My mother said "Guess what?" Kids at any age hate that question. It assumes adult superiority. I would have been about three years old. Probably the excitement in her eyes helped seal in the memory. She supplied her own answer. "Pop’s brought a new car. He's bringing it round." [Pop was my grandfather}. We were living in a small house near the Catholic church in Little River.
To add to the excitement, Mr Aitken, an elderly neighbour, buzzed in on his old water-cooled motor cycle to bring us a large basket of freshly picked juicy cherries from his orchard. Just as he started to leave, the new car cruised up the drive, crushing fennel, blackberry and periwinkle along the verges, billowing clouds of dust, scattering pups, chooks, and causing Mr Aitken to dismount hastily and wheel his cumbersome machine out of the way.
The car was a big pre-war Oldsmobile – the same black red as the cherries. The flashest car in Little River, it remained a sleek symbol of technology, mobility, glamour and power during my childhood years. Pop drove it like a king. Lounging against it he would discuss fat lamb prices, the meaning of life or spin a tale to engage a child’s fancy. During the war years it often served as the local ambulance - Yankee marines with malaria relapses, locals with heart attacks, hands half-severed in a farm accident, women in labour. (Mum often drove in such circumstances. She was an excellent driver). He took his dogs in the capacious boot to muster, to trials, to breed - my job to make sure the vents were open. Whenever we shifted house we went in the Oldsmobile. And Mum drove it to his funeral.
The motor car has been a constant throughout my life though during the war years with petrol rationing there were not that many around. There were hitching posts outside the Little River post office and railway station and they were used. In Christchurch dray carts still delivered goods, especially beer barrels. When the war ended and rationing was eventually lifted the era of the car really began. Quickly, there were flasher cars than the Oldsmobile around. The local farmers began to bypass the railway – trucking their lambs straight to the works and wool through to the stores. Women went through to Christchurch to the larger maternity hospitals. Little River hospital closed and then the railway line. Stepfather Dick drove us through to Lancaster Park to see the All Blacks play.
When I started teaching I realised I could afford a car. I saw the bank manager and arranged a loan. He offered me further money to invest in shares for the new oil refinery at Marsden Point. Shares were beyond my experience and it had been drummed into me as post-Depression lore ‘borrow as little as you have to.” I turned his offer down. Looking back I wonder how my life might have panned out if I had invested in the stockmarket at that stage. I used the car loan to buy a Morris Minor.
New Zealand’s economic history can be followed from my car ownership – Austin, then several Hillman, then a switch to Honda, Subaru and the last a Toyota Corolla.
At the time I failed to make the connection between the refinery and the motor-industry.
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