Historic HB: the arrival of the automobile generated a lot of enthusiasm

A gasoline depot in Hawke’s Bay after the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake. Note the crates of two four-gallon gasoline drums and one 44-gallon gasoline drum on the truck. Photo / Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust Collection, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 16754

As you can imagine, the arrival of the automobile in New Zealand in 1898 generated a lot of excitement.

During Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in England in 1897, Wellington MP William McLean visited Paris, where people were experimenting with building automobiles.

He got hooked and ordered two Benz internal combustion engine cars, which arrived here in February 1898.

They were powered by “gas, generated from purified petroleum (benzine)”. What New Zealand now calls petrol was called benzine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

McLean discovered that he had no legal authority to operate his vehicles on the streets of Wellington. A private member’s bill of his called the McLean Motor Act was passed in October 1898 which allowed him to drive his cars on the streets.

His company, named New Zealand Motor Car Company, was the first to import and sell cars in this country.

Nicholas Oates of Christchurch brought the first motor car he imported, also a Benz, to Napier in January 1901, driving it from Wellington – the first to use this route.

The Napier horses were said to “have a very strong dislike of the newcomer, and there were several bolts, happily cared for without serious injury”.

It would be Bernard Chambers in 1902 who was the first to own an automobile – an Oldsmobile – in Hawke’s Bay.

The Hastings Standard wasn’t overly impressed ‘with its quivering vibration and its trail of smelly petrol…’ However, he admitted he would soon ‘replace the horse in the colony, wherever the roads would admit’ .

By 1903, a year after the arrival of Bernard Chambers’ Oldsmobile, others in Hawke’s Bay had imported cars, and there would be a growing need for a supply of gasoline for them.

Gasoline supplies for these motor vehicles were imported from Australia and sometimes difficult to obtain.

Gasoline was first shipped to New Zealand in drums and tins, put on the railroad, and transferred by horse and cart for delivery to warehouses. It was sold in four-gallon cans (with two cans in a wooden crate) and larger 44-gallon drums by blacksmiths, grocers, country stores, and stock and station agents.

Motorists carried cases of four-gallon gasoline cans with them and stopped at the side of the road to refuel, sometimes with disastrous results. In 1907 a motorist was doing this in Heretaunga St East, Hastings when he dropped his pipe in spilled petrol and set the car on fire.

In a modern version of plastic waste, cans were very often thrown on the side of the road, and there was a lot of talk about the pollution of cans.

The cost of gasoline was therefore very expensive compared to abroad – even in today’s terms. (In 1914, 36 liters of gasoline sold for the equivalent of $3.40 per liter but rose to $4.35 per liter in 1922.)

There was also the risk of explosion from gasoline stored in bulk and highly flammable. At Breakwater Port (now Napier Port) in 1917, a leaking petrol can was set on fire on a railcar by a spark from the steam locomotive.

This destroyed three wagons of gasoline. The engine driver and the locomotive firefighters managed to untie the wagons and “ferry them off the platform”. The fire was so violent that it destroyed the wooden sleepers and rails of the wharf.

This meant that the rest of the gasoline could not be unloaded, and as the crew refused to sail any further with the flammable cargo, a lighter (small cargo barge) was hired and the gasoline loaded to be removed when the way railway has been repaired.

With ever-increasing use of motor cars, the Napier Harbor Board leased land in the mid-1910s to store tins and drums of petrol on Hardinge Rd near Te Karaka, Ahuriri (many locals affectionately call this area ” Perfume Point” due to the past Napier sewer works there), to the Vacuum Oil Company, British and Imperial Oil and Big Tree.

Shipping four-gallon drums and cans of gasoline to New Zealand was no longer considered economical by the mid-1920s by the British and Imperial Oil Company and the Vacuum Oil Company, which began shipping petroleum in bulk in tankers. The first delivery was made in January 1926 to the British and Imperial Oil Company’s bulk storage depot at Miramar, Wellington. Other sites, including Napier, were to be added.

The Miramar site was manufacturing cans to be filled with gasoline at the rate of 1,000 an hour. They had storage for 2 million boxes and crate lumber storage for a million boxes.

Bulk storage and its distribution allowed the creation of underground tanks in the garages, which were connected to cisterns (named after the inventor, the American Sylvanus Freelove Bowser), which pumped gasoline into the vehicle.

Since barrels would not be installed in rural areas for many years, the four-gallon box of gasoline would remain for another few decades.

When delivery was made to a garage’s underground tank by a “motor tank car”, the owner used a supplied “calibrated gauge” to check the supply received from the car.

There, however, motorists’ mistrust of the bowsers reigned. At least with the four-gallon box they could be assured of a correct measurement – but with a ton delivery they weren’t so sure.

In 1926, the British and Imperial Oil Company and the Vacuum Oil Company built storage tanks by extending their Hardinge Rd land, with pipelines leading to them from the iron pot at Port Ahuriri, where the oil was dumped. It appears that an inland depot was also established near Hastings.

The Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Co-operative Association garage in Queen St West, Hastings, which opened in July 1926, was one of the first or possibly the first garage in Hawke’s Bay to have an underground tank and barrels. As usual at the time, they supplied gasoline from different companies: Shell, Voco and Big Tree.

The bulk petrol tanks on Hardinge Rd were dismantled in the early 1990s, being then operated by Shell and Mobil.

Gasoline is now unloaded into bulk storage tanks at Napier Port.

• Michael Fowler ([email protected]) is a contract researcher and commercial writer on the history of Hawke’s Bay. Follow him on facebook.com/michaelfowlerhistory

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