In the movie Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman’s character cuts the heads off parking meters with a pipe cutter in an act of defiance and revenge. By contrast, collector Alan Dyer’s passion for parking meters is perfectly lawful and it’s their intricate internal mechanisms that fascinate him.
Trained as a metal spinner, something like a potter who works with metal, Dyer turned to the equally precise tasks of a parking meter technician when he landed a job with the City of Melbourne in 1971. He became a type of watchmaker, his timepieces counting down the minutes rather than telling the time.
“I became fascinated with the precision of their mechanisms,” he says. “A parking meter is really a type of clock. On the old meters, the coin operates a mainspring which also controls the timer and the meter had to be wound once a week, just like a clock.”
Dyer is an avid collector. He has hundreds of die-cast model cars, along with bakelite radios, box brownie cameras and even those yo-yos sponsored by a well-known soft drink manufacturer that used to appear regularly in school yards. But a special passion is reserved for the historic parking meters from around Australia.
“My first meter was one made by VDO, the instrument and gauge manufacturer, that I got from Sydney,” he says. “Then I collected some more that were being replaced and thrown down the tip. I’ve probably got 25 or 30 now and lots of parts”
The collection includes a rare dual currency Hawthorn Council meter dating from the introduction of decimal currency in 1966. “It has slots for threepence or 2 cents, which meant it was cheaper to use the new coins. There are interstate meters from the Gold Coast, Sydney and Hobart. The Victorian examples include meters from Melbourne, Collingwood, Hawthorn, Richmond, South Melbourne, St Kilda and Shepparton councils, along with instruction plates, manuals and brochures.
“At the City of Melbourne there were around 20 technicians employed and we would walk about 10 miles a day checking and winding the meters. We maintained them to make sure they were accurate, testing them every two weeks with a laboratory certified stopwatch. Near enough wasn’t good enough.” He is quick to add, “Of course we didn’t have anything to do with collecting the money or issuing fines.”
Drivers trying to beat the system was always part of the territory. “People jammed meters with matches or used brass washers instead of coins, although in those days a brass washer might have cost more than the coin, so unless you had a cheap supply it wouldn’t have saved you anything. Later on, people tried to jiggle the pointer with plastic cable ties and we often had to remove keys that got stuck in meters when people tried to move the pointer with them,” he says.
Cool Hand Luke even caused some precautions to be taken in Melbourne. “After the movie was released the Council welded bars down the sides of meter poles to stop pipe cutters being used, just in case,” Dyer says.
Parking meters were first trialled in 1935 in the United States, as parking congestion began to clog shopping precincts. They were installed on one side of the main street in Oklahoma City to gauge their effect and the shops on that side did increased business because drivers parked, shopped and moved on more frequently. Business owners clambered for the meters to be installed.
The first Australian city to introduce parking meters was Hobart, in 1955, with Melbourne installing its first meters just before the 1956 Olympic Games.
The only meters made in Australia were the Rowco-Venner Park-O-Meters, which were manufactured under licence from their overseas patent holder. Many councils used imported meters and at various times in his career, Dyer’s skills saw him working for the meter importers, instructing councils on modernising their meters and installing new meters from Sydney to Tamworth and Hobart.
“The job evolved over the years as meters became more sophisticated,” Dyer says. “Single and double meters began to give way to multi-bay meters and ticket machines, electronics began to replace mechanical meters.”
It may not be long before parking apps on smart phones replace meters altogether, but that won’t worry Dyer, whose colleagues presented him with a commemorative meter recording his four decades in the industry on its dial when he retired in 2012.
“It’s the skills of precision that I enjoy, so I still get pleasure from the meters I worked on in my working life,” he says. “It’s something different and I love showing them to people and talking about how they work. Everyone has used parking meters but people never think about them after putting the coins in. Unless they get a ticket.”
Story: Tony Lupton
Photos: Shannon Morris
Published in RoyalAuto Nov 2016