Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 2

The other Saturday I spent a few hours in downtown Napier, New Zealand, where the annual art-deco weekend was in full swing.

'Art Deco' car parade, Napier, February 2014.

‘Art Deco’ car parade, Napier, February 2014.

For a few days the town turns into party central, celebrating the rich and famous lifestyles of 1930s Hollywood. There’s a lot of cosplay. And  a lot of tourists. I overheard a couple of them – done up in period costume down to the cloche hats – chatting in German, something like: ‘Ich muss ganz ein Eis kaufe mir’. I don’t go in for the dress-ups, nor did I attend any of the set-piece events such as a 1930s picnic or the tours. It’s my home town after all. And I’ve (literally) written the book on it.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

But I did make the point of going to see the vintage car parade. They spanned the gamut from the First World War through to the early 1940s. Few of them actually appeared on New Zealand roads at the time – the country imported mainly British. And none of them, I suspect, were in quite the sparkling order they are now. But that wasn’t the point …was it.

Quintessential modernism - streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Quintessential modernism – streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Passing the Buick...

Passing the Buick…

The art of deco.

The art of deco.

Parasols and sun.

Parasols were vital wear in 33 degree C heat (91 degrees F).

My camera really didn't capture just how much the cars glowed in the sun.

My camera really didn’t capture just how much the cars GLOWED in the sun.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard Super 8.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 1

I made the pilgrimage this year to my home town of Napier, New Zealand – and its annual Art Deco weekend – three or four days of Golden Age Hollywood style partying with air shows, vintage car parades and more.

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier...but who cares?

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier…but who cares? This photo didn’t use an infill flash – there was SO much light the shadow side of the car was illuminated by reflection off the footpath alone (just like that photo of Aldrin on the Moon, actually).

It’s all in good fun. And for me, the centrepiece was the car parade with its procession of Packards, Chryslers, Buicks, Chevrolets and more.

It’s not strictly historical, of course. New Zealand was one of the most motorised countries in the world back in the 1930s, but most of them were British, built to comply with British road tax laws that favoured ‘small’. Austin Dibblers and Humber Pootles ruled the roost. Although proper cars were occasionally brought in from North America, they were a rarity.

A 1938 Morris 'Minor' - same transmission, curiously, as the 1952 model I learned to drive on. No synchromesh on 3rd and 4th.

A 1938 Morris ‘Minor’ – same transmission and side-valve 850 cc motor, curiously, as the 1952 Minor I learned to drive on, decades later. Syncromesh? What’s that?

Sun, palms, deco. Hollywood? No. Napier.

Sun, palms, deco. Hollywood? No. Napier.

The other Kiwi quirk was the tendency to keep the cars well past their ‘use by’ date – a hazard for historians trying to date mid-twentieth century photos by cars. Even in the 1950s it wasn’t unusual to see early 1930s models chugging about.

1931 Hispano Suiza. No such beastie in 1931 Hawke's Bay, but hey...

1931 Hispano Suiza. No such beastie in 1931 Hawke’s Bay, but hey…

Anybody might think it was 1930...

Anybody might think it was 1929 Chicago …

Cars lined up after the deco-age parade, Napier, 2014.

Cars lined up after the deco-age parade, Napier, 2014. Photographic conditions were extremely difficult – 33 degree C and blazing bright sunshine matched with dappled shadows.

There was an art about cars back then which they seem to have lost today.

There was an art about cars back then which they seem to have lost today.

A lot of the cars at the parade have been brought in since. There were quite a number of Packards – including some magnificent Clippers – few of which actually drove New Zealand streets back then.

More cars on display...

More cars on display…

My next car? I wish...

A 1937 Packard 120C six-cylinder convertible. Beautifully restored. My next car? I wish…

The parade doesn’t celebrate what happened; it celebrates aspiration. And it’s fun to imagine Napier as it might have been in 1940 when all the art deco was brand new and Humphrey Bogart ruled the silver screen.

The art of the art deco car...

The art of the art deco car…

Along the way, I almost walked backwards into a 1937 V12 Rolls Royce Phantom III, while lining up a photo of another car. Don’t ask.

I jumped back and this appeared as I spun around...

I jumped back and this appeared as I spun around…

More soon. Meanwhile – do you like ‘deco’ stylings? What’s your favourite design period?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more deco. Lots more deco.

Sun, style and heat in the ‘Art Deco Capital of the World’

Late every summer, thousands of people pour into Napier, New Zealand, to dress up in golden age Hollywood costume, cavort about in vintage cars, and generally have a good time.

Anybody might think it was 1940...

Anybody might think it was 1940…

The annual ‘Art Deco Weekend’ has been a fixture on the city calendar for more than a quarter of a century. It’s the latest re-invention in Napier’s long history of self-promotion as a resort. Before that – starting in the 1920s – it was the ‘Nice of the South’, though the climate is Californian. These days, so is the town look – with healthy doses of Miami stirred in.

That’s no coincidence; most of the town centre was rebuilt to the latest styles of the 1930s, after a devastating earthquake and fire destroyed virtually the whole original town centre in February 1931.  Grand plans to build block-spanning Spanish Mission buildings, Santa Barbara-style, were foiled by Depression-era penury. Instead, the place was rebuilt piecemeal as individual owners could afford it. But that produced its own unique result – one of the best collections of small modernist buildings in the world, encompassing a range of styles from Spanish Mission to Chicago School, early streamline and more.

Sun glow over two of the 'deco' buildings in Tennyson Street, Napier.

Sun glow over two of the ‘deco’ buildings in Tennyson Street, Napier.

Today they are all lumped together under the blanket moniker ‘art deco’. What’s left of them, anyway – about a third of these unique ‘deco’ buildings were knocked over in the 1980s, spurring a belated effort to recognise the heritage. Others have come down since in the face of strict earthquake regulations. But that hasn’t stopped the city re-inventing itself around the imagery – and today, thousands of visitors pour in for the annual ‘Art Deco’ weekend to celebrate the heritage and indulge in various light-hearted activities based around the ‘deco’ theme.

I don't know who these guys were, but they looked the part. Ties and waistcoats in 33 deg C heat - 91.4 deg F.

I don’t know who these guys were, but they looked the part. Ties and waistcoats in 33 deg C (91.4 deg F). Must be 1940.

Yes, I'm sure it's 1940...

Yes, I’m sure it’s 1940…

I heard that this 1937 Rolls Royce V12 Phaeton was worth half a million dollars.

Is that a 1937 Rolls Royce V12 Phantom III gliding into view?

Suddenly it was 1940...

Lots and lots and lots of people…

Vintage car parade, Napier, New Zealand.

Parasols and deco…

As I walked the downtown streets with their vintage cars; their men in flat caps or straw boaters and braces; their women in cloche hats and print dresses, I felt rather the odd one out. A time traveller, perhaps. It wasn’t the fact that I was festooned with twenty-first century camera gear. It was more fundamental than that. You see, I don’t do cosplay.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Deco cars, writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

It’s Golden Age Hollywood party time!

My home town – Napier, New Zealand – styles itself ‘Art Deco capital of the world’ with reason. Between 1932 and about 1940 the central city was completely rebuilt to the latest styles – Chicago school, Spanish Mission, Streamline Moderne and more – after a devastating earthquake.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.

Party time in Napier’s main ‘art deco’ precinct, February 2014.

It was a unique heritage. Unfortunately most of the best was knocked down in the 1980s, before the value of this unique collection of small ‘art deco’ buildings was recognised. However, the rest have been saved and restored.

Today that heritage – and the lifestyle we’d like to imagine went with it – is celebrated with an annual summer party, a three day weekend of 1930s Hollywood-style fantasy action. The streets fill with restored vintage cars, the Warbirds arrive with their awesome T-6 Harvards (Texans), Spitfires, Mustangs, Avengers and the like. And everyone has a great time.

I made the effort to get there this year. Here are the first couple of photos. More soon.

I don't think any of these cars actually featured in 1930s Napier...but hey...

I don’t think any of these cars actually featured in 1930s Napier…but hey…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More deco posts, more writing tips, and stuff.

Where old American school-buses go to die

I promised a few surprise posts this year. Here’s the first. A couple of years ago the City Council in Napier, New Zealand, decided to spend about $1.1 million on two old Thomas school-buses, which they had customised in California for that quintessential Flash Gordon look – specifically, streamline moderne.

Napier deco bus 'Belle' outside the former Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

Napier deco bus ‘Belle’ outside the former Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

It was intended to match the city’s art deco theme, but the plan didn’t go well. The buses arrived in New Zealand in late 2012 and were declared un-roadworthy on inspection in Wellington. That cost $100,000 to rectify,  and then when they did hit Napier streets in April 2013 they netted a grand total of 11 paying passengers a day, for a dead loss to the Council of $58,000 through August. It was late 2013 before passenger numbers rose.

Napier deco bus 'Belle'.

Napier deco bus ‘Belle’.

My take? If you’re going to customise an American school bus, do this. I’d pay for a ride. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts, science geekery and more.

Coffee… from the age of dieselpunk

While on holiday in Napier, New Zealand the other week, I stumbled across this. An Airstream trailer turned into a coffee cart for the Silver Bullet Coffee Company.

Coffee cart on the Marine Parade, Napier.

Coffee cart on the Marine Parade, Napier.

Airstream coffee cart on Napier's Marine Parade.

Airstream coffee cart on Napier’s Marine Parade.

I am a huge fan of these streamline stylings. You?

I am a huge fan of these streamline stylings. You?

The cart opened in November 2013, and although the caravan it’s built around dates to 1976, it’s an Airstream – which makes it pure mid-century. Post-deco, but definitely not Swedish Modern or 1970s kitsch. I am a huge, huge fan of mid-twentieth century stylings – especially the streamline shapes that defined the age. Call it dieselpunk. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Essential writing skills, writing tips, more science geekery – yes, including that custard-lightspeed trick as soon as I get some photos. And more. Watch this space.

More wonderful architecture from the art deco capital of the world

I thought I would conclude my trilogy of deco posts with a few more glimpses of my home town – Napier, New Zealand. The place has spectacularly reinvented itself since its discovery, about 25 years ago, of its own modernist heritage.

The Masonic Hotel (1932) - early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind.

The Masonic Hotel (1932) – early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind. I had lunch in here last week.

Today it styles itself the ‘art deco capital of the world’. And in many ways, it is. Back in 1931, a devastating earthquake destroyed the town centre. Afterwards, grand plans to rebuild after the model of Santa Barbara  were scuttled by cost. Still, the architecture that did emerge was all of its day, mostly early 1930s modernism. Today it has one of the coolest collections of those styles in the world, a Californian climate – and a look that would not have been out of place in golden age Hollywood.

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Former State Theatre, a Spanish Mission design redolent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That door on the left is about where the queue was in 1977 when I was eagerly waiting to watch Star Wars...and the theatre manager came out to say they were full. Sigh. I saw it later, of course. About ten times.

Former State Theatre, a Spanish Mission design redolent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That door on the left is about where the queue was in 1977 when I was eagerly waiting to watch Star Wars…and the theatre manager came out to say they were full. Sigh. I saw it later, of course.  Four times in this cinema alone.

View of the town centre with Clifton and Cape Kidnappers across the bay beyond.

View of the town centre with Clifton and Cape Kidnappers across the bay beyond.

Want to know the sad part? When I was a kid, there was a LOT more art deco than today. Everything, back in the late 1960s, was still in its original 1933-40 incarnation – and, at the time, entirely out of fashion, faded and dowdy. It was only after a lot the best stuff was ripped down or re-made, including some of the deco footpaths, that Napier’s unique and irreplaceable heritage was suddenly rediscovered.

But ain’t that always the way?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts science, humour and all the usual stuff. Watch this space.

Enjoying the art deco fantasy of Napier, New Zealand

I’ve spent a few days prowling the downtown streets of my home town, Napier, New Zealand, capturing its art deco heritage.

The Sun Bay, memorial to the 258 who died in the devastating quake of 1931.

The Sun Bay, memorial to the 258 who died in the devastating quake of 1931.

I’ve been writing on it for years – Random House produced my first book on the history of this city, back in 1997. The downtown collection of modernist buildings emerged from a devastating earthquake of 1931, which prompted wholesale reconstruction. Most of it, broadly, was complete by 1938-40, although the Anglican cathedral did not reopen until the early 1950s.

Modernist buildings on the corner of Hastings and Tennyson Streets, Napier, New Zealand.

Modernist buildings on the corner of Hastings and Tennyson Streets, Napier, New Zealand.

Initially, architects had grand plans for block-spanning buildings, Spanish Mission style along the lines of Santa Barbara. But Depression-era financial penury put paid to them, and instead owners rebuilt, individually, as they could afford it. The result was one of the best collections of small modernist-style buildings anywhere in the world. The book I wrote on the quake and its outcome, back in 2001, is long out of print. But I can still walk the streets of my home town and take photographs. Enjoy.

Detail of the Thorp building. When I was a kid, this was a shoe store. Then it became a coffee shop. Now it's empty and up for lease.

Detail of the Thorp building. When I was a kid, this was a shoe store. Then it became a coffee shop. Now it’s empty and up for lease.

The Market Reserve building, centre here on Tennyson Street, was the first to go up after the devastating 1931 quake - it had been authorised before the disaster and would have been built anyway.

The Market Reserve building, centre here on Tennyson Street, was the first to go up after the devastating 1931 quake – it had been authorised before the disaster and would have been built anyway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More deco fun. Regular posts resume next week – watch out for writing tips, science geekery with custard, and more.

Welcome to 2014 from the art deco capital of the world

Welcome to 2014! I thought I’d share some photos I’ve taken in the last few days from the art deco capital of the world – Napier, New Zealand.

Tom Parker Fountain, Napier.

Tom Parker Fountain, Napier. This dates to 1936. At night the water glows in rainbow colours, Hollywood magic style. I knew the guy who used to change the light bulbs.

Former T&G Building (1936) on Napier's Marine Parade.

Former T&G Building (1936) on Napier’s Marine Parade. The cars take tourists on ‘period’ tours of the city’s heritage.

The Paxie building in Hastings Street, Napier, Christmas 2013.

Detail of the Paxie building in Hastings Street, Napier.

Studebaker at large. Restored 1930s cars are a common sight around town these days.

Studebaker at large. Restored 1930s cars seem to be a common sight around town these days.

This year’s already stacked for me, certainly writing-wise. I have a book in press and others to finish and get to publishers by deadline. More on that soon. And I’ve got a lot of blogging fun planned, including more writing tips, science geekery and other fun stuff. Including revealing how to measure lightspeed with custard. Watch this space.

What have you got planned for 2014? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

It’s Christmas. Again.

It’s Christmas again. Where has 2013 gone? Why, the way every year does – quickly, in a sea of good intentions and reorganised plans.

MJWright2011

I hope everybody has a wonderful festive  season. Whether it’s snowing or high summer. And that, somewhere along the way, we get the chance to bring a little more cheer to the lives of those who are less fortunate.

For me and She Who Must Be Obeyed, it’s a Christmas with family. I am trying not to succumb to the temptation to write. We’ll see.

Have a good one, everybody – keep safe, and here’s to a great holiday season.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013