We venture south to Invercargill to revisit one of the country’s best automotive museums, Bill Richardson Transport World.
Bill Richardson Transport World, the great truck collection in the south, is somewhere we’ve visited previously. However, it’s so good we were enticed back to see what they’ve been up to. Motorcycle Mecca, also owned by Transport World, is where most of the action has been happening, now with more space to display the bikes and house the new George Begg collection. We’ll bring you more on the Mecca next month as on this visit we had the opportunity to speak with the museum’s executive director, Jocelyn O’Donnell, about a few things including her Kombi collection and a hunt for an elusive Ford.
Transport World will have a new Volkswagen exhibit running from April through to July, with a focus on pre-75 models. Chief among those will be a big line-up of Kombis, a vehicle which O’Donnell now holds dear. This goes back to when she and her future husband, Scott, travelled around Europe in one. “I actually hated it at the time, I felt quite claustrophobic in the Kombi, and I was delighted when we finally sold it to buy an engagement ring,” laughs O’Donnell. “Scott thinks it’s a big joke that I collect them now. I’ve always liked old things, but never really loved a vehicle until I bought my first Kombi.”
She attempted to acquire her first example, a split screen model, from a bloke in Arrowtown, who she says wasn’t quite ready to part with it at the time. She got impatient waiting and found another to buy in 2008, a van she called Archy. Of course, three months later, the owner of that original split screen was ready to sell, which she snapped up as well. “I got it for quite a good price and it wasn’t until later that someone said to me ‘do you know what you’ve got there? That’s a barndoor, the holy grail of Kombis. I was like, really? And then the collection just kind of grew from there.”
As an aside, the barndoor reference relates to the enlarged engine cover, and not the side opening doors. O’Donnell has recently purchased a 23-window barndoor which the team at Transport World found in Mexico. “We are half-way through the transaction on that one. You can only take a certain amount of cash across the border, so there have been several trips.” She says it’ll be a big restoration job but is glad to have one as it’s regarded as the pinnacle of Kombis.
So is that it for the collection? “I’d like to say that now that I’ve got one of those, I can stop, but I’m not quite sure that’s true,” she says with a telling smile. “I think I have about 11, maybe that’s the 12th one.”
The collection includes early models to the last of the line made in Brazil in 2013. She says it’s frustrating that while she can register an old 1955 version for the road here, she can’t put the 2013 model on the road. “You drive the 1955 Kombi and when it’s windy, you can almost feel the front wheels come off the road. I’d say the newer one was a safer bet. I brought that one in as it was a limited edition, the last of the line.”
Despite not loving it at the time, the collection includes an orange bay window Westfalia like the one they toured Europe in. “It’s pretty much identical to the one we sold to buy the ring. We found that a couple of years ago in England and it’s in great condition.”
That’s unlike a recent addition to the Kombi collection. “We bought one of the original Southland ambulances, but you don’t always know exactly what you are buying. We thought the restoration would be done in time for the exhibit, but it’s a bit sicker than we first thought.”
It’s undergoing an extensive rebuild conducted by the museum’s team in the workshop, which employs seven people full time. The ‘workshop’ as such is spread over different locations with the machine and panel shop in town and what you see in the museum is the assembly room, where the projects come back together.
“The team are all over anything to do with resto,” says O’Donnell. “They know where to go to get what we need, and what we can’t get, they can make. They’re very talented. We try to keep the vehicles as original as possible, and it’s always done to 100 per cent, they are very particular.”
There will be some 23 Kombis in the VW exhibit but O’Donnell says they’ve had people getting in touch daily offering their buses for the display, so can’t say exactly what to expect, other than that there will be several old Beetles and Karman Ghias in the mix too. While the trucks at Transport World are the main attraction, there are a lot of cars about the place too, including a line-up of Ford ‘letter cars’ from the early 1900s. These were part of a collection of 32 Fords purchased by the O’Donnells in 2013. They were owned by Jim Cooper from Darwin, who was a great friend of Richardson. She says this was the catalyst for opening the museum to the public in 2015. While it’s a fairly comprehensive line-up, one of the cars remains elusive, the Model B.
“Graeme Williams (the museum’s workshop manager) and I went to a Bonham’s auction in Holland to try and buy a Model B. It was very stressful, because the price just kept going up. There was a guy from the US, and he just kept putting his hand up. I was starting to sweat, so I rang Scott, and I told him what the price was up to. He told me to get out of the room! So I asked Graeme, shall we bid one more time? And we did but the other guy’s hand shot straight up, and we were out.”
From the auction results, the Model B, said to be one of the rarest Fords with only eight supposedly left in the world, eventually went for €419,750.
They didn’t come back empty handed however, as O’Donnell bought a 1928 Ford Model AA popcorn truck for the museum along with a 1946 Ford Super DeLuxe ‘woodie’ station wagon. O’Donnell says they are working on securing another Model B from the U.S. but admits she should have stopped bidding sooner as she’s probably pushed the asking price up.
After having another look around the museum and all of its trucks and treasures, we got the chance to poke around the off-site storage shed, home to the overflow of the collection. It’s not open to the public unfortunately. This is the stuff that Bill Richardson had stored around Invercargill prior to his death in 2005. The directors decided they needed to collate everything into one big warehouse, a task they say took four men 16 weeks to achieve.
Williams reckons there’s 40 years worth of restoration work stored here, a conservative estimate he says, and admits some will never get seen to. Especially as new stuff keeps turning up. But they say if it was good enough for Bill to collect, it’s good enough for them to save. Among the trucks, tractors and machinery are rare and unobtainable bits like solid rubber tyres and the like. Partnerships help maintain the vintage stuff and Williams says they have a good relationship with the Southward museum on the Kapiti Coast in that regard. There is also a lot of hard work from part-time team members, and volunteers to help keep the museum ticking.
One of the oldest team members is Tom, an 82-year-old tractor enthusiast who keeps the standing engines going, and even takes one of the old Chamberlain tractors out to pulling events. There’s a big job just to keep the tyres of all the trucks pumped up, which takes around eight days to complete, a task handled by an enthusiastic volunteer.
Transport World has become somewhere that people recognise as a great place for their collections to end up with a cache of old jukeboxes now on display. “A guy called up saying his father used to have the Wurlitzer franchise for NZ and has 34 jukeboxes he wanted to move on,” says O’Donnell. “He happened to open his desk that morning and saw our brochure, and he thought; that’s where I want them to go. Our team restores and looks after things well and people don’t want their collections to be split up, so we purchased the jukeboxes from him, and I think they are a nice addition.”
O’Donnell admits to a love of all things old, and a passion for preserving the past while new additions like the jukeboxes help broaden the appeal of Transport World. “It’s why we have the vintage vault, the wearable arts collection and the Lego room as we get a lot of families coming in.” She says they get about 42,000 visitors annually. A collection of vintage wedding dresses is planned to expand on this theme. They’ve also acquired some Cadbury memorabilia following the closure of the factory in Dunedin, with two new trucks added to the mix and a display room of Cadbury branded artefacts and toys.
As O’Donnell puts it, “it doesn’t matter what you’re displaying, but rather how you display it to engage people and evoke emotion. I want to send people on a trip down memory lane.”
It’s this drive that led to one of the museum’s more ambitious restoration projects, a 1920 tram that used to run in Invercargill. “We’re not really into trams, but we went to this farm and this old thing was being used as a sleepout. I got excited when we first saw it, and Graeme tried to dissuade me.” She says he eventually agreed but says it’s been quite a few years in restoration. “We are not quite sure what we’ll do with it when it’s finished but it’s helping preserve a piece of Southland history.”
As it stands Bill Richardson Transport World is near capacity, and it’s a juggle to fit anything new in. That makes it a grand place to spend a few hours in next time you make the trek southward.