Letter to my grandsons: Motorcars (i)

As I write these letters, I am very conscious that I am writing most to them for Winton. This is because I see him nearly every day and I want to write his history from a time that he will not remember. Unfortunately, I cannot do this for Connor. I hope this will change one day and that I can write his history as well. My aim is to record my grandson’s histories along with that of their fathers at the same age so you can see two generations growing up together.  I will add my story as I grew up as well.  I will draw the parallels and the differences between the way three generations have grown up

This links to the second purpose in writing this history which I have recently become more aware of.

I wish to record my family history. Part of this will be the story of Di and me, Andrew, Simon and Nicholas but also the story of my parents and those grandparents that I knew and can remember. And Connor and Winton are both equally part of that history but some of the parallels now span nearly 100 years.

So this is a small part of the family history: Motorcars.

Depending on when you read this particular letter, some of the motorcars that I will talk about will be nearly 100 years old. This highlights one of the aspects of writing history that I need to keep constantly in mind. The detail that the historian may overlook because it seems trivial and every day is often quite unknown and strange to the reader of the history. Many of the aspects of the motorcars that I rode in as a child and drove since the early 1960s, have features that are no longer present in modern cars.

All of this may or may not be of any interest to the reader because the historian is not able to judge their interests. And it may well be that both my grandchildren will grow up absolutely no interest whatsoever in motorcars.  But what I constantly seek  to do is to recount the way in which things change from when I was a child which as best I can remember going back to 1940s.

So, to my first memories of the automobile. Papa Paine and his wife Bertha (nee Sweetapple   (and my maternal grandmother’s sister) lived next door to us in Clifton Terrace in the Mirabeau flats. The house we lived in is on the left.


In the garage underneath the flats was Papa Paines’ car, a Chrysler Saratoga.


New Zealand never really had a car industry so all the cars were imported and imported cars were strictly rationed, so you had to be rich and/or influential to get a car like this.  He was the manager of the British Paints factory and obviously had enough clout to get the best cars going.

All I remember of him is that he sat in an armchair listening to Parliament being broadcast, which to a four-year-old, was incomprehensible, both Parliament and listening to it. The thing I remember is that when I used to poke  his dark navy blue waistcoat he would go, “Beep, beep.” Other than that, he was a complete mystery to me.

Sundays were traditionally the day for going for a drive so Papa Paine,  Auntie Bertha, my grandmother, mother and I would be bundled into the Chrysler go for a drive. I was sitting in the back between my mother and grandmother and was so small I couldn’t see anything which made the  Sunday drives long periods of excruciating boredom.

The back seat did come with a blanket to keep you warm because the car was pretty draughty and the back of the front seat had a handrail for the passengers to hang on to in times of crisis. Nonetheless, by today’s standards, it was an amazingly luxurious car in the time when there weren’t many cars.

This is a shot of one of the main streets of Wellington, Willis Street around the time I was   born and probably taken at peak hour.

Willis Street tram looking north.jpg

The next car I remember was the family Humber Hillman that we had when I went to Wadestown Primary School probably around 1949. There are a number of characteristics about these old cars.

The first is that the front seat was a bench seat designed to seat three people with three in the back. No seat belts in those days so many of the accidents wound up with the driver being impaled on the steering wheel and the people in front seat being flung out through the windscreen. Mind you, they were built of cast-iron and weighed tons so were relatively crash resistant. And  there was much less traffic on the road because cars were a real luxury item.


The next step up from the  Humber Hawk was the Super Snipe, much the same only slightly bigger. These cars did not have radios, heating, sat nav, heated seats, power anything (seats, steering, braking, windows). They also didn’t have automatic transmission, which was generally regarded as a bizarre luxury. Why would you want automatic transmission when part of the fun of driving a car was changing gears.


The gearboxes of these cars worked in much  the same way as the gears do on a bike nowadays.  Small cogs engage with larger cogs. The problem was that the cogs were all spinning round at different rates making engaging them very difficult and noisy. Enter the modern marvel of synchromesh. This was a set of smaller gears which coordinated the speed of the larger gears with the smaller gears and avoided the terrible graunching noise of changing gear.

Before synchromesh, the skill was to use a technique called “double declutching” which meant revving the engine to speed  where the lower gear was spinning at the same speed of the high gear to ensure that the gears engaged without a fearful noise. It was a skill that you mastered driving cars of this vintage.

Gradually, synchromesh became standard on all motorcars and  then automatic transmission took over from manual and synchro-meshed gear changes. So generally, gear changing became something that was done by the car rather  by the skill of the driver. Many drivers regarded this as the end of civilisation as it was known.

These are the cars that we owned when we lived in Ngaio and I went variously to Ngaio primary school and Scots College. I went to Scots College when I was Standard 2 which means I was about eight. The trip from  our home in Ngiao to the tram in the city that took me to the school was done in a Wolseley owned by someone down the road’s son to another private school somewhere else in Wellington.50_wolseley444.jpg

I was dropped off in the city where I had to find the tram that took me out to school. There never seemed to be any other kids from the school so I was much on my own. Sometimes I got it wrong and had to rely on strangers to find my way to school. I remember one day arriving at school particularly late on account of catching the wrong tram and being sent over to the vice-principal for punishment.

I was petrified. He asked me what happened and I told them, probably in tears. I can’t remember what he said. Clearly he understood that an 8 year-old child might get lost every now and then.  I was sent back to my classroom, unpunished.

Here is the map of my 40 km journey to and from school in 1952. The return journey home involved a tram, a train trip, and 20 minute walk home.

untitled 2

When the family moved to Auckland, the motorcar situation began to change. We became a two-car family: the Super Snipe and Mum’s first car: a two-door Morris Minor.  The transport system to school also changed. I enrolled at Remuera primary school and walked  there each day. It took 10 minutes.


One of the things you will notice about this car is that it has no indicators. There was a little switch on the dashboard  that you could turn left or right and the little arm would shoot out from the side of the car to indicate  which way you were turning.


Here is a picture of the Austin A30  (one of which we later owned) with its trafficator, as they were called, indicating a left turn.

If you’re having trouble seeing it, you have identified the reason why the system was abandoned in favour of the flashing indicator light.

I remember driving with my mother after she got her licence, sitting in the front seat   (without a seatbelt) and turning the trafficator for her whenever she was about to turn. She stopped me doing it, saying she would never learn how to use the trafficator if I kept doing it for her. She was right of course, but at the age of 9, it seemed to me she was never going to learn how to do it anyway, so I should help her.

Mum’s next car was another Morris Minor but a huge step up in terms of style. We now have four doors and the headlights that were in an elevated position on the mudguards, a level of style and class that the earlier model did not have.


But our membership of the two-car family class was an indication of some of the social changes that were occurring. Personally, I found it strange that my mother wanted or needed to have a car. You could walk shops, and didn’t need one to get to the washing machine, the oven or the clothesline which to my limited 1950s New Zealand view of the world seemed to be all mothers needed to do.

I remember questioning the purchase of a second car but cannot remember the exact answer but remember that my mother’s response indicated that she saw a car as a step towards liberating her from the constraints and ties of the family home.

Hardly the wind of change, but a small breeze and, in a country as isolated as New Zealand, that was quite something.

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