ART DECO FESTIVAL
Sitting at a café table in downtown Napier on Art Deco Festival weekend is a bit like stepping back in time. Most folk in sight are dressed to suit the art deco period. All the cars are in period, as are the buildings, and even many shops boast window displays to suit. But all that the atmosphere, complete with period music and buskers on unicycles, couldn’t compete with the cars this year.
The New Zealand Vintage Car Club (VCC) runs an annual rally alongside the city’s celebrations, often featuring a headliner marque and organizing associated events. But this year was different, for it marked 30 years of the festival, and, to celebrate, the club had invited 30 significant cars to take part, with a collective worth of over $30M.
They’d gathered from all over the country, and even Australia, for some invitation-only runs from the Wednesday, and I was lucky enough to be invited to the event, which this year ran over February 14–18.
But best laid plans and all that … By the Saturday beforehand, it was obvious that my Austin 7 was not a starter, and my plan to drive it down made a quick U-turn: we’d drive a modern, and cadge lifts for the events. At least that meant we’d arrive on time.
There was no missing the start at Eurocity. There’s nothing like following a Lincoln V12 Dietrich into the dealership and seeing a 1935 Auburn 851, a 1934 Cadillac V16, a 1930 Alfa Romeo 6C, and a 1908 Rolls-royce Silver Ghost lined up ready to leave to get you in the mood.
Even the veterans joined us for the first run, as I hopped in Garth Hogan’s 1934 Lincoln V12 Dietrich to Nelson Park School to admire the kids’ costumes and talk to the classic car owners of the future. Then came a series of shed visits. There are impressive collections of deco-period cars tucked away here, and some seriously deluded owners. “I future-proofed by buying a big shed” said one chap, whose shed is now so packed with cars and memorabilia that you’d be hard-pressed to find a square centimetre of clear space anywhere but the ceiling. Finally, a quick visit to The Faraday Centre — with some fabulous hands-on displays of steam-, electricity-, and hand-driven machinery from the past.
Thursday saw a town and country tour — I navigated a 1930 V16 Cadillac Fleetwood — through nearby small towns before lunch, and the optional climb up Te Mata Peak for the views. I hopped aboard the 1934 Duesenberg Model J from Wanaka’s Warbirds and Wheels museum, which effortlessly crawled up the steep climb to join Doug and Barbara Bixley’s 1930 Studebaker President roadster as we enjoyed the breathtaking vista before the equally breathtaking descent, at which point our driver asked if I’d like to take the helm.
This was a technically advanced car when new and eye-catching even then. Only 481 were built, of which 378 survive. This one was owned by Hollywood star Carol Lombard, who then earned half a million per year, five times more than the US president. Choosing spec like carved red onyx for the gear knob may have been par for her course, but the 6.9-litre straight-eight engine certainly wasn’t the norm — it developed 265hp (198kw) even without the supercharger, considerably more than the 175hp (130kw) of the V16 Caddy, and more than sufficient to propel its 2.5 tons to a claimed 116mph (187kph). That meant I kept up with modern traffic effortlessly, changing to top early and letting it almost idle along. “Would you like to drive through Napier?” Why not? Who needs power steering round junctions and roundabouts? Not I! However, I should have thought twice when asked if I’d like to also take it into the hotel car park. The wheelbase alone is 3632mm — that’s longer than the Rolls-royce Phantom’s, but without the parking aids or, as I was again reminded, power steering. It took the full width of the road and the available driveway space before I entered the underground car park, and a quick calculation of the car’s value
against my net worth revealed a sum that should have had me abandon the driver seat, but, biceps trembling at the effort, I nudged towards the garage wall with a reasonable semblance of confidence …
On Friday, the special 30 joined the annual rally for a country tour and picnic. Meanwhile, Napier had transformed. Downtown had been closed to most modern traffic, and happy crowds were preparing for a night of festivities, with flappers and their dashing young men, families, and older folk all dressing to fit the period, and the restaurants and bars bristling with period cars, from Austin 7s to Bentleys, ancient wood-framed buses to solid-frame bicycles, and everywhere the sound of early jazz drifting on the warm evening air.
Saturday started with a sumptuous morning tea at the clubrooms and prize-giving, before everyone headed to town for the VCCrun parade.
We abandoned ship to watch, and it was well worth it. Numbers are restricted to 300, all of a suitable age, with the first part of the convoy carrying navy bigwigs to mark the enormous role they played in assisting the stricken city after the 1931 quake.
Car after fabulous car passed, all laden with deco-dressed folk and led by the 1895 Benz Velo owned by Southward Car Museum, among them the odd ‘everyday runabout’ and even one Depression-era vehicle with panhandlers seeking work and Charlie Chaplin perched on the rear luggage rack throwing sweets.
Finally, the fabulous 30 lined up in the Soundshell, before the VCC ran rides for the public along the waterfront.
There was still the Sunday to come, and we’d had so much fun with the cars that we’d barely touched the festival events. But what cars!
First was that 1895 Benz — bought in Paris, assembled in the UK, and driven 1600km before being brought home with the owner to Christchurch. Next was the 1899 Locomobile Stanhope Steam Car that was first owned by Kempthorne Prosser’s founder, Thomas Kempthorne, while following it was the 1904 Baker electric — which has a bell on the throttle lever to warn pedestrians of its silent approach — New Zealand’s oldest registered and roadworthy electricitypowered car. It had been trailered up from Christchurch for the event. It’s now run by four 12V batteries, has a top speed of 40kph, and sold new for US$1600.
The six-cylinder 7.0-litre Rolls-royce that was next in the procession is one of just five remaining from 1908. Imported secondhand to Australia, it cost £15,500 when new and now lives in New Plymouth. This was followed by a 1912 Type 10 American Lafrance, which started life as a fire engine. It was bodied as a car in 1921 and arrived here in the 1970s. Now dubbed ‘Mr Toad’, it has a 9.3-litre 85hp (63kw) engine that cruises at 106kph at just 1500rpm, with two tons hauled up by two-wheel brakes.
The 1935 Bentley 3L Tourer that followed has a Park Ward body, was imported here in the 1940s, and has been in its current ownership for 54 years, during which time it has rallied in Singapore and Malaysia. After this came the only 30/98 Vauxhall bought new in New Zealand. The car started life in Hastings in 1924, and now lives in Invercargill. Its 4.2-litre, 115bhp (86kw) engine can take it to 126kph.
Following this was a 1929 D8S Delage, which cost £500 when new and was bought by the current owner’s father in 1933 for £50. The 1929 Packard Custom Eight 640 that came next was driven by the event’s oldest
driver, 87-year-old Brian Belcher, and its follower, a 1930 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750, came up from Southward Car Museum, while the 1930 Cadillac Fleetwood V16 arrived from Nelson’s World of Wearableart and Classic Cars Museum, looking far smarter than it must have done when it sported a coach body and operated a daily run from Nelson to Westport via the Buller Gorge.
Next, a 1930 Chrysler 77 rolled on by, the last brought into New Zealand. It was given away as a 21st birthday present in the 1940s. The 1930 Studebaker President that came after it was sold in New Zealand new but, by World War II, was being used as a tractor: restoration was completed in 1992. Next came the only Packard Dietrich Roadster ever built, a 1933 V12, and a gorgeous 1934 Bugatti Gangloff Roadster once owned by the Louis Vuitton family.
The 1934 Cadillac V-16 Town Cabriolet that followed them had been restored by Southward for this weekend. First owned by Marlene Dietrich, its passengers got fitted make-up mirrors and a rear radio that swivels out for tuning. Then came that Duesenberg, and Garth Hogan’s Lincoln V12. The following 1934 Packard Super 8 Coupe Roadster arrived from Australia for restoration in 1996, and includes grille bars that swivel to block airflow until the engine warms up, shock absorbers adjustable from the driver seat, and vacuum-assisted brakes. Then came a trio of different 1935 Auburns — the cream speedster piloted by arguably the most stylish couple of the event — and a 1935 MG SA complete with fitted picnic tables.
Driving after these was the car that aviatrix Amelia Earhart left at the airport when she flew off round the world, never to return: a 1935 Packard Super 8 three-window coupé. The car still carries its original licence plates and Amelia’s initials, and had come over from Australia for the weekend. After this was a 1936 Bugatti Type 57, a completely original, matching-numbers car, while the 1936 Buick Series 80 convertible towed a rare Mullins Red Cap trailer, complete with period bags. Developed and built in 1936 and 1937 to carry bulky luggage at a time that few cars had boots, it was popular with reps, and this is the only one in New Zealand.
Near the end of the procession was a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton that had come down from Hamilton’s Classics Museum, a 1937 SS100 Jaguar 2.5 Sports that had sold new for £395, and a 1938 Alfa Romeo 6C that has featured in New Zealand Classic Car (Issue No. 324). And finally, last, but definitely not least, came the 1938 Lagonda V12 Le Mans, raced at Monte Carlo and powered by a 4.5-litre V12.
There may never be another line-up like it in New Zealand, so perhaps it’s lucky that the Austin didn’t start, and I got to cadge rides. Maybe it will next year. Lady reporter Lois Lane launched alongside Superman in 1938, and what better car for a 1930s writer than an Austin 7?
Top left: Doug and Barbara Bixley’s 1930 Studebaker President was used as a tractor in WWII, then abandoned. Restoration finished in 1992 Top right: Marlene Dietrich’s 1934 Cadillac V16 restored for this event and at home in Napier’s wine country Bottom left: Classics Museum, Hamilton brought its 1937 ‘coffin-nose’ Cord to the parade Bottom right: Gary Boyce pulling in to Nelson Park School to talk to future classic-car owners in his 1938 Alfa Romeo 6C
Left: 1912 Ford Model T came down from Auckland Middle left: Steve Trott’s shed packed to the gunwales with cars and memorabilia Bottom left: A step back in time – strolling the boulevard by Napier’s Sound Shell Right: Morning tea at VCC clubrooms brought out 100s of members from all over, including this Austin-owning family Below: The writer pretends to own the 1934 Duesenberg J Phaeton once owned by Carol Lombard, now by Wanaka’s Warbirds and Wheels museum
Left: Brent and Lou Mathieson abandon their 1935 Auburn Speedster to try out a 1912 Ford Model T Below: 1934 Duesenberg takes on Mata Peak’s steep climb Below middle: Nelson Park Schoolkids dressed in period costume to admire the Fabulous 30 Bottom: Dietrich Cadillac 16 engine attracts admirers