90 and not slowing down

In News5 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineAugust 11, 2023

Industry stalwart and pioneer of modern-day house moving in New Zealand, Warwick Johnson, recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

An overwhelmed Warwick was joined by close family and friends in Tauranga for the first of three intimate lunches. The other two followed over consecutive days in Tirau and Te Rapa. Warwick’s clearly not slowed down just yet…

“I was born in 1933 and got a shock when I did the maths,” he joked. “I’ve always had an ambition to get to today, I can’t believe this,” he said with a heartfelt smile.

One of Warwick’s closest friends and legendary Kiwi trailer builder Neil Peterken, now 87, joined in the celebrations. Needless to say, the stories, anecdotes and banter between the two had those with diesel in their veins captivated.

“My grandfather used to use traction engines and bullocks, then it came into my time around late 1945 – all the trucks were on vacuum with probably 30hp, so if you wanted to shift a house you put four trucks under it. Then we came to the hydraulics and engineered our first trailer with Peterken. Of course, the biggest thing was to get the seals, because nobody knew about hydraulics then. But we persevered and we put the ram upside down so dirt didn’t get in it. Amazing times. We were probably the forerunners of what you see today in transport, and we just did it… we didn’t have any bullshit or government restrictions,” Warwick says.

It truly was a different, innovative time. “The first trailer we did without any authority. We used it for about six months to cart houses to Turangi before they said to me, ‘what’s the story on your hydraulic trailer?’ I said, ‘jump in the car and I’ll show you’. He said, ‘you’re not an engineer, who certified it?’ I said, ‘I just took the number plate off that trailer and put it on this one, you bastards didn’t want to know about it!’ That was it!” Warwick laughs.

Over the years Warwick and Neil worked closely together to improve their trailers as they learnt from practise and came up with new ideas. “But the gear, it’s a revolution of change. Enormous change,” Warwick says of the industry today.

In 2021 Warwick published his memoirs in a book called Prime Mover, the remarkable life of Warwick Johnson, with the intention of using the profit from the book sales to donate an ambulance to St John. In December 2022 he accomplished that goal by gifting a first response unit to serve the Benneydale community. In the process, he made some new friends from the organisation, who joined him at the lunch and presented him with a framed photo of the ambulance.

“Receiving the photo from St John just blew me away. That [the donation] was a big goal of mine and I’m so happy about it. I wanted to do it and I’m just proud to think I have done it. They [St John] are quite outstanding,” says Warwick, who has been a long-time supporter of the organisation.

Copies of Prime Mover are still available at nztrucking.co.nz/prime-mover/. Written in a conversational style, Prime Mover is hard to put down and packed with history, rich in detail and featuring more than 150 photographs. The 200-page book, is a must for any buff of road transport in New Zealand, retails for $49.99. A postage and handling fee will automatically be added during the checkout process.

“I had more than 60 years in the industry and made some fantastic memories,” Warwick says. I’ve recently set out all my photos at home in decades going back right to the 1940s. Maybe there’s another book to get out!”