The Invercargill motoring family helping to boost the city's tourism

by Mike White / 07 October, 2017
Photography by Mike White

Joc O’Donnell with her beloved Kombis.

An Invercargill family has created a remarkable automotive attraction that is pulling tourists and purists to Southland. As Mike White discovers, it all started when Bill Richardson bought his grandfather’s old truck 50 years ago.

When Joc O’Donnell was growing up in Invercargill, she’d often slip through a hole in the hedge beside the family house and enter a thriving world created by her father.

On a block not far from the city centre, Bill Richardson had built a transport business that had expanded to include a successful concrete company. Joc would skip round Bill’s shed where he restored old trucks and petrol bowsers in his spare time, wave hi to the drivers, and play on the timber stacks. Bill’s business permeated their lives, and weekends were often spent driving around his Southland transport yards.

But when she finished school, Joc left the province, training as a nanny before setting off on her OE. On a trip home, she met a guy who’d lived around the corner from them in Invercargill , Scott O’Donnell, who went to school with her brother. She and Scott headed back overseas and travelled around Europe in a temperamental VW Kombi that refused to start whenever it got too hot. When they got back to England, they were broke, and sold the van so Scott could buy Joc an engagement ring.

Joc trained as a beauty therapist in London, and in the mid-90s the couple moved back to New Zealand, settling in Christchurch.

They’d never considered shifting further south to their hometown. Nor had Joc ever imagined working in the company her father had built up. But just over 20 years later, she now sits in her Invercargill office, overlooking hundreds of vehicles and overseeing the family company that employs 2300 people across New Zealand and Australia.

“It was really just through tragedy, to be honest, that I ended up doing what I’m doing now.”

A lineup of vintage Fords at Invercargill’s Transport World.

It was always meant to be her brother, Harold, who was going to take over the business. He’d left school at 16, blistered his hands making concrete posts at one of the family’s factories, and begun managing that side of the firm. In September 1995, while travelling through the North Island inspecting concrete plants, Harold was killed when a truck crossed the centre line near Waiouru and smashed into his car. He was 29.

Bill then asked his son-in-law, Scott, an accountant, if he’d consider joining the family business – so Joc and Scott moved back to Invercargill.

The company was now known as HW Richardson Group and had grown to include petroleum products, including the Allied brand. The couple had three children and Joc gradually began taking an interest in her father’s business. Despite finding its size and scope daunting, in 2005 she told Bill she’d come in each Friday to learn more about it. Two weeks later, 64-year-old Bill had a brain haemorrhage and died.

“So what was supposed to be a nice gentle introduction turned into the steepest learning curve of my life,” says Joc. “I was green.”

However, she never considered selling the business or abandoning Invercargill. “I just felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility. You’ve got good staff, loyal staff, and I do think Dad and Harold would have expected me to have at least given it a fair nudge.”

With help from Scott and her mother, Shona, Joc immersed herself in the role of company director. “Dad always used to say, ‘You’ve got two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that proportion.’ So I listened and learnt as much as I could.”

The late Bill Richardson with his Texaco tanker.

Alongside coping with her father’s business legacy, there was another part of his life Joc had to deal with. On the company’s premises were 150 vintage trucks and 100 historic petrol bowsers that Bill had collected since buying his grandfather’s 1933 International in 1967. Some were restored, most weren’t.

“It was really his saving grace in many ways after Harold was killed,” Joc says. “He’d just come over here to his shed at night and potter away. He just loved that thrill of the chase, of finding what he was looking for.”

Bill used to show people his collection by appointment, and Joc continued this, with up to 6000 people coming through each year. She also carried on buying other vintage vehicles as they were discovered in various states of repair throughout sheds in Southland. In 2013, an Australian friend mentioned her husband was about to auction his collection of old Fords.

“We had a wee rush of blood to the head,” says Joc, “and thought, why don’t we bring them here to Invercargill? And it was sort of the catalyst for opening to the public. We felt we were sitting on a bit of a gem that could be good for the city if we took that next step.”

Aware Invercargill had few attractions that people paid for, Joc sketched out a plan for a museum that would hold their 300 trucks and cars, and also incorporate a cafe, workshops and the company’s office.

Opened in December 2015, Bill Richardson Transport World covers 15,000 square metres and takes up the entire city block the family business has been on since her grandfather built a sawmill and engineering shed there – apart from the house Joc grew up in, where her mother still lives, which remains on one corner.

As well as trucks and cars and tractors, there are race cars, pedal cars, a homage to the movie Pork Pie, and hundreds of intricate vintage petrol bowsers. There’s a wearable arts display, a giant Lego room for kids, a library, and a collection of other items from early Southland. There’s a piano for guests to play, and all the toilets are quirkily themed attractions in their own right.

Already, 60,000 people have visited the complex.

Richardson’s shed with the first truck he bought, a 1933 International owned by his grandfather.

But just as Joc O’Donnell was celebrating the opening of Transport World, another challenge presented itself. In May 2016, they heard that Nelson businessman Tom Sturgess was selling his collection of 300 classic motorcycles.

With the bikes on the verge of being auctioned in America and split up, the O’Donnells saw there was an obvious fit with Transport World, and made a rapid decision to purchase the entire collection and bring it to Invercargill. They stripped back a central city building they owned and in November last year opened Motorcycle Mecca.

Collection manager Dave Roberts had overseen the motorcycles in Nelson for Sturgess and didn’t think twice about moving to Invercargill with them. “Oh god, yeah. I was emotionally attached to them and I wanted to have some control over what was happening to them.”

Easily the biggest motorcycle collection in New Zealand, and worth tens of millions of dollars, the attraction is an ideal adjunct to the motorbikes and memorabilia of Burt Munro, of The World’s Fastest Indian fame, which are on display at the E. Hayes hardware store in Invercargill. 

Three multi-coloured Britten motorbikes are a major drawcard at Motorcycle Mecca (only one other is on display in New Zealand, at Te Papa), but several hand-built Brough Superiors from the 1930s are shiny black scene-stealers.

“They’re the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles,” says Roberts. “There are very expensive models, and then there’s just ordinary expensive models,” with one worth close to $1 million, “on a good day”.

There are muscular race bikes and century-old relics with delicate wicker sidecars. A collection of rare motorcycle posters and art lines the walls. But the attraction is not just for specialists; Roberts insists it has very wide appeal. “This place isn’t the domain of the hard core. I love watching people walk in and seeing their reactions. It’s like, ‘Holy hell’, ‘Oh, my god’ – all those things.”

Motorcycle Mecca’s Dave Roberts.

When Lex Chisholm was growing up in Tokanui, east of Invercargill, his father ran a contracting business, clearing land and bulldozing roads through the Catlins. So it was little surprise when Chisholm left school and went to Twizel in the early 70s to drive big machinery on the Waitaki hydro scheme.

After playing rugby for Southland and overseas, Chisholm drove and dispatched trucks, but late last year was asked by the O’Donnells if he was interested in working for them. The job they had was to set up and run their latest mechanical venture, Dig This, where people operate diggers and bulldozers in what’s been described as “a sandpit on steroids”.

Based on an attraction established in Las Vegas by ex-Mosgiel musterer Ed Mumm, it will let customers take the controls of machinery, including 15-tonne diggers, on a one-hectare city section. “And they can friggin’ dig as big a hole as they like,” says Chisholm.

They’ll also be taught a range of more delicate skills, like picking up and dunking basketballs with the digger’s buckets, and there’ll be a section where people can crush a car.

“Bang and smash – get them as flat as you can, do whatever you want to,” says Chisholm. “Every woman I’ve ever talked to about it has got really excited. But I’ve said to them, ‘Your husband’s not allowed to be in it.’”

Far from what people might expect, he says, in Las Vegas women make up 40 per cent of customers and are often far better at operating heavy machinery. “They haven’t got any preconceived ideas; testosterone doesn’t take over… softer hands.”

Children as young as five will play on small diggers and Chisholm says the whole idea of the attraction, which opened on October 2, is for people to have fun, while adding another tourist drawcard to the city.

“If this was in Queenstown, it would go gangbusters, but Joc and Scott have the theory, ‘We’re going to have it here and bring people to Invercargill.’ Amazing. I thought I was the most passionate Southlander ever, but they’re obsessed with Invercargill. I just take my hat off to them, shit I do.”

Several hand-built Brough Superiors from the 1930s are shiny black scene-stealers.

Joc O’Donnell remembers someone once looking at her father’s vehicle collection and asking her, “Why don’t you take it to Queenstown?”

“And I was like, it didn’t even enter my head, because the heart and the roots of the business are here. And we feel really strongly that our head office stays here in Invercargill. There’s no need for it not to be here.”

The group of companies her father created has now grown into one of the country’s largest family-owned businesses. In Invercargill alone, it employs 700 people, but outside the city few appreciate the extent of the HWR group. “Our preference really is to fly under the radar and just get on doing what we do,” Joc says. “It’s sort of the Southland way.”

She says her dad was just a Southland boy at heart who continued a business first started by her great-great-grandfather in Wyndham in 1878. “He had quite a laid-back demeanour, but I’m sure his brain never stopped.”

Lex Chisholm at the company’s new venture, Dig This, where customers will take the controls of machinery on a one-hectare city section and “friggin’ dig as big a hole as they like”.

Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt remembers Bill Richardson as an incredibly good businessman but, equally, an incredibly likeable character. “He used to say, ‘I think I’m the only multi-millionaire that lives in a house valued at $90,000 in south Invercargill.’ And I’d have to say, that’s a fairly unique combo.”

Shadbolt recalls Bill taking him through his vehicle collection before it went public, “and he knew every mudguard and tyre and grille – and there was always a story attached to it.

“Every year, we’d pay a pilgrimage to Bill and go down on bended knee and say, ‘Look, Bill, can we help with setting something up for the public – it would be such a drawcard for us as a city.’ And he’d say, ‘There’s one problem, gentlemen, it’s a collection, not a museum for stupid people like councils to run. It’s a private collection – have you heard the word ‘private’, Mr Mayor? ‘Private collection.’”

However, Joc and Scott O’Donnell’s decision to open up the collection to the public has produced a fantastic attraction for Invercargill, Shadbolt says. “We’ve got something we can say is probably one of the best museums in the world. It gives us something absolutely unique. But it’s more than a museum – it’s a monument to Bill. It’s just absolutely phenomenal what’s been achieved.”

Joc O’Donnell says the trio of automotive attractions they’ve created – Transport World, Motorcycle Mecca and Dig This – have partly been to indulge their own passions but mainly to bring visitors south to the province.

“I just want people to enjoy them. That’s why we did it, so other people can enjoy it.” 

This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.

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