New Zealand lost a true legend in the road transport industry on 9 May 2020 with the death of Bert Watchorn.
Photo: Bert Watchorn. A lifetime in trucking to envy.
Born 15 July 1930 in Stratford, Bert spent his early years on a farm in Taranaki with his family. A few years later his family moved to a larger farm at Papamoa in the Bay of Plenty, and after his mother’s sudden death less than a year later, 13-year-old Bert left school to work on the farm. Working on the farm was not his passion, and after a few years his older brother, Alf, offered him a job driving his ex-American Army 6-wheel drive GMC logger. No one checked to see if Bert had a licence, and he hauled logs from the Kaimai Forest to the sawmill in Tauranga for a time without one. After about 18 months Bert got itchy feet and decided to go to Australia with his then girlfriend (later wife), Joyce. Bert’s first job was as a porter for the NSW Railways at a station in the Blue Mountains, but he later began working as a driver-comemechanic in a garage at Springwood. When the owner decided to sell the garage a couple of years later, the new purchaser wasn’t interested in his truck. Bert didn’t fancy being a fulltime mechanic so he got a job as a tyre fitter at Gartrells Tyre Service in Katumba. The couple later moved to Orange, west of Bathurst, where they married and had their first child, Cynthia.
Her arrival saw the Watchorn family return to New Zealand where Bert got a job with Sarjant’s Transport driving from Paeroa to Auckland five days a week. Bert’s father had sold the Papamoa farm in 1953 and saw a business for sale at Pongakawa that he thought was ideal for Bert. With his father going guarantor with the bank, Bert purchased Pongakawa Transport. The business came with an old Chevy truck that was on its last legs, so Bert asked the bank for more money and was soon the proud owner of a new truck. The five-tonne T467 Commer was fitted with a hoist, body and stock crate. Little by little, Bert began being offered more work, and about a year later, he acquired a contract with the Land and Survey Department to move stock out of their Pikowai block. In the early 1960s one of the carriers in Te Puke came up with the idea of a merger, and seven operators, including Bert, formed a new company called Te Puke Transport. Te Puke Transport bought Holden’s Transport and Bert moved to Edgecumbe with second wife Leslie and her young daughters Michelle and Toni, and their son, Andrew. By now, Cynthia was married, and Bert’s two older boys, Philip and Robert, were working. The shareholders started to pull out of Te Puke Transport until finally there were just two. By now Bert and Leslie had purchased three more trucks and formed a separate company to put them in, Watchorn Transport 1977 Ltd. They also acquired a three-truck business and a shingle pit.
Bert eventually bought out the other partner in Te Puke Transport and became the sole owner. By now he had a contract with the regional council to rebuild the stop banks following a flood, and he also went after tendered contracts for Lands and Survey and Maori Affairs through Te Puke Transport and Watchorn’s Transport. The kiwifruit industry was taking off but livestock cartage was dropping, and in the early 1980s Bert bought a couple of log trucks from Stan Williamson. Another job Watchorn’s acquired was the cartage of Ammophos from Napier. A few years later Bert was approached by Opotiki Transport to see if he wanted to sell the stock cartage part of the business, and he did so. At its peak, Watchorn Transport had 25 trucks. When Bert became unwell, he decided there had to be more to life than just working, so in 1997 the business was sold to Rotorua Forest Haulage. The sale allowed him to concentrate on his collection of about 150 classic vehicles, which began with a 1936 International C 1. He also set up a rally for classic commercial trucks, now known as the Long Lap and run by the Northern Classic Commercials club. Bert was 89 and died at the Bob Owens Retirement Home in Tauranga. He leaves behind wife Leslie, children Cynthia, Philip, Robert, Michelle, Toni, and Andrew, nine grandchildren, and 10 greatgrandchildren.