Cars and driving of days gone by

I have just returned from driving into town. I was following a small 1950 Morris car when the driver, it seemed wished to make a turn, he surprised me by putting out his hand and arm, signalling his intentions. It’s a long time since I witnessed anyone using hand signals. Which brings to mind, what a pampered lot of motorists we are today. It doesn’t seem all that long ago I used to drive my Uncle Gordon and any of the family from Dunedin who wished to go, up to the Racing Cup Festival at Christchurch.



This was not a journey to be taken lightly, the car was unheated, as were all cars of that time. So preparing themselves for a cold night and journey, the passengers all armed themselves with hot water bottles, thick travelling rugs. As well, a large basket full of Flasks of hot water, to make tea, plus substantial snacks. We didn’t seem drink a lot of coffee in those days, it was always tea. Cars were a little more difficult to drive too. No automatic gear boxes, only ‘crash’ gear boxes without any synchromesh. That was still to be invented. Roads were in the most part unsealed apart from the towns we passed through. Another small problem was that the electrical system was only 6 volts, so driving on the main beam wouldn’t measure up to a quarter of today’s light. I can remember too, that in fog especially at night, the 6 Volt system couldn’t penetrate the gloom. This was especially so on trips over Mihiwaka Mountain which always seemed to be shrouded in fog, when we made our trips out to the Beach. We always travelled after the movies at night, for at the time that was the family business. More often than not, someone would be forced to walk alongside the car, marking the boundary of the road with a torch.

Another of today’s comforts that was missing, was the radio. Even if you had one, the power of the Broadcasting station was so low, you didn’t travel very far and you soon ran out of a signal. Also I still have hanging in my wardrobe, a thick tweed overcoat. I suppose it’s still fashionable, I know it’s warm, but I haven’t worn it for at least 30 or 40 years, just because there is no need. We no longer travel in cold unheated public transport or cars, or have the need to wait in the open at bus or train shelters, for whatever you are catching to arrive.

All cars of this period required constant tinkering too, and there was the need to carry a comprehensive tool box. In fact some expensive models used to build a tool box into the trunk with the spare tyre, tools all neatly set out in a specially lined siding draws, each embossed with the car’s manufacturer’s name.

On the plus side there were very few traffic cops, normally one per town. No compulsorily Stop Signs either, apart from Rail crossings, which normally were infested with trains, special care was always required. Few if any traffic lights. I can also remember a fully uniformed Police Constable called Oswald? Complete with white gloves on point duty for many years at the Exchange in Dunedin, during peak traffic periods. Parking was a breeze, normally you could find a park where ever you wished to go, then park all day if you so wished. Car thieves were yet be conceived and born. Oil had to be changed every thousand miles, in fact a constant eye had to be kept on all fluid levels, as cars at that time were notorious for dripping and leaking fluids. The first thing in the morning daily, one had to examine water and oil before you even took your vehicle out. Tyres weren’t all that reliable either, so it was necessary to know how to change a wheel, and if possible repair a puncture on the side of the road. A hand or foot pump was always provided with the tool kit. Cars of early days were of rugged construction, a running board was just that. A bumper was also a thick bar of steel, and could sustain a serious bump, something the plastic object of today’s car still called a bumper can’t do. All you get today is a bill for $6 or $800 to replace same, that’s if you are unfortunate enough to have a bump.

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