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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 5, October 1985

Early Motoring in Nelson – Life was Never Dull!

Early Motoring in Nelson – Life was Never Dull!

page 46

I well remember my first ride in a motorcar. It was at Wakapuaka in a one-cylinder Reo car in 1908.I think my interest in things mechanical began at that moment. At school I was thought to have some mechanical ability so was sent to what was then the Nelson Technical School where I did a two year engineering course. I left with a good testimonial from my tutor and looked for an apprenticeship. I was fortunate to secure one with W. G. Vining whose garage was where the Montgomery car park is situated. (I regret that the name Vining is not perpetuated in some way, they were there much longer than Montgomery was). W. G. Vining was one of the earliest motorists and by 1918–20 speedy transport was coming into its own.

The apprenticeship was for five years, wages started at fifteen shillings a week, after six weeks I got one pound and they rose by five shillings a year. When I became a tradesman my wages were four pounds seventeen and sixpence.

One day Mr Vining showed me an old Model T Ford which he said was a good buy at fifty pounds. It was a 1917 model and I bought it. Imagine a youngster of seventeen with a motor car in those days, others were lucky to have a bicycle. I was extremely popular and had plenty of friends both male and female. In those days very few people could drive and those who could were almost considered to be gods. Mr Vining would sell a car, one of us would take it to the purchaser and stay to teach the farmer to drive.

I remember one time when the salesman wanted to deliver a car to Pangatotara. He set out and I was to follow him. It was getting dark when we reached Wakefield, then we went over the Dovedale Hill. The road in those days has to be imagined — it was more like a goat track. At about midnight we reached the farm where I stayed a few days teaching the farmer to drive. In this way I got a good knowledge of the country districts.

Mr G. bought a car, a Chevrolet Superior. He was a miner at Puponga where some half dozen men worked a coalmine. We left on a Sunday, at that time the All Blacks were overseas and had played on the previous afternoon so we stopped at the Takaka Post Office to find out how they had got on. (With no television or radio the notices displayed at Post Offices were the first news we had of such important events.) We reached Collingwood, went on and safely crossed the Pakawau River, then it seemed to me we ran out of road. When I asked where the road was my companion pointed ahead to what was really a mud flat. "Surely you are not going to take this car over that?" But he explained that it as the only way to get home! I put her into low gear, rammed my foot down and through we went. I spent about a week teaching Mr G. to drive, making sure that he could negotiate the mud flat.

I went back to Collingwood in the "mail car", a terrible old four cylinder Cadillac which was very late that morning, the reason was that they had been towing it all round Collingwood to get it to start. It could only be stopped on a hill where it could run down to start again. After lunch my page 47problem was how to get to Takaka as there was no service car till the next morning. I decided to set out walking. Believe it or not I was within a mile and a half of Takaka before I saw a single soul. A horse and cart would have been a welcome sight, but finally I rode into Takaka in a car and eventually reached Nelson.

Another time Mr Vining said "Poor old Mr X, he's in real trouble, he's been to Lake Rotoroa and his car has broken down, we must do something about it". I left town about 4 p.m. and reached Korere where Mr X lived about 8 p.m. Next morning we set out for Lake Rotoroa and found the car had a broken propellor shaft. The only thing to do was tow it back to Nelson. Those were the days of open cars, they did have windscreens but they were little protection with the road ankle deep in dust. Every ten miles I would stop to see if Mr X was still alive and to dust him down. Eventually we reached Nelson and he had survived.

Believe me, life was never dull in those days! A car had an accident in Collins Valley. The problem was a bent chassis, in those days the chassis stuck out in front with springs under it. There were no breakdown trucks so a boy and I loaded up the old jalopy with a big sheet of iron, half a bag of coke, a big kerosene burner, a tin of kerosene and all my tools. We took the radiator and mudguards off and dismantled it, put a wet sack over the carburettor to stop it catching fire and then built a fire around the chassis, laced it up with a piece of wire and put blocks of coke around it. We lit up the burner which roared like an aeroplane. It was almost like an oven and, after about twenty minutes or half an hour when it was red hot we raked away the fire and straightened the chassis. Then all we had to do was put it together again — simple!

There were several service cars based at Vinings and now and then they would be overloaded so they would hire a car from Vinings. I had to change quickly and off I would go with a load of passengers for Motueka, Riwaka or even Blenheim. Of course there was no nonsense such as having to get a driver's licence, it was accepted that if you worked in a garage you were an expert driver, it was only necessary to look the part.

I have mentioned that my first car was a model T Ford. In those early years of motoring it was Henry Ford who made it possible for ordinary people to own cars. He was the great pioneer in the motoring world. He built the first Fords, known as "Tin Lizzies" during 1909–11. In 1914 when there was a slight recession in America, he paid his workers $5.00 for a nine hour day while others paid $3.75 for a ten hour day. He was able to do this because he pioneered the assembly line method of construction which greatly speeded up production. He was therefore able to sell cars in New Zealand for 176 pounds which was at least 50 pounds cheaper than any other make. The "Tin Lizzie", which could be any colour one chose so long as it was black, was the subject of jokes and ridicule. Henry Ford himself encouraged the publication of book of Ford jokes.

There as an old man with a wooden leg
No way could he work, no way could he beg,
So he got four wheels and an old tin can
Called it a Ford and the damn thing ran.

page 48
Model T Ford. — N.P.M.

Model T Ford. — N.P.M.

Despite the ridicule it sold and revolutionised transport for the ordinary poorer man both in America and abroad. Of course it was a very basic vehicle, no such luxuries as a speedometer, windscreen wiper or self-starter. They would be extras. Most people had what was known as the "armstrong starter", and, if you saw a man with his arm in a sling, it was most likely that he was the owner of a car with an "armstrong" starter and that he had tried to start the car with the spark too far advanced.

An Early Trip to Christchurch

I was most fortunate that my early years as a mechanic were supervised by Philip Vining who was most meticulous and thorough. His father, W. G. Vining, started in the motor industry in the early years of the century and owned a number of cars including two 12–15 horsepower Cadillacs. He has the distinction of being the first person to make the trip from Nelson to Christchurch by car. Cars had been driven infrequently from Nelson to Blenheim and from Blenheim to Christchurch but W. G. Vining was the first to make the through trip.

With his wife, daughter and son he set out in his Cadillac at eleven o'clock on a pouring wet autumn morning. They had a late lunch at Rai Falls and pushed on to Havelock where the car was refuelled and a large umbrella purchased (for 4 shillings and 6 pence) — this proved to be an inspired move! Rain continued, but they reached the turn off to the Tua Marina page 49track (where the present bridge is now). Of course it was impossible to ford the river so they had to follow the track round the bluffs above the Wairau River. The pace slowed to a crawl with all hands peering into the night to see the dangerous corners of which there were plenty. At last they reached the Picton-Blenheim road where visibility was almost zero. They waited for the train to cross the road-rail bridge then Mr Vining impatiently sped on to it and failed to take the end turn. Fortunately the rear wheels stayed on the road and, after much pushing and shoving, they were on their way again. Ten minutes later they were in Blenheim, the time was ten past eight.

Next morning they left in better weather and were soon in Starbrough, now known as Seddon, and went on to Flaxbourne which had refused to change its name after Sir Joseph Ward cut up part of the Estate into farms. Here they were told they would never be able to cross the Flaxbourne Hills as there was deep mud and fresh gravel, but, with the help of a friendly roadman who showed them how to use tussock to make wheels grip, they reached the Ure River. In spite of all the rain they had encountered the river was dry, they could not even get a drink of water! They pushed on to the coast with Cape Campbell on the left and visited at Woodside homestead, then on to Kekerangu feeling confident despite the greasy section known as the "slips" — and still a treacherous part of the road. All went well till they were about ten feet from the end when the car bogged down hopelessly. They used the roadman's trick, but despite all hands digging mud from around the wheels and heaving on the block and tackle (which was always carried by motorists in those days) they were unable to move it, so Mr Vining set out for the Rutherford Homestead some three miles down the road and returned with several men and an enormous carthorse. About 9.15 p.m. four tired but happy motorists arrived at the Rutherford Homestead, they were again regaled with tales of the awful roads ahead, but by now they took advice with some reservations.

Next morning they left in perfect weather, but more adventures were ahead. After a couple of miles they came to the Devil's Elbow — a nasty piece of work — which was reputed to be negotiable only on horseback, but, using tussock and dry flax and all pushing, they were finally on the top and stopped at the 'Shades' for a rest. Here there were more tales of terrors ahead, but, after lunch at Clarence Bridge they pushed on to the Hapuka River where some Maoris came to their assistance. A huge crowd gathered and, after two people crossed in a gig, the horse was brought back and harnessed to the Cadillac. All went well till the middle of the river when the car stuck against boulders. Two cylists offered to move the obstruction and, after an hour's delay, the car came up the bank with water pouring out in all directions. Against all expectations the car started and the six miles to Kaikoura were covered in great style.

During the overnight stop a coach driver was most emphatic that the road to Christchurch was impossible, but they set out next morning in brilliantly fine weather. A horse pulled them through the Kowhai crossing and Stormy Creek, but the car managed it alone at Crib Creek, the soft sandy creek and river bottoms caused the most trouble. At the small Linton rossing the car bogged down badly, but with sacks, planks and manuka managed the crossing. Friends at Linton Downs gave them dinner and lent them page 50a horse to help them over the next crossing. The next few miles, with the Kaikouras close and the road climbing great cuttings and dipping into deep ravines was pleasant motoring. With some help from another motorist at a ford they reached the Conway Accommodation House at dusk.

The next day the Vinings left with two men and two horses to tackle the famous Conway Cutting, this took several hours, then on for nine miles to the Upper Mason. In places horses pulled and the car pushed and they made good time.

After the previous few days the trip from the Waiau to Christchurch was easy going, Waipara crossing caused few problems and the next day at 10 a.m. they rolled into Cathedral Square, just six days after leaving Nelson.