Sir Len’s world of wheels

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Clean and cheap electric cars are the commuting vehicles of the future, says 84-year-old Sir Len South­ward, climbing on to the swivel seat of an electric car in the Southward Car Museum. Housed in a grey, spreadeagled building just off State Highway One at Paraparaumu, Wellington, Southward Car Museum is a permanent testimony to his lifelong enjoyment of cars.

Sir Len (he was knighted three years ago for commu­nity services, especially to the Crippled Children’s Society) sees the future of cars as being just as chal­lenging as the past, just as exciting and likely to be electric.

“What I think will happen in the future is that when they get batteries that have more output for less weight, which will come one of these days, you will have the electric car as a commuter vehicle. You will park it in what you might call a chargeable parking area; plug it in to a point and then the batteries will recharge while the car is parked and you are at work.”

Even now, he pointed out, he can get 50km out of the museum’s Rauch and Lang electric car which runs on 84 volts. And that was made in 1918!

The 4,400 square metre hall of the Southward Car Museum is jam-packed with vehicles: mainly vintage cars; some fantasy vehicles; quite a few oddities; some experimen­tal models; automobiles of the rich and famous — or the infamous. There is also a corner for New Zealand farm engines — invented here for a particular farm need; a section for mo­torcycles and a sprinkling of vintage aeroplanes and pioneer bicycles.

Cars have always been a central part of Len South-ward’s life. He ran a motor cycle repair business as a youth, later manufactured car parts and then steel tubing when it was hard to get in World War II. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started collecting cars.

First a Model T Ford (purchased for £40 and now given pride of place in the museum). Then a 1926 Model T Ford Sedan, followed by an old Swift roadster. By then he was well and truly hooked and has been ever since.

Look at the craftsman­ship in these elegant roadsters, he says, stroking the surface of a 1929 Chrysler roadster brush-painted by hand in cream, gold and mustard. “Before the 1920s when spraying came in, flat primers were brushed on, then the colour coat went on and finally the varnish on top. All by hand.

It is very much a living museum to Len Southward, with most of the exhibits occupying a special place in his store of motoring memories.

He indicates the brass-trimmed, 1904 Wolsley which he drove in the London to Brighton race in 1962.

“That brass shines from elbow-grease, you know, it is not the same if you lacquer it!”

The Wolsley has the clutch pedal on the right hand side. He himself is used to that, as it is an old favourite and he has driven it so often, but it is a problem for most of today’s drivers, who put their foot on the clutch automatically.

Another favourite is the 1895 Benz — it has been in New Zealand longer than any other known car. “It was the first car that went to Christchurch, brought to New Zealand by Nicholas Oates in 1900.”

Why did American and European cars shift the position of the steering wheel? A puzzle, says Len. Early American cars had steering on the right, as we do. French and German cars also had steering on the righthand side in the early days.

This was still the case as late as 1915, in fact ­witness the 1915 Ameri­can Stutz with steering on the right. This particular racing car did 350 miles at an average of 102 mph to be third in the 1915 Indianapolis 500, and second in 1919.

A 1901 model has a joystick in the middle, which, shifted to the left turns the car to the right and vice versa, like the tiller of a boat. You twist it up and down for the gear change.

Some of the early open cars were so long that there was a windscreen in front of the backseat passengers as well as the front — the Maudslay, for instance.

Another oddity is the Phoenix Forecar — or what Len calls the backseat driver’s car. Here the driver’s seat was actually at the back of the car with the passengers sitting in the front.

He gets a wicked enjoy­ment in showing the 1950 gangster Cadillac with bombproof floor, bullet­proof power windows with glass 40mm thick, bodywork tough as a tank and armour-plated doors ­feel the weight of this door, he urges. The windows show marks (not holes) made by the Americanpolice who fired bullets to test how effective it was after they had confiscated it from gangster Micky Cohen who worked with such charming companions as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano Also long and in gleam­ing black but from the other end of the celebrity spectrum, is Marlene Dietrich’s 1934 7-seater Cadillac, all 7m of it.

Wartime with all its shortages is brought home to visitors by the gas-producing car on show. Designed to defeat the wartime scarcity of petrol, it has a cylinder on one side which was lit with half-burned coal. The resulting gas went under­neath to the filter on the other side of the car to remove grit and then into the engine.

It is not only the vintage cars that appeal to Len Southward. He has a great deal of time for Japanese cars and uses a Honda Civic himself for everyday use — partly because of his general admiration for Japanese engineering and partly because it has a wide enough door to fit an invalid seat in. For years he has done voluntary work for the local Crippled Children’s Society and one of the most persistent barriers for people con­fined to a wheelchair is mobility.

Len became interested in this problem and decided to experiment until he had made a unit that solved the problems. He invented and refined a swing-out seat for a paraplegic and first put it into a car some 25 years ago for a special order.

But you will not see that car in the museum ­yet. It is in use — from time to time — in the local community.

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