outram garage & ray Warnock
Pulling up outside Ray and Janet Warnock's Outram Garage (for those not sure where Outram is, it is 28 km inland from Dunedin and I have to admit I did have to check as I wasn't 100% sure myself of where exactly it was. I had a rough idea but...) it looks exactly as you might picture a small independently owned service station in any tiny rural settlement.
With a population of less than 700 and not located on SH1, it is places like this which are slowly disappearing from the map and it would be easy to imagine Outram's garage and the other small enterprises in the town quietly withering and dying. Yet even from the outside there are just a couple of hints that this assumption might be incorrect.
Parked out front of the workshop is an immaculately restored 1948 TE A Massey Fergusson tractor and off to the side (I later was to learn it was awaiting an engine transplant) a very unusual early 1970s Dodge van. But it is only when I opened the door and went inside the shop that it became obvious that this is no back country enterprise on the way to ruin. As well as the usual water, milk, coke and chocolate bars one expects to find when handing over the next mortgage payment for a tank of petrol – actually, that isn't really fair, having just returned from Europe where petrol and diesel run at around €2.50 per litre (NZ$4.25) we are actually one of the cheapest counties in the world for fuel, we just don't realise it, Ray (but I suspect this is more the work of his wife Janet) has set the interior up as what might be termed a mini-museum or a rendition of the ultimate man-cave.
Newly refurbished, the walls are adorned with photos and models of Aussie and American muscle cars, historical items like a large autographed photo of Sir Jack Brabham and artefacts from garages of yesteryear. When Ray proudly pointed out the large colour montage of very shiny V8 Holdens and Falcons and explained that they were his and son Dean's (who also works in the garage as a mechanic) prize winning pride and joys, it was easy to see that here was a family where the motor industry is a passion, not just a job. Ray and Janet are staunch Holden fans, Dean is the Blue Oval supporter, while their other son Reece is a Holden man, with enough sense to keep away from working on cars full time. Instead, he runs an architecture business, also in Outram.
From what I had seen, I had assumed that Ray was one of those old-time garage owners who had been involved in the motor trade since just after the invention of the wheel. And again I had assumed wrong. Leaving school in 1965 he served a five year apprenticeship in the radiator repair industry. With there being only a limited number of people doing this, there really was no qualification directly pertaining to the world of cooling system fixers, so officially he was classed as a Motor Body Builder.
With his time served and the appropriate piece of paper framed and ready to hang on the wall, he did what many young (and not so young) New Zealanders do, he skipped the Tasman and worked in the Australian oil industry for a year before returning to New Zealand to work for his father's light engineering business in Dunedin, experience which was to give him a good grounding for his current line of work. Yet, as a complete change of direction he went from engineering to forestry, involved in the replanting of many of the pine forests of Otago. The collapse of the timber industry meant that again a new direction was needed, so he became a plumber and drainlayer, which he kept at until in his words, “I was too bloody old to crawl under houses.”
In 2002 the Outram garage was available and Ray and Janet bought the historic premises. No one is really sure when the garage first opened. It seems the building was a blacksmiths originally and by the early 1920s it had evolved into a service station and has remained so ever since.
Ray is probably one of the oldest “new” mechanics around, having got his Warrant of Fitness authority at age 65, so he gets to work alongside his son, plus another mechanic and a workshop hand who is about to leave and will be sorely missed, while Janet looks after the administrative side of the garage as well as keeping the display area looking fresh and changing the items on display on a regular basis.
While not really on the main road, Outram is actually on SH87, the major direct route from Dunedin to Queenstown so they do get more than their share of passing tourists. On the wall inside there is a huge map of the South Island with a large “you are here” arrow pointing to Outram, put there to assist some of the more geographically challenged tourists who stop for fuel or are lost already (despite the fact that Dunedin Airport is literally a five minute drive away).
It is this proximity to the airport which led to one of the regular sources of income for the garage. Ray has the contract to service rental cars for both Hertz and Avis' airport fleets and while this is seasonal (frantic in the ski season, not so busy in the summer) it is just another of the diverse ways businesses like this think to keep themselves busy. In this case, almost too busy and they are actively seeking another qualified mechanic to join the team.
With such a tiny population, they can't rely on the townsfolk to keep the doors open, but the large outlying farming community makes up for this. According to Ray and Dean, 70% of the workshop business comes from servicing farm 4wd utes and other farm machinery. While the newer vehicles go into Dunedin for warranty work, as soon as the factory warranty period is up, they arrive at Ray's workshop for the attention required. There are some big hills down there and the weather is best described as “extreme” so this can be hard on equipment (and good for garage workshops).
Being keen car enthusiasts another sideline has been the growing number of classic cars coming in, either for service, or more major work (like the Dodge van getting its engine changed), right through to full restorations and there was an interesting line-up in a separate workshop area at the back of the garage. Old car owners like to have their toys worked on by those who appreciate and understand the differences between today's cars and those of a few decades ago. Once the word is out that there is someone “old car friendly” in the district, it doesn't take long for word to get around.
Family-run small town businesses always seem to have a more relaxed and friendly vibe than what is found in the bigger towns and cities. The Warnock's love living and working in Outram and are proof that rural New Zealand still offers plenty of great opportunities for a great lifestyle and a successful business at the same time.
From the outside, the Outram Garage looks the same as any other up and down the country
Certainly not the inside of your typical rural service station
Ray Warnock outside his workshop
Dean’s Falcon getting “the treatment” – a couple of turbos as a start...
Sometime in the early 70s, a Mk4 Zephyr refuels at Outram
Some of the equipment needed to keep both the rural and classic car communities running