OPINION: When I was a kid my father was the technical director of Wilkins and Davies, a prominent New Zealand construction company.
Their bleak yards were located along with the company's head office on the banks of the Hutt River, near the river mouth. It was a solidly industrial area and the best thing about going there was the fact that the Southward factory was next door. In fact, I think Wilkins and Davies built the factory and that my father designed it.
Southward Tube Mills made steel pipe that among other things was turned into exhaust systems for many of the cars that were imported into New Zealand for final assembly. Most cars came in that way back in the days when the nation's balance of payments meant something and it was policy to encourage local content where ever possible.
I was only about eight years old when I noticed a great big old racing car lurking inside a door in the Southward factory that turned out to be some sort of veteran Mercedes chassis with a gigantic World War I Zeppelin motor in it. It had huge wheels, a ridiculously long bonnet and great big drainpipe exhausts. There was a hole in the chain link fence between the two concerns and I used it to investigate further. This was how I discovered Len Southward's collection of classic cars and motorcycles.
I learned that the monster was started by pulling the engine over with a long steel pole and the person who told me this was Len Southward himself. He volunteered this information when he discovered me staring at the thing. I think he probably found out whose kid I was and decided it was all right for me to be there. I quite often went over after that first foray and I remember finding Len tinkering with old motorcycles on several occasions. He was very absorbed when working but we had many other conversations about cars.
Len Southward was kind to me and he was kind to many others. His rise in the world from a humble messenger boy to a leading New Zealand manufacturer was marked by a singular lack of ferocity. All who had dealings with Len knew him to be a scrupulously fair man. Few knew that he was also a major benefactor of the Wellington Paraplegic and Physically Disabled Association as his largess was until after his death anonymous.
I first saw the magnificent museum in Otaihanga on the Kapiti Coast he later built when I returned from living overseas and revived an old Hudson I owned to make a national tour. A tail light bulb blew and I found it difficult to buy another.
When I saw the sign for the museum I turned off, even though it was after hours. I was rewarded by the sight of a beautiful white building in rolling parkland, with a lake complete with gliding swans. To my surprise Sir Leonard, as he was by then, came chuffing along in an older Hudson and asked what I was doing in "that splash lubrication thing". On impulse I asked if he had a spare tail light bulb and with a cheery "follow me" we drove down the side of the museum and stopped outside a row of roller doors. He unlocked one and grabbing a wheeled ladder rolled it alongside rows of shelving laden with boxes. He stopped, ascended the ladder, grabbed a little box with the Delco Remy brand on it and handed it to me. It was the right bulb.
Sir Leonard Bingley Southward died on February 19, 2004, aged 98, and his funeral was held in the museum's theatre. Sir Len, as he was popularly known, had by then essentially bequeathed his museum to the nation with a trust running it. The museum is rightly recognised as an important national cultural icon. The Absolutely Positively Wellington website describes the museum as, "The most comprehensive privately owned collection of veteran and vintage cars in the Southern Hemisphere."
Nature Coast Experience, the official tourist information website for the Kapiti- Horowhenua District Council, says on its website that "Thanks to the vision and passion of Sir Len Southward, for 30 years people have come to view a private collection of cars considered one of the best and biggest in the world. Only when you step into the building will you realise why 40,000 people per year visit Southward."
It is puzzling, given these ringing endorsements, that both the local mayor and Land Transport NZ seem determined to destroy the place. There is little doubt that a new "expressway" will greatly benefit the area but why would the local mayor, Jenny Rowan, have promoted a route that took the new road right through the museum. Thankfully her idiotic proposal was not accepted but the intransigent attitude of Land Transport is perplexing. They have told the Southward Trust that the allocation of access and exit points for the new expressway has been decided and the museum will not have one. This will mean that the only way visitors can get to it will be by taking a circuitous detour, a move that makes commercial failure and closure inevitable.
My association with the Southward Motor Museum is personal and perhaps that is why I feel such a sense of outrage that people charged with representing the public interest could behave in a way I find bloody minded and stupid. However, I would like to think that there are many, many New Zealanders who have some affection for the place. The threat to the museum's future is immediate and dire. Who will save it?
Tim Hanna is a Lumsden-based author.
- The Southland Times