Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Meet New Zealand's oldest driver

Meet New Zealand's oldest driver: 103-year-old Bill Mitchell.

He's been driving for 90 years. He's never caused a crash, or even had a speeding ticket.

The Second World War veteran drives every day - buying groceries, picking up prescriptions, visiting family, or the RSA.

"Being able to drive means everything to me. It's my number one priority," Mr Mitchell said.

Born in Otautau, Southland on April 10, 1913, new-fangled automobiles were still in their infancy.

As an 11 or 12-year-old, his mother taught him to drive by letting him behind the wheel of their US-made Essex for the 50km gravel-road drive from their Waimate home to Timaru.

Bill Mitchell on his honeymoon. Photo / Supplied
Bill Mitchell on his honeymoon. Photo / Supplied

"All I knew was to give way to the right, and if in doubt, jump on the brakes," he recalls.

Mr Mitchell started a sheet metal apprenticeship in Christchurch in 1928 - the year Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.

The 15-year-old got his driver's licence and immediately began saving his half-crown weekly wages.

His first motorised mode of transport was a BSA motorcycle, which he explored the South Island on.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War Two, he bought a stylish 1936 Chevrolet coupe, which he again travelled across New Zealand during breaks in his training as a Royal New Zealand Air Force engineer.

Going off to war, brother Harry was tasked to sell the beloved car.

But on Mr Mitchell's return from serving in the South Pacific, his car was still there.

Bill Mitchell during a war time break. Photo / Supplied
Bill Mitchell during a war time break. Photo / Supplied

"Harry ran it every day. It was great to come back to."

In 1947, he hit the road again, this time for his honeymoon with new bride Kathleen.

They spent 62 years together, and had three children, before she died "in my arms" in 2009.

The Mitchells enjoyed a shared love of cars, and owned many throughout their life together: a Vanguard, Morris Eight (Series E), Hillman station wagon, Chevrolet Chevette, Ford Capri, Rover TC 2000, Austin Allegro, Austin Mini 850.

After the war, Mr Mitchell owned several Christchurch grocery shops before driving taxis.

He first drove an ageing Holden before buying a Wolseley 16/60.

Once he picked up a fare who turned out to be an old war-time mate.

During the journey, his friend revealed that his wife had just died after her car's brakes had failed and she went over a cliff.

The family of Bill Mitchell. Photo / Supplied
The family of Bill Mitchell. Photo / Supplied

"I got such a shock I jammed the brakes on and got rear-ended," Mr Mitchell said.

Remarkably, that's the only road traffic accident he's ever been involved in.

Mr Mitchell is one of just four current driver licence holders in New Zealand aged 103, according to NZTA figures. None are older than 103. There are 24 drivers aged 100-plus, and 361 aged 95 and over.

Older drivers must renew their licences and undergo a medical check at age 75, 80, and every two years after that.

"For many older New Zealanders, a driver licence is an important factor in their independence," NZTA spokesman Andy Knackstedt said.

"Cars make it easy to go shopping, get to appointments, keep in touch with friends and attend social events - without having to rely on others."

And contrary to popular belief, older drivers are "relatively safe", Mr Knackstedt said.

"Most drive conservatively, travel fewer kilometres overall than other drivers, and do not deliberately drive unsafely."

Mr Mitchell will have to renew his licence before his 104th birthday next April.

Until then, he'll continue to enjoy the freedom his wee green Suzuki Swift gives him.

- NZ Herald

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