Cars, Large and Small
It was while we were living at Herbert Street, Merrylands that we got our first car. In the early 1950s new cars were still pretty scarce and second-hand ones were pretty costly. After being without a car since leaving Kulnura in 1936, and Grandpa Pegler having got rid of his during the war, Mum and Dad decided to buy an old Hupmobile Sedan in 1947. Amongst other things, they used it to cart things up to the block of land they had bought at North Avoca and which they were starting to use as a weekender, first with an ex-army tent and then with a weatherboard cottage. I had done some driver training when in the army, but only in heavy vehicles, and it was in the Hupmobile that I developed my skills to the point where I was granted a driving license. Soon after this Mum and Dad, with some encouragement (and, I think, some financial help) from Lois traded in the Hupmobile on a very nice Morris 10 Saloon. Occasionally I borrowed this for a day and Jean and I with our young family thought we were really living when we used it to go on a picnic. Of course, inevitably, we hankered for a car of our own, especially as by 1949 we had three children, Judith, Philip and Ann.
After looking over the second-hand car market and finding that it would cost 100 pounds to buy an old “A” model Ford, we decided to invest in a new car if we could raise a loan. The cheapest car was the little rear-engined Renault 760 so we ordered one on a three month waiting list. After three months the distributors, Ira Berk, said it looked like another three months. We had got used to this sort of thing in the post-war reconstruction period. Steel was in grossly short supply as was almost everything else. Petrol was still rationed until late 1949. But it so happened that, just after Ann's second birthday in August 1951, Ira Berks told me about a lady who had bought just the car we wanted and was trying to sell it again. No, they wouldn't cancel our order for the new car, but they would guarantee to get a buyer for the second-hand one when we needed to unload it in favour of a new one. The main problem was that they couldn't finance a second-hand car. Does that sound like a typical car salesman? Well, it so happened that Mum and Dad had just beforehand negotiated an overdraft to build the cottage at North Avoca, so they extended the loan by the necessary 200 pounds at the then going rate of 4.5% and I paid it back to them on monthly instalments over the next couple of years. So our first car was a very lovely, almost new, blue, Renault 760 registered number NF-801.
The second day I had it I backed it into a truck! It happened like this. Dad's Morris 10 which, after the Hupmobile, was the only car I had ever driven, had an English 4-speed gear box. The Renault had a Continental 3-speed box. Low gear on the English box is in the same position as reverse gear in the Continental. We were taking the Robertsons home after having tea with us. I stopped before entering Parramatta Road at Granville, waited for the traffic to clear, and then put the car into what I thought was low gear, only to find it went backwards! In the big truck that had pulled up behind me was a very surprised truckie when the tiny car in front backed into him with something of a clatter! My immediate concern was for the engine. Remember, it was in the “boot” of the Renault with its rear-engine drive. But fortunately, damage was minor, involving a bumper-bar and an engine hood-cover, the car was still driveable even though the driver - me - was in a state of nervous tension for at least a month afterwards! [This is my earliest memory. I even think I remember that the “truck” was a Bedford van like the Post Office used at the time. However, some things don't ring true. First, if he was taking the Robertson's home, there would be no room in the Renault for me. Second, as I remember it we were entering Parramatta Road from the South, as if we were coming home-PJH]
Mention of the engine location reminds me of the then current joke about the lady who opened the front bonnet of a Renault at the service station to have the oil checked, only to find no engine! “Someone has stolen your engine,” said the petrol attendant, in some surprise. The lady looked, aghast at first, but immediately brightened up and exclaimed “Never mind, I remember seeing a spare one in the boot!” Rear-engined or not, it was a marvellous little car. It was surprisingly roomy for its overall size, very economical to run and extremely reliable. It gave us great service and much pleasure. We did many trips with four adults nursing three smallish children in reasonable comfort. To garage the car at Herbert Street I removed the end wall of the laundry, which was separate from the main house and put up a canvas roll-up blind instead, and that is where the little Renault spent its off-road time except on washdays when we had to light up the old wood fired copper while the car was moved out into the yard.
In due course the new one we had ordered became available. It was very much the same as the one we had except that it was green and numbered ACH-516. True to their word, the agents put me in touch with a buyer who took the earlier car off my hands at a satisfactory price, so all worked out well. I had a bit of trouble with the wheel-bearings on the new car, but otherwise it was just as reliable as the first one.
In early 1953 we moved from Herbert Street, Merrylands to 11 Church Street, Parramatta, to live with Grandpa Pegler. We kept the Renault for a couple of years but our family was getting too big for it, especially now that it included Grandpa, and so we traded it in for a much bigger car, a second-hand Humber Hawk with 30,000 miles on the Speedo. It was built like a tank and was very comfortable and reliable. But it was very underpowered for its size. This didn't worry us too much, and we were very happy with it. It did lots of mileage and suited us well, so long as we didn't mind every Volkswagen and Holden on the road whizzing past us when we were going flat out at 50 mph! Actually, Humbers were a pretty classy range of British cars made by an organisation known as The Rootes Group. Besides Humbers they made Hillmans and Commer trucks. They were, in their day, very good reliable vehicles. With our young family we liked the luxury and room of the Humber Hawk with its sliding sunshine roof which the children liked to poke their heads through while standing on the front seat with its leather upholstery. After the utilitarian (but fun) little Renault it was luxury indeed. We had it for about eight years. Then, because we were moving to Queensland where I had been appointed Babcock's Manager, we changed it for the “Hawk's” big brother, a Humber Super Snipe. This was a truly luxury car and, unlike the Hawk, had plenty of power. It had a quite large six cylinder long-stroke engine and was capable of speeds in excess of 100 miles (160 km) per hour. It was our first “Company Car” (all expenses paid except when on holidays) and we used it to drive to Brisbane in January 1963 when I took up my new position. I was agreeably surprised when the Managing Director agreed to me having such a delightful car, as I thought I had aimed rather high when suggesting it. But Spen Shirtley, the Sales Manager already had one and, more to the point, it was the car used by the top people in The Southern Electric Authority, Babcock's major customer in Queensland. “Keeping up with the Jones's?”
That car did over 100,000 miles in the next six years, travelling to Sydney at least once a year and right through to North Queensland an equal number of times. It was ideal for the Queensland roads, very safe to drive on broken surfaces and in all kinds of weather. It was a white car, or at least the very palest shade of blue. That would be no surprise today, but in the early 60s it was a bit adventurous, but ideal for the hot climate. It was big and airy with relatively small windows and not too much glass area. In Queensland the maximum allowable speed even on highways was 60 mph (roughly the same as the 100 kph of today) but in New South Wales there was no real upper speed limit outside built-up areas. So we used to get along the New England Highway at 80 and 85 mph when driving to Sydney for the Christmas holidays, making times on the poorer roads of those days that cannot be matched today because of speed restrictions. It was quite common to leave Aspley, north of Brisbane at 6 am and, after several stops for drinks and lunch, be at North Avoca by 7 pm the same day.
During one Christmas holiday I decided I should spend more time with my one and only surviving son, Philip, and so we set out from North Avoca (after leaving the rest of the family there) on a camping / motel trip through Victoria. It was, of course, during the school holidays and I remember spending the first night in Sydney. It was New Year's Eve and so I took Philip and myself up to the El Alemain fountain at Kings Cross where the “action” was supposed to be. I don't remember much excitement. I don't know if Philip can either? But I guess it was an experience. The next day we headed west and after a circuit of Mount Panorama, where we stopped for lunch, headed further west through Cowra to Narrandera. Somewhere along the road we put up a fly-sheet between the car and some saplings, made up our stretchers and cooked some sausages and tomatoes over a fire of twigs. There were moths everywhere, there were ants, too, and things that made noises. Neither of us slept very well, although we cracked pretty hardy about it. It was, though, our last night in the open. We enjoyed the idea of being like the tough men of another era who boiled their billy on track or in paddock, but we enjoyed the comfort of a motel and a good shower even more!
I recall that that was the year Doug Walters really made a name for himself in the Test series. We listened to cricket by day over the radio and watched by night on the motel TV. I am a bit hazy now just where we meandered, but I know that on the way we included Canberra (where we stayed overnight in a student hostel, made available to tourists in the holidays) and we also visited parts of the Riverina. After making our way through Victoria to Melbourne, where we even took in a Sophia Loren movie, we headed south to Phillip Island where we, of course, saw the famous fairy penguins and then east to the Morwell Valley where we looked over the Hazelwood Power Station that Babcocks were busy building at the time. The most fascinating place we stayed at was probably the old Boyd-town hotel somewhere near Eden. Then we worked our way up the south coast of N.S.W. to complete an enjoyable trip. I think we did get to know each other a little better!
[PJH comments: I do recall this tour quite well. It was January 1965. Typically, I remember bits that Dad forgot, and vice versa. For example, I have no recollection of the trip after Melbourne. The hotel “somewhere near Eden” is now completely forgotten. I vaguely remember the night under the stars, but a stronger recollection is that we decided never to do it again. I have lots of pictures of our visit to Canberra. Dad forgets that we took a one-day bus tour of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric scheme that included a visit to the peak of Mount Kosciusko. I recall that mainly because there was a cute teenage girl also on the tour. The romance was entirely in my head as we never spoke, although I do recall searching dreamily for her name and suburb in the visitor's book at one of the stops. The Sophia Loren movie was “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” and we saw it in a small cinema under the Australia Hotel in Collins Street where the Novotel stands now in 2001. During the screening a large rat ran across the bottom of the screen! At the Victorian coal fields I recall the guide telling us that Victoria had enough brown coal to power the world for thousands of years. Given the high-pollutant character of brown coal this is a claim no-one makes any more. And I remember learning to drive the Super Snipe. I recall that one needed some concentration to keep the thing straight, but that was because I had never driven outside the suburbs before and didn't realise that one needed to compensate for the camber and bumps in the road. Also Dad fails to mention the most impressive thing about the Super Snipe to those of us who habitually rode in the back. It had fold-down polished walnut picnic trays in the back of the front seats. Much superior to today's tinny drink holders.-PJH]
[I note only one anomaly. Like Dad I remember listening to the cricket. I can still see the western New South Wales plains as we heard Doug Walters score 155 against England in Brisbane-the first time I had heard a player score a century on debut. In my mind's eye, we are driving up the Hunter River Valley. In any case, Doug Walters did not debut for Australia until 1965-66-a year after this Super Snipe tour. I have a vague memory that Dad and I repeated our boys-own tour the following year.-PJH]
During this trip Philip had his “Learner's Permit”, so he did quite a bit of the driving and, soon afterwards got his driving licence, to the dismay, I think of his “big sister” Judith. The reason was that I had bought a second car, a little Renault Dauphine for Judith to drive and now she had to share it with Philip, who until then had been riding a Vespa motor-scooter to College. The Dauphine was a good little car, but it had done a lot of work and after a while I traded it in for a Morris Major Elite-a truly rugged and reliable vehicle which served the children very well until, Judith having married in the meantime and Ann not old enough to drive, I gave it to Philip after he had taken a job at Radio Nambour and was soon to be married. The Major, although very sound, was perhaps a little unexciting for Philip, who soon traded it in on a Renault 1500-quite an exciting car to drive apparently-which in his excitement at how well it handled, he turned over on a bend that was sharper than he expected. It was never the same again!
In the meantime, I had hung on to the Super Snipe as long as the Management of Babcocks allowed, (I really don't like changing cars once they are properly run in and I have become attached to them) but the time came when I had to make another choice. Unfortunately in the five years I had been driving the Super Snipe, there had been rationalisation of the British motor industry and Humbers were no longer made. So I aimed a bit high again and asked if I could trade it in on a Ford Fairlane. It was agreed and I took delivery of a shiny iridescent green ZA model. It too was a lovely car, but how different it was to the Humber! First of all, until I got used to it I felt unsafe on the road, it handled so lightly and was hopeless on rough, corrugated or loose surfaces. It had a much lower roof-line and greater glass area, so that it was hot. And I mean HOT! It was a dark green colour so I first of all had a light cream vinyl roof cover fitted. If anything, that made it hotter! Air conditioning was a novelty in cars those days (1968) but I had a business friend who worked for Clyde Industries who offered to get me the necessary gear wholesale and arranged to have it fitted at cost. In fact it cost about $300 all up. At that time I didn't know a soul who had an air-conditioned car. Not even the Chairman of The Southern Electric Authority had one! So, it was no use asking Babcocks to foot the bill. But I did get their permission to fit it to the car at my own expense. And that is what I did. It made all the difference in the world, and I haven't had a car since without air-conditioning.
Soon after the air-conditioning was fitted Jean and I did a grand tour around Queensland. I had been in the habit of driving up to and beyond Cairns at least once a year, calling on all the Sugar Mills, major Abattoirs, and Coastal Industries. A couple of times Jean had then flown up to Cairns to meet me and we had a few days on an Island or coastal resort before a leisurely drive home. A favourite place to visit was the Atherton Tablelands. But this time I decided to drive the inland route home via Mount Isa. So Jean flew up and met me at Cairns. We spent the first weekend on Bedarra Island, near Dunk Island, off the coast from Tully. What a gorgeous place. They catered for only a dozen people in those days and we were accommodated in well-separated little villas. Peace and privacy was the whole idea of the place. I think it was used as a model for the island in the TV series of The Thornbirds. But, on the morning we were to leave, while climbing a steep path to the top of the hill on the island, Jean twisted her ankle. We assumed she had sprained it, wrapped it up and proceeded on the journey, but, in fact, we found out several years later when it was x-rayed after another fall, that a bone had been fractured. Jean had a lot of pain with it, but we pressed on and travelled through Charters Towers, Hughenden and Cloncurry to Mount Isa where we spent a couple of days looking over the mine and visiting Mary Kathleen Uranium mine which was in a “caretaking” stage at that time after its original period of production. We stayed in Motels, of course, wherever we ended up each night and, although some were better than others, they were always cool, if not downright cold, because of the evaporative air conditioners that were universally fitted in the drier parts of Queensland. And the air conditioner in the Fairlane was just marvellous. And what a sensation it caused in Mount Isa. It was the first the people there had seen. The Managing Director, Jim Foots, (later Sir James) came for a ride and pronounced it miraculous. In no time at all he had a new car complete with air conditioning! And he wasn't the only one. If I had only realised it at the time, I should have been selling air conditioning for cars, not boilers! Would have made a fortune!
On the way home from Mount Isa we came through Winton, Longreach, Charleville, Roma and Dalby before reaching Toowoomba and driving down the range to home at Aspley. A trip we thoroughly enjoyed and will never regret or forget, in spite of Jean's sore ankle.
Another long trip we undertook in the Fairlane was with Mother and my Sister Lois in August School Holidays 1971. We drove down through the Irrigation areas and Murray valley to Adelaide, then along the coast road to Melbourne and home via the Hume Highway with a delightful by-pass into the snow country around Mount Buffalo where we (that is, Jean and I) saw snow for the first time in our lives. The next time was on the Swiss Alps when travelling by bus from Italy to Switzerland. It was on the road to Mount Buffalo that Mum tried to throw a snowball through the window of the car but caught the rebound herself because the window happened to be closed. I have never seen Lois laugh so much before or since! Mum was still reasonably active in those days and she kept us moving the whole time. While ever there was daylight, she reckoned, there was something to see! It was a lovely and enjoyable trip and we got to know each other better than ever.
Another Christmas, after both Judith and Philip were married and Ann was living and working in Canberra, Jean and I hooked up to the Fairlane a small caravan that belonged to Lois and set off south. This time we headed straight for Canberra and spent a fascinating time there, part of the time with Ann who showed us around the beauty spots. It so happened that Government House gardens were open for a garden party and so we went along, but didn't get to see inside “Yarralumla”. It was while we were looking over one of the buildings in Canberra that for the first time (and so far the last time) I locked the car with the keys still in the ignition! With the aid of a wire coat-hanger borrowed from a nice man in a Government Office I managed to get the door open and all was well again. Nasty moment, though.
After Canberra we spent a couple of days on the Snowy Mountains, looking at the scenery, the man-made lakes, the underground power stations and the very small amount of ice and sludge that remained at that time of the year. We went quite a long way towards the top of Kosciusko and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of breathing the crisp rarefied air. By a very devious route we approached Melbourne, spending the night before Melbourne in the Dandenong Ranges. The roads were narrow, twisting and sometimes steep, but the little caravan travelled very well behind the Fairlane. In Melbourne the next morning we parked in the Gardens and spent an hour in the Art Gallery which, I think, had only recently been opened. When we got back to the car it was to find a policeman writing out a parking ticket-parking caravans i the park not allowed-and warning us that the total length of the car and caravan exceeded the limit allowed to be driven through the city! So we had to forego the City proper, not that it mattered to us, and deviate through the Port Melbourne area to get onto the road to Ballarat. Incidentally, the policeman let us off the parking “rap”. After enjoying a day in Ballarat and Castlemaine we headed north through Bendigo, Shepparton, Narrandera and home feeling very grateful for the loan of the van and the good weather that accompanied it.
When I was transferred back to Head Office of Babcocks at Regents Park in September 1974 I brought the Fairlane with me. Although it was by then six years old and had done well over 100,000 miles it still looked a pretty classy car and performed well. But by 1975 the international oil crisis was looking pretty serious and the senior personnel (as distinct from the Directors) were asked to change to smaller cars. The first to do this were Les Espin, the Chief Engineer, and myself. We chose Ford Cortinas with the larger six cylinder motor (4.1 litre capacity or, as the British rated it, 250 cubic inches.) These were really very nice cars to drive, well appointed and with a great excess of power. What we didn't realise was that we were putting up with smaller cars for no improvement in petrol consumption. They were just too small for occasions like picking up people at the airport with their luggage, etc. and so, when I was next due for a replacement I convinced the Management that a better proposition would be a Falcon sized car. I actually applied for a Fairmont, but this was vetoed as luxury models were reserved for Directors and General Managers, so I chose a Falcon with a few options like cloth seats, radio, clock and, of course, air-conditioning. What I failed to specify, and have regretted ever since, was power steering. In due course I bought this car from the Company when I retired in 1983 and still have it, including the heavy steering, but otherwise performing very well after nearly seven years and 100,000 miles (160,000 km.) I often think I should trade it in for a smaller more fuel-efficient car, but it goes so well, is so roomy and so comfortable that I haven't done anything about it, and probably won't until it starts to give problems of some sort. Just what I will then settle for is something that will be hard to decide. I have had lots of experience with small cars like the little Renault, large ones like the Super Snipe and the Fairlane, and I have enjoyed them all. Even driving the Mini Minor that Ann had for two or three years before her marriage was an enjoyable experience!
I have little idea how far I have driven my cars but, I suppose in the last thirty years it has not been less than 20,000 miles (or 32,000 kilometres) each year. When I add to that the distances travelled by air, I am quite amazed.