AM LEWIS

NEW ZEA­LAND’S FIRST MAS­TER AGENT FOR PACKARD

New Zealand Classic Car - - CONTENTS -

AL­BERT MICHAEL LEWIS LED THE IM­POR­TA­TION OF PACKARD CARS TO NEW ZEA­LAND INTO A PRO­FES­SIONAL ERA. IN THE PROCESS, HE MADE TWO FOR TUNES —AND LOST THEM BOTH Words and images: Ge­off Lewis

Al­bert Michael Lewis was born in Auck­land in 1871. Henry was one of five sons and had four sis­ters, the chil­dren of Solomon and Anne Lewis of Lon­don. Henry had ar­rived in New Zea­land in Jan­uary 1855, aged 21, and was shortly fol­lowed by brothers Michael, Gabriel, and Edward, who to­gether went into busi­ness as ‘Lewis Brothers’, one of Auck­land’s early busi­ness houses trad­ing in soft goods, fur­nish­ings, ware­hous­ing, and auc­tion­eer­ing.

In 1875, Henry moved to Gis­borne, where he set up a sim­i­lar busi­ness. Al­bert was a bright stu­dent at school, and, in his late teens and early 20s, he worked in his fa­ther’s busi­ness. How­ever, Henry was a hard mas­ter, and, af­ter a dis­agree­ment with his fa­ther, Al­bert set out on his own.

Mar­ry­ing An­nie Mc­manus in 1894, Al­bert es­tab­lished a gen­eral store at Te Karaka, about 32km in­land from Gis­borne. He bought a block of sur­round­ing land and built a sig­nif­i­cant house, which was com­pleted in about 1900. Be­tween 1985 and 1909, the cou­ple had five chil­dren, Cyril; Lionel; Enid; Verna; and Ailsa, who later au­thored the fam­ily his­tory.

In April 1905, the rail­way reached Te Karaka, and it was planned that it would work its way from Gis­borne to the eastern Bay of Plenty. As a re­sult, Te Karaka was ex­pected to boom. His gen­eral store pros­pered, and Al­bert de­vel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with mo­tor cars. One fam­ily pho­to­graph, taken in about 1908, has him at the helm of a Cadil­lac out­side the house, piled in with wife An­nie, chil­dren, and a spare tyre looped over the ra­di­a­tor. The ma­chine was started with a crank han­dle in the side. Fam­ily his­tory records show the Cadil­lac cost £485 and was ini­tially sup­plied with­out mud­guards or run­ning boards. There are also tales of the car be­ing cam­paigned up the coast in the days when there were no roads — along beaches, through farm­ers’ fields, and across un­bridged rivers.

“Stan­dard of the World”

Al­bert was an adept sales­man. Ex­actly when he moved into im­port­ing mo­tor cars is un­known, but an ad­ver­tise­ment in the Poverty Bay Herald cel­e­brates the open­ing of his new mo­tor garage in Grey Street, Gis­borne. The Septem­ber 30, 1914 ad­ver­tise­ment is headed, “Cadil­lac Car, Stan­dard of the World” and be­gins: “A. M. Lewis and Son, Gray [sic] St, Gis­borne, beg to no­tify the Pub­lic that they will open in their fine new Garage and Show Rooms on OC­TO­BER 5th, with a fine stock of all Mo­tor Ac­ces­sories. Our Agencies in­clude: — The fa­mous 50 h.p. CADIL­LAC … JEFFERY CARS, 4 and 6 cylin­der … GLEN­WOOD-PAIGE CARS, 36 h.p. …

Mr Lewis said he was greatly im­pressed at the way the Americans went about busi­ness: “They are out to trade in large or small num­bers of cars. The whole mo­tor in­dus­try in Amer­ica is work­ing un­der high pres­sure and the out­put is tremen­dous. The coun­try is hun­gry for cars”

VULCAN CARS, 35 h.p. … Other Agencies: WOLSELEY and STAR CARS.”

This sta­ble rapidly ex­panded, and, only a few months later, the of­fer­ings in­cluded Daim­ler, De­lage, Briscoe, RCH, Singer, and AC cars, along with Jeffery and Den­nis lor­ries.

A com­men­tary in the lo­cal pa­per in Novem­ber 1915, records the im­por­ta­tion of “[a] beau­ti­ful five-seater Dar­racq car of French man­u­fac­ture with all the lat­est im­prove­ments and a fine English BSA car — but the man­u­fac­tur­ers state there will be no more de­liv­er­ies un­til the end of the war.” The com­pany also landed the first Mitchell-lewis car and had or­ders for five more six-cylin­der cars of the same make.

By 1918, AM Lewis and Son was the agent for the Over­land ‘Big Four’, and Al­bert did a great trade in Oldsmo­biles. The Poverty Bay Herald re­ported Jan­uary 24, 1920: “An un­usual spec­ta­cle was wit­nessed in Glad­stone Rd [the main street of Gis­borne] about 8.30 this morn­ing, when a mo­tor lorry and six two-horse lor­ries were lined up in front of the Al­bion Ho­tel, each loaded with a huge box con­tain­ing a new Oldsmo­bile 6 car. Af­ter a pho­to­graph had been taken the pro­ces­sion moved up Glad­stone Rd to Mr AM Lewis’ garage in Grey St. The firm landed 11 of the cars from The Ar­magh (to Welling­ton), which were trans-shipped to Gis­borne on the Pu­tiki. Un­for­tu­nately, it was found im­pos­si­ble to se­cure an adequate sup­ply of lor­ries to carry the whole num­ber in pro­ces­sion.”

The fam­ily his­tory records that in one week Al­bert sold 12 Oldsmo­biles.

Mas­ter dis­trib­u­tor­ship

AM Lewis es­tab­lished the Aus­tralasian Auto Im­port Com­pany with the aim of gain­ing the mas­ter dis­trib­u­tor­ship for Packard in New Zea­land and Aus­tralia, and, as soon as the end of World War I would al­low, he and An­nie em­barked on a world tour — to see fam­ily in Bri­tain; visit US, British, and Eu­ro­pean mo­tor fac­to­ries; and, most im­por­tant, con­clude the deal with Packard.

The cou­ple left New Zea­land in April 1919 on the RMS Athenic. The voy­age was so soon af­ter the end of World War I that pas­sen­gers were given boat drill be­cause of the con­tin­u­ing threat of naval mines.

Dur­ing the seven months they were away, Al­bert vis­ited many mo­tor works in the US, in­clud­ing Hud­son, Over­land, Dodge, Paige, Packard, Win­ton, and Lib­erty, along with the Cham­pion spark-plug works. He ob­tained the sole New Zea­land agencies for the Win­ton Six, the Packard, and the Lib­erty Six, along with that for the Win­ton diesel ma­rine en­gine.

He also vis­ited New York, Chicago, Cleve­land, Buf­falo, Toledo, New Jersey, and Detroit, which he re­called later in an in­ter­view for the Poverty Bay Herald as “[t]he largest mo­tor man­u­fac­tur­ing city in the world with more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion cars on the roads of the city”.

Mr Lewis said he was greatly im­pressed at the way the Americans went about busi­ness: “They are out to trade in large or small num­bers of cars. The whole mo­tor in­dus­try in Amer­ica is work­ing un­der high pres­sure and the out­put is tremen­dous. The coun­try is hun­gry for cars.”

From the US, Al­bert and An­nie trav­elled to Eng­land, and were in Lon­don for the of­fi­cial peace cel­e­bra­tions fol­low­ing the sign­ing of the Treaty of Ver­sailles, on June 28, 1919, end­ing World War I. In Bri­tain, he vis­ited the prin­ci­pal mo­tor man­u­fac­tur­ing works,

in­clud­ing Sun­beam, Rolls-royce, Vaux­hall, Fiat, Napier, Clé­ment-tal­bot, Cross­ley, and Austin, along with the Smith and Son mo­tor ac­ces­sories works.

Dur­ing his talks with the Packard di­rec­tors, Al­bert was cred­ited with hav­ing con­vinced the com­pany to pro­vide its mod­els in right­hand drive for ex­port to na­tions in­clud­ing New Zea­land, Aus­tralia, South Africa, and Eng­land. Many thou­sands of Packard ve­hi­cles were ex­ported an­nu­ally to world­wide mar­kets — all a tribute to the en­ergy and fore­sight of a man from Gis­borne. Al­bert gained the mas­ter deal­er­ship for Packard in New Zea­land, but was beaten to the Aus­tralian busi­ness by two days.

Tough times

Time passed, and el­der son Cyril left Gis­borne in the fam­ily Rolls-royce to meet his par­ents when their ship berthed in Welling­ton. The cou­ple re­turned to Gis­borne over the week­end of Novem­ber 8–9, 1919. How­ever, the scene that pre­sented it­self on their re­turn was not at all pleas­ing. It soon be­came ap­par­ent that both busi­nesses (the Te Karaka store and the Gis­borne mo­tor garage) were in a bad way. Ac­cord­ing to Ailsa’s ac­count, Cyril had been left in charge of the mo­tor con­cern but had been un­able to cope with the responsibility. The chaos caused Al­bert deep dis­tress, and, af­ter strug­gling for two years to put things right, he could no longer sat­isfy his cred­i­tors and was obliged to as­sign his es­tate. The only thing that pre­vented his hav­ing to de­clare bank­ruptcy was An­nie. De­spite her lawyer beg­ging her not to, she signed over to him all the prop­erty which he had ear­lier given her.

The re­port of the ar­rival of the first Packards or­dered by Aus­tralasian Auto Im­porters to ar­rive in New Zea­land de­scribes them as: “[t]wo of the most beau­ti­ful mo­tor­cars ever im­ported into Aus­trala­sia, a tour­ing car and a road­ster of Packard man­u­fac­ture. The tour­ing car, a twin-six, was fin­ished in Rolls-royce blue with gen­uine Span­ish leather up­hol­stery to match and a spe­cial cus­tom aluminium body by the Fleet­wood Metal Body Cor­po­ra­tion of New York. The road­ster, also Fleet­wood bod­ied, equipped with six RudgeWhit­worth wire wheels and Kelly Spring­field cord tyres fin­ished in Willys’ green-gray with leather up­hol­stery in the same colour.”

The leg­end at the time was that Cyril had driven the tour­ing car up from the wharves in Welling­ton to Gis­borne and, apart from when start­ing off, had stayed in top gear for the whole jour­ney, with the Poverty Bay Herald re­port­ing on De­cem­ber 27, 1919: “A rather smart per­for­mance was put up by a twin-six Packard car in a jour­ney from Welling­ton early this week. Mr Cyril H Lewis, of Messers AM Lewis and Son, the New Zea­land agent for the car, ac­com­pa­nied by Mr Fred Wilkin­son of Messers Wilkin­son Ltd, left Welling­ton at 11.30am on Sun­day morn­ing last, ar­rived at Hast­ings at 7.25pm, af­ter trav­el­ling for six hours and 55 min­utes. Af­ter re­fresh­ments the party con­tin­ued to Napier, a fur­ther 20 min­utes. Left Napier the next morn­ing at 11.30 and af­ter stop­ping for lunch at Waikare and for af­ter­noon tea at Wairoa the car ar­rived in Gis­borne at 8.30pm, af­ter

a to­tal of 15 and a half hours driv­ing. The out­stand­ing fea­ture of the run was that the whole jour­ney was com­pleted in high gear, it not be­ing found nec­es­sary to change into sec­ond gear even for the steep­est hills, al­though one of the sharp cor­ners at Morere ne­ces­si­tated slow­ing to five miles an hour. The av­er­age ben­zine con­sump­tion worked out at 12 and a half miles per gal­lon. The car has been pur­chased by Messers Wilkin­son’s Ltd and used in con­nec­tion with their ser­vice busi­ness.”

The story is taken up again with a re­port of the same car, in the ser­vice of Wilkin­son’s Ltd, hav­ing trav­elled 22,786 miles in the year (36,670km), with to­tal me­chan­i­cal re­pairs in the pe­riod amount­ing to £9 17s 6d.

In De­cem­ber 1920, AM Lewis and Son re­ceived, “di­rect from the fac­tory”, two Fleet­wood-bod­ied open Packards and a Packard Stan­dard Im­pe­rial Limou­sine.

Move to Auck­land

Al­bert de­cided to con­cen­trate solely on the mo­tor trade and, seek­ing a larger mar­ket, sold up in Te Karaka and Gis­borne and moved his fam­ily to Auck­land in April 1922. A house was found and pur­chased (£4550) at 66B Re­muera Road — at a time when Re­muera Road was still met­alled and il­lu­mi­nated at night by gas lights on one side. Fit­tingly enough, he es­tab­lished the head­quar­ters of his Packard mas­ter agency at 51 Al­bert Street. The building re­mains to­day.

Part of the deal ne­go­ti­ated with Packard required him to di­vest him­self of his other agencies. It was prob­a­bly this re­quire­ment, and the need for a larger mar­ket, that had prompted the move to Auck­land.

It was over 1922–1931 that Al­bert’s sec­ond for­tune was made. One by one, he opened new mo­tor show­rooms through­out New Zea­land, in­stalled man­agers and staff, and took up the reins again. He vis­ited these branches reg­u­larly, and of­ten trav­elled long dis­tances as the new ven­ture pros­pered.

Al­bert granted area deal­er­ships to 10 lo­cal­i­ties cov­er­ing the coun­try, two — Rink Taxis in Christchurch and C&W Shiel of Dunedin — han­dled the main­land, while North Is­land deal­er­ships were es­tab­lished with Dex­ter Mo­tors in Auck­land and oth­ers in Hamil­ton, Whanganui, Feild­ing, Napier, Gis­borne, Dan­nevirke, and Welling­ton.

Eco­nomic de­pres­sion

The Oc­to­ber 1929 col­lapse of the US stock mar­ket, now known as the ‘Wall Street Crash’, re­sulted in the worst eco­nomic de­pres­sion in the his­tory of the US and also se­verely af­fected much of the Western world, in­clud­ing New Zea­land. In the US, dur­ing the De­pres­sion’s dark­est days, 25 per cent of the work­force was un­em­ployed. This had a pro­found im­pact on the new and rapidly ex­pand­ing auto in­dus­try. Through­out the 1920s, in­creases in dis­pos­able in­come and the af­ford­abil­ity of au­to­mo­biles meant many more peo­ple had been able to af­ford to pur­chase cars. As a re­sult of this in­crease in de­mand, the num­ber of independent auto deal­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers had surged. But, as the ef­fects of the crash and the De­pres­sion took hold, many peo­ple found pur­chas­ing lux­ury goods, in­clud­ing au­to­mo­biles, out of the ques­tion.

The ef­fects on Packard were sig­nif­i­cant. Packard: A His­tory of the Mo­tor Car and the Com­pany, edited by BR Kimes, records car pro­duc­tion as fol­lows: 29,821 in 1927, 40,550 in 1928, 54,992 in 1929, 36,364 in 1930, 15,450 in 1931, 16,613 in 1932, and 4800 in 1933.

In New Zea­land, ex­port prices be­gan to plum­met, fall­ing 45 per cent by 1933, which was dev­as­tat­ing to the econ­omy of a coun­try over­whelm­ingly de­pen­dent on

Al­bert de­cided to con­cen­trate solely on the mo­tor trade and, seek­ing a larger mar­ket, sold up in Te Karaka and Gis­borne and moved his fam­ily to Auck­land

agricultural exports. By the end of 1930, ur­ban busi­nesses and man­u­fac­tur­ers were feel­ing the flow-on ef­fects. De­mand for their goods and ser­vices fell, as did the prices they charged. Un­em­ploy­ment rose to 12 per cent of the reg­is­tered work­force in 1933, and those lucky enough to keep their jobs of­ten found their wages slashed by as much as 20 per cent.

As gain­ing the Packard mas­ter agency had meant giv­ing up his other mar­ques, the Great De­pres­sion weighed heav­ily on Al­bert and his busi­ness. He was left with ex­pen­sive mo­tor­cars on the wharves that his cus­tomers could no longer af­ford to buy. Wher­ever peo­ple looked, slo­gans ex­horted peo­ple to “Buy British” to sup­port the Em­pire. This they did. Sales be­gan to drop and soon stopped al­to­gether. Ailsa ex­plains what hap­pened: “About this time Al­bert had a large in­sur­ance pol­icy ma­ture, and be­ing the op­ti­mist he be­lieved the re­ces­sion would only be short-lived and so ploughed the money back into his sink­ing busi­ness — into show­room rentals, re­pair de­part­ments and wages in a valiant at­tempt to stay afloat. When the in­sur­ance money ran out, with­out his wife’s knowl­edge, he mort­gaged the house, fur­nish­ings and car” but the Great De­pres­sion was not short-lived, and “lit­er­ally overnight ev­ery­thing was swept away”.

Em­ploy­ment be­came al­most im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain. Pro­fes­sional men, such as doc­tors, solic­i­tors, and ar­chi­tects, found them­selves to­gether in gangs of labour­ers. Many proud peo­ple were forced to ac­cept char­ity.

Un­for­tu­nately, Al­bert had mort­gaged the fur­nish­ings sep­a­rately, and the day came when — while the fam­ily was still liv­ing in the Re­muera house — their pos­ses­sions were sold from around them. The auc­tion was well at­tended, with cars lin­ing both sides of the street for at least two blocks. An­nie found her­self bid­ding on the very beds the chil­dren had slept in the night be­fore.

The house had been mort­gaged to the Bank of New Zea­land, and, dur­ing the tur­moil of the De­pres­sion, a law was passed mak­ing it un­law­ful to turn peo­ple out of their homes as soon as a few mort­gage pay­ments were missed. And so the fam­ily car­ried on in Re­muera, sell­ing off An­nie’s jew­ellery to pay for the es­sen­tials.

Al­bert had taken med­i­ca­tion for a stom­ach ul­cer for many years. One evening, while wait­ing for a tram, he col­lapsed. He stag­gered half a kilo­me­tre back home, an am­bu­lance was called from a neigh­bour’s house, and he ended up in hospi­tal. Thank­fully, he made a good re­cov­ery.

Just how many cars — or how many Packards — Al­bert Lewis’ busi­ness sold is un­known. In­for­ma­tion help­fully pro­vided by Dunedin Packard en­thu­si­ast Tony Dev­ereux shows that the Napier agency alone sold around 30 Packards be­tween 1920 and 1930, with val­ues rang­ing from £800 to £1350. Tellingly, the last car recorded was sold to Do­min­ion Mo­tors for £550 — maybe its cost price, in 1933.

Early in 1935, as the Great De­pres­sion be­gan to wane, Al­bert was of­fered a job by Todd Mo­tors Ltd. Todd was aware of his sell­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and, in a short time, Al­bert be­came its top sales­man. This required a move to Welling­ton.

An­nie died in July 1940, aged 69, from the com­pli­ca­tions of di­a­betes. Al­bert was still work­ing for Todd Mo­tors and liv­ing in a pri­vate ho­tel in Welling­ton, when he dashed out­side in the rain one night dur­ing one of the re­gion’s pe­ri­odic earthquakes. As a re­sult, he con­tracted pneu­mo­nia. He died on Au­gust 28, 1942, at the age of 71.

Al­bert and An­nie Lewis are buried in a shared plot in the Karori Ceme­tery.

Above: AM Lewis in the fam­ily’s Rolls-royce, 1920 Left: Lewis fam­ily’s Te Karaka store, Jan­uary 1903 Be­low: Aus­tralasian Auto Im­port Com­pany Packard ad­ver­tise­ment, Auck­land Weekly News, 1924. Right: AM Lewis, Pater in Packard, Welling­ton, 1920

Above left: Ad­ver­tis­ment that ap­peared in the Pover­ty­bay­her­ald - Septem­ber 30, 1914 Above: Al­bert (in fe­dora) and An­nie (to Al­bert’s left) Lewis dur­ing a boat drill on the RMS Athenic, 1919 Be­low: Let­ter of in­tro­duc­tion, Au­gust 1919

AM Lewis and Son, Gis­borne, 1920

Above: AM Lewis with a new Packard, 1925 Left: AM Lewis

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