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GRAHAM VOITRE - THE MAN WHO PAINTED THE LAST TRAM

SPOTLIGHT ON MOTAT’S ORAL HISTORIES

Not generally well known is MOTAT’s considerable and growing oral history repository. Over the last twenty years the Walsh Memorial Library has been developing its collection of oral histories.

The library has over 400 hours of recordings archived, covering themes of aviation, transport, telecommunications, and more. Interviews with former MOTAT volunteers and staff members and others give an intimate and lively account of the museum and stories about our collections.

Members of the MOTAT Society are welcome to visit the library and listen to interviews. For this issue of Squeaky Wheel, we feature excerpts transcribed from two of these histories which we hope will give you a taste of what is available.

This one is an interview with Graham Voitre who worked with Auckland Tramways (and later Auckland's bus services) for over 40 years. The other is from one of our valued volunteers, Nola Morgan, who spent many years working with her husband in the Pioneer (Victorian) Village.

The MOTAT Library is open Monday to Friday 10am – 4pm (except public holidays). Contact via phone 09 845 3690 or email library@motat.org.nz.


Graham Voitre started work at the ATB (Auckland Transport Board) in 1948 as a 15 year old apprentice coach painter. Initially addressed simply as “the boy” Graham started out earning 28 and sixpence working from 7:30am to 4:00pm in a five year/5000hr apprenticeship. He worked his way up through the paint shop ranks to foreman in 44 years of service to Auckland's public transport system.

“I was apprenticed as a coach painter, which was an old fashioned term. Some call them a body painter but look, yeah a coach painter.
“My first year was doing all the menial tasks such as rubbing down, sweeping the floor. I became the lunch boy. I had to go from where we were [at] Manukau Road down to Royal Oak, pick up all the lunches and bring them back for the staff in the paint shop and the body shop. . . . after going through all the menial tasks - sweeping the floor, rubbing down, filling up the holes and sanding them back again - I then progressed to spray painting.
“Even though as I said we used to rub down mainly by hand we did have sanding machines. But we weren't impressed by them really. It was the later models that later on were quite good but the early models, they didn't help that much.
“After the tram was sanded down it took about six weeks to paint . . . We had a small booth where we spray painted all the small items that belonged to the tram car, such as the seats and the seat backs, and the window frames.
“All the windows were taken out of the tram by the way. And they had a . . . steel plate went inside the frame so we could spray the frames without getting paint onto the glass. And after everything was spray painted . . . the windows were cleaned in the old-fashioned way. They were cleaned with a pad about a half an inch thick . . . And you used to put pumice on and put the pad onto the glass, clean the glass until they looked like brand new.
“[W]hen the trams were painted they were taken out to the outside where there was a pit . . . And they used to drive the tram onto this traverser - which was a platform on wheels which used to run down between the two buildings. But because we didn't have a spray booth big enough to take the trams everything was spray painted outside, which wouldn't be tolerated today.

Above: Graham 6th from the left with colleagues in front of Tram No.253 “Queen Mary”. Photo courtesy of Graham Voitre.
“The panels on the tram were mostly kauri ply and sometimes we used to put metal panels on them like aluminium. And the undercoat was spray painted outside, maybe six or seven coats of paint. And then we put on a guide coat, which was a thin yellow paint, very turpsey transparent but enough to show that we had sanded down enough to get a flat finish.
“Everything was rubbed down by hand. The panels which were spray painted . . . Mostly they were the rubbed down wet and as I said your hands softened and sometimes started to bleed. Inside the tram the panels were ply . . . and they were spray painted and filled up. And they came up like glass afterwards. The . . . seats were all done separate.
“The roof was covered in like a canvas and we used to make up an oil based paint from white lead which we used to mix up by ourselves. It contained the white lead, turps, terrabin - which is a dryer, and oil – I think it was linseed oil. And that was all mixed together and took ages to mix it up. . . . [W]e tinted it light grey with a bit of black. And we then painted the roof by hand . . . . And then it was taken back on the traverser again at the end and all the chassis . . . was painted black.”

Graham emphasised that in 1948 “[W]e weren't with the times . . . and the trams were painted by brush”. Brushes used were the best quality Hamilton brushes stocked by their own on-site store and paint pots were made on site at the Blacksmith shop.

“Yeah everything was painted by hand other than the spray-painting outside. It was all brush painted. . . . It was all lead and super enamel. Although later on when we got to doing buses special paint was brought in from England which was very superior paint.
“[W]e all had our locker each where you kept your brushes. And you got used to using your own brushes. No one dared take your brushes and use them. . . . once they wore down you could go and see the foreman and he'd say 'Yeah well go up the store and get a new one.'“
Whilst lines were hand painted with a steady hand and a suitably sized brush, ATB logos and the destination blinds were all painted using stencils:
“Yeah, yeah the ATB was done like imitation gold. We used to make a paint up near enough to [a] goldy colour. And they used to put ATB in the middle and on each end they used to put the number of the tram. All the destination blinds were checked over by . . . another person at the end of the shop. . . . And he'd run through all the destinations because sometimes they would get torn and they'd get replaced.
“And they were sprayed with this oil black paint and then hung up on coat hangers to dry. Later on it became more modernised and for the buses and that we silk screened them.”

THE GOLDEN JUBILEE TRAM

Early on in his apprenticeship, whilst under the wing of a senior coach painter well versed in sign-writing, Graham assisted in the painting of the No.11 Tram for the 50th Jubilee of trams in Auckland in November, 1952. One of the first trams to arrive as a kitset in 1902 for Auckland's new tram system, No.11 worked the tram circuit for over 50 years, retiring from service in 1954, has since been restored and is currently in operation at MOTAT.

“[W]e did everything bar . . . the outline of the persons on the window. We did all the painting and all those little scrolls . . . . We did all the scrolls and the curtains and such work, the poles. We had to make the poles like a barber's pole which was – we had to work that out how to do it but it turned out quite successful.”

I AM THE LAST TRAM

Perhaps Graham's biggest on-the-job claim to fame was his painting of the “Last Tram”, No.242, which made the final Auckland tram run on 29 December 1956 with Graham's “I AM THE LAST TRAM” emblazoned on its side.

“That was my foreman sent me over to do that. And he said he just wanted to make it rough . . . and 'It's the last tram,'. . . it was all done by just a big paintbrush virtually. He just told me to make it as rough as anything. . . .'Because they're getting rid of it. Getting rid of this tram.'”

Above: Graham painting the iconic “I Am The Last Tram” slogan on No.242. Photo courtesy of Graham Voitre.

James Duncan gives more insight into what became of No. 242 in his article about No.253 - nicknamed “Queen Mary” - published in the electronic version of Squeaky Wheel #40, June 2021.

“During early 1957 each of the remaining 43 trams was driven the 1.5 kms down the road from Epsom Depot to the Royal Oak Manukau Road Workshops. Here, once stripped of seats, metalwork, control and running gear, a trucking company took the tram bodies down to Thames, where they then on-sold the bodies to become garden sheds, greenhouses or more commonly, holiday homes – baches! “

After discontinuation of tram services in Auckland No.242 was used as a bach in the Whanganui region and was demolished in 2006.


ATB BRANCHES OUT

Following the last Auckland tram runs, the paint shop moved onto the painting of the trolley buses that took over public transportation. In an effort to keep operational, services were extended to include a variety of tasks including track signs for the Botannical Gardens, the painting of houses owned by the ATB, and even the ATB office building.

“[W]e were all employed painting the interior. . . The whole paint shop went down there . . . Although one person fainted one day because he used the shellac which is methylated spirit based and he got caught by the fumes. He was in a small area and just about passed out.

“And he [management] was all for getting extra work. . . . [R]ather than the mundane which we had painting tram after tram after tram after tram. And he got all this varied work and well it's a pity that it all went unfortunately. We had over 130 apprentices. And that went right throughout the workshop to the treatment plant and Rockfield Road, the airport. . . . And we had a man in charge . . . of all the apprentices and we used to have mechanics that . . . won the award with the competition they had and they were sent overseas to Germany. And they won prizes over there.
“We had the paint shop, the sign shop, body shop, a trim shop - . . . the buses had leather seats and so we had a trim shop . . . We had a panel shop . . . We had building maintenance, a plumber, fitting shop . . . A chassis shop which was the ones that did the tyres and all to do with the wheels and that sort of thing. A blacksmith, electronic shop – electrics, armature winders, assembly shop, an engine bay and a [unclear] cleaner."

THE SOCIAL CLUB

The ATM supported its workers in social and sporting endeavours and built a purpose built building for a large subsidised cafeteria.

“[W]e had a cricket team and we used to play during the summer. . . down at Waikaraka Park. . . . I wasn't much of a cricketer, I used to be out in the field. My cousin was a bowler and a batsman . . . We had a few ring-ins. And that was a couple of my cousins and one of the friend's of my cousin's.
“[W]e had fun and games at the workshop. . . we had the bowling club next door. . . . At lunch time we'd go over there. At odd times there'd be competitions going there. . . then we used to have certain members that challenged each other to a game of bowls. And we also had indoor bowls inside the shop.”

Graham remained employed with the ATB through its 1989 change to the ARC and its 1990 change to The Yellow Bus Company, retiring in December 1992, prior to its change to Stagecoach, seeing out 44 and a half years in service.



References

Tram [No.11 (B Type 'Combo')]

'I Am the Last Tram': Hutching

Graham Voitre et al. 23 Aug 2011. MOTAT oral history interview with Grham Voitre, 11-3940. Walsh Memorial Library, the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).


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