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War Economy

Rubber and Tyres

page 139

Rubber and Tyres

The stock position of raw rubber and of tyres furnishes yet another example of the spottiness of preparations for war. Good quantities of raw rubber were held in reserve when war broke out, but stocks of motor-car and truck tyres were inadequate. At the outbreak of war New Zealand already had a small but expanding industry producing rubber goods, but no motor-car or truck tyres were manufactured until 1946.

Rubber goods manufactured in New Zealand during the war included milking rubberware, retreading rubber, universal carrier wheels, cycle tyres, jungle boots, industrial hose, components for radio transmitting sets, groundsheets, fruit-jar rings, naval lifebelts, gas masks, aeroplane matting, dough for the manufacture of battery boxes, soles and heels, pram tyring, a multiplicity of parts for Air Force planes, treading solutions, footwear solutions, cushion gum, general mechanical rubber goods for industrial purposes and gum-boots.

With the advance of the Japanese forces in the Pacific and the loss of Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies early in 1942, rubber became one of the most acute raw material problems for the allied nations. The source of approximately 90 per cent of the world's supply of raw rubber had passed under the control of the enemy.

The crisis found New Zealand in a relatively favourable position as regards stocks of raw rubber, this being a case where the policy of accumulating reserves before the war had been effective. To safeguard the reserves, the use of raw rubber for any purpose was prohibited in April 1942, except with the prior consent of the Factory Controller.1

Total stocks in the country, including rubber owned by the mills, reserve stock, and crepe purchased by the Factory Controller, were sufficient for at least one year's normal usage, but the severe restrictions placed on rubber manufacturers resulted in stocks being adequate for approximately two years. During 1942 the Samoan raw rubber production was allocated to New Zealand by the Combined Raw Materials Board, and, in 1943, negotiations resulted in an allocation of the Fijian production.2

Scrap rubber was brought under control in July 19423 and could be disposed of only as authorised by the Minister of Supply and Munitions. Agents were appointed throughout the country to receive scrap rubber on behalf of the Minister. Arrangements were made

1 The Rubber Control Notice, 1942. Gazetted 16 April 1942.

2 241,000 lb arrived from Fiji in 1943, also 128,000 lb. from Western Samoa.

3 The Scrap Rubber Control Notice, 1942 (1942/220).

page 140 between the Factory Controller and the local mills for the extension of the Auckland reclaim factory and the establishment of a new one at Christchurch. Both these factories came into full production towards the end of 1942, their product being used principally in the manufacture of battery boxes, soles and heels, and B grade retreads. Scrap rubber was also used in part or full substitution for raw rubber wherever possible.

Import restrictions and severe cuts in the licences available before the war for motor tyres had reduced stocks and they were below the usual peacetime level when war broke out. There was an attempt to make up leeway in 1940 and 1941, but it was hampered by difficulties in securing shipping space and by losses through enemy action. The number of tyres received showed no great improvement. It was estimated that, by the end of 1941, stocks were only one-third of normal. Control over the distribution of tyres began in December 1941.

Early in 1942 a decision was made to concentrate on securing supplies of truck tyres rather than car tyres. New Zealand, with its high proportion of rugged country, cannot be well served with railway transport and the proportion of road transport is much higher than in many other countries. The majority of this road transport was engaged in work classified as of extreme importance to the war effort. Moreover, the difficulty in securing supplies from overseas, and the large quantities of tyres requisitioned by the Army from civilian stocks, reduced stocks of truck tyres to a dangerously low level. Supplies arrived from Australia during the second half of 1942 but, while these were sufficient to keep heavy transport on the road, on a severely restricted basis, the position remained critical.

Arrangements were made for improved supplies of truck tyres, mainly from Australia, and, in 1943, tyres and tubes received from Australia were valued at £445,000 compared with £145,000 in the previous highest year. Imports of these items from the United Kingdom had fallen away drastically in 1942, and the Australian increase, even when supplemented by some extra supplies from the United States, was not sufficient to make up the leeway.

To give some idea of the stringency of restrictions on the use of motor-car tyres, the normal demand for car tyres was roughly 320,000 per annum,1 whereas issues under permit were approximately 20,000 in 1942 and 46,000 in 1943.

The various controls associated with rubber and goods made principally of rubber had to be enforced from dire necessity. In general, the needs of the armed services, essential civilian transport, the dairy industry and other important users were met, but this was possible only by careful rationing of available supplies.

1 190,000 imported as tyres and 130,000 as tyres fitted to cars. There is some further discussion of the wartime troubles of the private motorist in Chapters 15 and 17.

page 141

Gumboots became subject to strict rationing to protect supplies for the dairy industry and it was, for a time, almost impossible to get them without proof of ownership of at least twelve cows.1 Local production of gumboots was increased considerably after 1940 and, by 1945, reached 500 pairs a day. This was equivalent to over half the pre-war rate of use and, with such supplies as could be imported, enabled the needs of dairymen and others to be met fairly well.

Stocks and rationing of gumboots provided an interesting example of a wartime communications breakdown. Purchasing and accumulation of stocks was under the control of the Ministry of Supply. Rationing to users was arranged by the Department of Agriculture. With increasing local production, stocks became unnecessarily large, and it was decided to relax rationing so that an increased range of users could be supplied. Due to inadequate communications, the Department of Agriculture continued stringent rationing for some time after this decision was made.

Chart 31 summarises the rubber supply situation.

chart of economic statistics

Chart 31

1 Or some equivalent claim to priority.

page 142

Wartime shortages of rubber focussed attention, in a number of countries, on synthetic rubber production and on plastics generally, as substitutes for natural rubber and other scarce materials. The post-war years were to see many useful applications of this development.