WHEELS ON FIRE

An In­ver­cargill fam­ily has cre­ated a re­mark­able au­to­mo­tive at­trac­tion that is pulling tourists and purists to South­land. As Mike White discovers, it all started when Bill Richard­son bought his grand­fa­ther’s old truck 50 years ago.

North & South - - In This Issue -

An In­ver­cargill fam­ily has cre­ated a re­mark­able au­to­mo­tive at­trac­tion that’s pulling tourists and purists to South­land. Mike White re­ports.

When Joc O’don­nell was grow­ing up in In­ver­cargill, she’d of­ten slip through a hole in the hedge be­side the fam­ily house and en­ter a thriving world cre­ated by her fa­ther.

On a block not far from the city cen­tre, Bill Richard­son had built a trans­port busi­ness that had ex­panded to in­clude a suc­cess­ful con­crete com­pany. Joc would skip round Bill’s shed where he re­stored old trucks and petrol bowsers in his spare time, wave hi to the driv­ers, and play on the tim­ber stacks. Bill’s busi­ness per­me­ated their lives, and week­ends were of­ten spent driv­ing around his South­land trans­port yards.

But when she fin­ished school, Joc left the prov­ince, train­ing as a nanny be­fore set­ting off on her OE. On a trip home, she met a guy who’d lived around the

cor­ner from them in In­ver­cargill , Scott O’don­nell, who went to school with her brother. She and Scott headed back over­seas and trav­elled around Europe in a tem­per­a­men­tal VW Kombi that re­fused to start when­ever it got too hot. When they got back to Eng­land, they were broke, and sold the van so Scott could buy Joc an en­gage­ment ring.

Joc trained as a beauty ther­a­pist in Lon­don, and in the mid-90s the cou­ple moved back to New Zealand, set­tling in Christchurch.

They’d never con­sid­ered shift­ing fur­ther south to their home­town. Nor had Joc ever imag­ined work­ing in the com­pany her fa­ther had built up. But just over 20 years later, she now sits in her In­ver­cargill of­fice, over­look­ing hun­dreds of ve­hi­cles and over­see­ing the fam­ily com­pany that em­ploys 2300 peo­ple across New Zealand and Aus­tralia.

“It was re­ally just through tragedy, to be hon­est, that I ended up do­ing what I’m do­ing now.”

It was al­ways meant to be her brother, Harold, who was going to take over the busi­ness. He’d left school at 16, blis­tered his hands mak­ing con­crete posts at one of the fam­ily’s fac­to­ries, and be­gun manag­ing that side of the firm. In Septem­ber 1995, while trav­el­ling through the North Is­land in­spect­ing con­crete plants, Harold was killed when a truck crossed the cen­tre line near Waiouru and smashed into his car. He was 29.

Bill then asked his son-in-law, Scott, an ac­coun­tant, if he’d con­sider join­ing the fam­ily busi­ness – so Joc and Scott moved back to In­ver­cargill.

The com­pany was now known as HW Richard­son Group and had grown to in­clude petroleum prod­ucts, in­clud­ing the Al­lied brand. The cou­ple had three chil­dren and Joc grad­u­ally be­gan tak­ing an in­ter­est in her fa­ther’s busi­ness. De­spite find­ing its size and scope daunt­ing, in 2005 she told Bill she’d come in each Fri­day to learn more about it. Two weeks later, 64-year-old Bill had a brain haem­or­rhage and died.

“So what was sup­posed to be a nice gen­tle in­tro­duc­tion turned into the steep­est learn­ing curve of my life,” says Joc. “I was green.”

How­ever, she never con­sid­ered sell­ing the busi­ness or aban­don­ing In­ver­cargill.

“I just felt this over­whelm­ing sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. You’ve got good staff, loyal staff, and I do think Dad and Harold would have ex­pected me to have at least given it a fair nudge.”

With help from Scott and her mother, Shona, Joc im­mersed her­self in the role of com­pany di­rec­tor. “Dad al­ways used to say, ‘You’ve got two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that pro­por­tion.’ So I lis­tened and learnt as much as I could.”

Along­side cop­ing with her fa­ther’s busi­ness legacy, there was an­other part of his life Joc had to deal with. On the com­pany’s premises were 150 vin­tage trucks and 100 his­toric petrol bowsers that Bill had col­lected since buy­ing his grand­fa­ther’s 1933 In­ter­na­tional in 1967. Some were re­stored, most weren’t.

“It was re­ally his sav­ing grace in many ways after Harold was killed,” Joc says. “He’d just come over here to his shed at night and pot­ter away. He just loved that thrill of the chase, of find­ing what he was look­ing for.”

Bill used to show peo­ple his col­lec­tion by ap­point­ment, and Joc con­tin­ued this, with up to 6000 peo­ple com­ing through each year. She also car­ried on buy­ing other vin­tage ve­hi­cles as they were dis­cov­ered in var­i­ous states of re­pair through­out sheds in South­land. In 2013, an Aus­tralian friend men­tioned her hus­band was about to auc­tion his col­lec­tion of old Fords.

“We had a wee rush of blood to the head,” says Joc, “and thought, why don’t we bring them here to In­ver­cargill? And it was sort of the cat­a­lyst for open­ing to the pub­lic. We felt we were sit­ting on a bit of a gem that could be good for the city if we took that next step.”

Aware In­ver­cargill had few at­trac­tions that peo­ple paid for, Joc sketched out a plan for a mu­seum that would hold their 300 trucks and cars, and also in­cor­po­rate a cafe, work­shops and the com­pany’s of­fice.

Opened in De­cem­ber 2015, Bill Richard­son Trans­port World cov­ers 15,000 square me­tres and takes up the en­tire city block the fam­ily busi­ness has been on since her grand­fa­ther built a sawmill and en­gi­neer­ing shed there – apart from the house Joc grew up in, where her mother still lives, which re­mains on one cor­ner.

As well as trucks and cars and trac­tors, there are race cars, pedal cars, a homage to the movie Pork Pie, and hun­dreds of in­tri­cate vin­tage petrol bowsers. There’s a wear­able arts dis­play, a gi­ant Lego room for kids, a li­brary, and a col­lec­tion of other items from early South­land. There’s a pi­ano for guests to play, and all the toi­lets are quirk­ily themed at­trac­tions in their own right.

Al­ready, 60,000 peo­ple have vis­ited the com­plex.

But just as Joc O’don­nell was cel­e­brat­ing the open­ing of Trans­port World, an­other chal­lenge pre­sented it­self. In May 2016, they heard that Nel­son busi­ness­man Tom Sturgess was sell­ing his col­lec­tion of 300 clas­sic mo­tor­cy­cles.

With the bikes on the verge of be­ing auc­tioned in America and split up, the O’don­nells saw there was an ob­vi­ous fit with Trans­port World, and made a rapid de­ci­sion to pur­chase the en­tire col­lec­tion and bring it to In­ver­cargill. They stripped back a cen­tral city build­ing they owned and in Novem­ber last year opened Mo­tor­cy­cle Mecca.

Col­lec­tion man­ager Dave Roberts had over­seen the mo­tor­cy­cles in Nel­son for Sturgess and didn’t think twice about mov­ing to In­ver­cargill with them. “Oh god, yeah. I was emo­tion­ally at­tached to them and I wanted to have some con­trol over what was hap­pen­ing to them.”

Eas­ily the big­gest mo­tor­cy­cle col­lec­tion in New Zealand, and worth tens of mil­lions of dol­lars, the at­trac­tion is an ideal ad­junct to the mo­tor­bikes and mem­o­ra­bilia of Burt Munro, of The World’s Fastest In­dian fame, which are on dis­play at the E. Hayes hard­ware store in In­ver­cargill.

Three multi-coloured Brit­ten mo­tor­bikes are a ma­jor draw­card at Mo­tor­cy­cle Mecca (only one other is on dis­play in New Zealand, at Te Papa), but sev­eral hand-built Brough Su­pe­ri­ors from the

1930s are shiny black scene-steal­ers.

“They’re the Rolls-royce of mo­tor­cy­cles,” says Roberts. “There are very ex­pen­sive mod­els, and then there’s just or­di­nary ex­pen­sive mod­els,” with one worth close to $ 1 mil­lion, “on a good day”.

There are mus­cu­lar race bikes and cen­tury-old relics with del­i­cate wicker side­cars. A col­lec­tion of rare mo­tor­cy­cle posters and art lines the walls. But the at­trac­tion is not just for spe­cial­ists; Roberts in­sists it has very wide ap­peal. “This place isn’t the do­main of the hard core. I love watch­ing peo­ple walk in and see­ing their re­ac­tions. It’s like, ‘Holy hell’, ‘Oh, my god’ – all those things.”

When Lex Chisholm was grow­ing up in Tokanui, east of In­ver­cargill, his fa­ther ran a con­tract­ing busi­ness, clear­ing land and bull­doz­ing roads through the Catlins. So it was lit­tle sur­prise when Chisholm left school and went to Twizel in the early 70s to drive big ma­chin­ery on the Waitaki hy­dro scheme.

After play­ing rugby for South­land and over­seas, Chisholm drove and dis­patched trucks, but late last year was asked by the O’don­nells if he was in­ter­ested in work­ing for them. The job they had was to set up and run their lat­est me­chan­i­cal ven­ture, Dig This, where peo­ple op­er­ate dig­gers and bull­doz­ers in what’s been de­scribed as “a sand­pit on steroids”.

Based on an at­trac­tion es­tab­lished in Las Ve­gas by ex-mos­giel mus­terer Ed Mumm, it will let cus­tomers take the con­trols of ma­chin­ery, in­clud­ing 15-tonne dig­gers, on a one-hectare city sec­tion. “And they can frig­gin’ dig as big a hole as they like,” says Chisholm.

They’ll also be taught a range of more del­i­cate skills, like pick­ing up and dunk­ing bas­ket­balls with the dig­ger’s buck­ets, and there’ll be a sec­tion where peo­ple can crush a car.

“Bang and smash – get them as flat as you can, do what­ever you want to,” says Chisholm. “Ev­ery woman I’ve ever talked to about it has got re­ally ex­cited. But I’ve said to them, ‘Your hus­band’s not al­lowed to be in it.’”

Far from what peo­ple might ex­pect, he says, in Las Ve­gas women make up 40 per cent of cus­tomers and are of­ten far bet­ter at oper­at­ing heavy ma­chin­ery. “They haven’t got any pre­con­ceived

Op­po­site: Joc O’don­nell with her beloved Kom­bis. Above: A lineup of vin­tage Fords at In­ver­cargill’s Trans­port World.

Above: The late Bill Richard­son with his Tex­aco tanker. Above right: Richard­son’s shed with the first truck he bought, a 1933 In­ter­na­tional owned by his grand­fa­ther. Op­po­site page: De­tails from the col­lec­tion of petrol bowsers and trucks.

Top: Mo­tor­cy­cle Mecca’s Dave Roberts. Above cen­tre: Sev­eral hand-built Brough Su­pe­ri­ors from the 1930s are shiny black scene-steal­ers. Above: The loos at Trans­port World are all in­di­vid­u­ally themed and at­trac­tions in their own right.

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