Frozen in time
A WORKSHOP SALE IS TESTIMONY TO A BUSINESS AND EQUIPMENT FROM ANOTHER ERA
Visit the shed of an Auckland refrigeration manufacturing business which has shut its doors for the last time
Ijust love nosing around other people’s workshops to see what they are making and what gear they have, and I recently just had the special opportunity to look at a manufacturing workshop that was about to be sold up and, as a bonus, learn about its history.
Macdonald Refrigeration surely has a place in Auckland’s heritage as a pioneer in its field. The factory has been closed for some time now and it has been hard for the family to let go of all the gear, but it is filling a lot of valuable space. Property leasing is the main focus for the business now and prospective tenants have been pushing them to make this building available in the sought-after suburb of Grey Lynn in central Auckland.
History of Macdonald Refrigeration
Refrigeration was in its infancy when Allan Macdonald decided to start his own business servicing commercial and domestic refrigerators. He had completed a fitting and turning apprenticeship at Winstone’s workshop in Auckland and had the entrepreneurial spirit to take on this exciting new field. It was in 1938, the year his son Ian was born, that he took the plunge.
As refrigeration was new and there were no courses or qualifications yet available he had to learn as he went. He developed connections with American brands such as Westinghouse and Beech for servicing their products. Of course in those days most households still used a safe and refrigerators were regarded as a luxury, so there were very few servicing specialists. Being involved early in any field in its infancy is always an advantage, particularly when it has so much potential. Those early years would
Those early years would have been a struggle, with the rewards coming later
have been a struggle, with the rewards coming later.
The company initially worked from premises at 1A Albany Road, Herne Bay, Auckland, concentrating on service work, but with the decision to add manufacturing to the business, it moved to Weld Street in nearby Freemans Bay.
Don’t plan on looking Weld Street up though, as it no longer exists. It was dug up and is now covered with buildings. It was a link between Napier and Union Streets. At that time there were neighbours, including the warehouses of Farmers Trading Co and Walker and Hall. There was also a row of small houses that the Macdonalds bought as they became available to use for storage. Their factory had 70 employees manufacturing domestic refrigerators as well as commercial units for butcher’s shops, hotels, hospitals, etc. Many of these were custom-made units, such as refrigerated window displays for butcher’s and fish shops.
Being a manufacturer also meant being an importer of the materials needed to build the units. These included compressors, electric motors, and the refrigerant fluids. Organizing shipments had to be coordinated with production. Often goods would be shipped to Australia first, then on to New Zealand. With labour strikes
at docks on both sides of the Tasman occurring from time to time the coordination was often frustrating. An understanding bank manager was vital then, just as is today.
Imported refrigerant gas was typically shipped in tall cylinders, which were then decanted into smaller ones that were easier for servicemen to handle on site. Typical refrigerants in those early days were methyl chloride and sulphur dioxide.
With refrigeration becoming more popular, especially for retail businesses, the need to travel outside Auckland to service customers was vital. Servicemen from Macdonald were sent as far north as Kaitaia (Ian tells me that he once went there and back in a day to do a repair job) and as far south as Hastings and Palmerston North.
One of Macdonald’s customers was Adams Bruce, who had a chain of shops that served delicious ice cream, chocolates, and biscuits — at least they are the things I remember buying there as a kid. Each shop had a freezer for the ice cream of course, but Ian recalls that the Adams Bruce ice-cream factory was in Collingwood Street, in Freemans Bay, and ice cream was sent to the Bruce shops on New Zealand Rail (NZR) Road Services buses. This was achieved by packing the ice cream in round steel cylinders that had a glycol hold-over tank with dry ice underneath — all wrapped in an insulated canvas jacket. Before the advent of courier companies most packages were handled by NZR Road Services buses.
After hassles with the Auckland City Council rezoning the area where the factory was in Freemans Bay and the council flip-flopping on that zoning, Macdonald Refrigeration decided to move. In 1968, it moved to a new factory the company built in Richmond Road, Grey Lynn. The site was purchased from the well-known local Warnoch family, who had a soap factory next door, on a handshake deal — totally unheard of today. Staff numbers at this time were 42.
I felt like a kid in a lolly shop wandering around the Macdonald factory. There was such a range of metalworking machines that I didn’t know where to start. There were folders, guillotines, a press brake, and power presses. Even a trusty Dyco drill press (brands such as Dyco and Tanner are very desirable today as they are solid and reliable). I was especially interested in an old Philips arc welder. It can be set for AC or DC welding, and on closer inspection I could see large, old glass vacuum tubes inside, presumably for rectifying the power. I was told that the welds it produced were wonderful and it is still in working order. Smooth finish and deep penetration were typical of the output. I have never seen one like this before — amazing. All the machinery has obviously been kept in good condition and some appeared to have been modified to improve output. I noticed a guillotine driven by an old, but solid, electric motor and looked closer to see that it was John Heine brand — the same as the two power presses that were there. Heine is recognized as one of the very best brands of presses. I have worked with this brand of power presses and they are so solid and reliable that they seem to keep going forever. Even their fly press was a John Heine! Edwards is another brand that was once revered as a maker of top-quality equipment and Macdonald had an Edwards folder. This was a fine example of a folder made with a cast-iron frame, meaning that it has great rigidity.
With labour strikes at docks on both sides of the Tasman occurring from time to time the coordination was often frustrating
There was another folder of more recent manufacture with a fabricated (welded) frame. I don’t want to give fabricated folders a bad rap as they do work quite well, but my pick would be the old Edwards. Another Edwards machine was a foottreadle-operated small guillotine — ideal for small jobs like chamfering corners on sheet-metal items. Yet another Edwards machine was the press brake. No, it doesn’t break things, it bends them. The top blade moves down onto a fixed die block to bend the sheet metal between the blade and the die block. By changing the blade and the die-block shape (the die block can be rotated to bring different forms to play) it is possible to create different bends or even radiused shapes.
Every fridge has a story
I saw several examples of the company’s domestic refrigerators in storage together with factory equipment when I visited. Some had a story behind them. I saw a red-coloured fridge and a matching chest freezer. Ian related the story of the lady who bought the red fridge new from them and when it needed to come to the factory to be serviced, she followed the truck in her car to make sure that her beloved red fridge did not get scratched. When she passed away some years later the fridge and freezer came back addressed to Fraser Macdonald, Ian’s son, who had assisted the lady when her fridge had needed remedial work. He had given such good service and she loved that fridge so much that she felt it should go back to the company.
Another old-timer was a double-door fridge that I recognized as one similar to a model a relative of mine had had years ago. This also had been bequeathed to the Macdonalds by a satisfied customer. Inspection showed that over the course of its life, all that it had needed was a new V-belt for the drive from the motor to the compressor. Every other part was exactly as it was when bought new. Amazing!
Fill those freezers
The production of domestic refrigerators was eventually dropped as competition stepped up from other companies, as well as imported product, but Macdonald established a niche producing chest freezers and was a pioneer in the field. However, the company was approached by a competitor, Bonaire, which also made chest freezers, and was offered a deal to sell its products. The economics stacked up so they did the deal. This was a time when it was popular to buy a whole beast and store it in the home freezer.
Many Aucklanders will recall butchers like Albany Meats, which sold wholesale and in bulk to the public. Ian tells me that the butcher would sell direct from the factory and on the weekends people would often arrive with an animal carcass in the back of their car needing a freezer right away. They sold as many as 27 chest freezers per day at the height of that era.
However, commercial refrigeration was seen as the backbone of the business and eventually Macdonald concentrated solely on that market.
Manufacturing in New Zealand
Most of my own career has been in manufacturing in New Zealand and I am saddened to see so many businesses close their workshops and instead become importers of products manufactured in low- cost countries. It seems wrong that we allow our innovative Kiwi companies to suffer against imports of items from countries where their governments probably subsidize them so that they can overrun the competition. However, I am heartened by the stories I do hear of New Zealand manufacturers making a go of it even in this climate. Just last week I heard of a local manufacturer making rivets for export to China and another making fishing gear and selling successfully in many other countries.
Come on, Kiwis, you can make stuff on home turf and if you can’t think of something clever to make just yet, at least try buying locally made things in the meantime — the standard of living for all of us will improve. Ahh, I feel better now I’ve had my rant.
She followed the truck in her car to make sure that her beloved red fridge did not get scratched
An Edwards press brake
The famous John Heine brand featured large in this manufacturing shed. Here is a John Heine guillotine
Even the fly press was a John Heine!
This Philips arc welder uses glass vacuum tubes for power rectification
Large fabricated frame guillotine
A sturdy Logan metalworking lathe
Macdonald was a manufacturer of fridges and freezers — this meant the company had to import compressors, electric motors, and the refrigerant fluids
A power press by John Heine, recognized as one of the very best brands of presses — solid and reliable
One customer felt that, when she passed away, the fridge she had loved so much should go back to the company that made it, Macdonald Refrigeration