Last week my wife and I bought a new car. Got me thinking about New Zealanders and cars. Back in the 1920s, Kiwis took to them like ducks to water – by the 1930s we were the most motorised country in the world outside North America. And a lot of the cars were American.
That changed in the face of 1930s government policies – import restrictions and a lurch to Mother England that created a local car assembly industry built around British products.
By the 1950s, instead of roaring around in big American V8’s, Kiwis were puttering about in underpowered and over-complex Chummy Piddlers and Humber Milquetoasts, designed in towns with names like Lesser Peniston to meet British tax laws. But Kiwis with foreign funds could use them to import vehicles. Often American, the smallest of them three quarters the size of a continent with FireGlide transmission, FireLite headlamps, rocket fins, and half South Africa’s annual chrome output made into the front bumper.
The typical age of a Kiwi car, back then, was 20 years; and they were sold with eggs cracked into differentials or with bodywork ‘bogged’ to the hilt, liable to fall apart on first impact. Car dealers, by repute, were a bit slimy. A lot slimy, actually. But they fitted the culture of geriatric cars that gained value while lurching around the streets trailing oil smoke and bolts.
That changed in 1972, when restrictions were partly lifted – with the result that many Kiwis ended up driving the worst car ever made in the entire 13.77 billion year history of the universe, the Austin Allegro. The steering wheel was square because Leyland were at home to Mr Cock Up during design and failed to leave room for some drivers’ knees. It was more aerodynamic when driven in reverse. And if you drove it over a cattle-stop, you couldn’t open the doors because the monocoque shell wasn’t rigid enough and they used to sag in the middle.
Car buying changed again in the 1980s when restrictions came off. Suddenly cars flooded in, mostly Japanese with hopeful English names like Cherry. The thing was, apart from occasional silly marque names, these cars were good. Well engineered, reliable, cost-effective and designed to last. Typified by my 1990 Toyota Corona, which I had for 18 years and which never let me down, apart from the broken con rod that killed it. (Come on, Mr Toyoda, you KNOW your cars don’t break like that usually…any chance of a new one?).
Back to the Wright family car hunt. We discovered that a quarter-century of deregulated car market hasn’t altered the integrity of some car dealers. But others are good. I negotiated…and if you’ve seen Happy Endings, Series 3, Ep 2 – ‘Sabado Free-Gante’, where Jane negotiates for a car…well, it was like that.
So we have a new car. I think the dealer has stopped gibbering in the corner. Next challenge: the name. I’ve always given my cars stupid names – my Corona was ‘The Bishop’, solely so I could make lame British public school references to the fact that cars need polishing. The new one belongs to She Who Must Be Obeyed, so it will end up with a sensible name. Or not.
Do you have adventures buying cars – and give them names?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013