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La Wood Electronics and Robin Wood

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Gary Cowans
Gary Cowans
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10.Nov.21 02:44
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La Wood Electronics and Robin Wood
First published in NZVRS Bulletin Vol 31 No 4 Nov 2019.
Reproduced with permission of NZVRS.

The editor recently had a very pleasant afternoon with Robin Wood; the founder and managing director of Wood Electronics Manufacturing Ltd - formally La Wood Television Ltd, and gathered a little of the folk history that surrounded La Wood and the electronics industry in those times.
[Any errors or omissions in this extract are entirely the fault of the scribe. The opinions are those of the source. Ed]

Robin Wood grew up in Gisborne and on leaving school worked in the service section of the Gisborne branch of Columbus Radio. While here, he applied for a radio apprenticeship with Radio Corporation Ltd in Petone (the manufactures of Columbus Radios and parent company of the Columbus Radio stores throughout NZ). However, with the takeover of Radio Corp by PYE in Waihi (and its surprise closure in the early 1960’s) the apprenticeship did not eventuated. [This may not have been such a bad thing considering Robin’s future activities.]

Giving up waiting, Robin travelled north to Auckland to see what the scene was like and while there applied for apprenticeships at Bell Radio, Mountjoys and Autocrat Radio. Mountjoys was a somewhat basic service establishment, and Al Bell had just taken on what he thought was a reasonable quantity of apprentices, so when Autocrat offered Robin a training position as a Radio and TV apprentice he immediately accepted it.

During the four years serving his apprenticeship, Robin met and struck up a friendship with Ellis Laurence. Laurence had been with F&P and together they decided to set up their own part-time business in television set production, producing six metal cabinet 21” B & W televisions from imported Plessey and Rola kits. These six sets were sold to Tom Hughes who operated a TV rental service called Easyvision in Ponsonby Road – remember this is about 1963 when TV service in New Zealand was still in its infancy. Tom paid for the 6 sets and ordered 6 more. After diligent assembly by Robin and Ellis the additional 6 sets were delivered and a cheque from Tom presented – only to have it bounce (meanwhile Tom had skipped to Australia). Robin still has this cheque framed on his wall as a reminder of the risks in business and unfortunately, an event to be repeated.
The initial partnership of Ellis Laurence and Robin Wood had produced the name of “La Wood”. Ellis Laurence however had a family to feed and soon dropped out of the partnership.

Meanwhile a Colin Brookes, ex Liverpool and ex Autocrat, joined Robin and the company La Wood Television Ltd was formed.

About 1965 the company moved from Ponsonby to Onehunga and continued the TV production using EDAC TV kits with a Philips Tuner - but on a one piece chassis, in a similar circuit to the original EDAC / Autocrat / Bell designs but without the Philips inspired, multi panelled steel chassis nightmare. The TVs produced during this time were of course all black and white sets.

Robin gained some additional capital by means of a bank loan with his father as guarantor. They then took on their first real employee; Bill Patient as a wiring and mechanical hand to assist in the manufacture and assemble of the sets. The Brookes and Wood partnership however only lasted about 18 months. 

At about this time Robin married, and the company having no sales staff at the time meant the honeymoon became the La Wood sales trip. The demonstration model TV was part of the luggage in the Austin Mini and at the first retailer demonstration, the cardboard box cover was dramatically pulled off with a flourish and out cascaded a cloud of confetti – an immediate sales hit!

A retailer in Marton (Rangitikei Refrigeration) owned by Earle Prujean took on the brand but had problems with a particular later set. This set was fixed and returned several times. The last time Earle dropped it off as he was passing through Auckland as he had just sold his business to become a Beggs Store manager in Northland. This did not work out for Earle the way he would have liked and so when he called in to La Wood again, some time later, he had a very long chat with Robin and ended up joining La Wood as the sales manager. This led to the forming of a second company – La Wood Wholesalers Ltd in which Earle held shares. They also opened a branch in Christchurch – one which Robin never got to visit, but Earle called in and checked the operation during each of his South Island sales trips.

La Wood by then was into car radio production. Three models were initially produced – a very slim-line under dash set, a standard dimension ‘in dash’ unit and a push button model all using modular plug in PCB’s with no wire links and germanium transistor complimentary symmetry output. There was also an auto-tune version of these sets that had an excellent motor drive tuner controlled from a separate, sharply tuned IF. This provided an excellent tune each time and was superior in design to that of Autocrat. The Autocrat used the normal signal path IF AGC to “autotune” – but this usually resulted in imperfect ‘just over the edge of selectivity 'skirt’ whichever way it tuned.

La Wood were the first and only company to produce a New Zealand designed and built car radio cassette unit (AM only, with auto stop mechanism) and even exported it to Australia.

The competition in this market at the time were PYE, Philips, and Autocrat, with Bell later entering the market with a direct copy the La Wood slim line SSM2 they called the Shelby.

As this was the period of import licences and control (even for components), licence holders could control the supply of imported parts supply into the country and especially to their competitors. The industry appeared to be under the control of the larger companies who had the ability to “acquire” critical component import licences; the likes of Autocrat, PYE, Philips, Bell, DRECO were very much an “old boy” network or “who you know” club that had little room for newcomers.

For example; the permeability tuner was an essential item for stable station tuning in a car radio replacing the tuning gang (remember this was before FM radio was introduced). Robin was introduced to a gentleman in Hawera who was an electrical importer and held an import licence that covered “electrical parts”. After some negation, a price was agreed upon for Robin to buy enough of the import licence to allow the direct import of the required permeability tuners from Japan. After some time Inductance Specialists Ltd in Tauranga began local production of a permeability tuning unit, but the stability and quality was not as good as the cheaper imported Mitsumi item. 
La Wood also produced wooden mantel radios similar to the plastic cabinet Bell Colt, initially of a hybrid circuit with a two valve RF and transistor audio (the radio frequency transistors of the day were still rather noisy). Later the RF section was changed to a Siemens TDA440 IC and the audio to an Ates audio output IC. 

The La Wood productions of car and mantle radios along with entertainment centres were true NZ manufacturing: the PCBs were their own designs, screen printed, drilled and assembled in their own local factory. The metal work chassis were manufactured by Anglo Engineering (Charlie Curle) and the wooden cabinets made in Auckland and Hamilton.

A conscious decision was made to stay completely out of colour television production - manly because La Wood by this time had increased its silk screen printed circuit department to take on production not only for their own products, but also all PCB’s and dial scales for DRECO (Majestic) and Thorn’s Stereo, Radio and Colour TV models.

The first Onehunga La Wood plant was behind the shops at 137 Queen Street, down a small alleyway, in an outbuilding. There the screen printing and PCB etching occurred - operated by Alf Maddock (ex Autocrat) and in another small 2 storied brick building across the way, was the assembly factory. Later La Wood took over the building next door as well, this being the old Onehunga Auckland Savings Bank building.

As the staff of La Wood grew it was obvious new premises were needed. The Clarks Shoe factory at 74 Princess Street, Onehunga, became available and was fitted out as the complete La Wood factory. At its height of production 60 staff were employed there. However, the change in import licensing (to Complete Knock Down (CKD), Semi Knock Down (SKD) and fully built up (FBU) units) in the late 1970s shifted La Woods fortunes from good profits to a loss. An industry adviser from the Ministry of Economic Development visited La Wood and suggested that their product presentation was a little lacking, as now La Wood products were up against imports that had a far better eye appeal and finish. The Japanese products now available from National, Sanyo and Sharp looked better. To improve their look, La Wood now produced their home stereo products and car radios with vacuum formed plastic fronts. This was a far cheaper production process for the low production runs required than injection moulding with its high initial die making costs.

After the MOED adviser’s visit, La Wood were allocated an SKD import licence and they imported Roadstar car radio kits for local assembly and then supplied these to Toyota for their ‘on line’ production fitting into Toyota cars manufactured here in New Zealand.  However, the original equipment arrangement was fraught with difficulties as AM was the only band available for broadcast radio at the time, the car electrics needed to be reasonably well suppressed for RF interference. This was not something that was high on the Corolla production priorities as the cars still worked fine without these suppressors of course. 
Eventually it was agreed to ‘on line’ install an ignition suppressor in every Corolla, but this was about the time the radio supply contract to Toyota was up for re tendering and La Wood lost out to Alpine.

The La Wood companies then had a name change - dropping the ‘La’ to become ‘Wood Electronics Manufacturing’ and ‘Wood Electronics Marketing Ltd’.
The Roadstar radios had been set up with an FM tuning band at least 18 months before the introduction of FM service in New Zealand. When FM broadcasting finally did arrive, the installed and aftermarket Roadstar car radios were ready and immediately worked well. Much of this success was due to Jonny Johnson (ex Autocrat) – the factory manager, who ensured the best product, with all features enabled and working, reached the market.

The first Toyota Celica’s also had Wood assembled ETR Roadstar units ‘on line’ installed. These had a steering wheel remote control system linked to the radio via an opto-coupler arrangement. There was a rather frantic Christmas holiday spent by Robin designing and debugging this concept to get it to work effectively within the confined space behind the dash.

The La Wood company was the first in NZ to assemble and market FM car stereos, autoreverse car radio cassettes, built in graphic equalisers and music search car cassette players - all of Roadstar origin. These Roadstar kits were an excellent product, but this suddenly came to an end when the Roadstar company went bankrupt. The Roadstar Japanese managing director was imprisoned for attempted robbery after a hold-up in which he was trying to source some ready cash. [The Roadstar name however has resurfaced in Switzerland. Ed.]

Wood then changed to Winstar products from Korea, but the quality was not up to the samestandard as the former Roadstar products. By now Wood had assembled and marketed car audio products from Roadstar, Winstar, Fujitsu Ten, Blaupunkt and Freeway their own brand.

Wood concentrated on the car audio and home entertainment market but the 4th Labour Government was elected to office and immediately removed import licensing - allowing anybody to import fully built up product. Before this change, there had been seven brands of car audio products in NZ but within a few months this had increased to over forty. Assembly and production factories throughout NZ closed and Wood’s staff dropped from 60 to 12. At this stage Wood were trading as agents for high-end audio and video products; including the importing of fully assembled Nokia large screen televisions, Blaupunkt Car Audio systems, and installing specialised television, radio and audio facilities into higher end vehicles and tourist coaches.

In 1995, Robert Bosch of the parent company of Blaupunkt, took back control of their brand in New Zealand and Wood Electronics Marketing Ltd became the sole New Zealand agent for Clarion Car / Marine Audio Visual equipment. At the same time, Wood increased its involvement with the USA company Cerwin - Vega, manufacturers of high level LOUD speakers, Knoll Home Systems, Boss Car A/V and other consumer electronic products.
A little while after further downsizing Wood relocated to Robin’s new building at 118 Asquith Ave, Western Springs - purpose built for distribution, sales and marketing. They continued business there for a further sixteen years.

In February 2009 the sale of the Clarion and Boss stock to Eurotech Ltd (MD Josi Hart) was initially seen as a good outcome for the final closure of Wood Electronics, but yet again “the cheque bounced” and Robin found himself a lot out of pocket.

Robin Wood is now semi-retired, working out of an industrial unit in Henderson planning his next venture or not.

La Wood manufacturing summary:

• home entertainment and television manufacturing 1964 – 1989,
• assembly 1981 – 1987,
• import distribution company from 1987 – 2009.

An early transistorised dual band (MW & SW) set of La Wood NZ production.


This article was edited 10.Nov.21 02:46 by Gary Cowans .