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Dave Donaldson and his VW Variant

Dave tells the story of his unique car...

VW Variant

For someone who has no real interest in cars I’ve been lucky enough to own three great surf vehicles in my life, a VW Kombi when I was a teenager, a Mk3 Zephyr, that I bought off my grandfather, when in my early twenty’s but the best of all was a light blue 1972 VW Variant station-wagon that I owned for over a decade from 1985.

It was at a time when I was (almost) making a living as a performing musician. For most of that time our band, The Six Volts, had a residency at Clare’s nightclub, just off Cuba Street. We’d perform there every Friday and Saturday night. Apart from other random gigs we’d pick up, those were the only work commitments I had.

For that decade, during the early part of the week, if there was the merest hint of swell I would head over to the Wairarapa coast.

The original MK3 Zephyr with Janet Roddick and Malcolm Reid 1984. Trench coats were a thing back then.

At this time there was no River Road as part of State Highway 2, Making for a slow and frustrating drive right through Upper Hutt. The Rimutaka hill was even narrower and more winding than it is today and the coast roads more gravel, so drives out to the Wairarapa coast more often than not resulted in an overnight stay, either camping out, or staying at the hut which used to be at Ngapotoki, as well as an unlocked entry gate. (Both of which are now gone.)

My brother Anthony was in the band with me and had the same free time. He didn’t surf but was fully into fishing and hunting, so more often than not would come with me. We bought a small blow-up dinghy, that could just fit the two of us as well as our fishing gear and we were set.

Camping out at the Stone Wall

I remember one time when the surf was no good we went for a hunt up in the Tararuas instead. Ant shot a deer on the Thursday evening and I completely pigged out on it that night and again for breakfast and lunch on Friday, before walking out and heading to our gig that evening. By the time we’d set up and were getting ready to play I was starting to feel very queasy and before long had to leave the stage to vomit, while the audience chanted “He killed Bambi”.

I had eaten way too much of the very rich meat.

The Variant was a gem, a little slow over the Rimutaka hill but handled great on the many shingle roads that led to the Wairarapa breaks and with its engine over the large back wheels and high clearance it was like a poor mans 4 wheel drive… with the added attraction of a boot in the front for storing gear. It is the only vehicle I’ve owned that could get me through the rock garden and past the stone-wall around past the Palliser Bay lighthouse.

It was a very distinctive vehicle and before long most surfers who spent any time in the Wairarapa were familiar with it. Even decades later I would still have people come up to me up to me and say “Oh you’re that guy who had the blue variant,” especially after it made it into a two page spread in New Zealand Surfing magazine (without me), in a line-up shot looking out over one of the Wairarapa’s premier point breaks - I wasn’t known for my surfing but by my vehicle.

The old lodge.

There was a bunch of other surfers who were just as obsessed as me and I’d normally run into Howard Rait, (who was almost a fixture over the coast at that time, when not making boards under the name Southshore) making cups of tea out the back of his 4 wheel drive, always ready for a chat, before heading out and surfing in that beautiful timeless style. There would also likely be Dean Bush, Graeme Moody (RIP), Pete Brady, Andy Miers, Phil Isaac, Gor, Cass and eventually Gary Hurring, after he moved to town, as well as any of the bunch of slightly scary, older guys known as the Bozos.

Of course the Wairarapa has always had a bunch of locals but they didn’t tend to camp over so weren’t the surfers I would tend to hang out with. Most of the guys I knew were from Wellington.

The author with his distinct blue board and Gath helmet.

Although the Variant could get me most places a 4 wheel drive could get, I did get trapped for four days one time at a remote Wairarapa break after a night time flash flood washed the road away, leaving a six foot drop onto large boulders. I got to surf that break on my own for the next few days before we realised no one was coming to fix the road and spent a day or two shifting boulders and creating a make shift ramp to get us out.

One of the few times I didn’t take the Variant over the coast, I quickly came to regret it. I was talked into a day trip by a chef, Craig, who I worked with at a restaurant, where I had a part time dishwashing job for a while. He wanted to take his new sports car. It was a beautiful summers morning and we had the windows down as we came to the first view of the coast. It was pumping.

All went well until we came to the fords near Ngapotiki. Craig sped up and gunned it through the first one before the car came to a spluttering stop.

“Why did you do that?” I asked

“I was trying to splash you.” Was his reply.

“You’re a fuckwit” was mine

He then leapt out of the car and pulled all the sparkplug leads off, assuming they had got wet.

I didn’t know it and obviously neither did Craig but it’s important the spark plug leads need to stay in the right order. A couple of hours later we still hadn’t got the order right or the car going, and were forced to walk back to the farm down the road and ask the farmer for help. Some time later after towing us up and down the road we finally managed to get the car started and limped home surf-less, with the farmer shaking his head and me promising to myself never to travel with anyone else again.

There was one period that we were going so often my dad thought he better come and join us, which was fair enough as he was the one who first instilled in us a love of the outdoors. He drove up from Christchurch, caught the Ferry and went with us for a few nights over the coast.

After getting his new car stuck and a bit dented and then realising we weren’t joking about sleeping out, I think he was kind of relieved to make it back home, happy and relatively unscathed.

It was the last time we got to go camping with our dad.

The car came to a bit of a sad end unfortunately. The engine eventually started leaking too much oil but it was such a great car that I decided to get a reconditioned motor installed. At the time there were two garages that specialized in VW’s in Wellington, one in Newtown and one in Taranaki Street. I took it to the one in Taranaki Street and spent fifteen hundred dollars having the engine fully reconditioned. It nearly drove me crazy not having the vehicle for the couple of weeks that it took to repair. The day after I got it back I packed my gear in and headed off over the coast. I didn’t even get as far as Upper Hutt before smoke was streaming out the back and had to pull over to the side of the motorway.

A traffic officer stopped to check on me and when I told him that I’d just got the car reconditioned and where, he said “Wrong garage mate, that place is renowned for their shonky work.”

I limped back into town and took the car back to the garage where they took almost no responsibility for their work, made a few minor repairs and handed it back but the car was never the same and before long, sadly, I had to get rid of it.

Cars seem to be quite a good marker of time passing. At that time it would have been very hard to imagine looking back from where I am today; two Toyota vans, two Subaru’s, a Honda Odyssey family wagon, two kids, a few more surfer’s ear operations and over 30 years later.

Almost all the older surfers of that era have now gone. Decades of surfing and life in general can take quite a toll on the body. Graeme Moody* died while surfing, on a 60th birthday trip to Angourie, Howard has had major health problems and can no longer surf, Andy, and the Bozo’s are gone from the coast. My shaper Roger Titcombe (Goodtime surfboards) has all but stopped shaping. A few guys such as Gor and Cass make rare appearances. The only regular faces from that era, who still don’t miss many swells over the coast are Dean Bush, Gary Hurring and the kid who turned up towards the end of that era, Campbell Hey, now himself hitting 50.

I owned that car through a particularly free part of my life. I had a lot of spare time, a complete obsession with surfing (still undimmed) and the Wairarapa coast and the best vehicle I’ve ever owned to make full use of that. It was a great car at a great time in my life.

David Donaldson

November 2019

The author with some relatively modern looking shapes by the standards of the day

* Graeme was a well known sports broadcaster. He commentated the All Blacks/ Springboks test at Athletic Park during the 1981 tour. At the same time I was getting battened by the police, while protesting outside - we surfed together a lot but never talked about politics.

I ran into Graeme a few days before he headed off for his 60th birthday surf trip to Angourie. I said to him “I know when you give up surfing I’ll have ten years of surfing left, because you’re ten years older than me and one of the only guy who matches me for surf obsession.” He replied “I don’t plan on ever giving up, when I can’t get to my feet anymore I’ll body board.”

A few days later he got his legrope caught around a rock while paddling out and drowned.

The last decade has flown by and I now find my own 60th is fast approaching. These days I treasure every surf.

You just never know when it’s going to end.

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