as a director of the Southern Cross Building and Banking Society.
Jack Seabrook was respected as a principled businessman who gathered a loyal and long-serving staff around him. Once convinced of the worth of an idea he would pursue it as far as was practicable. His decision to take on the franchise for Bell helicopters in 1949, for example, considered by some ‘a laughable matter in those days’, proved astute. In the 1950s and early 1960s he was a director of the New Zealand National Airways Corporation. He was also active in many community organisations. For 24 years from 1956 Seabrook was a council member of the Auckland Institute and Museum, and as president from 1961 to 1963 he oversaw fund-raising for the building of the institute’s auditorium and lecture hall. Committed to conservation, he was a founding member of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park Board and, somewhat ironically, of the Nature Conservation Council at a time when that group opposed Auckland’s motorway building programme. He also supported St Dunstan’s rehabilitation home for blind servicemen and was a trustee of the New Zealand Institute for the Blind for nearly 20 years. In 1970 he was appointed a CMG.
A quiet man, who seemed somewhat reserved and formal except with close friends, Jack Seabrook was a keen yachtsman and gardener. He died on 8 January 1985 in Remuera. He was survived by his children; his wife, Doreen, had died two years earlier.