Like many 80-year-olds, Gulf Harbour’s Jerry Fuller celebrated his recent birthday with family – but unlike most, rather than reminiscing, he was mountain biking and riding motorcross. A father of four and grandfather of eight, this self-described “Jack of All Trades” has successfully turned his hand to more than 20 jobs in three countries and has no regrets about following his interests ahead of financial reward. It’s hard to believe that four years ago this energetic octogenarian suffered a major heart attack that taught him important lessons in life. Since then, he has not only survived but thrived, losing almost 20 kilos and building his fitness to new highs, with the help of a sport that, as he told Adele Thackray, he’d like everyone to try.
I’ve really enjoyed 95 percent of the work I’ve done and I think that’s quite an achievement. You spend so long working and if you’re happy at work you bring that back into the family atmosphere. I haven’t specialised in any one thing, but I was adaptable. A lot of people say I was unstable, but I reckon I had the most interesting life possible and some of those people now agree. I was an only child brought up in Oxford England and because my father came from a long line of farmers, that’s what I had to do, although I’ve always been most interested in mechanical things and at 15, used to turn ex-government motorbikes into dirtracers. In 1951, after my father stopped farming, I got work in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, repairing and adapting tractors salvaged from the British government’s disastrous, postwar Great Groundnut scheme, where I also continued to ride motorcross, called ‘scrambling’ in those days. After a brief first marriage failed, I met Margaret in a local pub. She and the accountants she was working with needed a ride into town and I had a Karmann Ghia – quite something in those days – so I gave them a lift and our relationship started. She lived in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), 800 kilometres away, but I still visited most weekends and on long weekends did the round trip twice, bringing her back to my place and dropping her home – over 3000 kilometres. We returned to England together in 1963 and married in 1964.
I got a job in Ford Motor Company’s tractor prototype section, helping to hand-build a new model. It was a great experience seeing how a big company created a new model with no expense spared. When Ford relocated, and partly to appease my father, we became pig farmers in Pangbourne, but thanks to diseases from Europe and my own inexperience, all the pigs got sick and died. A job as an aeronautical parts inspector followed, making items for the electronics and aeronautical industry, including prototype parts for Concorde. I was then headhunted to an electronics business involved in chemical plant automation as a metal worker, but soon picked up the electronics side and became works manager. When Margaret’s cousin came back from New Zealand describing “miles of nothing with no people”, it sounded like the place for us. We sold up and boarded a Russian ship with our four children and Margaret’s parents. I hated the voyage, but loved seeing the ship’s engines and finding out what normal, friendly people Russians were, after being brainwashed to think they were an evil bunch of rats.
On arrival I made a few tonnes of nails and did a spell in real estate before getting back to mechanical things with a company that had licences for heavy machinery and Rolls Royce engines, often used in the marine industry. When a ship’s auxiliary engine wasn’t running well, we’d replace it with a reconditioned motor when it got into port. Once we travelled with a ship between Auckland to Tauranga, changing the motor on the way. A few trivial jobs followed before I joined a friend in building garages. When I moved on, the foreman on a local building site agreed to give me a go and after building around a dozen houses for others, I decided to build my own. My 16-year-old son, David and I built a 4000-square-foot home out of Hinuera stone in Okura. It was liveable after about a year, but we ran out of money and I had to go back to work, finishing it off on weekends. During the 80s I was also factory manager for Bob Kerridge, producing an early video game called Sportronic. It involved tennis and skeet shooting and had to be plugged into the back of your television, but was advanced for its time. When the company went bust, a colleague and I kept it going to sell the remaining stock.
By 1989, the children had moved out and we moved on to Ti Point, where I renovated an old house, subdivided and built a new one, and went into virtual retirement. I also got my Private Pilot Licence at Rodney Aero Club. I was 60 when the instructor sent me on my first solo, which is one of the most shattering things you can do. The relief when I came down just burst out of me. I kept flying planes and microlights for 10 years. It was our daughters, Vanessa and Lara, starting their families in Whangaparaoa that brought us here and David’s sudden decision to try motorcross, five years ago, that got me back into motorbikes. We race each other in an old quarry at Ardmore. I’ve fallen off quite a few times, dislocating a shoulder and breaking my collarbone, but it hasn’t stopped me and David recently surprised me with a photo shoot to record my first ride as an 80-year-old. I did the highest jump I’ve ever done! I realise there comes a time when you’ve got to stop. You wouldn’t want to come off and get crippled. But that ride was so successful – I’ve no intention of giving up.
It’s hard to believe that four years ago, what seemed like indigestion became a crushing pain that was a heart attack. I had three stents put in at North Shore Hospital, an experience that changed my outlook on race relations. I had nursing staff from about a dozen different nationalities and couldn’t fault any of them. It was a big education for me, overcoming the bias I’d grown up with to realise that these are people who have often been through a lot and I am an immigrant too. Over the next year I lost 20 kilos and went back to motorcross, but a year ago decided mountain biking might improve my skills. I’ve since got the whole family, except Margaret, riding too. For my birthday all 15 of us enjoyed a fun, family day riding a track at Paremoremo. The council has done a great job of providing bike tracks and it’s such a healthy sport that families can enjoy together, it should be promoted more. However, people need to be taught to ride properly, so it’s easier and they can get to more interesting places. A book called “Mastering mountain biking skills” has become my biking bible.
Riding’s also cheap. At least half our bikes were bought as neglected wrecks, but with cleaning and oiling, went perfectly. I hate today’s throw-away attitude. Nearly everything can be repaired and there is great support and expertise in the sport locally, with the likes of Cori at Aloha Bikes, who has international experience and is always willing to offer advice. I like that about Whangaparaoa, it’s small enough for you to get to know who you’re dealing with. We weren’t fond of the old peninsula with all its old baches, but I have to say I’ve never been happier than living here. It’s got everything I need.
For more photos of Jerry in action, see our website www.localmatters.co.nz