Road trips. Sunday drives. A blat into town for no other reason than to blat. Cars are the enemy of bike-riding wokesters but their role in New Zealand culture is deep, rich, profound; and the splendidly illustrated photo album Life With Cars is a celebration of the old bombs, Yank tanks and pre-Toyota classics that filled the roads and filled our lives from the 1950s to 80s.

Mascar Motors, Hutt Valley. Photo from Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa/Gordon Burt

The pages are a guide to New Zealand on the road. Trips to lie in the sand at Maraetai Beach, Raglan, the Mount. Stuck in the mud at Palliser Bay. Hooning through the Manawatu Gorge. Stopping in at the Albion Hotel in Westport. There’s a cop at the side of the road with his XF Ford Falcon – it looks like a still from Goodbye Pork Pie. There’s two old ladies changing a tyre in the middle of nowhere, and honeymooning couples, and kids in the back seat. Plus incredible stories. One guy on his Citroën Light 15: “It was the only car that I’ve driven while sound asleep. Absolutely asleep, dreaming while at the wheel going down past Meremere at night on the straight. I woke up from quite a pleasant dream to the sonorous hum of the engine and I was still in the correct lane.”

Mick Wicksteed’s aunt and uncle’s PA Vauxhall Cresta shortly after its arrival in New Zealand, pictured in a very raw new street in Kohimarama, 1963

There’s a very good, nicely detailed 20-page A-Z appendix at the back of all the featured cars, from the Austin 30 to the Vauxhall Velox. In between there’s a Peugeot 403, a Fiat 500D, and a 1962 EH Holden. Throughout, great Kiwi sentences. This: “The Simca 1000 had the 944 cc motor and went like a scalded cat.” And this: “I used Lion Brown beer from a carton I had in the car to top up the radiator.” Also this, with real feeling: “I think about the cars we had in the 1970s all the time.”

Yellow car in front of a cabin. Photo from Robin Morrison Estate/Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Breaking news: this just in (Monday morning, March 22), from the Herald: “A 1970 Ford Falcon has sold for more than $400,000 at an auction at Southward Car Museum, north of Wellington. The 1970 Ford XW Falcon GT-HO Phase II ended up selling for $414,000. The car arrived in Wellington in 1986. Caolan McAleer from Webb’s Auction House said ‘these are a real rarity to the market’.”

Life With Cars: New Zealnders’ Motoring Memories 1950s-1980s by Stephen Barnett (Oratia Books, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide.


Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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