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.


9 thoughts on “Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 1

  1. Oh, wow! All those beautifully restored cars in one place is awesome. Are these cars all owned by Kiwis or are some brought from other countries in for the Art Deco weekend?

    1. They’re all New Zealand owned as far as I’m aware, and they come in from all over the country – I saw one coming through Wellington from the South Island in the week prior, and others on the road as I drove to Napier myself. It’s the biggest get-together of vintage car owners in the country.

  2. I love “Deco Stylings” – it was a beautiful period for all kinds of design. I also like craftsman and arts and crafts period design. Bauhaus does nothing for me, but the eclectic style is of great interest to me as well. As for vehicles, well, I love the American “muscle cars” from the 60s and 70s, anything Mercedes – no crass factor, it was an accident – bought a 1993 600SEL for $5500 U.S. and was hooked. It’s a speed thing.

      1. When I was in architecture school at U.S.C. in Los Angeles, I saw many marvelous examples of art deco structures and stonework – same for my childhood in New York City (Manhattan) – when done well, it takes your breath away. The clean lines and geometric interpretations of organic things like plants and animals….just lovely. The vehicles, naturally, reflected this aesthetic, but the forms and lines are much more curvilinear and aerodynamic – like those amazing passenger trains that ran throughout Europe. It was truly an inventive era replete with high creativity and imagination much like the burgeoning film industry.

  3. Terrific post, Matthew! The art deco era is a favorite, and the cars are such art. I am old enough to remember seeing many of them on a daily basis but your photos show them at their best. For me, this has been a lovely stroll.

    1. I have one more post coming. It was a great experience, though very hot. The official temp that day was 33 deg C (94.7 F) but downtown Napier is usually hotter than the indicated and I heard figures of 35. My camera was so hot I was worrying about exceeding the recommended operating temp. None of which reduced the enjoyment of a marvellous afternoon amidst a real party atmosphere.

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