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NORM NEEDHAM - MORE THAN YOUR AVERAGE TOOLMAKER
One of the great pioneers of the 4WD age in Australia.

We’re indebted to the late Ian Glover, long-serving editor of Overlander Magazine and many other publications, for his introduction to this story about one of the 4WD movement’s pioneers.

“A toolmaker by trade, Norm Needham learnt to four-wheel-drive at age 12, in a Series 1 Land Rover on ‘Shepherds Creek’, a property near Euchareena, “ Ian Glover said. 

“Norm became known to a lot of people when he opened Traction 4, a 4WD repair business that grew to become one of Sydney’s premier mechanical repair/aftermarket equipment suppliers. 

“Prior to that, he was one of the Toyota Land Cruiser Club’s early members (badge number four), becoming its president twice and, with the help of wife Sandy, used that position to lobby governments to recognise four-wheel driving as a legitimate recreational pursuit,” said Ian Glover.

In those days ultra-greens like Milo Dunphy and Haydn Washington were trying to ban 4WDs from access to any off-road territory. 

Norm Needham and Sandy both wrote for Overlander magazine: Norm a ‘things mechanical’ column, road tests and travel stories; Sandy a bush cooking column.

Norm has done 4WD trips most of us would give their eye teeth to have been on. 

One of the first ‘big ones’ was a 1975 wet-season foray to Cape York, where he and a mate had to make a raft to ferry their LandCruisers across the Wenlock and Jardine Rivers, in the days long before there was a bridge or a vehicular ferry.

But the list doesn’t end there. There were lots of desert trips in the days when people just didn’t contemplate even going out there.

Norm ‘did’ the 1700-kilometre Canning Stock Route when fuel drops weren’t available.

He also circumnavigated Lake Eyre, after crossing The Warburton; followed the Overland Telegraph Line from Fowlers Bay to Israelite Bay; drove the bed of the Cooper from Innamincka to Lake Eyre; drove up the Hay River and followed Madigan’s Line in the era before GPS, using astro-navigation.

In 1990 he did a Melbourne-Broome trip with Ian Glover where they crossed 10 deserts and again with Ian, doing a story for Top Gear, drove a $250,000, minimal-ground-clearance Audi R8 AWD supercar from Sydney to Birdsville to catch the Races. It took them six days, but they got the vehicle there in one piece!

All this time, Norm has been writing about his trips, doing technical articles and contributing excellent photography for magazines. He’s still ‘out there’.  

At Outback Travel Australia we’ve known Norm Needham for many years and, when we were Sydney-based, had our vehicles serviced at ARB Artarmon.

We’ve always appreciated Norm’s mechanical and driving skills; his great knowledge of remote-Australia and his wicked sense of humour.

To give you some idea of his wit, we’ve included an edited address he gave to the All Wheel Drive Club’s 30th Anniversary dinner a few years back.

Hi everyone. My name is Norm, and I’m an alcoholic. What? Oh, terribly sorry: that was last night’s speech.

You might notice that I am reading. I don’t do that terribly well, but without reading, all you might hear is gibberish that is even more incoherent.

You see; my mind mostly races way ahead of my mouth; which for me generally leads to ‘foot in mouth’ disease. In other words, I think quicker than I speak, and certainly write much better than I speak. Or is that the other way round? 

Some history for you.

When  I started high school, my dad opened an Esso service station in Orange. My older cousin was a mechanic there and I soon became interested in cars.

That was when I first became involved with 4WDs and learned to drive at age 12 in a Series 1 Land Rover. I guess that goes a long way to explaining my permanent aversion to that particular marque. 

My interest in 4WDs became an all consuming passion. Something for which I perhaps should, but never have, apologised. Especially to Sandy.

Early on, I became involved with 4WD clubs, when Sandy and I joined the Toyota Land Cruiser Club well over 30 years ago. We hold membership number four.

Nearly everyone drove FJ40s, 45s, and G60 Patrols. The only station wagon was the FJ55. I cannot imagine now traveling remote places like the Canning Stock Route in a 40 series. But we did it then.

Then along came Range Rovers; but let’s not talk about them; unless someone has a paper bag I can put over my head?

It is true ‘though that 90-percent of Range Rovers ever built are still on the road. Apparently, the other 10-percent made it home.

Here’s another one:

There were three 4WDers playing pool in the pub. One was a school teacher, one a motor mechanic and the third an engineer.

That mix alone shows what a diverse group 4WDers really are.

They were discussing the merits or otherwise of wives and mistresses, and put forward their preferences.

The school teacher said: “Well, I believe in order and discipline, and in things being formalised. I think I would prefer the security of marriage”.

The motor mechanic said: “I don’t mind things being a bit rough around the edges and security is the last thing on my mind, so I’ll have a mistress”.

The engineer said: “I think I’d like both”.

“Both?” The other two exclaimed. “Why?”

The engineer explained: “Well …. each would assume I was with the other and I could sneak into the office and get some work done.”

That’s our Norm!

Allan Whiting continues the story in an interview with Norm Needham.

“ I was brought up in The Bush, “ Norm said. “My old man worked for Edgells, mostly around the central-west of NSW.

“I learnt to drive on a large property, then did an apprenticeship as a fitter and machinist, with an extra year spent doing ‘toolroom, so if people ask, I say I’m a toolmaker by trade.”

In 1970, Norm married Sandy in Sydney and they became involved with 4WDs as the best way to see Australia. The Needhams travelled to the iconic places in Australia, mainly in the 70s and 80s, before the real ‘boom’ in 4WD touring. 

They joined Land Cruiser club in the early days and are honorary life members. Norm and Sandy continue to travel outback today, but they reckon they’re not as adventurous as they used to be.

Norm became involved with Australia’s early 4WD publication ‘Overlander’ and had a travel story published in the first issue, in 1976.

“In the 80s, when it became compulsory to have a trade ticket – mechanic’s licence – to work on vehicles in NSW, I obtained my licence and also an LPG licence,” said Norm Needham.

“I started a mechanical repair shop in Artarmon, Sydney specialising in 4WDs and at the request of customers we started fitting accessories.

“The business morphed into an ARB store – the first independent ARB-branded store – called ‘ARB Northside’ that was later changed to ‘ARB Artarmon’.”

The Needhams continued travelling when they could and in 1996 they bought a property at North Arm Cove and semi-retired until they sold the business in 2000 and fully retired.

The Needhams now live near Tea Gardens on a smaller property.

 

Rights for 4WDers

In the early years of 4WDing, Norm saw the formation and sometimes demise of many 4WD clubs. There was also much rivalry between clubs and even within clubs. Then, the formation of the 4WD Clubs Association (now 4WD Australia) did a lot to promote inter-club activities, including 4WD competitions and other competitive events.

Internal rivalry was probably the main cause of  ‘breakaway’ groups, Norm thinks. There was certainly some formed out of the Land Cruiser and Land Rover clubs. Some of these flourished, while some perished and members returned to their original clubs.

Here’s some more of Norm’s talk at the AWDC Anniversary celebration:

Simply because of its size – like all other bigger clubs – the AWDC must see a little internal squabbling from time to time. But generally, it is a club that seems to do what is necessary, when it is necessary, to achieve harmony and the betterment of 4WD recreation for its members.

I always harboured an ambition to die in a high speed motorcycle crash at age 90, but as I approach that age, I’m thinking I might revise my ambition in order to attend your 40th and 60th AWDC anniversary dinners.

There is no reason why this and other 4WD clubs cannot go on that long.

In fact, they need to go on, principally to continue their education role: not only of their members, but also of the general public. It has always been my feeling that education is the answer and solution.

Some might say that the days of using 4WDs for recreational purposes are numbered, because of pressure of use and because of the attitude of those who oppose us.

We still have that fight on our hands, but we have one big thing in our favour: Australia is a giant country and much of it is still undeveloped and simply demands the use of 4WD vehicles to get around. 

With the progress in creature comfort in modern 4WDs, and consequent greater ease to do big distances, there are still plenty of places to visit.

There are many stories of adventure from the past – many of mine were through accident rather than design – and there is still the opportunity in this country for writing a few more.

Thanks, Norm and Sandy Needham, for a great 4WD ride through your many years of 4WDing Down Under.

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