BERTHA THE BEAU­TI­FUL

Beauty is in the eye of the be­holder for the Hawke’s Bay owner of this cus­tard- toned Im­pala

NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS ANN WARNOCK PHOTOGR APHS F LORENCE CHARV I N

IT WAS JEREMY PRUCKMÜLLER’S grand­fa­ther, a par­lia­men­tary chauf­feur, who passed on the gene. “Grandad chauf­feured three prime min­is­ters as well as cabi­net min­is­ters dur­ing his ca­reer and he drove an Im­pala which was part of the crown fleet. He ab­so­lutely loved cars and driv­ing them. He owned a beau­ti­ful, big black 1938 Buick for years and he was my in­spi­ra­tion,” says 34-year-old Jeremy, an en­gi­neer, speed­way side­car com­peti­tor, craft-beer en­thu­si­ast and im­pas­sioned 1967 Chevro­let Im­pala owner.

Af­ter a lengthy stint of top-brass chauf­feur­ing, Robert Pruckmüller be­came a driv­ing in­struc­tor. Sadly, he died be­fore his grand­son took the wheel.

While he missed the chance to teach Jeremy how to drive, he has im­bued him with a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion of au­to­mo­tive me­chan­ics and a love of bold Amer­i­can cars.

“He was a good friend to me and a very lovely man. I have great mem­o­ries of trav­el­ing with my grand­par­ents in the Buick with an old wicker pic­nic bas­ket on board. We’d stop in Waipawa where my grand­fa­ther would buy spe­cial­ity cheeses and then we’d drive to the Waipawa River.”

Mo­tor­bikes, cars, camshafts and en­gines have en­gaged Jeremy from the out­set although some of his early ac­qui­si­tions make him squirm. “Dare I say it, but I had a Honda CRX; my silly young self was at­tracted by the dig­i­tal dash and there were a few other dodgy choices too. I had all sorts of dif­fer­ent cars, but I did love my 1989 Nis­san Sky­line and a 1979 Mazda RX-7.”

What he loves now is Bertha. “I worked on an engi­neer­ing pro­ject in the States in­stalling Kiwi-de­signed pack­ag­ing tech­nol­ogy in a cheese fac­tory and I just loved the big, wide 60s-era V8 Amer­i­can cars we saw over there. I started sav­ing se­ri­ously.”

In his late 20s, armed with a pock­et­ful of hard-earned cash “good for bar­gain­ing”, he headed to Auck­land to chase a Trade Me list­ing. “Dad came with me as he’s sim­i­larly ob­sessed with Chevro­lets and I val­ued his ad­vice.”

On a subur­ban street Jeremy viewed a New Zealand-as­sem­bled 283 cu­bic-inch, V8-pow­ered Im­pala and was smit­ten. One thing was cer­tain – his grand­fa­ther would have sanc­tioned his choice. “With a clas­sic car you tend to get what you see. The Im­pala wasn’t mint but was very orig­i­nal. I liked the fact it had been en­joyed and loved. I’ve since worked out I’m its 20th owner. I handed over the money and headed home to Hast­ings. It felt won­der­ful. It was su­per com­fort­able – no sore bum and she didn’t miss a beat.”

But Jeremy’s heart sank when he mea­sured the width of the Im­pala against the width of his garage at the time. There was 5cm to spare on ei­ther side.

Six years later, pow­er­ing up Te Mata Peak, his right-hand-drive sedan is rock-solid on the road, tight on the cor­ners and a classy 51-year-old act.

“She’s no beauty pageant but she’s what I’d call hon­est. We’ve had one or two ups and downs – there was a bit of play in the steer­ing wheel, so Dad and I ended up re­vis­ing the whole front end – the steer­ing box, tie rod ends, sus­pen­sion and brakes. Now she drives like a new car. There’ve been a few spots of rust, a hic­cup with the elec­tric fan and a new bat­tery but oth­er­wise it’s been a breeze.

“Fuel con­sump­tion is not bad and she sits com­fort­ably at 100kph. Heater and wipers are both re­ally ef­fec­tive and the two-speed pow­er­glide au­to­matic makes her easy to drive.”

Jeremy has had seven peo­ple in the Im­pala but can fit eight with four across the front seat and four in the back. Sun­day drives to winer­ies on the coast or favourite brew­eries are a reg­u­lar event and now there’s a very spe­cial per­son on board. “I met my wife, Cloe, a few months af­ter I bought the Im­pala and my mates have given me a bit of a rib­bing – ‘Got the nice car then man­aged to get the nice girl.’ I’m pretty low-key so when I met Cloe I just said, ‘I’ve got an old car’. On one of our first dates I turned up in the Im­pala. She couldn’t be­lieve her eyes and thank­fully she loves her too. We named her Bertha to­gether and we’ve shared so many happy times since.”

The hap­pi­est be­ing their wed­ding day. “Although I’m a bit em­bar­rassed to say I was more ner­vous about my mate driv­ing the Im­pala to the wed­ding, with Cloe and her nana on board, than I was about the cer­e­mony it­self.”

Gen­eral Mo­tors struck gold when its Chevro­let di­vi­sion launched a long, low piece of engi­neer­ing with triple tail lights in 1958 to cel­e­brate Chevy’s 50th year of car-mak­ing. The in­au­gu­ral Im­pala rock­eted to suc­cess claim­ing the spot as Amer­ica’s best-sell­ing car in the 1960s.

Over the last 60 years the sturdy ma­chine has been con­stantly re­vised. In 2018 it main­tains a com­mand­ing pres­ence in the US mar­ket­place and its lat­est model is part of Im­pala’s ‘10th gen­er­a­tion.’

Bertha’s ‘fourth-gen­er­a­tion’ specifics in­clude a front-end facelift, en­hanced Coke-bot­tle styling, re­designed full-coil sus­pen­sion and in­creased safety mea­sures – a col­lapsi­ble en­ergy-ab­sorb­ing steer­ing col­umn, side marker lights and shoul­der belts. Jeremy has given her a set of retro Cra­gar rims and a sub­woofer in the boot.

De­spite her years, Bertha show­cases great style on a stretch of road near Whakatū. “I love her straight lines and the broad front grille. The gold-coloured cloth and vinyl up­hol­stery and the paint job are both orig­i­nal.”

She is housed in the garage along­side Jeremy’s daily drive – a re­cently pur­chased 1988 Chevro­let Sil­ver­ado, Cloe’s 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe, two race bikes and a Kawasaki ZXR 1000 side­car he reg­u­larly races with his fa­ther.

Soon af­ter Jeremy bought the Im­pala he found an old-style coloured Po­laroid in its glove box. It’s a well-thumbed photo which asks more than it says. “I’d say it’s been float­ing around in there for maybe 50 years. I sus­pect each owner has been like me, has seen it and felt it should stay there.”

It shows the car parked in a tree-lined drive­way. There is a woman sit­ting on her own in the car in the front pas­sen­ger seat. She is beam­ing at the camera. Who she is and where the photo was taken re­mains a mys­tery. But beam­ing smiles from the two peo­ple who now sit on the front bench seat of the Im­pala are an en­dur­ing theme.

‘I was more ner­vous about my mate driv­ing the Im­pala to the wed­ding than I was about the cer­e­mony it­self’

Crown fleet Im­palas out­side par­lia­ment in the mid 1960s. Jeremy’s late grand­fa­ther, Robert Pruckmüller, is the sec­ond chauf­feur from the right.

Chris and his wife Cloe.

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