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No more pumping petrol and stories at Lutton Motors


No more pumping petrol and stories at Lutton MotorsHelen’s father Russell George Lutton, Rusty to his friends, started Lutton Motors, a little corner garage and petrol service station in Rockhampton, Central Queensland when he returned from war in 1946. His son-in-law, Phil Lamb closed the business in January, 2007 when the little service station that served three generations of a family well became another victim of technology and big corporations.

At first things looked good for Rusty. Lutton Motors serviced locals from Wandal and bushies from Alton Downs and beyond. Later came the business from the airport on the other side of the army barracks. He and Heffie and their three children lived around the corner from Lutton Motors. But in 1960 Heffie passed away, leaving Rusty to raise the children as well as run the shop. Even before this early loss he drank a lot and soon the youngest child, Helen, was frequently asked to 'mind the shop' while her father went to ‘get a haircut’. Rusty sometimes didn’t surface for three days after going on a bender. Helen was forced to run the business instead of attending school. Customers would tell her about seeing Rusty about town as she pumped petrol into their cars from the two bowsers on the footpath on Wandal Road. This kept up until the ‘70s when a few heart-attacks and a new life brought Rusty to his senses.

Meanwhile Helen and Phil married and moved into the house around the corner from the shop while Rusty moved out onto the converted veranda. The day Helen went into hospital to have her third child, Rusty was going in to surgery at another hospital down south for another bypass. He heard the news before going in and swore to himself to give up the grog if only he would come through the surgery. He did come through and he kept to his word until cancer took him in 1989.

Meanwhile, Phil bought Lutton Motors from Rusty and worked for ten hours a day, seven days a week, fixing cars and pumping petrol. Largely self-educated, Phil would take home twelve books a fortnight from the Council Library and read them down at the shop. He may be the only mechanic in Australia who read Epictetus between fixing engines, while smoking long cigars. When he’d read all the books in the South Rocky Library, he went over and read all the books in the North Rocky Library. To this day, almost all the books there, mainly the novels, bear the smudged grease and oil prints of Phil’s fingers on their pages, and cigar ash in between the boards.

The kids wouldn’t have seen much of their father if they hadn’t spent a lot of time down the shop especially on school holidays when they carried around his morning tea or lunch and after school when their mother called in to see him on the way home. They would have their school shoes off by then and after ten minutes running around the greasy floor of the garage and workshop, their feet would be black. Phil picked them up and carried them to the workshop bench where he rubbed degreaser all over their feet (which tickled like mad), before wiping them clean and carrying them out, one at a time, to the car.

No more pumping petrol and stories at Lutton MotorsThe 80s were good for Lutton Motors. Phil’s long, hard hours had paid off. Helen ran the house, looked after the books, did the monthly accounts and looked after her ageing (then ailing) father, who lived with them at the time. And she looked after her husband.

The kids finally talked their father into taking Sundays off work (or so is their memory of the negotiations). And after several more years he started working only a half day on Saturday. But he still worked ten hours a day during the week. And when the kids were old enough, the business afforded them an education at Central Queensland University. Julie and Wendy are now accountants, working for multi-national firms and companies; Wendy even landed her first job with a major oil company by letting slip in the interview that her father was ‘in the oil business, too’. Julie and Matthew both did their time, however, working down at the garage (Phil called it their ‘hobby’); Matthew stayed on longer, so Wendy was spared.

A few years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of Lutton Motors, Phil had his picture in the local newspaper, The Morning Bulletin. “Wandal a big family”, the headline said. He added that the area had "a 1950s feel". "I’ve never actually thought of retiring," he said. "I think people are meant to work and are happier when they work. I’d miss talking to all the people who come through."

But, of course, it isn’t the 1950s anymore. The big Mobil self-serve with lots of pumps selling three different types of fuel was built in town. Others like it opened around town and small family-owned old-time petrol stations closed down. Then Woolworths started selling petrol, and giving discount coupons. In hindsight, Phil didn’t do himself any favours by resisting change. He refused to install Eftpos facilities, being strictly cash only, or for his regular customers, on account. He used an ancient cash register, which worked only if a secret lever was pressed to release the till drawer. The amounts, frozen in pounds sterling, on bits of painted metal, peered out through a dusty glass window. Figures were scrupulously worked out using almost lost art of ‘mental arithmetic’.

No more pumping petrol and stories at Lutton MotorsThen petrol prices went above the dollar mark but the old bowsers at Lutton Motors could not. So Phil rigged a system in which if fuel was, say, $1.20, the bowsers sold it at 60 cents, so if the customer wanted twenty dollars worth he would pump 'ten' dollars in. Again, 'mental arithmetic' would be required, this time on the part of the customers, along with another almost lost art, trust.

Older customers who had been coming in for years either grew too old to drive or passed on, with few new customers taking their place. Accounts dwindled. More recently, however, young mothers, with a carload of kids or babies, started taking advantage of the full service and rediscovered some of the qualities of customer service which have since disappeared. But all too late. On January 31st 2007, the doors of Lutton Motors closed. The land has been sold and the old building will soon be demolished. The hard work and long hours no longer pay off. Everyone, including Rockhampton’s librarians, is awaiting Phil's next move.



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Existing comments

Thanks matt. Brought the wind from my own childhood back. My parents ran a servo for many years - their pride and joy - until it fell victim to the discount wars and my parents business they had built up over 15 years became worthless - its Goodwill now destroyed wit the petrol retail industry destroyed in a systematic fashion by all the oil companies in a very systematic deliberate way. Shame. y father has never recovered from this seeing it i fear as his fault. I must finally talk to him about this as its something that never happened - so thanks again Matt.

Nick R. | 08 March 2007  

Great piece of work, young Matt.As a journalist in Australia and overseas since 1953, I know that no working journalist doing a retirement piece in limited time can possibly delve so deeply as Matt. Only somebody - in this case, a very talented son - could possibly recall or dig out and write from far off Dubai so much of the very human behind-the-scenes stuff about the sometimes very tough Life and Times of Lutton Motors and of Phil and Helen Lamb, icons at suburban Wandal, Rockhampton, until 31 January 2007.A very sad day. More than 60 people agreed, because they threw Phil and Helen a Surprise Closing Down Party. I've known Phil Lamb since June 1981 when I came north into the Queensland sun. For somewhat cynical old me, he's top-line among the most impressive and unforgettable men I've ever known: a truly remarkable person - urbane, down-to-earth, truly and widely self-educated, a very good judge of local, State and National Australian politics; and, just in passing,an excellent engine tradesman. Phil and Helen worked their guts out to make sure their two daughters and their son got a far better start than they. What more can one ask of parents? Is it wrong to heap praise on parents who achieve it? Certainly not. It's been my absolute pleasure to know Phil and Helen Lamb. Australia needs many more just like them. Lutton Motors is gone forever. It diminishes each of us.
John Ryan,
Black Gin Creek Road,
Alton Downs 4702
07 4934 1221

JOHN RYAN | 09 March 2007  

An excellent article. My husband and I know the family and I have fond memories of visiting Phil and his enormous collection of books. It was like the local book exchange and we discovered authors we had never read. It was futile trying to lend him books - he'd read them all!!!

Lorraine Ryan | 10 March 2007  

An excellent article. My husband and I know the family and I have fond memories of visiting Phil and his enormous collection of books. It was like the local book exchange and we discovered authors we had never read. It was futile trying to lend him books - he'd read them all!!!

Lorraine Ryan | 10 March 2007  

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