The Luge cart is a classic story of Kiwi inventiveness born out of opportunity and curiosity. It’s a story filled with personalities, hard work, failure, determination, success and most of all fun.
Our expansion to Rotorua was a bold move for a still small yet ambitious company. The plan for a Gondola to lift people to an elevated restaurant was well founded based on the success of the Queenstown operation but we thought the site would need another attraction to get people to take the ride up the hill. The hill itself would prove to be the answer.
Barry Thomas had experienced a cart ride on a contoured stainless steel track on a trip to Canada and thought it might be a good addition to the Rotorua site. Hylton and Grant Hensman travelled to Canada to try it for themselves and were instantly captured by the experience - gravity fuelled fun was discovered! However, Hylton was frustrated by slower riders as he caught them but couldn’t get past as the track allowed only one cart at a time.
Back in New Zealand, Hylton began designing a cart that ran on rails much like a roller coaster. A prototype was built on Bob’s Peak and Hylton was fittingly the first rider to try out this new adventure. A lot of trial and error was punctuated by an almost fatal accident as Hylton and the cart sailed off the rails and down the cliff below the restaurant. Hylton put that one down to experience and started on a new design from his hospital bed.
The frustration experienced in Canada had been playing on his mind. This led to the concept of a Luge cart on a formed road, much like the trolleys built by Kiwi kids. Early prototypes were built incorporating the wheels from son Phil’s old skateboard and were tested on the streets of Queenstown and the Coronet Peak road. They were getting close to a solution but most importantly, they were having fun. They just needed to get it to a point where the fun could be shared with everyone.
Bill Walker brought formal engineering skills to the project and he refined the design and arranged manufacture of the first set of carts to be ridden in Rotorua. They weren’t anything like the ones we see today but they were the starting point.
Neville Nicholson had been employed as an engineer to assemble a second-hand chairlift that had been recovered from Whakapapa ski area. This was Bill’s solution to getting the carts and riders back to the top of the new track. Having cobbled together the chairlift, Neville was kept busy keeping the new Luge carts going as they became more popular.
The design was constantly being refined by Neville as the new experience of Luging was becoming better understood.
The design continues to be developed, with recent improvements focusing on safety, most obviously seen in the wings added to the carts. But the journey isn’t complete. Ross Davidson has been working with Neville on the Luge cart design for many years and now leads the effort. A next generation cart focused on reducing weight while retaining all the safety and reliability gained over the years is close to becoming a reality. Just like the original, it’s going to be the product of a lot of trial and error and every bit as much fun. The excitement of Luge is universally appealing taking adults back to their childhood and putting kids in the driver’s seat, many for the first time. Anyone can do it. Proof of this is a Rotorua resident who celebrated their 101st birthday with a Luge ride in May 2017. One thing has been proven, when it comes to Luge, once is never enough.