Post-pandemic (Part 1)

It’s been a mad few years – living through the pandemic then slowly emerging from a state of collective shell-shock feeling changed but unsure exactly how; the grotesque buffoon dethroned as leader of the free world, still loitering, still a threat; catastrophic bushfires on three continents on a scale humanity has never seen, interspersed with successive years of record rainfall and flooding; the familiar uneasiness of living in a society sliding heedlessly toward war with yet another demonised country. I had at times, during the pandemic especially, thought I should be documenting my experiences here. Life has been complicated. Social media platforms are too convenient and it’s easier to dump thoughts there, throwaways really, than to write a thoughtful and cohesive article.

The pandemic… where to begin? So much has and will be written about it. I think the best way I can contribute is to try and document my personal experiences and position them into broader social contexts.

Pandemic Year 1

At the end of 2019, I left the State Library of New South Wales where I’d been seconded for two years as Business Information Lead, responsible for the State Library’s own corporate records and archives and the related systems. I was proud to work there. I think most Sydneysiders and visitors would recognise the State Library as one of the city’s most loved institutions. The Mitchell Reading Room and the galleries around it are among our most beautiful public spaces, the Macquarie Building and its Marie Bashir Reading Room, Children’s Library, meeting rooms and computer services have a good claim to being our most useful, and the new auditorium under construction will multiply that.

I’d been on loan to the State Library from Fire and Rescue NSW, where I was returning with an informal agreement to work part time, giving me the time and brain-space to start my own business. After twenty-three years in Her Majesty’s service, I wanted to be my own boss, responsible for my own successes and failures instead of other people’s. In all those years in Government I felt I’d done very little of value to society. If I tried my hand in the world of business, perhaps I could achieve something worthwhile.

I reckoned I’d found a niche – mushroom varieties and complementary ingredients for Japanese cuisine. They’re tasty, nutritious, a fundamental in the diets of Australia’s large and expanding Asian demographic, and a growing number of consumers are looking for humane and sustainable sources of protein.

‘Organic mushies on the rise’, Kate McIlwain, The Land, 19 May 2022 (Australian Community Media).
Oyster Mushrooms grown by Illawarra Mushrooms, Timbermill studios, Bulli NSW, and sold by me at Tabetai (photo by Gary Sachtleben, Adventure Group).

Two challenges surfaced, one that had always been a hindrance during my public service career and yet somehow still surprised every time, and another global one that blindsided everyone.

I came back to Fire and Rescue in a new role in corporate governance, working outside of IT for the first time in twenty-two years. My new boss, Bren Turner, supported my shift to working part-time. This apparently wasn’t supported by her boss, and instead became something we could talk about ‘down the track’. I had not only come back hoping to work part time, I went down a couple of pay grades, a compromise I was prepared to make for the flexibility to start my own business.

It soon became clear I’d transferred into a directorate with dysfunctional levels of tension and gloom, not atypical in the New South Wales public sector. These are often the result of personality clashes or a particular personality type in a position of power.

By March 2020 though, any angst I’d felt about the matter (actually only the latest chapter in a vocational despondency which had smoldered for two decades) dissipated. In November 2019, as I was farewelling the State Library to return to Fire and Rescue, it was already becoming apparent in Wuhan, a regional city in China, that a microscopic critter had begun its feast on humanity.

December or January, it’s a little blurry exactly when COVID-19 started pushing its way to the front of the news in our corner of the world, but around mid-March 2020 after it had begun ravaging Europe and North America, it quickly became the dominant topic. In those first months, COVID-19 had seemed yet another news item about a horrible virus inflicting unfortunate people in a distant part of the world, like we’d seen with SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu, Ebola… but in mid-March it was like flicking a switch. Life changed.

One small personal irony is that my director had just signed off on a flexible working agreement so I could spend a day a week working from home. It seems anachronistic now post-pandemic, but this was an arrangement Fire and Rescue made with some non-frontline headquarters staff if you could be bothered jumping through all the hoops. It required me to establish a workspace that conformed to WH&S requirements, provide photos and a floor plan with dimensions, draw up an emergency escape plan from my house, and write a case for working from home which was normally plagiarised between staff and referred to the need for “focused work time”, generally for the research and composition of documentation – policies, procedures, presentations, reports and stuff. The flexible working agreement had to be signed off by a number of senior staff.

Then, in mid-March 2020, Bren simply told her whole team to work from home. It was the first week I’d planned to spend Friday working at City of Sydney Fire Station under my new flexible work agreement. A week later the Commissioner followed and directed all non-frontline and non-trades staff to work from home. No workspace photos, emergency escape routes plotted onto floorplans, no business case required. Thus began an extraordinary couple of years in my working life, as it did for office workers in affluent societies around the world. It would reshape work hereafter in ways we are really still trying to understand.

Two technological advancements made it possible for people like me to work from home, and in a historical sense they seemed to arrive just in time. Firstly, after years of flakey internet service at my place, I hadn’t realised just how solid my connection had become after the upgrades under the National Broadband Network. Secondly, Microsoft had released Office 365 in 2016, and by 2020 it was ubiquitous. The “Zoom meeting” became part of the vernacular, though I seldom ever used that particular brand of online videoconferencing technology.

I’d been in the occasional video conference over the years using different technologies and it was in daily use at the ACCC during a stint I’d done with the Commonwealth in 2015. But overnight in March 2020, MS Teams became the venue for every meeting and every interaction with my work colleagues, as well as people throughout the public and private sectors I dealt with regularly. In 2018 and 2019 at the State Library, I’d laboured for months attempting to scribe the governance framework for the implementation of SharePoint which, in typical public sector fashion, had taken two years of work involving countless waffling meetings and design and policy rewrites to not implement. In the context of the pandemic, there was now no need to fuck around and bureaucratise the crap out of everything. Necessity was temporarily permitted to be the mother of invention, MS Teams was just there, and people stepped into it intuitively, without the need for months upon months upon years of hours of meetings to tease out and negotiate complicated frameworks for its use.

Soon after my return to Fire and Rescue, I’d found a ‘gap in the line’ within my new team. My new role was ostensibly to support internal performance audits, enterprise risk management, and compliance activities. However, some of my teammates were heavily invested and more comfortable with internal audits, so I landed primary responsibility for enterprise risk management, which in hindsight was such a fabulous opportunity.

Coincidentally, at the start of the pandemic, a major restructure of the Commissioner’s Office was announced and my directorate was to be carved up and redistributed into the new structure. It would take more than a year for that to unfold.

My little home office became my place of work five days a week. It just happened to be also my sleeping quarters, a situation that became unsustainable during the second year of the pandemic, contributing to a discomfort with life in general. But in 2020 it was part of the novelty and, curiously, of a new type of freedom. I look back on that first year of the pandemic with real nostalgia now.

As an office worker, I’d long hated the daily commute. It was a big part of why I left the State Library in 2019, and the Office of Environment and Heritage five years earlier. I’d struggle daily for a parking spot at the train station, only to squish into a ten thousand tonne sardine-can rolling station by station for anything between 48 minutes and three and a half hours into the city, to be corralled like cattle out into Wynyard Station and onto the streets to our offices. It was dehumanising, and it had consumed decades of my life and destroyed my soul. Working from home during the pandemic, there was none of that.

Yet, as I write in mid 2023 when things are back to some sort of a new normal, I dropped Chizuru off at the train station one morning this week and witnessed two separate instances of middle-aged men running with their cases and coats through the carpark to get to their train, with that earnest, pained expression on their faces that I know so well. Some days it’s the outward expression of the thought, “somebody just please put a bullet in my fucking head’.

Instead, during Pandemic year 1, I’d go for a walk in the morning, sometimes through the neighbourhood, sometimes in the bush. Every few hours throughout the workday, between meetings I’d jump on my bike and cycle up and down the street a few times to keep myself physically active and think through a question or compose a few lines of whatever document I was working on. Lunchtimes I’d go for another walk, spoilt by the bushland, a stream and even a waterfall only a few hundred metres from home.

With so many people staying close to their neighborhoods, new tracks I’d never seen before opened up as dozens of people like myself were getting out and exploring. I even conducted online meetings from bushland, sitting in a park or walking back from my mechanic. A lack of mobile phone coverage was the only thing that prevented me from conducting a meeting from the waterfall.

Waterfall on a tributary to Joe Craft’s Creek, Berowra Valley National Park, 300 metres from home.

From early on we were conscious that work would probably be reshaped forever. We envisaged what has come to be known as the hybrid work environment, which recruiters now spruik in their job ads to attract staff. What we didn’t know is how long we’d be working full time at home, in a state of limbo, with social distancing and other restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus which was on its way to killing millions. This was very isolating for some.

Each day, people would religiously check updates at the 11 AM briefing from Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Health Minister Brad Hazzard. We’d speculate over the numbers, find ourselves in deep discussion and analysis as we sliced and diced the figures from the Service NSW website – numbers infected, numbers of PCR tests done by local government area or postcode, numbers in ICU, per hospital, number of deaths. We braced ourselves for widespread tragedy.

We’d watched in horror at the news coming from Spain, then Italy, then the United Kingdom, and then the bewildering spectacle of a United States acutely divided, with an infantile President talking up hydroxychloroquine and speculating about injecting bleach into people’s bloodstream, as the number of dead in that country hit 160,000 then 300 thousand, five hundred, seven hundred thousand, and beyond a million.

As if this all wasn’t anxiety inducing enough, the pathological chatter from our political classes including all quarters of the media, of hatred and war with China, found ready ears in broader society.

The weirdness of social distancing was very off-putting at first – taking a wide berth around anyone you’d see on the street, poking elbows at each other instead of shaking hands. Wearing masks indoors was an adjustment. The contrast between city and country was stark during a visit to Port Macquarie in June 2020 for my mum’s birthday. Pulling into the carpark at Tacking Point Shopping Centre, Bryce and I automatically put on face masks before wandering in to grab a few things at the supermarket. In Sydney where rules were already tighter, if you were out and about you were wearing one, but at Tacking Point that day we may as well have been wearing burqas. Eyes were drawn to us. To my parochial hometown compatriots we were toxic aliens.

In New South Wales, measures were tweaked throughout 2020 and 2021, including a long period our movements were restricted to within our local government area or up to 10 km from home outside of it. For me that was Hornsby Shire and thousands of hectares of national parks and waterways, which felt like plenty. There were grounds for exemption, which importantly for Bryce included a partner/ companion outside your local area. His girlfriend at the time, Olivia Hannam, was just outside the 10 km in Wahroonga.

Some Sydney local government areas in the west and southwest had it worse, with a 5 km radius, night time curfews, and a heightened police presence enforcing compliance and handing out hefty fines. This opened the conservative government to accusations of political bias, with the subtext being divisions in class, race and income, made stark by imagery in the media of non-compliance going un-punished in the eastern suburbs.

Many were blindsided to learn that we live in a Federation. State borders were closed by Queensland and Western Australian, where parochial attitudes toward the heavily populated south-eastern states were exacerbated by the pandemic. Victoria, for a long time, closed the borders to residents of specific New South Wales post codes. Policy in relation to restrictions on travel, social distancing, work attendance, education, vaccination and other health matters varied from state to state and some people found this very unnatural. The media is so overawed by Commonwealth politics that Australians have become out of touch with the fact that most of the governing has occurred at the state level since before the Commonwealth existed, and the states are the fundamental jurisdiction of government and the Commonwealth is the add-on, not the other way around. The New South Wales public service is more than twice the size of the Commonwealth and the salaries higher.

Despite it all, through the fresh sunny autumn and mild winter, and into the spring and summer of 2020, looking back, every day and every season seemed idyllic.

In the evenings after work, I’d cycle up to a track off Alston Road leading to a beautiful lookout high above Berowra Waters and watch the sunset over the mountains. The half hour after sunset the sky is particularly beautiful, especially through winter. Sometimes I’d catch Claire, who’d been a fellow committee member for the Berowra RSL Youth Club. We’d sit and watch the sunset and chat. Claire raised three girls on her own while running a bookkeeping business that keeps her working long hours. She plays competitive volleyball alongside much younger teammates and opponents and devotes time to the admin of Volleyball NSW at the state level. She’s an SES volunteer and she’s been deployed throughout New South Wales during the natural disasters of recent years, and she plays cello.

With so many office workers at home rather than commuting to the city, some local businesses prospered. During much of the pandemic we weren’t able to dine out, but cafes and restaurants out in the suburbs became busy as locals dined in on takeaways or lined up outside their local cafes on workdays for their coffees, muffins and toasties rather than near the office in the city. The flip side is that the Sydney CBD spent many months deserted. Having spent much of my life working in the CBD, it was quite shocking on the few occasions I went in there during the pandemic. Still now there are empty shops down at the Martin Place end of the city. It’s been a long time since I saw that, perhaps never. Now and then I will hear of a cafe or restaurant, florist or other business that’s gone, including places I once frequented.

Except for a short period or in specific local government areas during COVID-19 outbreaks, tradespeople and others deemed essential workers weren’t subject to the same lockdown measures imposed on the rest of us. A shortage of tradespeople was an issue prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic exacerbated it, as households like mine took the opportunity to get some work done while we were home during the day. Without the expense of commuting, lunches, coffees, after-work drinks, holidays and entertainment, we were more cashed up too.

Prior to the pandemic, if I wanted any work done on my home I’d have to take time off work simply to get a quote, and if you wanted a second one it might be a month before you could be home for it. This was before you even took time off while the work was done. During the pandemic when people were home all the time, tradespeople were in high demand. We finally had a shoe cabinet and interior wall built, new balustrades and exterior staircase, a new kitchen, interior walls painted, fancy security screen doors, and a minor overhaul of the bathroom. Hereafter, for office workers, if you need to be home for any reason, you’ll just work from home.

In the meantime, strained relations between my superiors at work took its natural course. My boss Bren eventually left for a job elsewhere. Rather unusually, the Director above her (by all accounts a stress-monger and a bully) was eventually booted out. He’d snarled at a couple too many of the wrong people.

Heading into the second year of the Pandemic…

Bren had previously been in a job-share arrangement with another manager, who’d returned from maternity leave during 2020. ‘Returned’, it turned out, was an overstatement. For about a year this person was almost completely AWOL, assisted greatly by the new regime of working from home. When Bren moved on, any talk of working part-time was long forgotten by anyone but me, and work demands only grew as I was drawn into more senior positions. I began to realise I needed to quit completely if I was ever going to start a business. But I needed a secure income. Pandemic year 2 was not looking good.

I toyed with the idea of buying an established business that complemented my plans for mushrooms and Japanese cuisine and over the course of 2021 I enquired about several. Deep into the pandemic, grocery home delivery businesses in particular were taking off. I also looked at a catering supplies business and a few wholesale food distributors.

However, at the same time I was coaching Fire and Rescue leadership that by managing risk they are empowered to take it, I had a paralysingly low appetite for risk in my personal life. Over the years I’d seen too many small businesspeople lose everything – homes, businesses, marriages. The early ’90s recession hit many in my own family very hard, and my partner Chizuru is pessimistic by nature. No enquiries went beyond the initial information provided by business brokers under non-disclosure agreements.

The pandemic had come to Australia on the heels of the 2019-2020 Black Summer Bushfires, an energising time to be working at Fire and Rescue. I was analysing the risk implications arising out of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, the Commonwealth Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Preparedness, Cheryl Steer’s exceptional review within my own agency, and the equivalent from the State Emergency Service. Enthusiastically, I did what I could to add value for the agency and the sector by initiating and contributing to conversation, opening new channels and discussions without the involvement, assent, or even acknowledgement of my barely present manager.

With reporting lines in flux due to our still undefined restructure, and with my manager AWOL, I may as well have been just going through the motions. Apart from some small early improvements to process, I could point to nothing I’d achieved in a year-and-a-half back at Fire and Rescue. In my 25 years in the public sector, this was the norm rather than the exception.

And thus, it would turn out to be again once my place in the new Commissioners Office structure was assigned under a different Director in June 2021.

Flood recovery on the Mid-North Coast

A year into the pandemic, the rains of 2021 flooded communities at record levels across a never-before-seen breadth of the state. Knowing how dispirited I’d become at Fire and Rescue, my friend Lang Ngo at the State Library brought my attention to a request for expressions of interest for temporary flood recovery staff with a new agency, Resilience NSW. Floods had devastated communities in the Hawkesbury-Nepean where I live, and on the rivers of the Mid-North Coast, including my old home town of Port Macquarie. I put my hand up and in one of her very last acts at Fire and Rescue, Bren Turner went out of her way to make it happen for me. I spent a month at the Flood Recovery Centre in Taree, followed by several months at Port Macquarie.

I landed in the Taree Flood Recovery Centre at the end of March 2021. If my first day would been anything to go by, I could actually be doing something worthwhile for a change, important work with tangible benefit to the public. Even more incredibly, on day one I’d been thrown the challenge of exercising some higher capabilities and really testing my potential, an opportunity which had never fallen my way in 25 years working in government.

The late afternoon autumn sunlight dappled under the trees and peacefully on the Manning River, beautiful despite showing scars of the trauma a couple of weeks earlier. I felt an intense mix of emotions as I walked out of the Flood Recovery Centre at the end of that first day heading to my motel – exhilarated by what had just happened and heartbroken at the decades of mismanagement and disempowerment. Heartbroken by the years spent untangling one complicated mess after another including hectic weeks you couldn’t get three consecutive minutes on any of them, that left you shell-shocked for a decade and numb forever after, and ironically through numbness, stronger and more resilient. By the scores of pointless tasks filed and forgotten, messed up and undone, the half-arsed coworkers and stuff-ups that had fallen to you and others to mop up. By the projects initiated and discontinued or never properly completed, that everyone patted each other on the back for anyway, the solutions looking for a problem you were told to force on people and the tens of millions of dollars you’d had a hand in flushing down the toilet.

Twenty-five years. I felt every minute and every sentence of it in that moment looking upon that beautiful river in this traumatised town. All the efforts, pain and stress, tense conversations, lost hours of sleep, anxious Sunday evenings, torturous train trips in to the office, all burned up on one whimsical exercise after another, consuming my life force. When I could have contributed so much. And there, finally, was proof. That day. The promise and hope in all those job applications written when my life measured only 25 years… another quarter of a century on it had all been for a net contribution to society of less than nothing.

Manning River at Taree on dusk, 8 April 2021.

In Part 2 of my ‘Post-Pandemic’ review, I’ll tell you about some of THE MEMORABLE CHARACTERS I MET ON THE MIDCOAST AND MID NORTH COAST OF NSW working on recovery operations after the floods of March 2021. I will return once again to Fire and Rescue NSW and describe my last months working there as the novelty soured and country battled through the second year of the Pandemic. I’ll also briefly touch upon unfortunate PATTERNS I saw REPEATED DECADE AFTER DECADE working in the Bureaucracy.

Chrysler’s Ultimate.

photos by olga kowalska

The end of the 1930s was a watershed moment for Chrysler. Which revolutionary model, new line of cars, new engine or new production milestone occurred back then you may ask? It’s hard to believe but it was even more fundamental than any of that. It was in fact when Walter P. Chrysler made his last motorcar, for the man himself died in 1940 after suffering a stroke in 1938.

Richard and Serena Breese’s 1939 Chrysler Imperial

What you see here is Walter P. Chrysler’s ultimate creation – the 1939 Chrysler Imperial, one of approximately 3,000 built that year and one of 46 exported to Australia.

The era marked an important transition for the whole auto industry. Overall production capabilities would be utterly transformed in the coming years by World War II. If Henry Ford’s techniques marked the transition from ‘craft’ to production, WWII and in particular the period of reconstruction afterward marked the transition to mass production.

The end of the ‘30s was also the high water mark for the art-deco movement and Richard and Serena Breese’s ’39 Chrysler Imperial has no shortage of detail as evidence of that.

The Imperial nameplate ran from 1926 until 1983, though from 1955 it was a standalone make in line with its Cadillac and Lincoln rivals. The Imperial was briefly revisited from 1990 to 1993 and a concept Imperial based on the 300C appeared at the Detroit Motor Show in 2006. In 1939 the Imperial was the flagship model of Chrysler’s premier division.

Click on the photo to check out the gallery.

This ’39 Imperial is motivated by the 323.5 cid flat-head straight eight engine developing 135 horsepower. When Richard and Serena bought the car in 1976 as a fully registered road-going driver the engine had been bored out beyond 350 cubes. During the restoration which began in 1992 Richard had the block sleeved, bringing it back to its original 323.5 cubic inches. It’s a decision he now has mixed feelings about as, while the Imperial is no slouch, it resulted in notably less ponies. “There’s no substitute for cubes,” says Richard.

Around 1979 Richard heard rumour of another Imperial in a forgotten paddock out in the country. That car was in a bad way but incredibly when he looked at the engine number it was the very next one off the line after his. Richard and Serena have that engine in their garage today.

For many years they used the Imperial like a second family car, took it on family trips, even towing a caravan on occasion. They’d put more than 70,000 miles on it when a worn radiator took them out of Australia’s classic Bay to Birdwood run in 1992. Once they started pulling it apart to repair the radiator they decided to keep going with a full restoration. Richard alone put in an incredible 2,140 hours. “Serena would say – surely that’s enough,” says Richard, as he painstakingly filled and sanded panels over and over.

While working on the front left guard Richard found a curious section which had been cut out and superbly patched. It wasn’t til later he found out this was the result of a charcoal burner, a common fitment during WWII gasoline rationing.

The interior was re-trimmed using the Imperial’s original art-deco designs. Richard pulled together a complete set of instruments in satisfactory order. With a good clean up they were re-fitted and retain all the charm of a car that has been in regular use for the greater part of its 72 years. The result is an interior swathed in art-deco panache.

As the US climbed its way back out of The Great Depression cars like the ’39 Imperial were an audacious statement. Even the name ‘Imperial’ set the scene for the America that would emerge over the following decades. This ’39 Chrysler Imperial is a statement of what in those days was American aspiration. It’s only with the value of hindsight we can look at it as a harbinger of days that were to come.

1939 Chrysler Imperial C23 Specs

ENGINE: 323.5 cubic inch side valve inline 8 cylinder. Bore 3 ¼ inches. Stroke 4 7/8 inches. Compression ratio 6.8 to 1

POWER: 135 HP (101kW)

WHEEL BASE: 125 inches

TRANSMISSION: Borg Warner 3 speed with overdrive, syncro on 2nd and top.

SUSPENSION FRONT: Independent coil, pantograph type. REAR: Semi-elliptic leaf springs

BRAKES (hydraulic) FRONT and REAR: 12 inch diameter drums x 2 inch width shoes.

WHEELS AND TYRES: 700 x 16 inch light truck radials

PERFORMANCE: Top speed in excess of 100 mph.

KERB MASS: 4080 pounds (1854 kg)

Click on the photo to check out the gallery.


Style, Class and a Hemi!

photos by olga kowalska of photoprestige


The 1954 Chrysler New Yorker is an elegant example of that early ’50s style. A New Yorker won the NASCAR championship in 1954 and this inspired me to delve into the surprising racing history of the 1st generation Hemi V8, both in Europe and North America. A Hemi powered Cunningham C4R sports car won the Sebring 12 hour in 1953, and three of the top ten finishers at the Le Mans 24 hour that year were Cunningham Chryslers.

Frank D’Agostino’s incredible 1954 Chrysler New Yorker

There’s been renewed interest in cars of the early 1950s recently, much of it in the ‘kustom’ car scene where rockabilly music and tattooed pinup girls set the tone, and car aficionados speak in hot-rodding terms like chopped, channelled, shaved and Frenched – terms that make the classic car purist squirm. Each to their own, others would say.

“I like things to be original, that’s just the way I am,” says Frank D’Agostino, proud owner of this incredible 1954 Chrysler New Yorker.

Cars of the early ‘50s began to look sleeker than their upright predecessors yet they maintained a curvaceousness in contrast to the increasing angularity of the cars of the following period. The bold ostentation of the late ’50s had not yet caught on – no big fins, multi-coloured paint schemes or excessive chrome ornamentation. The 1954 Chrysler New Yorker is an elegant example of that early ’50s style – big round front fenders and curvy rear quarters that make you just want to give the car a squeeze and a big kiss. She’s the Marilyn Monroe of Chryslers.

There’s another thing about this immaculate Chrysler that’s enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the baddest hot-rodder. Yes – it’s got a Hemi.

Click on the photo to check out the gallery.

The first generation Hemi was produced from 1951 to 1959 in capacities ranging from 241 cid to 392 cid including Dodge, De Soto, Chrysler, Imperial, truck, marine and industrial variants. This ’54 New Yorker bears its original 331 cid Chrysler FirePower engine rated at 195 horsepower.

As far as engine reputations go, the Chrysler Hemi V8’s is as big as it gets. When pressed into motor sport service the first generation Hemi V8 dominated over a number of seasons.

In 1954 Lee Petty won the NASCAR championship in a Chrysler New Yorker. That same year Chrysler celebrated the opening of their Chelsea proving grounds with a 24 hour endurance run in which the New Yorker averaged 118.18 mph (190.19 km/h). The following year Chrysler won

Contact Olga at Photoprestige for awesome photos of your car. Click on this photo for details.

the NASCAR championship easily with the C-300 powered by a twin four barrel version of the 331, and again in ’56 with the 300B and a 354 cid version of the engine. In Europe a Hemi powered Cunningham C4R sports car won the Sebring 12 hour in 1953, and three of the top ten finishers at the Le Mans 24 hour that year were Cunningham Chryslers. Paul Frere came 1st in the touring class at Italy’s 1953 Mille Miglia in a Chrysler Saratoga. A Hemi powered dragster won the NHRA’s 4th annual US Nationals in 1958 and in 1964 another became the first car in US Nationals history to break 200 mph. The second generation Hemi released that year went on to write its own place in the history books but that’s a whole other story.

The ultimate (factory) expression of the FirePower Hemi was the 390 horsepower fuel injected 392 cid version offered in the 1958 Chrysler 300D. By 1959, however, only a truck version of the Hemi was manufactured.

The New Yorker nameplate ran from 1939 until 1996. In 1953 Chrysler dropped the similarly bodied but lower spec Saratoga nameplate and it became the New Yorker while the newly introduced New Yorker Deluxe was essentially an aesthetically updated New Yorker from the year before. For 1954 Chrysler’s base 331 Hemi was up-rated to 195 horsepower (147 kilowatts) and a four-barrel version was available with 235 horsepower (175 kilowatts). That year Chrysler also introduced the two speed Powerflite transmission.

While lead-sled styled hot rods based on the cars of the early ‘50s are not without their own unique charm, even the most hardcore hot-rodder would never dream of transforming this Chrysler into a piece of what they term ‘rolling art’. The car is a masterpiece already.

Click on this photo if you want to organise for Olga to photograph your car.


1954 Chrysler New Yorker Specs

Body variants        2 door Club Coupe, 2 door Convertible, 2 door Hardtop, 4 door Sedan, 4 door Sedan lwb, 4 door Wagon.

Engine                   331.1 cid Chrysler FirePower V8

Bore/stroke            3.81 inch x 3.63 inch

Compression ratio 7.5:1

Power                    195 hp (147 kilowatts) 2V; 235 hp (175 kilowatts) 4V

Torque                   434 Nm (2V); 447 Nm (4V)

Transmision           Powerflite two speed automatic with torque converter.

Wheelbase             125.5 inch

Suspension front   independent coil springs, tube shocks

Suspension rear     live axle, leaf springs, tube shocks

Final drive ratio     3.54

Brakes                   front/rear drums (Ausco-Lambert discs optional, $400)

Wheels and tyres   15 x 6/H78-15

Performance          Top speed 110-115 mph; 0-100 12.2 seconds (235hp)/ 12.9 seconds (195hp)

Kerb weight          4 door: 1910 kg/ 1950 kg (Deluxe)


The unluckiest colour

Dear Mr Ali

Have you ever pondered the idea that green is an unlucky colour? I first heard it years ago from a babbling sports-caster, referring to green racing cars. It was one of those lines that just defecate out of these commentators as if slender moments of quiet lead audiences to distraction and end in a docked pay-check. I guess there’s a sub-class of broadcasters who never fully appreciated the transition from radio to TV. Do you mind if I call you Muhammad? Considering you’re in heaven now I’m sure we can be more relaxed with protocol.

Some time after hearing about it being an unlucky colour for racing cars, I learned there’s a general superstition about the colour green. I’m a bit skeptical. From the evidence I’ve gathered, green might be unlucky for some people, but there’s equally enough evidence that it’s lucky for others.

The luckiness or otherwise of green is a particularly salient question at the moment, with Australia competing at the Olympics in Rio. Our national colours reflect the green and gold of the wattle, our national emblem. At recent Olympics, inspired by an eternally over-optimistic Australian media, both the team and the populace have been left feeling despondently under-endowed with gold. Muhammad, as an Olympian with an extraordinary tale to tell about your own gold medal (even by Olympic standards), I’m sure you can appreciate how emotive this can be for some people.

Australian olympic uniform 2016 Rio

Could these be the unluckiest athletes in Rio?

I’ve observed that most Aussie team uniforms are predominantly gold, with little more than highlights in green. Perhaps what’s needed is to shift the balance in athletes’ attire toward green, thus conjuring a greater amount of inward bound gold due to the tendency for equilibrium in the natural order of things.

It’s worth remembering that green and gold only became Australia’s official national colours in 1984. Blue and gold was one alternative under consideration at the time. If, with objective, evidence based, peer reviewed science we could prove a converse relationship between green and luck, then I’d say there’s a case for revisiting that decision. It’s a matter of personal preference I know, but I think blue and gold are a more fetching combination. But I won’t let that smoke my objectivity.

I don’t know the origins of the superstition as it pertains to green racing cars. The Bentleys of the 1920s and 30s and the Jaguars of the 1950s and 60s are most

Personally, I’d feel lucky with a 1927 Bentley parked in the driveway.

often associated with a shade of green peculiarly attributed to the British, and both marques enjoyed long periods of domination over the competition. As did Mercedes, yet their silver cars ultimately had the worst luck in motor racing history, crashing at the 1955 Le Mans and killing 83 spectators and driver, Pierre Levegh, and injuring many more. Mercedes gave racing away for decades after that.

Dick Johnson’s crash during the top-ten shootout the day before Bathurst 1983 would support the proposition that green race cars are bad luck. Johnson’s major sponsor back then was our lately retired statesman, Ross Palmer. Johnson’s cars were liveried to spruik Palmer Tube Mills trade-marks. Thus you had Tru-Blu through 80-82, and Greens-Tuf in 83-84.

Dick Johnson’s 1983 XE Falcon.

Though externally and mechanically similar to the XD Falcon that preceded it, in which Johnson had won Bathurst in 1981, the XE Falcon of 1982-1984 brought one major technological advance. The origins of the XD’s leaf-spring rear suspension could be traced to horse-drawn carriages, so the XE’s new trailing arm suspension with watt’s linkages represented generational change. I won’t bore you with the engineering principles. Suffice to say that the physics are sound. In the mum and dad road car it really did result in better ride, handling and endurance – although the overuse of these terms by marketeers makes it easy to overlook. Of course, independent rear suspension, which is current orthodoxy, was still a long way off.

The bright, titanic, Greens-Tuf Falcon handled a bit ‘taily’ during Johnson’s 1983 hot lap. Johnson clipped the wall coming out of Forrest’s Elbow and a tonne and-a-half of Kermit-green horsepower hopscotched, tumbling into the trees and landing in a tangled wreck.

RIP Greens-Tuf 1

Johnson acquired a replacement car from a back-of-the-grid amateur racer, who in those days could still enter the Bathurst race (much to the irritation of some professionals, most vociferously, Johnson), and his mechanics battled to put years of development work into it overnight. Local TAFE apprentices squirted the now iconic Greens-Tuf livery onto it, and Johnson was miraculously on the grid for the start of the race. I always have this image of a pit-crew dude with green paint-splotches on his palms after pushing the tacky car out of the shed, though that again is borrowed from the imagination of one of those commentators who wittily invented it to evade silence.

Johnson himself bemoaned the lack of downforce provided by Ford’s homologated rear spoiler design. Whether it was that, Muhammad, or the lead time in coming to grips with a whole new suspension, don’t you think a technical explanation would be at least as likely as the colour of the paintwork? Not to mention human error and human imperfection.

In his Greens-Tuf livery, Johnson went on to win the Australian Touring Car Championship in 1984. His unluckiest Bathurst was undoubtedly 1980, when he qualified in pole position, but his Tru-Blu Falcon crashed early in the race after hitting a rock, thrown on the track by one of the lobotomised spectators who dominate the sport’s fan-base.

Muhammad, though you declared it yourself, many would agree you indeed have good claim to be considered the greatest in your sport. To my knowledge you never wore green trunks. You almost invariably wore white trunks with a black stripe. The notable exception was your fight with Joe Frazier, forty-five years ago this month, when you wore red crushed velvet trunks with white stripes. Frazier wore his signature green trunks, and for that fight, which has gone down in posterity as ‘The Fight of the Century’, Frazier’s green trunks were especially lush, with gold stripes, and a gold floral pattern which looked almost leopard-skin in effect. You and Frazier went fifteen rounds, and Frazier won on points.  If we asked Joe Frazier, who for convenience we’ll say is also in heaven, I bet he’d say green was his good luck colour.

This is where it gets complicated, because you fought Frazier three times. For your 1974 bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden, you were back in your white trunks with black stripes, whereas Frazier had forsaken his green trunks for white, with flamboyant zig-zagged patterned openings over the thigh.  Muhammad, you won on points after 12 rounds.

To summarise: in 1971 Frazier wore his signature green, you went red with white instead of your favoured white with black, Frazier won. In 1974 Frazier experimented with non-green trunks, you wore your white with black, you won. It’s tempting to conclude at this point that we each have our own lucky colour.

Finally we arrive at the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ in 1975, your third and final confrontation with Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Importantly, for this bout, you appeared in your regular white trunks, and Frazier in his regular green.

You went out like a wrecking ball in the first few rounds, capitalising on Frazier’s reputation for being slow to get his mojo. Then you settled into your rope-a-dope strategy, leaning right back on the ropes and defending, for your opponent to tire himself taking shots. Like some American ballet, this oddly complemented the Frazier camp’s tactic to work on disabling your body.

Despite both stratagems, in round 6 you took a succession of lethal right hooks to the head that would’ve ended any other fight. Though you remained standing, people there said you went visibly stiff, as though mildly paralysed.

With your lungs and your skin broiling in the Quezon tropics, you and Frazier tussled savagely for 14 rounds, before the damage you’d inflicted in the first 3 finally stopped him. With his face a fluid-filled vacuum-pack, poor Joe could no longer see out either of his eyes. With Joe now a hundred kilogram slab of meat, trainer Eddie Futch stopped it before you took the ring for the final round. You’d defended your title with a technical knock-out.

You and Joe Frazier had finally met in your respective colours. That day though, Muhammad Ali, I don’t think was lucky for either of you.

Yours sincerely


Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali Thrilla in Manilla

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Quezon City, 1 October 1975.

Tennessee Williams’s Chronicle of a Demise, Nirvana and Kurt Cobain

Meaninglessness in a Heart Shaped Box

In 1948 Tennessee Williams published a collection of short stories entitled ‘One Arm’. The collection takes its title from one of the stories within it about a one armed hustler (or male prostitute). I think the fact he chose this story to provide the title for his collection is kind of instructive on how Williams saw himself – a fundamentally flawed and incomplete man in popular demand out of people’s perverse curiosity with the imperfect.

The collection has been reprinted a number of times and like much of TW’s work is a staple of undergraduate study in American literature. A few of the stories are repeatedly singled out for their literary worth but the story that most affected me doesn’t seem to get much consideration beyond “the experimentation of a young writer”.

As a piece of entertainment Chronicle of a Demise is not an especially engaging story. It developes into a bit of an anticlimax in fact, but that’s actually the point. Those stories that get particular critical mention are the ones that overtly step outside the social mores of the time, the ones with the perceived capacity to shock or offend the establishment, and on the surface this story doesn’t. For me though Chronicle of a Demise is a poignant commentary on the human need to latch onto an icon on whom to project our ideals, unwilling or incapable as that person might be. In the story it’s manifested in cultism but the idea broadly encompasses the phenomena of fame and celebrity.

The story describes the dieing days of an old woman and the interactions of the people who surround her death-bed – people who consider themselves her followers in a religious sect and who consider her a Saint.

The bedridden old woman hardly seems coherent to you and I the reader but her followers interpret significant meaning in anything she babbles. Under her bed she keeps a heart-shaped box containing what might be considered keepsakes and mementos of a life, only they were (to you and I the reader) insignificant things like gum wrappers and scraps of coloured tin-foil collected off the street, originally by the “Saint” and then later in emulation by her followers. The heart-shaped box is a major preoccupation of the sect’s followers for whom the refuse that makes up its contents are the articles of their faith.

This week I was reminded that it is 20 years since Nirvana released their seminal second album, Nevermind. I was a 22 year old university student back then. My sister gave me the CD as a gift. I liked it very much. I recall the ABC’s youth radio station Triple J (I still qualified back then) broadcasting something like what would become their “hottest 100”, but back then it was more like an “of all time” than a “for this year”. Youth that I was I followed it with some anticipation, though I missed the final countdown. When friends Ivo and Barbara told me ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was judged number 1 song of all time I was up in arms. “What a joke,” I decried. “But surely that’s just because it’s current,” I complained in earnest. Such things are of supreme importance when you’re 22. I liked the music but I would not be taken in by the hysteria that surrounded Nirvana.

A couple of years later Nirvana released their third record, In Utero, and the single ‘Heart-shaped Box’. Kurt Cobain is reported to have said the song was inspired by a documentary about children with cancer. He is also quoted as saying the line “hey, wait, I’ve got a real complaint…” was about his treatment by the media. The song is also said to be about his wife, Courtney Love. There is no reason why all of those things should not be true.

In 1994 Kurt Cobain put a shot-gun in his mouth and vapourised his own head.

I think part of the reason he did it is because people talked about him too much. He had become the very thing he was lambasting. Idiots were saying rubbish like “the voice of a generation” so he’d go and record utterly meaningless babble, …but it would only get them lathering at the mouth even more. In more than one song he made oblique references to this dilemma. I think he experienced what Bob Dylan did – an intense loathing for his own celebrity and disdain for the mentality and the society that creates such hysteria. So when I see people today displaying their worship by wearing those “Kurt Cobain 1967-1994” t-shirts I think it’s a sad irony, because Cobain himself probably would have thrown up at the sight of them. Add to the mix depressive tendencies that many people know from experience are an outcome of recreational drug use, including alcohol… and crazy things can happen that with another moment’s reflection may not have.

The old woman in Chronicle of a Demise disintegrated and disappeared into the ether. Her heart-shaped box was tossed away and forgotten, everything in it that seemed so significant… it was nothing after all. The cult that had followed her simply disbanded and ceased to exist. As should the hysteria that surrounded Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, because it more than anything is probably responsible for the tragedy of the loss of a young life. For only a handful of people, his family and loved ones, is that tragedy something real.