Letter to my grandsons: Motorcars (iii)

After I left home and went to Teachers College, I bought myself a German Puch motor scooter. I cannot remember how much it cost me  but it took two years to pay it off at what appeared to be the exorbitant rates of five shillings a week.  Nonetheless,  it was cheap and efficient transport and served herself between the Teachers College, the University, the judo dojo, Rugby matches  and home.

Puch

It also served as transport for  my first teaching appointment, as a probationary assistant, at Rosebank Road primary school. It was a long ride to the school each day, taking around an hour and a quarter each way from 296 Remuera Road  where I was living with my grandmother.

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The school was run by an educational martinet whose idea was that “a good classroom is a silent classroom”. I learnt a lot from his educational approach however I’d have to say he taught me nothing useful. I came away absolutely convinced that his approach to education was wrong.

With my next, and permanent, appointment at Bayfield Primary School came with my first car, a 1952 Ford prefect.   It was at this school that I met your grandmother, Di Peacock. I still remember the first time I saw her standing on the veranda of the school talking to the Principal. She was then, as she is now, a rare beauty.

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There was nothing showy about the 1952 Ford prefect.  it had a hand operated vent for getting air into the cabin, no heater or de-mister and certainly no radio.  CDs were still 30 years away so there was no CD player and vinyl records only just been introduced, so recorded music in the car was still decades away. The idea that you might have a computer on board a motorcar that would locate you and give you directions was beyond the wildest imagining.

It did however have an electric starter which meant I didn’t have to crank it each morning to get it to go. Just turn the key and press the button. Marvellous.

It had a 1200cc engine and a top speed of 100kph and it took over a minute for it to reach that from a standing start.

It had a three speed gearbox with the luxurious synchromesh on two of those gears.  Automatic transmission was virtually unknown in those days. Synchromesh is a system that  coordinates the engine speed with the speed of the gearbox. Without synchromesh, the driver needs to ensure that the cogs in the gearbox are spinning at the same speed as the cogs connected to the driveshaft.  The technique involved pressing down the clutch pedal and taking the car out of gear and into neutral, and adjusting the speed of the gear cogs using the accelerator and then pressing the clutch and engaging the next gear.

Getting it wrong involved a fearful shrieking of pieces of metal trying to engage your moving at different speeds and was generally regarded as an indication of driverly incompetence, much sneered upon by the competent.

If it sounds like a complicated process it was, but it was part of driving a car in those days and any self-respecting driver was able to use a technique known as “double de-clutching”.

And then, out of the blue, an uncle, I think is one of my grandmother’s brothers, left me $500 in his will. I must admit when I received the news I could not remember him but clearly he must’ve remembered me as a little boy and written me into his will.

So I put purchased my next car: a 1962 Singer Gazelle.  This car could best be described as “affordable luxury” whereas the Ford prefect was “a motorcar for the people”. The Gazelle had a 1500cc engine and a top speed of 125.5 km/h and could accelerate from 0-100 in 24.8 seconds, hence Gazelle.  It had a four-speed synchromesh gearbox and overdrive. It also had leather seats and walnut dashboard.

It was also the first car where I installed seat belts. They were not compulsory in those days and only lap belts were available and no torsion reels. But it seemed to me that the argument for seat belts was absolutely compelling and I remember numerous arguments with passengers about wearing them. These arguments were normally settled by “Put on the seatbelt or get out of the car”.

But the real thing about this car was that came with radial-ply, steel belted Michelin tyres, something I could not normally have afforded, they were a real luxury.   In those days these tyres were a radical design and used predominantly for racing cars.  I remember being stopped by traffic officer for exceeding the speed limit on the way to school one morning. He walked around the car, and said scathingly,  ” Michelins eh?” and wrote me a ticket.

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After the Prefect, it was a beautiful car to drive and marked the  beginning of my love affair with  motorcars.

Eventually, the Singer wore out, partly as result of such expeditions, with friends Don and Lew, driving it up Mount Tarawera. There wasn’t really a road in those days, more sort of walking track but we persevered until it became too steep to continue. We then continued to climb up to the edge of the crater. Standing on the edge of a live volcano is a pretty scary sort of experience particularly when you look at the size of the crater.

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It’s hard to get a sense of the size of the crater that resulted from the 1886 eruption but it’s an awe-inspiring sight. An earlier eruption in 1315 is believed to have spread ash that affected global temperatures and precipitated the Great  Famine  (1315 – 1317) in Europe.

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With the demise of the Singer, the motoring needs of the Haslett family had changed somewhat. Your grandmother and I were married and we had baby Andrew so we moved to the first of our family sedans. Ford had produced a series of these called the Zephyr. I remember the first Zephyrs coming on the market while I was still at primary school.  The Mark I was a pretty stodgy looking car but the Mark II broke the design shackles and was, for its times, a very stylish-looking motorcar.

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The Mark I and Mark II Zephyrs

 We bought a Mark III Ford Zephyr, the first of our big six cylinder family sedans. I use the word bought advisedly as I was actually sold it by one Roger Thomas, a used-car salesman and fellow member of the Muriwai surf club. Roger had decided that I needed a good family car and one that could tow a surfboat, probably not necessarily in that order.  I think the tow bar was attached free of charge. Nonetheless, I’m sure I got a good deal and it turned out to be a great car for a small family.

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This was our last New Zealand car and we sold it for $400 the weekend before I left for Australia to start work, find somewhere to live and of course buy a car.

And this was Australia, the land of opportunity, cheap petrol and plentiful motorcars.

 

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