Harpers – the Family, the Dealership and the first 50 years of Ford automobiles in Hong Kong

York Lo: Harpers – the Family, the Dealership and the first 50 years of Ford automobiles in Hong Kong

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Left: Harper House on Ma Tau Wai Road in To Kwa Wan (now BMW Building); Right: 1938 Ford ad by Harpers promoting the new Ford Ten.

For close to a century, Wallace Harper & Co (also known as Harpers) has been the distributor of Ford automobiles in Hong Kong. In fact, Harper has been so closely identified with Ford that in the early years, residents in South China refer to Ford as “Harper car”. The century old saga involves three generations of an Irish American family, an Australian turnaround artist, a Malaysian conglomerate and several other leading auto brands such as BMW, Mitsubishi and Alfa Romeo which roamed the roads in Hong Kong thanks to the firm. This article will focus on the first half of the story when the firm was under the management of its founding family.

First Generation: Andrew Harper (1865-1937) and the origins of Ford in HK 

Ford Motor Company was founded byHenry Ford in 1903 in Michigan as one of the many startup auto companies at the time. In the early 1900s, automobiles were considered luxury items only the rich could afford and Henry Ford changed that by launching the revolutionary Model T (also known as Tim Lizzie) in 1908. Thanks to its simple design and low price, by 1918 half of all automobiles in America was Ford Model T and during the 19 years of Model T production, over 15 million Model T were sold worldwide, making Henry Ford a world-famous automobile magnate.

Ford automobiles likely did not appear in the streets until after 1911, when Ford established factories in the UK and Canada and Ford Motor Company of Canada first registered the trademark of Ford in Hong Kong in 1919. From records in 1916, the first distributor of Ford in HK was not Harpers (which did not become distributor until 1922) but the British firm of Alexander Ross & Co (囉士洋行, founded in HK in 1898 by British merchant of the same name) andin addition to Ford, Ross was also the distributor of Indian motorcycles. In late 1921, Henry Ford consulted with Joseph Baillie (裴義理, 1860-1935), an American professor at Peking University about the potential of the Chinese market. Bailie encouraged Ford to invest in China and arranged 100 Chinese students to work at Ford’s US plant in 1923. As mentioned in an earlier article about Ng Jim Kai, Sun Yat-sen sent a letter to Henry Ford in 1924 asking the latter to establish a plant in South China. In 1928, Ford established a subsidiary in Shanghai as the center for sales and after-sales service in China, the Philippines and Indochina. In 1930, Henry Ford sent W.C. Cowling to China to investigate the feasibility of opening an auto plant but the plans were disrupted by the Sino-Japanese War.

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Left: Andrew Harper (NY Times, June 1937) Right: Alex Ross & Co, the original distributor of Ford in HK, on Canton Road in TST in 1904

The founder of Harpers – Andrew Harper, was born in Ireland in 1865 to a family of farmers. He immigrated to New York with his father at the age of 3 and became a US citizen in 1888. He started working at his brother David’s quarry and construction business in Newark, New Jersey, later as a civil engineer completed several large construction projects in the city including the PalisadesPark Amusement Park(since re-developed into a residential complex) and the road leading up to the park from the Alpine ferry. He also served as one of the city’s aldermen in 1904-05. After the death of his first wife Ida Hummer, he moved to Hong Kong in 1914.One genealogical source cited that Andrew married a daughter of a Chinese merchant as his second wife, with whom he had three daughters – Pearl, Ruby and Emerald. At the time, the American society frowned upon inter-racial marriages (in fact it was outlawed in many states), which was a possible reason for Harper to move across the Pacific.

In 1922, Harper founded Andrew Harper & Co in HK and secured the distributorship of Ford automobiles in South China. He established branches on 55 Austin Road, 223 Nathan Road and Chatham Road in Kowloon and Canton. For Andrew the civil engineer, he was more interested in construction than cars and allegedly he built a 15 rooms residence in Kowloon which he turned over as a recreation center for youths and was also involved with plans to build highways between Canton and Hong Kong which did not materialized due to lack of government support. His obituary in the New York Times however claimed that he gained the friendship of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shekfor whom he supervised without pay the construction of military road from Southern China leading up to the Yangtze which the victorious KMT troops marched on during the Northern Expedition in 1927. Described as a genial man with a “somewhat bizarre good humor”, Andrew Harper died in HK in 1937 and was buried in the HK Cemetery in Happy Valley. With his first wife, Andrew Harper had 6 sons, but only Kenneth and Wallace lived to adulthood.

Second Generation: Wallace Harper (1904-1977)

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Left: Wallace Harper in his later years (Kung Sheung Daily News, 1977); Right: Harper’s Ford dealership/Socony gas station at 223 Nathan Road in the 1930s

In Easter 1925, the 21years old Wallace Harper arrived in HK to help his father and married Chicago native Elizabeth Mahony at the St Andrew’s Church in Kowloon the next year. In 1928, Andrew Harper decided to retire and transferred the ownership of his dealership to Wallace who incorporated Wallace Harper & Co Ltd (夏巴有限公司) the same year. Under Wallace, a branch was added on Hennessy Road in Wanchai and service stations were set up on Chatham Road in Hunghom, Tong Mi Road in Sham Shui Po (深水埔塘尾道) and Arsenal Street (軍器街) in Wanchai. Although the road infrastructure in South China was poor at the time, Wallace drove his Model T across the Kwangtung province to promote cars as modes of modern transportation and as a result, earned Ford the nickname of “Harper Car” in southern China. In 1928, Wallace introduced Ford tractors to farms in Hainan island, which significantly contributed to the development of modern agriculture on the island. He was also the first person to drive a car from Hong Kong to Canton and later into Guiyang in Guizhou (Kweichow) province in the 1920s for which the local warlord was so impressed that a commemorative coin was issued with the warlord on one side and the car a Ford Model A on the other. At its peak before the War, Harpers had 13 Ford sub-dealerships in Southern China and business was also expanded to Macau.He also teamed up with Szeto Chik-nam (司徒植楠), a telecom engineering graduate of the University of Chicago, to start a bus and auto parts business in Chekhom (赤坎) in Chamkong. To promote his business, Wallace Harper was a pioneer in advertising through electronic media. In 1932, Wallace Harper offered to go on air on the newly established, government sponsored radio station ZBW(the predecessor of RTHK, launched 3 years before in 1929) to talk about new models offered by Ford.Viewing this as a threat to the traditional advertising business dominated by newspapers, South China Morning Post took the lead to file a complaint with the Broadcasting Committee. The Committee however allowed the radio commercials provided that each commercial would cost HK$20 and each show could not have more than 2 minutes of commercials.

In 1931, Wallace went into the aviation business by accident. While pitching trucks to the military government of Yunnan, Wallace was asked whether he could supply airplanes. Although he knew nothing about airplanes at the time, Wallace Harper the natural salesman seized the opportunity and pretended to be an expert with an aviation magazine he borrowed. Surprisingly the Yunnan generals bought his pitch and signed a contract to purchase sixArrowSport biplanes and Wallace agreed to train 16 pilots as part of the deal. With the contract from Yunnan in hand, Wallace went to the US to meet with Arrow Aircraft & Motors Corporation in Nebraska. Not only was he able to convince Arrow to give him an extra plane for demonstration purposes in Hong Kong, he also convinced Arrow’s chief test pilot Jim Fisher to come to China with the order delivery. As it turned out, Wallace was a natural born pilot. He learned to fly under Leigh Wade from the US Air Force, qualified to fly solo after only 3 hours and 10 minutes of instruction. On May 11, 1932, Wallace Harper received the 15th private pilot license in Hong Kong, making him one of the earliest private pilots in HK.

In 1932, Wallace convinced Fisher to stay in HK and together they formed American Eastern Aviation Ltd to deal in airplanes. According to Wallace,Wong Kwong-yui (黃光銳, 1898-1985), the chief of air force for Guangdong warlord Chen Chi-tang (see article on Union Metal Works) was a major client and one day, Wong suddenly asked Fisher to come to Canton in 1936. Wong revealed to Fisher that Chen was plotting against Chiang Kai-shek and since Chen was suspicious of him being a Chiang loyalist, he wanted Fisher’s help to escape to Hong Kong ahead of his eminent arrest. After discussion with Wallace in HK, Fisher went to action and flew Wong back to HK where they chose to land at the Fanling Golf Course instead of the Kai Tak Airport at 530am to avoid attention. Once landed, Wallace drove Wong to Castle Peak where he took a bus to town. In 1937, American Eastern closed down and Fisher returned to the US where he worked for Lockheed Aircraft.

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Harper & Shea’s Chinese ads for Ford (left) and Mercury (centre) in 1949 and English ad in 1948 (HK Scouting Gazette)  

From the report of Wallace Harper & Co’s 1934 annual shareholder meeting at the Lane Crawford restaurant in Central,Harpers was doing quite well by the mid-1930s with HK$110,000 in net profits and HK$240,000 in net assets. The company’s general manager and secretary at the time was Harper’s Eurasian partner John Frederick Shea (1901-1976),the son of Paul Samuel Shea (佘寶琛, She Posham) who was the comprador of HK Hotel and son in law of George Tyson (aka Chan Kai-ming), member of Legislative Council and manager of the HK Opium Farm. Other directors include Chase Bank executive Donald L. Ballantyne, C.C. Little, shipping comprador Sum Pak ming (岑伯銘) and L. Jack. In attendance was D.M. Biggar, the HK branch manager of Chase, highlighting the closeness of Harpers to the American bank.

In November 1938, the Japanese occupied Canton and despite the Harpers branch being labeled as a British property, the Japanese broke into its premise and seized 6 cars and accessories and ransacked the premise. The case was discussed at the British House of Commons, but nothing came out of it. Three years later the Japanese occupied HK and Harpers business in HK was suspended. Wallace left HK and joined the US Army as a Colonel and supplied Allied forces with Ford trucks on Burma Road. Starling Jex, who was Secretary of the firm in the late 1930s died during the Japanese occupation in 1943.After the War, Wallace Harper resumed his dealership in Hong Kong but from 1947 to 1951,the firm operated as Harper & Shea with J.F. Shea as business partner. The firm’s office was listed as Shell House in Central and its showroom at Caernavon Road in Kowloon. Aside from Shea, other Chinese staff at the time include Yu Chung-keung (余仲強), the sales manager whose family owned the Dollar and Peninsula taxicab companies (see Article) andWai Siu-hung (韋兆熊 ), the head of parts who retired after three decades of service in 1951.

Third Generation: Robert Harper and Phyllis Ross

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Left: Bob Harper (HK Album, 1967) Centre: Phyllis Harper (HK Album, 1967); Right: Harpers’ ad for 14 seat minibus in 1969

In 1955, Wallace Harper decided to retire with his wife to San Francisco after three decades in HK and distributed his shares in the company to his 27 years old son Robert Earle Harper (1928-1985) who succeeded him as chairman of the board and his 25 year old daughter Phyllis who became the board’s Secretary. Wallace Harper stayed on the board of his firm which in 1960 also included managing director P. Brown, Bob’s wife Catherine Heather McBride and Phyllis’ first husband William Roy Zinky. A Colorado native who received his BSEE and MBA from Stanford (where he met Phyllis), Zinky served in the US Army during WWII and was vice president and treasurer of the firm.

Born in HK in 1928, Bob Harper attended Culver Military School in Indiana before earning B.A. from University of California, San Jose. After finishing training at the Ford school in Dearborn, Michigan in 1952, he joined Harpers as assistant sales manager and took over after only three years. Under his leadership, Harpers expanded aggressively. It added agency ofLotus sportscars (founded in the UK in 1952), Sims radiators, Eaton Marine engines, Shelbysports car, Kubota tractors andHardie tires. In 1960, the firm spent HK$5 million ($4 mil construction cost and $1 mil land cost) to build a 12 story, 160,000 sq ft building on Ma Tau Wai Road in To Kwa Wan. The building, which opened in1963, was the first building in HK without horizontal beams and could park 550 carsand repair 110 cars simultaneously, equipped with lifts that can deliver cars to every floor.He formed Western Cars in 1960 to deal in US and Canadian made Ford and later Western Auto Sales (later renamed Military Auto Sales) to sell to US servicemen. In 1961, he entered the advertising business through the formation of Wallace Harper International Publicity Ltd. It also expanded into rental car, tour bus and taxi service viaHarper Hire Cars (which in 1963 signed a deal with President Hotel (later Hyatt) in Tsim Sha Tsui to provide airport shuttle service and similar deal with Thai Air in 1965), Diamond Tours and Harper Taxi.

A motor enthusiast, Bob Harperwas also big into car racing and established Team Harper (featuring Ford and Lotus racecars) which won the 1959 and 1964 Macau Grand Prix and many other races across Asia.The aggressive expansion and racing sponsorshipabsorbed a lot of Harpers’ cashflow and by the mid-1960s, the group was struggling. Not happy with Harper’s performance, Ford’s head office decided to split the distributorship in HK in half, with the distributorship of Ford vehicles made in Australia and Germany awarded to Island Motors (香島汽車), a new firm formed in 1964 by the Bank of East Asia scions Kan Yuet-loong (簡悅隆, son of BEA founder Kan Tong-po) and Lawrence Fung (馮慶麟, son of Sir Kenneth Fung Ping-fan) and Harpers only retained the distributorship of Ford automobiles made in the UK and the US.

Ironically, it was through racing that Bob encounteredan Australian working at the Singaporean auto dealer Wearnes Brothers by the name of Bill Wyllie (1932-2006) who would help to turn the company around. Like Bob, Wyllie was an amateur race car driver. In 1958, Wyllie raced in Macau in the Singapore team sponsored by the Straits Times. Although the racecar he developed broke down during the race, Bob was impressed with Wyllie and recruited him to join the Harpers race team, which won many races in Singapore, Johor and Macau in the next couple of years. During the Macau Grand Prix in November 1963, Harper revealed his troubles to Wyllie and asked for his help. The next month, Wyllie flew to HK where he spent two weeks reviewing the operations of the Harpers group, flipping through the books and interviewing staff. What he discovered was there was only HK$1 million in capital left but the losses in 1963 amounted to over H$1.1 million and the firm would soon go under without taking drastic measures. He proposed to the Harpers that they shut down nonperforming subsidiaries, lay off staff, refocus on car dealerships andimprove sales efficiency. After meeting with Wyllie, the creditors agreed to extend their moratorium on their loans to Harpers with the caveat that the firm hire Wyllie as managing director and implement his recommendations.In May 1964,Wyllie resigned from Wearnes Brothers and joined Harpers in HK with options to buy one third of the firm in five years. Non-core businesses were disposed, such as the advertising business which was sold to Australian ad agencyJackson Wain (which in turn was acquired by Leo Burnett in 1970).Within one year with Wyllie at the helm, the firm broke even and despite of the 1965 banking crisis and 1966 and 1967 riots in the next couple of years,Harpers’ sales and profits continued to grow.In 1966 gave up his US citizenship and became a British citizen. He also formed Harper Ross Holdings the same year with his sister as the holding company for the group. Harper Ross was renamed H.R.W. Holdings in 1968 when Wyllie exercised his rights and purchased one third of the group for HK$330,000 and the holding company changed its name once again in 1970 to Harpers International. In 1968, Harpers acquired Island Motors and once again became the sole distributor of Ford automobiles in HK. The same year,Harper saw the rise of Japanese and German cars and formed Universal Motors (環宇汽車, Harper Publicity renamed) and BMW Concessionaires (HK) Ltd (寶馬汽車,Western Auto Sales renamed) which secured the HK distributorship of Mitsubishi and BMW respectively. It also acquired 50% interest in the Alfa Romeo dealer in HK. By the end of 1968, Harpers was the single biggest distributor of British Ford in the world and the largest and most profitable auto dealer in Hong Kong.

In 1970, Harpers opened a new building for its truck department in Chong Yip Street in Kwun Tong. By1971,Harpers had branches all over HK, Kowloon and New Territories including 5-7 Blue Pool Road in Happy Valley, 163 Ma Tau Wai Road, 114 Austin Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, 370 Kwun Tong Road,196 Yuen Long Main Road and the firm was represented by Nolasco & Co in Macau. The same year, Harpers entered into an auto loan and leasing joint venture with the Chartered Bank and formed Harper Finance(夏巴財務, now BMW Financial Services). In the 1971 Macau Grand Prix, Harper team won the most awards with their Ford Capri and BMW models. Aside from the Harper siblings and Wyllie, the management team at the time included Universal’s manager Wong Lung-cheung, Harper sales manager Henry Lee Hock-ping (李鶴屏, later CEO of Sime Darby Motors), Au Kwok-kai (區國佳) of BMW, Shum Ka-biu (岑嘉標) of Island Motorsand Murphy of Harper Hire Cars.

In January 1972, the successfully turned around Harper Group celebrated its 50th anniversary at the HK Hilton with over 700 guests. At the event, two Model Ts from the 1920s (one of which owned by Bob Harper himself and billed as the oldest car in HK at the time) were on display in addition to the latest models of Ford sportscars and sedans such as Cortina. Bob Harper talked about expansion and posed in front of a giant cake with Wyllie and his sister.But not long after that, they decided to sell the Harpers group to China Engineers, the subsidiary of the Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby for HK$170 million. By the end of the 1970s, Harpers was the largest supplier of buses, trucks and special purpose vehicles to the HK government and according to its spokesperson, one in four vehicles on the roads of HK was supplied by the company.

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1964 Macau Grand Prix Team Harper from left to right:Charles Ching (沈澄),Bob Harper, Bill Wyllie,Steve Holland,John Kirk,Albert Poon (潘炳烈) (Courtesy of the Wyllie Group)Right: 1964 Harper Ford Cortina ad

In May 1977,Wallace Harper died in San Francisco and the HK newspaper described him as “pioneer of the auto business in Southeast Asia”. After the sale of Harpers, Bob Harper (who had divorced his first wife and married Australian Dilys Wynn Smith in 1969) moved to Australia where he died in 1985. Phyllis and her first husband Bill Zinky has three daughters – Diane, Cathy and Carol and her second husband Hector Ross MBE was a civil servant who made international headlines in 1969 when he and his 10 years old stepdaughter Carol Zinky were detained by the Communists when his yacht (and 2 others) en route from HK to Macau. As for Wyllie, he took the $46 million he earned from the sale of Harpers to form Asia Securities (亞洲証券), later took over Hutchison Whampoa at the invitation of HSBC but left after the firm was taken over by Cheung Kong. In the 1980s, Wyllie rescued BSR Electronics in the UK and Regal Hotels in HK, earning him the reputation of “Company Doctor”. He retired in the 1990s and returned to Australia where he died in 2006.

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Bob Harper (right), Phyllis Ross (center) and Bill Wyllie (left) in front of the birthday cake at Harpers’ Golden Jubilee celebration (Kung Sheung Daily New, 1972-1-15)

Sources:

« Why Motor Cars are Few in Hong Kong?” Automobile Topics, September 2, 1916, pp 344-345

https://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=hughharpur&id=I16

https://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=hughharpur&id=I395

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/34504510/andrew-harper

Wilkins, Mira “The Impacts of American Multinational Enterprise on American-Chinese Economic Relations, 1786-1949” in May and Fairbanks America’s China Trade in Historical Perspective, pp. 275-277

http://www.wylliegroup.com/bill/history/1963

http://www.wylliegroup.com/bill/history/1972

Hutcheon, Robin SCMP: The First Eighty Years, SCMP (1983) p 73.

“Death of Mr. Andrew Harper” The China Mail, June 26, 1937

Dunnaway, Cliff (ed) Wallace Harper: Aviation Entrepreneur” Wings Over Hong Kong – An Aviation History 1891-1998 Odyssey Productions. P 166.

“Mr. J.F. Shea Married to Miss Gertrude Chan” Hong Kong Telegraph, Sep 21, 1932

“Wallace Harper’s Trading: $64,528 Down on Year’s Activities“ China Mail, May 29. 1934

“Wallace Harper’s Case: M.P.’s Questions” China Mail, Nov 23, 1938

In the Web by Peter Hall

工商日報1972年1月15日11頁, 1963-10-22

Hutcheon, Robin SCMP: The First Eighty Years, SCMP (1983) p 73.

“Harpers International, China to Establish Vehicle-Assembly Plant Near Hong Kong”  Barry Kramer,  THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, 13 Feb 1979

This article was first posted on 22nd October 2018.

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