124 BACK PAGE Rob Webb
Hunterville is one of those small towns on SH1, nestled in the Rangitikei hills between Bulls and Taihape which the average motorist drives through with nary a second glance.
And in these days of super-sized service stations (the ones where getting a tyre fixed is impossible, but they can sell you some shampoo and a nice coffee), the little BP station on the left as you head north is one of those rapidly disappearing sites as fuel storage tanks reach the end of their service lives and the oil companies make the call not to replace them.
Which, if you run the sort of car I have, something 80+ years old with a range of approximately 20 yards and therefore needing fuel seemingly every 20 minutes, is a bit of an issue these days!
Ron Bartlett and Don Hatfull are proud that they own what is now the last privately-owned BP service station on SH1 between Wellington and Auckland, an achievement recently acknowledged by BP themselves.
Not only that, they are here to stay, having recently opened a 24 hour truck stop (although they did run into a little difficulty with the local council over the slight remodelling of a small hill which was going to impede the movement in and out of B-trains), their tanks are new and up-to date. Always looking at ways to diversify as economic and social change has had effects on small rural centres which city dwellers could not even contemplate, let alone live through, they have added a small showroom for Husqvarna power equipment (lawn mowers, chainsaws and the like) with a separate dedicated workshop to service and repair these small but essential items which are generally mistreated, abused and yet expected to perform faultlessly every time the starter cord is pulled or the ignition key turned (for those flash people with ride-on mowers).
With a population of only 500 and an opposition fuel company setting up shop 50 metres up the street, it is this diversification which is essential to survival. Increasing compliance costs, the upcoming changes to the WoF system and the newly opened BP station with attached Wild Bean café 20 minutes down the road at Bulls all providing challenges which would have some of a weaker constitution throw their hands in the air and admit defeat. There is none of that sort of attitude visible in Hunterville, just a determination to look for other ways to strengthen the business. Nine years ago a small truck and digger were purchased, available for hire. This has proved so popular that at the time of my visit, a bigger truck and digger were both being pursued, to operate alongside the existing ones as this part of the business becomes increasingly popular.
Thirty years ago when Ron and Don took on the Hunterville Service Centre, there were at least 15 farms in the local area to provide a steady workload. With the change to farming trends brought about by the economics (or lack of) in sheep farming, still the main form of agriculture on the hilly terrain, properties have been forced to merge to survive and now there are only five, giving the farm owners the benefit of economy of scale but this has an effect on the local economy at the same time.
The building which houses the Hunterville Service Centre has a history all of its own. Apparently it was originally the blacksmith’s. As a young boy, my grandfather would make the day long journey by horse-drawn dray from the family home in Rewa to Hunterville to get work done and collect supplies.
The sound of red-hot metal being struck on an anvil to manufacture horseshoes has long since been consigned to history, now the modern equivalent happens, with tyres for everything from mobility scooters to trucks are fitted in the same place – the dray replaced with farm utes and cars being repaired out the back, locals and a few passing travellers refuelling out front.
Back in a previous life I had my first contact with them. My first job (which I got because I met two of the major requirements for the position; I drove a French car and was into motor racing) was at the AA in Marton. Being a small office, we all did a bit of everything, which included dispatching the Service Officer or the outlying contract garages to breakdowns. For anyone having car trouble in the area around Hunterville, it was Ron who got the call. Of course back then, most cars could be fixed on the side of the road with a couple of crescents and a screwdriver. Put in a new coil and condenser and things would be up and running. If it was wet, there would be Minis with drowned electrics, revived with a squirt of CRC around the distributor. And if none of this worked, a quick tow back to the workshop would be in order for further investigation.
That was the 1980s; now cars as a rule don’t break down but if they do, towing is out of the question. Have you ever tried being towed in a car with power steering and power brakes when the engine won’t go? I have and it is a good work-out for the arms and right leg but not much fun. Plus the possibility of damage to automatic transmissions. These days there is a flat-deck low-loading recovery truck in the workshop on standby, although the traditional breakdown truck still has a productive life when needing to retrieve errant motorists who have run off the road and disappeared into deep ditches or over a bank.
For a small town and what outwardly appears to be a very smallscale operation, having four people employed in the workshop (including an apprentice, to demonstrate the faith they have in the long-term viability of their business) as well as an office and forecourt attendant, it is clear that Ron and Don are intending to provide an essential service to their local community for many years to come.
The new 24 hour truckstop is proving a popular addition to the Hunterville Service Centre.
Hunterville, small town New Zealand.
Just recognition from BP. From a small European hatchback needing service to a farm ute which has ingested water very much to its detriment, there is plenty of variety in the workshop mechanic’s day.
No need for the locals to go to the big city for the small but essential items of property maintenance; it is all here.