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People, garage, car

The First Cars of Cambridge

The following is an abridged transcript of a talk given to the Cambridge Historical Society by Neville Souter, aged 70, in September 1969.  His grandfather, Captain William Burns Souter founded the firm of W Souter & Co in the early 1860s passing the business on to his sons Edwin (Neville’s father) and Joseph in 1888.

Neville Souter attended the Cambridge District High School and took over the business shortly after his father’s death in 1924. Already the firm had transferred from seed, grain, farm implements and real estate to the motor business.  Mr Souter died in 1976 aged 77.

Man wearing hat

(Pictured: Neville Souter in 1908, ref 2958/24)

Serialised in three parts:       ONE     TWO     THREE

Part One

“I have been born just at the right time as I have been able to keep in step with motoring developments since the time of Cambridge’s first car.

The first one was a White Steam car owned by one James Sinclair, proprietor of the Masonic Hotel.  Steam was generated by a kerosene lamp, an operation taking over an hour before there was enough steam pressure to move off.  It had the conventional tiller steering of the day, a body something akin to a double buggy and wheels not much heavier than a bicycle’s.  It was quiet and serviceable and, of course, a crowd collected round it whenever it appeared.  I often used to stand in the hotel yard watching it get up steam – for a respectable distance I might add as there were dire predictions that one day it would blow up.  This was the year 1906.

This car was followed by a Vauxhall and a French Vinot owned respectively by Hugh Ferguson and Frederick Bunyard.  These two cars were small two seaters of 5 hp (horsepower),  two speeds forward but no reverse, tiller steering and chain drive.  It was in the Vauxhall that I received my initiation into motoring and I could not get to school fast enough to tell my mates that I had had a ride in a motor car.  Since that time my interest in motor cars has never waned and I am just as keen today as ever I was.

In the same year my father, in partnership with Arnold Wilkinson, imported a 5 hp Starling.  This was very up-to-date in that it had wheel steering, three speeds and reverse.  It was a smart looking little car but beauty was only skin deep as it had a cone clutch of the grabbing variety and this, coupled with the poor quality of the early century steel which the gears were made of, caused many replacements due to gear stripping.

The car was passed on to someone at Waihi and replaced with a 10 hp Cadillac.  This was a real car.  It had a single cylinder engine under the seat at the rear, and an iron step which was a legacy from the horse and buggy days.  Under favourable circumstances, such as having the wind behind it, it could do 30 mph.  The rear tyres were solid rubber which were not exactly conducive to easy riding.  I had several trips to Auckland in this car, the usual time taken being 8 to 10 hours.  It was a four seater and the three passengers had to walk up the Razorback hills.  With a good many rest periods, the Cadillac could then just manage the climb under its own power.  The Cadillac was eventually sold to Frank Buckland, Mayor of Cambridge.

The next car to arrive was a 12 hp 4 cylinder Darracq which was acquired by Mr H Jeffries, the local Postmaster.  Among other things it had a steering column gear change, a feature that was shortly afterwards discontinued and did not make its re-appearance until Chevrolet set the pattern in 1939 when it was hailed as a wonderful improvement.  This became a universal fitting but its popularity was relatively short-lived and by now most manufacturers have reverted to the floor change.  Incidentally all early cars had the gear lever and hand brake on the right hand side as there was no such thing as left hand steering.  The gear shift was subsequently moved to the central position on the floor where it could serve either right or left hand steering.

People in cars

(Pictured: 1908 (L-R) Bunyard’s Humber, Greenslade’s Cadillac and Ferguson’s Vauxhall.  Ref 1564)

A number of Cadillacs were bought and sold by W Souter & Co, some of the purchasers being Archdeacon Willis, Dr Edmonds, Dr Roberts and Mr Wallace.  The Cadillac was so successful that I remember my father saying that he never wanted anything better but my uncle and partner in the firm saw one of the first Ford advertisements and wanted to try one.  The order was finally placed through our agents in New York and in 1908 the car arrived.  It was painted a vivid red, had two seats in front and one behind.  The engine was 4 cylinder and 15 hp – had the flywheel up behind the radiator where it acted as a fan.  There was a Schebler carburettor and Bosch low tension magneto and a water pump.  These specifications made it quite different from the Model T which was to follow.  A new feature was a detachable cylinder head.  The task of removing carbon and grinding valves on other makes was a major job but on the Ford it was a simple operation.  Today, of course, all cars have the detachable head.”

In the early days of motoring, garages, repair shops or mechanics didn’t exist.  Most of the early owners had to teach themselves to drive.  All repairs were done by enthusiastic amateurs and in this connection Arnold Wilkinson was a natural.  Before the arrival of the first car, he had a 1¾ hp Minerva motor bike made in Belgium, so he knew a bit more than other budding mechanics about “what made it go”.

Mr Wilkinson was a plumber by trade but it didn’t matter whether it was your bicycle, sewing machine or watch, he could fix it.

Man in suit

(Pictured: Arnold Wilkinson in 1922, Ref 2958/8/78)

When I see the modern electronic testing devices now on the market, I am reminded of his technique.  A broken down car would be towed into the yard.  Mr Wilkinson would come bustling out (wherever he went it was always at a jog trot) and after making sure the machine was not out of benzine he would put his hand on the spark plug and instruct someone to “crank her over”.  The intensity of the spark was usually governed by his vocal reaction and if it was satisfactory he would get to work on the carburettor.

The Ford was a great success and my father’s allegiance to the Cadillac was short-lived.  By this time my people were well and truly in the motor business and became Ford Agents for the Auckland Province.  In due time they opened branches in Hamilton and Auckland and appointed agents, some of whom are still selling Ford Cars to this day.  It will be realised that with so few cars in the country, the trading of vehicles had not developed.  This omission was soon to be corrected and in due course all manner of horses and horse drawn vehicles representing “trade ins” on the sale of cars were soon to be “garaged” in the paddocks of my present home.

Cars of this era were very plain affairs.  There was no hood, screen or instruments of any kind but they all had a throttle and spark lever.  The Ford Model T never had an accelerator pedal.  If you wanted to check your fuel supply you used a graduated stick to dip the tank.  Engines developed very little power and if you wanted a lamp, well, that was an extra.

Benzine was the fuel and it cost about 5/- per case of 8 gallons – somewhere about 7d per gallon, and you could have any brand you liked provided it was Pratt’s Red Label.  In due time Pratts produced a motor spirit which was known as Pratt’s Yellow Label but it didn’t take on.  Some of the early motorists used naphtha and benzolene but the Red Label was the popular brand.  Eventually other brands came on the market.  These included Shell, Plume, Kalif, Big Tree, Lion, Gold Crown etc.

The source of electricity for these early cars was provided by accumulators, the popular brand being those made by Peto and Radford and were the forerunners of the present day storage battery.  They had to be re-charged at frequent intervals and for this purpose we had a ½ h.p. stationary engine driving a dynamo.

It is now 1909 and by now the motor car had really taken charge.  A letter dated 22 September 1908 written to us by the Reliable Dayton Motor Car Co. of Chicago said,  “Regarding the future of the motor carriage, some of the shrewdest men of the day assert the car is here to stay”.  Quite a momentous prediction.  Some of the early letters from America were quite amusing.  I remember one from the Sun Light Six Motor Co and the final paragraph read as follows. – “We must apologise for having to write to you in English but are making arrangements whereby in our next letter we will be able to address you in your language”.  Unfortunately “our next letter” never materialised as, like so many more of the budding American Companies, they went broke.

Car design was now developing by leaps and bounds.  Cadillac introduced a four cylinder, one of the first of which was bought by Mr Jack Rowe, proprietor of the Criterion Hotel as the present Central Hotel was known in those days.

The first Model T Ford made its appearance in 1910, this museum piece going to Mr J. Allwill of Hautapu.  It was a left hand drive model, had neither hood, screen or lamps and cost £375.   Successive Model Ts with right hand steering continued almost without mechanical change until 1927, and this policy of letting a design get out of date, eventually almost broke the Ford Company.

Cars continued to arrive in Cambridge in ever increasing makes and numbers and Mr Wilkinson’s Plumbers Shop was fighting a losing battle as the proprietor was properly wrapped up in motorcars.  This battle was ultimately lost and from it emerged the well known business of Wilkinson & Co. Ltd, with Mr Wilkinson remaining a dominant figure in its management until his retirement. ”

Part 1 was published in the Cambridge Historical Society Newsletter March 2022

Part Two

“One of the biggest bugbears of early motoring was the condition of the roads.  Even in our town old residents will remember that every winter there was a foot of mud in Duke Street.  To allow foot traffic to cross the road there was a set of duck boards laid where the present pedestrian crossing is situated, and a further set opposite the Dalgety Loan Co.

However, these conditions were finally overcome through the enterprise of Mr Fred Bunyard, the Borough Engineer.  He persuaded the Council to let him treat the road with tar and sand.  The tar, being a product of the local gasworks, was in plentiful supply.  This procedure was repeated each year.  When years afterwards the road was torn up for permanent surfacing, the skin of tar and sand was two inches thick.  This method of sealing was extended with success to other streets in the Borough and finally to the entire Cambridge-Hamilton Road.  For a long time this was the only dust free section between here and Auckland.

Talking of civic affairs, in the early part of the century the Borough Council offices were located on an area now occupied by the swimming baths [now Robert Harris café] with the Borough Depot alongside on property now owned by Cambridge Transport Ltd [now The Warehouse].  A little further south was the Convent School.  On the opposite side of the road, in the Commerce Street area, was the Cambridge Saleyards with further saleyards operated by Hunter & Nolan on a site where now stands the Town Hall.

But to get on with the bad roads story.  During the winters Cambridge was well isolated by impassable roads.  Tauranga, Morrinsville, Rotorua, Te Kuiti and sometimes even Tirau could not be reached during the winter months when the rainfall was abnormal, while the road to Auckland was impassable nearly every winter due to the condition of the clay hills at Rangiriri.

In addition the early motorist was up against it when abnormal rainfall resulted in sections of the roads being underwater.  One notorious area was behind the Mercer Railway Station where the road was regularly flooded.  Private enterprise being what it is, a man and a horse were usually on duty, the price of a tow through being 10/- if you hooked on before entering the deep section but if you made the attempt and got stuck halfway the price went up to 20/-.  I always had a go and always paid the full price.  To cope with these conditions, my father carried a wire strainer in the tool box – also a spade, axe, wire cutters and a collapsible canvas bucket as in heavy slogging, radiators required frequent topping up.  When a road was really bad the local authority sometimes endeavoured to make it passable by laying fascines crosswise over the extra bad patches.

Round about 1914, various accessories began to come on the market.  These included speedometers, and tailor-made chain sets to fit snugly over the tyres.  Hitherto we had to improvise with ropes or short lengths of chain threaded through the spokes.  There were various kinds of warning signals as a supplement to the bulb horn.  Among these were whistles, bells, klaxons, exhaust whistles and even mouth operated sirens.  Most cars, except the Model T, were fitted with exhaust cut-outs operated by a pedal in the floor.  The use of this was a sure way of letting traffic know of your desire to pass but somewhat tough on fractious horses.  Rear vision mirrors also began to appear, but windscreen wipers only came on the scene about 1925, the first being hand operated.

There were always plenty of quack methods of increasing miles per gallon.  One of the best known were Gastine tablets which smelled something like mothballs and were put into the fuel tank.  They had no beneficial effect whatever but commanded a ready sale.

Most radiators leaked and a quick answer was Radiator Cement of which there were many brands on the market.    A puncture sealing compound called Korker was introduced into the tube through the valve.  It looked something like porridge and was quite efficient while it remained moist but quite useless when it dried out.  Graphite as an additive was and is still used, but it was fatal to the Model T Ford as it short-circuited the flywheel magneto which runs in the engine oil.

During the 1914-18 War, no cars were manufactured in England or on the Continent – all imports coming from the US or Canada.  One of the outstanding models of this era was the Dodge, which was first introduced in 1914.

Several of the car makers were experimenting with self-starters.  The first I ever saw was fitted to an Italian Scat (1912) and was operated by compressed air.  It wasn’t very successful but it had this advantage: the compressed air tank could be used to pump up the tyres.  It was followed by an acetylene gas starter fitted to an Abbott-Detroit, and then a 24 volt electric on a Cadillac.

But the Dodge had the first really reliable one.  It was coupled to the engine by a silent chain and was a single unit system which worked both as a motor and generator.  Dodge also had the benzine tank at the rear but as this was before the days of vacuum tanks or electric/mechanical pumps the fuel was raised to the carburettor by a handpump mounted on the dash.  Like the Model T, Dodge did not produce a new model each year as was the custom in those days, and the car remained substantially the same until 1926 when it was hopelessly out of date.  To my mind it was a great pity as in the early stages of its history, Dodge was years ahead of its competitors.

Up Cambridge Hill

In the early days of motor cars, the degree of merit was judged by its ability to negotiate steep hills in high gear and the main testing ground here was Cambridge Hill, a name unfortunately forgotten as it is now known to most as Duke Street Hill.  Cambridge Hill in the early part of the century was much steeper and the bends much sharper than they are today.  The first car to make it to the top was a Model T owned by Mr George Watt and the hill became widely known as a testing ground of motor ability.  So much so, that in the programme for the Cambridge Peace Day Celebrations in 1919, the organisers included a motor car and motor cycle speed test up Cambridge Hill, and a further motorcycle climb up Salthurst Hill, which in those days was a track with a grade of about 1 in 2.  Modesty prevents me from telling you who won all three events.

If I might digress for a moment I think it is a great pity that old place names are gradually disappearing.  For instance, the stretch of road eight miles out towards Tirau was Ferguson’s Gully.  In the old days it was a gully but now the deviated road runs round the top.  The hill past the Golf Links, now sometimes called Ireland’s Hill or Golflinks Hill, was the Gorge.  If anyone interested takes the trouble to walk up the old road, the reason for this name will be instantly apparent.  The hill from Ferguson’s Bridge up towards Shakespeare Street was Chitty’s Hill.  The one down to the Abattoirs was Chubb’s Hill, while that adjacent to the new Meat Works was Bell’s Hill.  Walker’s Gully between Pukerimu and Kaipaki was, for a time in recent years called Fisher’s Hill but now, happily, it has reverted to its original name.  The little dip half way to Hamilton was and is still known to some as Day’s Gully.  Leslie’s Gully is the one at the end of the Tamahere Straight – the hill this end being Poplar Hill, the one at the other end which has just been widened and reformed, Steele Hill.  It is good to know that many of the old names still remain.  These include Mystery Creek, Bridgewater Hill, French Pass, Sanitorium Hill, etc.

During the First World War years and for some time afterwards the pattern of motoring remained substantially the same.  Fords sold in ever increasing numbers possibly because, at the price, they looked like being the best value.  But Dodges, Buicks, Maxwells and Dorts all had their own following.  Tyres were continually on the improve.   The standard tyre was known as “fabric” and the more expensive premier quality “cord”.  Somewhere about 2000 miles was their early life, but as time went on and the quality improved this figure was gradually increased.  Many of the makers were now fitting demountable rims but only supplied four tyres, the fifth tyre being charged as an extra. Tyres up to about 1920 were all “beaded edge” or “clincher” and were stretched over the rim like a bicycle tyre – some were held on by security bolts, but after 1920 “straight side” tyres began to come on the market.  They were most satisfactory and have remained to the present day although the method of fitting is somewhat different.  Tyres up to and for several years after this period were of the high pressure type, and pressures were anything from 60 to 80lbs on wheels up to 27” in diameter.  About 1925, balloon or low pressure tyres were introduced and since then pressures and wheel diameters have been gradually reduced until, today, we find the average pressure is 24/28lbs and the wheel diameter is 12/14”.  Today it is nothing unusual to find a set of tyres lasting 25,000 miles with the cases still in good enough condition to be retreaded.

The carriage of luggage was always a problem and old time luggage grids were limited in their capacity.  In an endeavour to overcome this difficulty a popular innovation of the day was a large canvas bag which rested on the running board on the driver’s side and was held on by a heavy strap round the windscreen post in front and a similar fitting round the hood anchorage at the rear.  These bags held an enormous amount of luggage and odds and ends but had the disadvantage of putting the offside of the car out of action.  It was no uncommon sight to see a car on tour with portmanteaux and sundry bags of luggage strapped on at every conceivable vantage point round the outside of the car. Luggage boots as we know them today did not start to make their appearance until 1935.

Part 2 was published in the Cambridge Historical Society Newsletter April 2022

Part Three

“One thing I haven’t touched on is Licencing and Registration.  Until the passing of the Motor Vehicles Act of 1925 you could go to any County Council or City Council office and register a new car for 10/-.  You were given a registration number and you had to provide plates, have them written by a signwriter and attach them to your car.

This was the simple registration procedure until 1924.  Until this year there was no annual registration fee and if you happened to be a motor dealer you simply had the local printing works provide you with a few hundred sheets of paper number plates which were gummed on to the back of the new car before it was sold and if you didn’t remember to do so, well, it didn’t seem to matter.  There was a prefix to all numbers such as A for Auckland, MM for Matamata, WO for Waikato etc.

No one ever bothered about a driving licence.  I did not have one until 1924 although I had been driving for many years before that date.

There was one traffic inspector this side of Auckland and that was Joseph de Silva in Hamilton.  An incongruous situation existed in relation to Auckland.  If a person lived in Auckland and owned a car he was required to have a driving licence but anyone living 40 miles outside the city could drive in Auckland for one month without a licence.

In the early days the roads were very bad in Auckland and it was the common custom to drive on the tram lines.  Auckland taxi drivers were particularly adept at this and as many of the tyres of the day were shod with steel studs you can imagine what a din they created.

In retrospect it is refreshing to reflect that little was seen of the restrictions which assailed motorists in other parts of the world.  Just prior to the turn of the century, a series of ridiculous laws in England treated all mechanically propelled vehicles as traction engines, confining them to 4mph and the need for a pedestrian carrying a red flag to precede them.  The nearest we ever got to this state of affairs were those bylaws relating to a traction engine and when, as children, we saw a horseman carrying a red flag go past we knew that in ten minutes or so one of Cambridge’s several steam engines would be following.

The early New Zealand motorist suffered very little interference from the powers that be.  There were no traffic inspectors and the average policeman seemed to confine his activities to warning children caught riding bicycles on the footpath.  One reason for this attitude could be that the cars were incapable of speeds calculated to give offence, and licences and Warrants of Fitness had not appeared on the scene so there was nothing to check.

It is true that some 50 years ago speed limits were introduced in some of the bigger cities, but these erred on the side of the ridiculous as they ranged from 4 to 12 mph.

In addition to the present day signals, it was also necessary to indicate when slowing down or when turning to the left.  The slowing down sign was given thus:  “On slowing down the driver shall hold out the right arm and hand horizontally to the right but with a backward patting motion of the hand from the wrist”.  When turning to the left “the driver shall hold out the right arm and hand horizontally to the right but with a forward sweeping action of the forearm and wrist”.

In connection with the latter sign which many drivers considered unnecessary I feel that I was, to a certain extent, responsible for its abolition.   In 1921 I was served with a summons for failing to signal my intention to turn left when passing from Collingwood St to Victoria St in Hamilton.  I put the matter before the Auckland Automobile Association and after due deliberation this body also agreed that the bylaw was unreasonable and retained Mr E H Northcroft (afterward Judge Northcroft) to defend the case.

The hearing duly took place and by the time all the legal arguments were dealt with, it took nearly all day.  During the proceedings the Court adjourned to a car standing outside the building and the traffic inspector was placed in the driver’s seat.  He was then instructed to give the right hand signal which he did in the customary manner.  He was then told to give the left hand signal and after doing so, it was apparent that there was no real difference between the two signals as after signalling to the right, the arm was returned to the wheel in a forward sweeping motion which designated the left signal.

The Magistrate finally decided against us and I was fined the usual 30/- and costs, but Mr Northcroft immediately asked for the fine to be increased to 10/-/- so we could appeal.  This the magistrate agreed to but before the matter was re-opened, a notice appeared in the Gazette to the effect that the bylaw was abolished.  So, in fact we lost and won the action.

1925 saw the opening of an all weather road to Auckland and it seemed strange to set out for the city in the middle of winter without even a bag of chains in the car.  Part of the Rangiriri hills road was still used and an entirely new section laid for six or seven miles this side of the Meremere Power Station to Springhill Road.  Part of this road required constant attention for a number of years after the opening, due to the road metal sinking into the swamp.

For some years prior to this a concrete road was creeping south from Auckland and as each section was being laid, various detours had to be used.  Some of them were shockingly bad.  The concrete road ended just this side of Papakura.  It was not particularly smooth but in later years provided an admirable foundation for the modern bitumen road.

At this time the only weather road to Wellington was via Napier and this was a two day journey.  The road up the middle of the island, now known as the Desert Road Route, was only partially completed.

Up to 1925 practically all motor vehicles were open touring cars, and for the preceding 10 years or so were fitted with hoods and side curtains – some good but mostly bad.  But this year saw the advent of closed cars called sedans in the US and saloons in the UK and Continent.  One of the reasons why this type of car had never been popular previously was because some wiseacre in the early days had said that they would collect carbon monoxide and suffocate the passengers.  Likewise it was said that no car would ever attain 60mph as air pressure would kill the occupants.

Hardly any of the manufacturers of this time mentioned speed in their advertisements as few of them had anything to boast about.  But a brochure issued by the Chandler Motor Co in 1919, in the course of its claims, says: “Speed. The Chandler offers a possible speed greater than 999 out of any 1000 men would ever want or dare to use”.  Brave words to be sure but my people sold quite a number of those fine cars and its top speed was about 55mph, or not quite as fast as a Mini Minor can go in third gear.

1925 was also the year that Chrysler introduced balloon tyres and hydraulic brakes and was roundly condemned by other manufacturers for fitting a brake system which they claimed was fundamentally dangerous.  Nevertheless, as time went on, one after another followed the Chrysler line until hydraulics, today, are a universal fitting.  One of the bitterest opponents and one of the last to give in was Ford.

Another first for 1925 was the introduction of pumps for the dispensing of petrol, the first being worked by hand and later, of course, being electrically operated.  This innovation found great favour among garage attendants as it saw the end of the tiresome lumping of four gallon tins from the benzine shed, which for safety reasons, was usually situated some distance from the potential customer.

There were wonderful improvements during the next 10 years.  The Chrysler set a new standard and was years ahead of its competitors but these were not slow to take up the challenge and many of the new models of other makes seemed to possess features introduced by Chrysler. Synchro-mesh gears, one of the highlights of the mid-20s and invented by Cadillac enabled the worst driver to change gears silently.  Today all cars have synchro-mesh gears which is a method of synchronising the speeds of the gears to be engaged by a relatively simple system of clutches.

In view of these fine new models, by about 1920 the popular comment was that cars were as good as they would ever be.  By this time, front and rear bumpers, shock absorbers, balloon tyres, windscreen wipers, dome lights, sun visors etc were being included by most makers as standard equipment.  Performance was being stepped up and more flexible springs were giving a soft ride.  We find that visits to the repair shops for major overhauls are seldom necessary.

All this and yet more to come and at the present day we see a tremendous advancement in car performance.  Most of the smallest are capable of 80mph while the bigger models have no difficulty of topping 100.  We find the visits to the shop for major repairs are seldom necessary, the once familiar valve grinds are a thing of the past – the necessity of greasing and servicing every 500 miles has been abolished.  We have radio, automatic transmissions, power brakes, power steering, interior heating and demisting, splinterless glass, disk brakes and many other fittings too commonplace to mention.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen I think it can be conceded that the man from the Reliable Dayton Motor Company was right when he said that the motor carriage is here to stay!”

Part 3 was published in the Cambridge Historical Society Newsletter June 2022