Letter to my grandsons: Motorcars (ii)

While we were living in Clonbern Rd in Auckland, we had a number of family cars. The two Morris Minors were superseded by a series of Austins.

I do not have any pictures of our house in Clonbern Rd as someone built a block of flats in the front yard after we moved out. But here is a photograph of the house on my friends, Andrew Cook, who lived just down the road in a similar style house to ours.

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The first was my mum’s Austin A30.

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It wasn’t very different from the Morris Minors we had owned. Both the Morris and the Austin were basic motoring. Four speed gear lever on the floor, key ignition, manual choke, speedometer, petrol and temperature gauges, trafficator above the speedometer.  Ventilation was from an air vent operated manually from inside the car, and placed just under the wind wipers. The speedo went up to 70 mph which would have been pretty scary in this little motorcar.

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Radios and heating were not available on the factory models. the manual choke as long disappeared from motorcars, along with a crank handle. The choke was a little button that you pulled out increased flow of air to the carburettor and helped the car get going on cold mornings. If you forgot to push back  the choke back in again, the car did just that, it choked and stopped. As technology improved, this particular feature disappeared.

The crank handle was another interesting feature. You can see a small hole in the bumper bar of the green Austin. This is where the crank handle went.

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In the early days, this was the only way of starting a motorcar and involved turning the cylinders of car over manually to get the spark plugs to fire. It was extremely demanding work and often had to be done when the starter system failed which was occasional but not common.

It was very important when using a crank handle not to hold it between your fingers and thumb, as you would hold a tennis racket but with your thumb on the same side as your index finger. The reason for doing this was that when the engine fired the crank and would often spin at the speed of the engine, breaking the unwary driver’s thumb.

Starting the cars was often problematic and one good trick was to park your car facing down hill so that start, you could turn the engine on (starting a car was to step process, turning the engine on and pressing the start button), disengaged clutch, put the car in  second gear and start rolling down the hill. As the car gained speed, you let the clutch out  and the engine fired. If it didn’t, you are at the bottom of the hill with a car that wouldn’t start. It was a technique that everybody learned.

I remember driving to work along Customs Street in the 1960s when the car in front of me stalled.  Within 30 seconds, five people had put down their briefcases and got ready to push the car. Someone yelled, ” You in gear?”. The driver waved his hand out the window, everybody pushed, the car gathered speed, the engine fired and the driver drove off honking his horn in appreciation.  Everyone returned to the footpath, picked up their briefcases and continued on to work.  Wonderful to watch.

The reign of the Super Snipes came to an end in the Haslett household with the purchase of an Austin A70 also known as “the big car”.

One of the expeditions are remember in “the big car” was a Saturday morning trip to a bakery in Panmure where a particularly enterprising baker had opened his bakery on Saturday morning to provide fresh bread. New Zealand closed over the weekends, there was no shopping and all the petrol stations were closed so if you didn’t petrol on Friday and you ran out over the weekend, couldn’t get any more petrol Monday.  This was the only place in Auckland we buy fresh bread on Saturday and it was was incredibly popular. I remember the still being hot as we took home and had a morning tea of warm white bread and butter. What I didn’t realise was there was a young six-year-old girl, one Di Peacock, your grandmother, playing out behind the bakery.

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There were touches of luxury beginning to be incorporated into our motorcars.  There were comfortable leather seats, wooden panelling and armrests. The picnic hamper and the lunch tray were not standard issue as I remember but they show how people used their cars.  If you went for a picnic, you had it in the car while you were driving along.

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One important difference between driving in Australia and New Zealand is that because New Zealand is such a small country, the distances to travel are much less. And in the 1950s people didn’t drive very far. We would have Christmas holidays at a rented house in Campbell’s Bay.

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Nowadays, it’s a 20 minute drive.  Now people would think that was an easy drive to work each day but that was a Christmas holiday for us. This was before the Harbour Bridge had  been built so you crossed to Devonport on the car ferry. It was slow progress because you had to queue for the ferry, so it made visiting the North Shore and Campbell’s Bay something of a special occasion, certainly a day out.

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Not far from where you boarded the car ferry was the landing point for the Short Solent aircraft which were the quickest way of going from Auckland to Sydney. The trip took seven and half hours, more than twice the time it takes today.

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When I was about 14, around 1958, we moved to 15 Awatea Rd and,  in moving to  Awatea Rd,  the Hasletts were moving up in the world.

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And the motorcars were looking up as well. This is our 1955 Austin Cambridge, designed by an Italian, Farina.

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After the rounded stodginess of the previous models, this was quite a shock. So flashy! And why would any self-respecting British motor car company get an Italian to design their car. What did Italians know about motorcars?  Nonetheless, they were exceptionally popular motorcars.

The New Zealand motorcar market, which was entirely reliant on imports, had been entirely dominated by British car industry: Morris, Austin, Vanguard,Vauxhall, Ford and some luxury marques like Jaguar. I fell in love with the Jaguar at a very early age and it was a lifelong ambition to own one.

Then suddenly, the Australians started making motorcars and they became available in New Zealand. Our first Holden was an EH and one of the first cars that I got to drive  (along with the Austin A30), but only on very rare occasions in both cases. I got my driving licence when I was 16. In the 1950s in New Zealand, a 15-year-old was legally allowed to drive a six cylinder motor car. No Learners permits, no P plates. You got your licence and you were are on the road.

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Things were beginning to change in the car market. This car had disc brakes on the front wheels instead of the normal drum brakes. Disc brakes are so common today that you can get them on bicycles. My current bike has  front and rear disc brakes but in the motorcars of the 1940s and 1950s, this was non-existent.

The drum brake system was essentially a rotating external drum with a fixed drum inside. When you applied the brakes, the internal drum expanded and the friction between the two slowed the car down. This generated a lot of heat, which produced a phenomenon known as “brake fade” and meant that, under pressure, the brake system would often fail so the advent of disc brakes was a real safety improvement.

It was also the first Holden to have the option of power steering, which is now standard in all motorcars, but in those days was considered a considerable and expensive luxury .

It wasn’t long after this that I left home (and school) began Teachers Training College and Auckland University under my own steam and powered by a two-stroke Puch motor scooter.

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