NEW ZEALAND’S FIRST MASTER AGENT FOR PACKARD
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.
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.
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.
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