100 not out!

Thursday, August 22, 2019

With a century under his belt, Eric Wilson can still recall facts, figures, and characters from his time as a transport operator seven decades ago!


Photo: Eric Wilson celebrates 100 years. Next to him is a mud flap the writer had made in the company livery.

When buildings, clubs, or businesses reach a hundred years of age it’s a great occasion, but when an individual does, it’s the milestone of all milestones. To be invited to a 100th birthday party probably only happens once in anyone’s life, and is a special privilege, made all the more special when you’ve known the guest of honour since you were a child. Eric Wilson (a.k.a. ‘Skin’) celebrated his 100th birthday at the Howick RSA on Saturday 27 April – two days shy of the actual day.
Eric was born in Te Puke and is the youngest of eight children – two boys, six girls – born to John and Emily Wilson. He attended school in Te Puke initially, but the family then moved to Rotorua in 1929, where Eric continued school until he was 15. His first job was at the Te Whaiti General Store, and it would be the start of dual careers he would pursue at different times in his life: working in or owning general stores, and driving and owning trucks. Eric wasn’t long in the job when he began driving the business’s trucks, either a 15Cwt (hundredweight) Ford V8 or the bigger ‘Yankee’ machine, a 3-ton Fisher able to take five ton or more. He would pick up from the railhead and deliver to the working men’s camps in the area.


Photo: Eric in an International A162 with a load of bridge girders on in the Waioeka Gorge. Photo was taken in the early 50s.

Like many in the era, Eric was a territorial and was in camp at Waiouru when World War II broke out in 1939, hearing the news on the radio with his mates. At 20 he was put into fulltime training, living in tents left over from World War I. From here he joined the 24th Battalion and headed for El Alamein in Egypt, where he served his country driving Bren gun and ammunition carriers. Returning from the war, Eric secured work with Andrew and Andrew in Papatoetoe, Auckland, carting coal from the railway station to Waitemata Breweries. “The loads were shovelled on and off, but we got a cold handle after each load,” he recalls. DIC not a factor in those days. Following a move back to Rotorua he got a job with George Dansey, driving a 1939 Chev truck with a pole trailer. One of the regular tasks was driving to Minginui, loading 4000 feet of native timber, and returning to Rotorua. Total time – about nine hours. Eric made sure he was back in town before 6pm so he could have a couple of handles before heading off to Manukau Timber in South Auckland, owned by Gordon Pollard (later Henderson and Pollard).

Eric travelled north with a 44-gallon (209-litre) drum of fuel on board, as there were no service stations open late in those days. Amazingly for the late 40s, there was a 24-hour tearoom by the Frankton Railway Station and Eric would stop there for a meal on his way. Arriving at the destination about 2am, he would take the chains and ropes off and grab some sleep before unloading and returning to Rotorua by late morning. He recalls one trip to Auckland where he had two blowouts between Drury and Otahuhu. There were no tyre services to call out; it was matter of repairing each one on the side of the road in the pitch dark.


Photo: A Leyland Comet stock truck. A great example of the era on the Hauraki Plains.


Photo: A fantastic photo, years before the Waitakaruru weighbridge was even thought of…thankfully.

After the stint in Rotorua it was back to Auckland, running a general store in the Harp of Erin (Greenlane area at the Gt South Rd/Greenlane Rd intersection). It was here he met Doris Boswell, and they married 12 March 1949. When Eric secured his rehab loan for returned servicemen, he used it to buy a 1938 3-ton Chev and established Eric & D Wilson Ltd, carting phosphate for Winstone Ltd to the Challenge Fertiliser works at Te Papa and Otahuhu. In time he updated the truck to a 1948 Q4 Commer and would cart six to eight loads of milk powder a day from Camp Bunn in Mt Wellington (Sylvia Park Shopping Centre now) to the Auckland wharves. Once again, all loading and unloading was by hand. Other regular work included carting wheat for NRM, but it wasn’t all same-old same-old. Eric also ventured farther afield when required, like taking Education Board huts to Tokomaru Bay School on the North Island’s East Coast. The roads to Tokomaru Bay in 1950 were a test of both man and machine. There were furniture shifts to far flung places like Benneydale too. One that sticks in his mind the most was one to Tauranga. “This shift was quoted to the lady at £27 ($54), and the old story that there would be ‘man power’ at each end to help load and unload,” said Eric.

As you can imagine, Eric’s fuse was getting short by the time he had unloaded it all by himself at Tauranga. “Then she asked if I’d unpack it all and put it away!” Eric’s reply was … blunt. The next big break was winning a contract with Papatoetoe-based LW Bonney Ltd to cart coal from Huntly to the power station on Kings Wharf in Auckland. For this job he got a K7 International and had McKenzie and Hughes in Onehunga build a semi-trailer from a secondhand trailer. Getting the hoist gear proved difficult. In the post-war years there were not only shortages, but also import restrictions due to the need for overseas funds. Time was of the essence when his supplier told Eric it would take two months before the equipment could be landed here. But it turns out the supplier wasn’t being entirely truthful. Eric later found out they didn’t have the funds to buy the kit in, and as a result Eric missed out on the Huntly contract. The good news in all this was the International truck Eric ran. International Harvester Ltd directed him toward the firm Rope Construction Ltd, where he secured work carting 12-ton loads of cement. The first job was two loads a day to the new Pipiroa bridge site on the Hauraki Plains and after that, two loads a day to the Mormon school being built in Temple View near Hamilton.
The Rope Construction work was good work and Eric carted metal, sand, construction equipment, and bridge girders, including the bridge girders for the first section of the North- Western motorway from Waterview to Te Atatu. That project was completed in 1952.


Photo: Eric (standing by the door) and driver Ross Francis with a boat on board at the Panmure Basin.


Photos: The International AR162 (above) and the Leyland Beaver (below) both well loaded…and both by hand.
Note the Beaver is the Homalloy cab variety.

Following that he took bridge girders to Gisborne via the Waioeka Gorge, but the king of kings load-wise for the Rope Construction era was a 12.2m (40’) by 6.1m (20’) pile-driver to the Mohaka Viaduct site between Napier and Wairoa. “A trip that had many hair-raising moments,” said Eric. Hard work was yielding success and Eric bought two more Internationals that he contracted to Ivan Whale Ltd in Auckland. Most of the work entailed tarsealing, mainly in the King Country, and as far south as the Desert Road. It meant drivers Tom and Ray only got home for a short spell over the weekends. Eric struck up a business relationship with Joe Brenan Jr next, carting sand from Puni, south of Auckland, to Brenan’s Onehunga yard. Following his return from the Second World War, Joe had taken over McCarten Brothers Carrying Company from his father, Joe Brenan Sr. It was through this cartage arrangement that Joe Sr offered Eric the opportunity to move south of Auckland to the Hauraki Plains settlement of Waitakaruru, and take over a bigger transport operation, Brenan and Co Ltd. Joe Sr had purchased Waitakaruru Transport off Frank and Henry Smythe in 1953 and renamed it Brenan and Co Ltd. The company comprised a mixed bag of trucks that included Mack, Diamond Ts, Stewarts, Federals, Dodges, Commers, and Bedfords. Joe Sr was to be a silent partner in the proposed deal. Eric accepted the challenge, bringing four of his trucks from Auckland. He took over on New Year’s Day 1955 and renamed the new operation Waitakaruru Transport Ltd, although the Brenan green and black fleet livery was retained.

Eric built the fleet into a strong 10-truck operation. The mainstay customer was NZCDC (New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company), which had a factory in Waitakaruru. The work largely comprised picking up milk cans seven days a week, and delivering cheese to the Auckland wharves in season. It was a big operation for the day. Following an upgrade, the Waitakaruru factory was a world record holder for the production of cheese in the 1952/53 season, and consumed 1750 cans of milk every day in the flush, which equates to 35,000 gallons (159,000 litres). Prior to the upgrade it had been 17,000 gallons (77,000 litres). Although the 30-mile (48km) rail regulation was increased to 40 (64kms) miles in 1961, the strange system was an inhibitor of business progress, and like many rural operators, Eric tried everything he could to work his way around it. A great example was the transporting of stock from Wairoa on the East Coast, to the Goudie farm on the northwest Coromandel Peninsula. Under regulation stock was railed up to Pokeno and supposedly trucked from there, but the mortality rate at Pokeno was too great to cope with. “The station master didn’t care at all.” Eric contacted army mate Peter Crawford, who now owned Opotiki Carriers.


Photo: An International AR162 loaded with wool bales and fadges in the Waitakaruru yard. The sheds in the background are still there today. 

The plan was that Opotiki Carriers would lift the stock from Wairoa and meet a Waitakaruru truck at Taneatua Saleyards in the middle of the night. The Waitakaruru unit was normally a Leyland truck and trailer driven by Ross Francis, although there was a pool of drivers that could be called on. Once loaded he would undertake the long trek to the peninsula, unload, and return to Waitakaruru. A clear demonstration of the hours these men worked and the driving skills they possessed. Oh, and they never got caught either. Although the work was hard and hours long, camaraderie was high. The company social club was widely regarded as the ‘local pub’, with the closest official watering hole being 11 miles (18km) away in Kaiaua. The social club was the scene of many happy times, and staff recall delivering Eric across the yard to his home in a wheelbarrow on a number of occasions. At one stage it had got a little out of hand. Customers and friends of the company returning from outings in Auckland, heading back to Thames and other towns, would pop in for an ale. Funds got embarrassingly high and a huge night was organised with live music in the local hall to burn through some cash. Guests included the McCarten brothers from Auckland and the Brenans from Paeroa. Ironically, people donated money to help cover costs, and the social club kitty ended up in an even more buoyant state afterwards. The good ol’ days!

Former employee Ted Gibson (himself 96 this month – there must have been something in the social club’s beer) says Eric was never one to hold a grudge, something he attributes to his years in the war. “If there was a problem, it was sorted out there and then and everyone got on with things.” Eric contributed much to the road transport of the Hauraki Plains and Thames Valley, and staff who worked at the Waitakaruru firm went on etch their own place in history: Len Chambers, Jim Bryant, Basil and Tex Grbic, Doug Brown, Bill Bathurst ( Jr), and Ian Ramshaw, to name a few. The constant battle trying to do business in the face of rail protectionism led to the amalgamation of Waitakaruru Transport, and Thames operator Jim Parker forming Parker Wilson Transport Ltd. The union meant direct access from Thames to Auckland, with freight having to be unloaded and trans-shipped in Waitakaruru (yeah right!) to avoid the prying eyes of local Bobbies. Eric eventually sold out to Jim and moved back to Auckland around 1964 – 65, turning his hand once again to retail businesses for a spell, with shops in the CBD and then Riverhead, before taking a position as transport supervisor with Lever Brothers in Papatoetoe. His transport career ended after seven years spent running the nine trucks operated by the Gilmours Tobacco department in Auckland. Following a brief retirement stint in Mt Maunganui, Eric and Doris returned to Auckland and settled there. Doris passed away in 2001 after 52 years together. Eric retuned to El Alamein nine years ago on a government funded war veterans’ tour, a trip he enjoyed immensely. He lives in a retirement home now following a fall two years ago. At one hundred Eric is still as sharp as a tack and will quickly finish a sentence or contribute a fact to a conversation in the blink of an eye. He also enjoys the social life at the Howick RSA three nights a week.

He and Doris had four children, tragically losing eldest son Peter at 10 to an unknown illness. Daughter Noeleen and sons Craig and Keith are close to their Dad and immensely proud of his life and achievements. Noeleen and husband Wayne Leigh ran a stock transporting firm in Kumeu, while Craig is an auto electrician and Keith is involved in the car sales business. Eric Wilson. A man who has served his country courageously in every way imaginable, whether it be on the battlefield in the pursuit of liberty and freedom, or in the field of commerce, striving to add value to the communities in which he lived, create jobs, and provide for his family. A fair and honest man. Congratulations on 100 years well lived, Eric. Your story is a role model for all.

Work in progress
Writer of this story, Peter Mitchell, is currently compiling the family tree of trucking that originated in Waitakaruru, and ended with Provincial Freightlines Ltd. Photos, anecdotes, and historical information would be greatly received and appreciated, and all original material will be returned to the owner. Please contact Peter on:
Ph: 021 026-45867
Mail: 31 Pipiroa Road, Ngatea, 3503.
Email: petermitchell1@xtra.co.nz