Linda Jones resident David McWha and his wife Cherry have captured a slice of New Zealand transport history like no other, thanks to David’s years of diligent and detailed devotion to record-keeping.
A retired diesel mechanic, David can now also add photo-retoucher and book publisher to his resume after producing a beautiful hardback book featuring 133 of the 145 trucks that he and only a dozen New Zealanders worked on between 1956-1972.
Back then, the trucks in New Zealand were petrol powered which made them very expensive to run - some could only manage three or four miles per gallon when loaded.
In order to make them more economical, mechanics like David would convert them using diesel engines imported from various sources.
And no-one else documented their work in such a devoted way as David did.
Named More Power to the Trucks: Innovative Truck Repowering and Transport Engineering in New Zealand from 1956, the book is essentially a beautifully compiled love letter to heavy trucks.
The book with its distinctive cover showing a logging truck on an old-style weigh station, with attending police car!
The trials and tribulations of producing the book turned out to be a wonderful retirement project for the McWhas as they gathered anecdotes from industry characters to accompany the images.
“It was one of the best years of our lives,” says Cherry, a former hearing therapist. “I had just retired in 2018 so it was a great way to spend time, travelling around the country, meeting people that David had worked with many years ago and getting all their stories and anecdotes down. It was truly wonderful.”
While both admit that if they had known what the process of publishing a book actually entailed they may not have embarked on such a project, the encouragement from others and the fact that David had got so far down the track with his meticulous records kept for all that time is what buoyed them through.
Indeed, he spent four years just retouching all the photos, originally taken on a Kodak Instamatic camera!
David shares his own anecdotes too. Jack Tidd who was one of the directors of Tidd-Ross Todd Ltd at that time, travelled to the Pacific Islands to buy army surplus GM diesel engines and components to use in the petrol trucks. On one of his trips, he bought a landing craft which he used to transport the goods back to New Zealand to offload at Port Waikato.
“I don’t think that would, or could, happen these days,” chuckles David.
The couple says producing the book was not about making a profit, but when it finally came out in 2018 the run of 500 sold out quickly, surprising everyone with its popularity.
“David had connections with a lot of special people who had contributed to the book and to his personal work life, so we did a trip around the South Island with the books, delivering them in person,” says Cherry.
When the importing restrictions changed, larger diesel trucks could then be brought into the country and the re-powering work ceased, inspiring David to move onto commissioning and servicing hydraulic cranes, even flying down to Antarctica for a week to repair and commission a new crane. This work took him throughout the Pacific region and to Europe and the US to attend training courses.
Then, in the funny way that life works sometimes, David was invited to restore an old wreck of a truck for the C & R’s Classic Cars and Trucks Museum in Hautapu, Cambridge, in 2019.
Incredibly, he recognised one of his ‘babies’ from the past – an International Fleetstar 2010A which was one of the last trucks he had worked on back in 1972.
“It was built as a logging truck for a customer in Levin and after changing hands many times over the years it was found in a derelict condition in a paddock,” he says.
David completely stripped the truck back, cleaning, repairing and painting the chassis and fitting an engine and transmission back into it. The cab was too far gone, so a used fire truck from the US was imported to use as a replacement, once it had been changed to right hand drive.
The International Fleetstar 2010A at various stages of its life: above on its first day on the job after being re-powered, carting logs with its new engine in 1972.
Above: early in its restoration with the cat 1673C diesel engine sitting back in the chassis and below: David climbs into the restored truck during a stop on the Southern Classic Truck Circuit in 2020.
“My brother Brian and I drove it to the South Island in October 2020 to take part in the Southern Classic Truck Circuit and then in 2021 Cherry and I drove it from Cambridge to Wanaka to attend Wheels at Wanaka during Easter weekend, travelling up the West Coast on the way home.”
Cherry says: “It was like a finale! It seemed to complete David’s work circle. And because you’re sitting up high you get wonderful views. It was just magical and so much fun. I was lucky to be a part of it.
“As soon as David pulled up at our destination for the night, it was like bees around a honey pot! People would gather to inspect the truck and to reminisce about old times and old ways.”
The couple say even they had underestimated the appeal of the nostalgia the trucks would trigger in people from all walks of life.
The photo of a logging truck with a police car next to it which was chosen for the cover constantly prompts comment, they say. “Everyone says ‘oh I remember those, or the way they used to weigh them at the side of the road.”
“One of the motivations was for us to get it all down before we lose it all, because it’s part of New Zealand’s history of transport,” says David.
Now, two copies of the book are held by the National Library in Wellington, with this unique snapshot of NZ’s transport history preserved forever.