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A Great Legacy for Road Transport

The late Bill Richardson’s passion for trucks extended beyond business growth and profits. Thanks to his enthusiasm for the transport industry and his generosity with time and resources a slice of industrial heritage remains preserved for good – The Bill Richardson Truck Museum …

With ever bigger and flasher rigs thundering along our roads up and down the country and big businesses extolling their virtues for efficiency and cost-effective movement of freight, it is hard to believe that the much smaller trucks of yore once played an important part of our economy.

According to An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A H McLintock, edited 1966 “it is not known exactly when the first motor truck was imported into this country, but its usefulness had been well established by 1912. Parliament of the time suggested that motor wagons should be used instead of light rail.”

Before the arrival of the early trucks, produce like wool, timber, wheat and flax from remote areas was transported to the nearest railhead by horse and wagon, while on the return journeys they usually carried household and farm provisions. Although the arrival of the motor trucks revolutionised the way goods were moved from and to the hinterland, horses still remained an integral part of many links between town and country until after the First World War. This was partly due to trucks being expensive to buy, run and maintain compared to horses. The war, however, brought advances in design and production methods and after 1919 motor vehicles became more readily available.

The motor truck’s biggest contribution to economic growth was in urban environments and in remote areas beyond railheads. As timber harvesting and meat and wool production extended further into the hinterland, thus increasing the demand for faster and more efficient transport from that of horse and wagon, the number of trucks increased. At the same time more roads of better quality were being built.

Click to go to photo galleryBy 1931, in a turn-around from suggestions almost 20 years before, the Government decided to restrict road transport in order to protect the economic viability of the railway. It became the Transport Licensing Act of 1931 and was further extended in 1939 to include town carriers, taxis and rental vehicles.

While these restrictions remained part of New Zealand’s transport industry for many years to come, it was not the end of the motor truck. Goods and produce still had to be carried to and from railheads and distributed within cities. Trucks remained an integral part of the country’s economic growth and industrial development.

The late Bill Richardson was not only part of that scene but his passion for trucks extended beyond business growth and profits. Thanks to his enthusiasm for the transport industry and his generosity with time and resources a slice of industrial heritage remains preserved for good.

Born in Southland, Bill’s fascination with trucks began when he was a boy and they remained his passion for the rest of his life. When at Southland Boy’s High School in Invercargill, his teacher, in objecting to him paying more attention to the trucks and diggers working on the street outside than to schoolroom matters, told young Bill, “you won’t learn a lot doing that.” While at the time the teacher had a point, it later became hugely ironic.

Following in the family tradition of builders and joiners, Bill served his time as builder’s apprentice but his heart was not in it and he left the trade to follow his passion. At age 20 they bought a run-down company with four old trucks. Humble beginnings indeed but 52 years later the company he founded, H W Richardson Group Limited, has one of the country’s largest, privately owned modern fleet of more than 700 trucks. If you add in utes, trailers, diggers and loaders, there is currently over 1,900 units of plant in the fleet.

Known not only for his business successes but also for his large and comprehensive collection of vintage trucks, Bill Richardson died in Invercargill in March 2005. He was only 64.

One of his legacies to the transport and trucking heritage is the private truck museum. The display halls of around 100,000 sq ft are home to about 240 trucks and other motorised transport related memorabilia from New Zealand, Australia, the USA, Europe, Japan and the UK. The reputation of this extensive and important collection now draws around 5000 visitors annually - despite it remaining a private museum and viewing is by prior appointment only.

Ian Ridd and the restoration team have restored several of the trucks and memorabilia in the restoration workshop, along with maintaining the private museum. Although Bill was one of Southland’s wealthiest men, he had a special way with people; he remained a modest person, treated people well and money was not his driving force, nor did he judge people by what they had. He used to call at the restoration workshop up the road from the museum and company headquarters nearly every day; “not to check up or anything like that - just to have a yarn, like a friend. He actually kept us off our work more than anyone else; it was his way of supporting you” says Ian.

Ian and the team restores two to three trucks a year – some are real basket cases, but rare and thus worth preserving. They do most of the mechanical and assembly work but specialised jobs like wood work and wheelwrighting are outsourced. Ian had known Bill for many years, shared his passion for trucks and finds being involved with the museum and the restoration work incredibly satisfying.

The display halls are named after people who played significant roles in Bill’s life. There is “Harold’s” shed, named after his only son, tragically killed in a motoring crash in 1995. He was only 29, shared his father’s passion and was already a senior figure in the company. This shed houses 47 trucks, mostly American ones, with the exception of a Leyland.

Another one is the “Allan Storer” shed, named after a very special friend. It contains English trucks – austere and ordinary looking compared to the flashier American ones, but an important part of New Zealand’s history and link to the mother country. “They are being kept for their heritage rather than their beauty,” says Ian.

To start with, Bill collected American trucks of the 1930s and 1940s, followed by English ones of the same era. He later met Bob Helm from Nelson, who told him that he should be collecting older trucks and, showing that actions mean more than words, left Bill his 1928 Graham Brothers, Detroit vehicle.

The rarest horseless carriage in the collection is a 1914 Stewart Motor Truck, built in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. A major show piece is an Art Deco style 1940 Dodge in the TEXACO oil company’s livery and the oldest trucks date from 1911.

Whilst some trucks have been put into storage out of sight, there is a section with unrestored trucks. According to Ian they will remain that way – for the memories.

Relatively new additions to the collection are tractors and earth moving equipment, including a Caterpillar grader from the former Southland County Council.

Bill Richardson’s Truck Museum in Invercargill is a private museum. Entry is by prior appointment only.


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Thank you to H W Richardson Group & Truck Journal Magazine for their assistance with this article.