Campbell, Colin Eric Interview

It’s the 30th July [2020]. I’ve got Colin Campbell here who’s had his own business; he was a motor mechanic, sought after all over the country. Mainly, if I remember rightly, classic cars especially. So well known; good morning, Colin.

Morning.

Could you tell me about when you first came to Hawke’s Bay, or did your parents come to Hawke’s Bay?

Yeah, well I was born in Waipawa at the Rathbone Maternity Annexe on the 23rd April 1936, and my parents, Joan and Lou Campbell, both came from farming families in Central Hawke’s Bay. And when I was actually born my father was working on Ngāmatea Station, and I recall asking him in latter years, I says, “How come my mother wasn’t at Ngāmatea?” And he said that at that particular time Ngāmatea had no married couple accommodation, only for single shepherds. And apparently Dad liked the high country and he wanted to work on Ngāmatea just for a little stint, because apparently, I believe it was a bit of a feather in your cap if you could say you’d worked on Ngāmatea. So he wanted to do that. And then when he came back into Central Hawke’s Bay, I think they lived out at Whanawhana for a while and Dad was a shepherd there; but he liked the high country.

And when I was about eighteen months old they decided to go on what we’d probably call in this day and age their big OE, [overseas experience] and that was to be a six months’ working holiday in the South Island. So they took off with all their worldly possessions, which was very little; no motor vehicle, and just one little kid which was me, and they moved to the South Island and worked for a short period of time round Kaikōura, and then a bit north of Christchurch for a while. Dad still wanted the really high country, so they moved into the Mackenzie Country in South Canterbury; and they first worked on Balmoral Station which is now where the Balmoral Military Camp is. And they were there when Balmoral was sold to T B Bernard. T B Bernard was Member of Parliament for Waitaki, and he was a well known character, ‘specially round South Canterbury there.

And then they went to work for Wills & Le Cren; and Wills & Le Cren at that time owned two sheep stations in South Canterbury – Tekapo Station, which doesn’t exist any more because the homestead site was flooded when they raised the lake twenty-seven feet for hydroelectric. We lived on a peninsula in the lake where the homestead was, but that is now flooded; although the actual site has become uncovered again when the lake level goes down. And the other station that they had was at Sherwood Downs, which was just a few miles north of Fairlie. And we lived on both those stations, and of course I first went to primary school at Tekapo School. And I used to walk across the suspension bridge in front of the Church of the Good Shepherd, which of course is still there today; and the suspension bridge isn’t. And of course the main road now goes behind the church, not in front of it.

They worked on other stations in South Canterbury – The Grampians; Mount Melville, which is now called Cloudy Peaks; and Aries. And I went to primary school at Kimbell for a while ,and then when Kimbell closed they ran a school bus, so I went to Fairlie. And then my parents then went back to work for Wills & Le Cren at Tekapo Station for a second time, ‘cause they obviously got on very well with them; and I think they probably thought my parents were pretty good workers too. And that’s probably where I got my influence for motor vehicles; ‘specially Lucy Wills, ‘cause she had a four and a half litre Bentley which was a well known motor vehicle in the district. And they also had a Bentley pickup truck; and I mean – you think in this day and age of somebody cutting the back off a Bentley and making a truck out of it – it was quite something. And Le Crens had a two litre MG SA, which is the same model actually as what Craig Hickson’s got here. And that … yeah, that was quite an impressive motor car; and of course as a young fellow then I was quite impressed by those.

My father was a keen dog trialist, and of course I used to get bored watching the dog trials so I used to go along and look at all the spectators’ cars, you know, and see what [quiet chuckle] badges they had on and all that. And I can still, even to this day, tell you what a lot of local dog trialists had – I said, “Oh yeah, they had a ‘38 Dodge”, or ‘39 Ford or whatever it was.

Tekapo Station and Sherwood Downs were sold, and they bought another property, Snowdon, near Mt Hutt, up the Rakaia Gorge; and of course we moved from Tekapo to there and I had three years at Windwhistle Primary School. And I tell some of my contemporaries that I was top of my class three years in a row at Windwhistle; but of course you don’t ask how many were in the class, because I was the only one. [Chuckle] And then at Snowdon there, when I was due to finish at primary school, my parents obviously said to Wills & Lecren that they’d have to get a job nearer a high school, because there was no high schools in the district there. And unbeknown to me at the time, they sort of suggested that I went to Christchurch Boys’ High School but I’d have to be a boarder there which was … I mean that was A-Okay. But I often recall when I was a boarder there, I used to think, ‘How can Mum and Dad afford to send me to boarding school?’ I mean he was just the head shepherd on Snowdon; and I only found out in later years that Lucy Wills paid half my high school fees. That was just so that they could be kept on as employees, you know? Then after Snowdon they moved back to South Canterbury again for a short stint at Glentanner Station, which is the last sheep station on the road to Aoraki Mount Cook.

And then they moved to Taihape, and I still continued to go to boarding school for a couple of years after they’d moved north and so I used to have to cross on the vehicular ferry from Lyttelton to Wellington to go to school. And I used to have a whole day to spend in Wellington on both trips, ‘cause you’d catch the train back from Taihape to Wellington and you’d get into Wellington about eleven o’clock and the ship didn’t sail ‘til about seven; so I had a whole day to spend in Wellington – both ways actually. And that’s when I started collecting car sales brochures, and I’ve virtually got hundreds of them now; and I’ve still got ‘em, too. [Chuckle]

That’s an interesting life in the South Island.

Yeah. Then it was obvious that I was keen on motor vehicles, you know; and my father wanted me to me a stock person, ‘cause that’s what he was; but he didn’t, you know, say I had to be. Initially I reckon I wanted to be a tractor driver, and he said to me, “Well”, he said, “you can be a tractor driver, but you learn how to fix one of them first.” And I realised that there was a moral to that story because on one of these sheep stations they had a tractor driver who was … he was one of these guys [who] was very hard on machinery. And you know, I reckon if you gave him a shovel to dig a post hole he’d probably break the handle, you know. And of course why my father used to get hot under the collar about it because Vivian Le Cren, the part owner of the sheep station, he’d say to Dad who was the head shepherd, “Oh, can you give so and so a job, because the tractor’s broken”, or something you know. ‘Cause he used to get very frustrated with this tractor driver because he didn’t know anything about stock work, and wasn’t interested; and it was really a hard drive for him.

And … yeah, well back to Taihape. And then my parents had arranged that if I could get a job in Hastings that I could board with my mother’s parents out past the Showgrounds at Waipatu. And I came down on what we called the beer lorry, which was Overland Transport. They used to carry barrels of beer from the Cascade Brewery in Taihape to Hawke’s Bay; probably a bit of a rival for Newbigins, was it?

No. Was it a guy Leadbetter, the carrier?

No, Halstead. And I first came across the Taihape Road in their Overland Transport Dodge truck which was loaded with barrels, and I think the first stop where we unloaded some barrels was at the Fernhill pub. And I’d never been across that road before so that was quite an experience.

I stayed with my grandparents a few days out at Waipatu, and then I noseyed around all the garages that I sort of fancied in both Napier and Hastings. And I took a fancy to Ross, Dysart & McLean, because to me they had what I thought was the best range of motor vehicles. They were at that time agents for Rover, Landrover, Jaguar, Daimler, Singer and Renault. My mother – when I went back I told them which garage that I fancied, but I mean, that was just for my own observation of them – she wrote a letter to Ross, Dysart & McLean and got a reply back from Andy Dysart – I’ve still got the copy of that letter – and said that I sounded like I could make a good prospect for a motor mechanic apprentice. So I went through you know, the rigmarole of setting all that up, and I started work there early in February 1953.

At that time Andy Dysart – he’s the Dysart of Dysart & McLean – he was the chairman of directors, and Geoff McLean was still working in the woodwork shop, and Bill Ross had just retired I think, the year before. I met Bill Ross and I saw quite a bit of him, ‘cause he used to call on a regular basis just to see how his old firm was going. And I spent twenty-five years at that firm, finishing as Service Manager.

How many staff were there?

Oh, fifteen or seventeen or something, yeah.

Pretty good for those days.

Yeah, but they called themselves ‘The Complete Car Service Garage’, ‘cause they had not only mechanics but panel beaters, and had a woodwork shop. That was sort of a carry-on from the coach building days. And yeah, they did a lot of work in-house, as it were.

And then?

Then? Oh, well …

So you’ve really learnt about cars, haven’t you?

Yeah, well they had some very capable staff there you know, and that’s where I learnt a lot off [from] different ones there, ‘specially Ian Sterling; he was the head mechanic, and I learnt a lot off [from] him. And Don Liley was the foreman – that was before they had what were call Service Managers.

And then Ross Dysart, in about 1977 or thereabouts, as the originals died off – you know, Ross, Dysart & McLean – their descendants sort of inherited their shares. But there was none of the immediate family sort of interested in carrying it on; they wanted the money out of it. So Ross Dysarts was sold to the Aurora Group, and of course by that time they had the Datsun franchise. And this Aurora Group was run by a bunch of Wellington doctors, and of course they knew nothing about the motor trade; and they were wheeling and dealing and buying up garages that had the Datsun franchise, and then flicking them off again, you know? And at one part of it there they had about five, and then they sold off two or three in the southern part of the North Island. And they appointed a sort of a director for the Hastings branch, but oh … he wasn’t batting for us; he was just a ‘yes’ man to all what [that] they said in Wellington.

And then after they’d sold a couple of dealerships they apparently had a meeting, and I was called into the boss’s office here, and … said, “We’ve only got three dealerships now, but we’ve got five service managers”, and they said I was the youngest one. So they said, “We’ve decided that you can be a mechanic again.” So I said, “Yeah, I’ll be a mechanic again but not for you guys.” So that’s when I spat the dummy as it were, and started Colin Campbell Motors in Avenue Road.

Oh – was that the first place?

Yeah.

Was there not Peach’s Garage at one time?

Yeah – Johnny Peach was on the other corner from Ross, Dysart & McLean. Yeah, J Peach & Co. [Company]

Did they have any franchises with any ..?

[At] that particular time they were a Todd dealer franchise with Chrysler, Plymouth and David Brown tractors.

So then Colin Campbell Motors started up in 19 ..?

‘78. And although I say it myself, virtually all my customers to start with were Ross Dysart ones, if you know what I mean.

So you knew them and they knew you; it happens like that quite often when big companies come in and take over.

Yep.

And it’s the name that gets the business … like your name.

Yeah, well …

They know them.

Yeah.

And so your customers just had any type of car?

Yeah well, mostly Jaguar and Daimler to start with, but I remember there was a lot of friction going on when it was part of the Aurora Group. There was, you know … lot of back stabbing and that going on; and I remember one of the salespersons who wasn’t on my side, apparently said to someone, “You’d better get rid of Campbell, because he’s not interested in Datsuns”, which was completely wrong. I treated everybody the same no matter what they drove. And of course I heard back later that apparently they had a meeting, and that one of the guys in the parts department who sort of had been on my side, as it were – he said, “Oh, it wasn’t such a bright idea to get rid of Campbell, because he doesn’t buy Datsun oil filters singly”, he says, “he buys them by the box.” [Chuckle] So I had a bit of a chuckle when I heard that. [Chuckles]

You were there for quite a few years in Avenue Road?

Ah yes, and then I rented that property and then I bought two units of a five unit block that Gary Harding had built in Warren Street behind Park Motors, as it was then, yeah. Toyota, yeah. And I set that up and I ran that there until 2001, and then I sold it to Kevin Marsh. And I worked part time for him for a little while, just sort of to … ‘cause he took over some of my old customers.

And Holders were still there in those days?

Yes. Yes.

And then there was the old guy … panel beater; Apex Panelbeaters … Wayne Scott was it?

No … don’t think it was that name. We lived just round the corner in Victoria Street where the club is now. So did you retire then in 2003 or so?

Yeah. Yeah.

A lot of good knowledge gone in the air when you retired. Now what about classic cars?

Oh, well classic cars is a pretty broad statement because a classic car can be virtually anything that’s … there’s something unique about it. It can be a very humble sort of car that’s old and it’s in good order; or you can go and buy a new Rolls Royce or Bentley or something, and you’ve bought a classic car brand new. There’s no sort of definition.

So when did Petrol Heads start?

I’m not sure exactly.

How did it start?

Petrol Heads was started by a chap, Ray Pearson, but I’m not sure what exactly when it was because I joined after they’d been going a while. And you know, somebody said, “You should go to Petrol Heads”, and I said, “From what I can gather they’re all pretty wealthy retired business people.” [Chuckle] I says, “I don’t think I fit the bill.” And they said, “Yeah, no – yeah, yeah, you’ll be right, you’ll fit in okay out there.” They said, “You’re probably the only one that’s still got his first car for a starter.” So I went out there, and I’ve been going out there regularly ever since.

Yeah – bit of knowledge there. Ray Pearson I knew when he was Curly Top Cordials.

Oh yes, yeah.

Tell me now, what was your late wife’s maiden name?

Minty.

And she was from where?

Hastings. Her father was Harold Minty; well known as a car painter at Autobodies in Eastbourne Street. And her uncle, John Minty, was the Public Relations Officer for a while. And he was also a radio announcer too.

So okay, anything else? Any interesting things? Have you travelled overseas at all?

Yes, I’ve been to Australia about three times, mainly because I’ve got a son who married a Hastings girl and went over there and lived there, and he still lives there actually. So I’ve been to New South Wales, and into the Red Centre to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. That son now is in Brisbane, and I’ve been there once. That’s as far as I’ve been, yeah.

So we were born in quite a good time, weren’t we? We missed the Depression, then the Second World War; we just missed that …

I can recall when World War II started. We were at Balmoral Station there in September ‘39. Mum and Dad had no radios; the only contact with the outside world was with the newspapers, and the newspapers used to come, I think on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday on the Mt Cook bus. And I remember walking from the homestead down to the mailbox to get the paper and the mail, and my mother sat on the bank on the side of the road. And [of] course being a kid, you know … wanting to get back home, you know; and I said to her, “Why do you keep reading the paper, Mum?” And I distinctly remember her saying that war’s been declared. And about a year ago I went down there, and I had my photo taken sitting where I reckon we were sitting in ‘bout 1939 on the side of the road.

Any clubs you belong to?

Different car clubs. The Vintage Car Club, and the Daimler and Lanchester Car Club, ‘cause my wife and I started Classique Bridal Cars, and we ran that for a few years. That was sort of an offshoot to the garage business really, and it was a way to have three classic cars and have them sort of … well, they weren’t really big earners, but at least they paid their way. And the Riley Car Club.

Bill Riley?

Oh yeah, Bill Riley, yeah, yeah, yeah. And then probably my latest thing was … I mean, after my wife died … I found I was getting a bit depressed; and you sit here watching TV every blinkin’ night. And … had three cats and they’d be sitting down here, and I thought one day, I thought, ‘I’m going to get really old quickly doing this.’ And then it was soon after that I had a hip replacement you see, ‘cause I was getting pretty … it was quite a drag to move around. And then after the first one it was only a year later and then the other one packed up; so I ended up with two bionic hips.

And then the surgeon said to me after he’d been sorting me out – he says, “Now you’ve got to get plenty of exercise.” He says, “Do you do swimming?” I says, “Oh – did a bit at high school, bit wasn’t very good at that.” He said, “Well how about tennis?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I did that too but that was not too much.” And then he saw these sideburns, and he says, “You’re not a fan of Elvis Presley, are you?” [Chuckles] And he says, “D’you like rock ‘n roll music?” And I says, “Yeah.” He says, “How about rock ‘n roll dancing?” And I thought, ‘Oh, he’s just winding me up. He said, “No, it’s dinkum”, he says. So I went along to St Matthew’s Hastings rock ‘n roll thing here, and had a look there and went to learners’ lessons. There was a total of five; and I had two lessons and I couldn’t get the hang of it, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just wasting everybody’s time here.’ And I thought, ‘I’ll give it one more try.’ Anyway, third one I got what they call the basic step, and now I go to both Hastings and Napier Rock ‘n Roll clubs. Yeah. [Chuckle] I think I’m a bit of a legend over there.

I used to do rock ‘n roll too; I enjoyed it … at the Assembly Hall.

And Colin, you’ve still got an interest in the cars and what-have-you? Still get all the magazines and ..?

Yeah, yeah.

Read them up.

Yeah.

Yeah, I’ve been reading about the Morgans.

Oh yes.

Pretty pricey cars, but they look pretty smart.

That’s three of my cars there, and the centre one, I just sold it recently to Bruce McKechnie over the road here. It’s a two and a half litre Riley, and the first brand new car I ever saw was a two and a half litre Riley. I mean, I’ve been taking notice of cars through the war years at dog trials and all that, but they were pre-war cars. And my mother used to do a bit of work in the homestead of the owners of the sheep station as well while Dad did stock work, and I remember coming home from school and coming up to the homestead house and I seen [saw] this black car outside what we called the boss’s office. And it had number plates held on with what I call dog collars, [chuckles] and I said to Mum, “Whose is the flash car?” And she says, “Oh, there’s a salesman comin’ out from town, I think going to sell them a new car.” And it was the two and a half litre Riley, and I went and had a look at the badges and all that, and I said, “When I grow up I’m going to get one of those.” And I eventually did; I bought one off Frank Renfrew – he had an orchard up Omahu Road. That’s where Pask Winery is now; and I bought that off [from] him. And I only sold it just a few months ago.

So okay. Well …

Haven’t had any war service, but I did CMT.  [Compulsory Military Training]

In the army?

Yeah, in the army, and I was at Waiouru for that.

Winter or summer?

Oh, both actually. [Chuckles] And they used to run a troop train from Napier to Waiouru, and I used to get on the troop train to come back, supposedly to Hawke’s Bay, because they had my address as Hawke’s Bay but my parents were still in Taihape, and of course I used to get off the troop train at Taihape. And then the military police used to parade up and down the main street of Taihape, and after the troop train had gone they reckoned they were going to arrest me because I’d jumped the train in Taihape. [Chuckles]

Okay, well, that sounds pretty good. I’ll wrap this up, and say thank you, Colin, for doing that – it’s history for years to come for Hawke’s Bay people.

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Interviewer:  Jim Newbigin

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