The Car in New Zealand
G P Books, Wellington, 1990, $49.95
Cars in particular, and machinery in general, have not featured in New Zealand novels in the way that they have so importantly served American, Australian and English writers: not just as a means of transporting characters from one locality to another, or employing them, but as objects of veneration or hatred – part of our modern psyches, instruments that suddenly alter the direction of our lives. Screaming tyres and the hypnotic swish of windscreen wipers get a clichéd mention here and there, but there are few automobiles or mechanical appliances that cam front-stage treatment in the way that, for instance, the authors of The Grapes of Wrath or Oscar and Lucinda use them. Shadbolt, Billing, Morrieson, Crump and Ballantyne are among the few to have given engines and motors something like a proper place on the literary landscape. But only Gary Langford, in his recent comic romp Newlands, has fictionalised the automobile in its full glory: for the first time, Langford has made cars central to the action.
The problem is that few of our writers know anything more about cars than how to work the pedals and turn the steering wheel: in other words, nothing more (except coping with greater speed) than they knew about the pedal-cars of their childhood. A considerable number of our vanguard writers of realist fiction, including Frank Sargeson and Dan Davin, never drove any kind of motorised vehicle in their lives. And to this day many of our literary community will have nothing more to do with the automobile than to accept a lift.
The reasons are sometimes quite simple and contradictory: I don’t drive cars, on the grounds that the roads are unsafe enough as things are. But I did ride motorbikes almost daily around London for 20 years without killing anyone. I feel safe on two wheels, but distinctly frightened for the rest of the world when there are so many wheels that I can no longer rely for stability on a native sense of balance. Many years ago, both my brother and Barry Crump gave me driving lessons – and both ended up begging me never to try again.
However, New Zealand writers have Graham Hawkes to thank for supplying a useful reference book to some of the important facts that they have so seriously neglected. On the Road gives a chronological account of the haphazard takeover of our lives and landscape by cars, from the first petrol-engined vehicles imported into Wellington in 1898 by William McLean MP (who promptly introduced a private bill in Parliament to impose ‘a maximum speed of 12 miles per hour and a fine of 10 pounds for excessive speed’) to the recent internationalisation of sizes and shapes, and the dominance of the Japanese car industry. Hawkes uses a scrapbook method of words and pictures (many of them stunning evocations of times just beyond memory) to convey his story of the apotheosis of the motor vehicle. It is an approach that is strong on facts and figures, but allows little room to develop the social and economic implications of his subject. However, the book is clearly aimed at the nostalgia market and Hawkes gives fine coverage to the huge variety and bewildering types of car we imported or assembled, and to the ways that styles developed and public expectancies were massaged by advertising. He is best on his own era – and especially on the magic of the great Fords: the Consul and the Zephyr – though occasionally he is needlessly kind to some real dogs: the disastrous Hillman Imp among them. It is a book to stir reminiscence and anecdote: for me it leads into a world of Baby Austins, Model As, Pontiacs, bullnosed Morrises (there were still plenty around when I was a boy), Buicks, De Sotos, Vauxhall 10s and the arrival of the Chevy and the Ford V8.
At 14 I hitchhiked from Auckland to Wellington and back to buy chocolate biscuits (it was not long after the war and sardines arrived by the boatload in Auckland, while Wellington hogged all the good biscuits) and either then or on my next 50 trips to the capital I travelled in all these cars. There were still Model Ts on the roads, and I was lucky to ride in a couple, though by this time most of them had been converted to farm saws. In country districts there were dozens of old engines up on blocks, driving endless belts to circular saws, to cut firewood. Left out in the rain, they were still working into the 1950s. There is only just time, but our novelists are going to have to do more homework.
Kevin Ireland is an Auckland poet. His latest book is Tiberius at the Beehive (Auckland University Press).