Patrick Dunford: Brief History of Fisher & Paykel Top Loading Autowashers [1]

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Fisher and Paykel is a major New Zealand appliance manufacturer and has a lengthy history going back over 80 years. About 1938 they started in business as an importer of washing machines from various sources (including Bendix in the US) and soon were selling wringer machines and Hoovermatic twin tubs which they were assembling in their Auckland factory. Their history of autowasher production is largely unknown to me up till about the mid 1960s when AEI in the UK released the Hotpoint 1500, which made its way to New Zealand and was locally derived to become one of our most popular automatic washers for about 20 years. The next generation was a big leap of technology, the “ECS” or “Gentle Annie” machines which had sophisticated electronic controls, made from 1985 until about 1990. They were then replaced by the Smartdrive design which is now amazingly thirty years old through about ten sub generations.

This first article of a series will look at pre-history of F&P coming into the manufacture of the AEI machines. AEI was a UK electrical conglomerate which in part came into being as the British branch of the US technical giant General Electric. At their peak they were one of the UK production majors, up there with GEC and English Electric in manufacturing a wide range of industrial and domestic products. All three of these companies had wide ranging interests that encompassed heavy engineering such as power stations, gas turbines, railway locomotives and rolling stock, aircraft, mainframe computers, and domestic product ranges such as whiteware. AEI became a producer of domestic whiteware and appliances under the Hotpoint brand which they inherited from General Electric. The washing machine technology behind the Hotpoint 1500 series is, as I understand it, of US origin. The basic powertrain of the Hotpoint 1500 series and later our F&P 3xx/400 series automatic washers was most probably developed in the US and then licensed, eventually to Fisher and Paykel for NZ production. I am unaware if Hotpoint themselves were ever marketed in NZ and it’s probably F&P’s licensing gave them exclusive rights to the NZ market. Both AEI and English Electric were eventually taken over by GEC but in the process EE’s aircraft production was divested and merged into what is now BAE and the EE computer department became part of ICL, whilst GEC today is now known as Marconi, having divested the heavy engineering to Alstom and MAN among others.

As I understand the Hotpoint 1500 series went into production about 1965, it would be a reasonable guess that F&P must have signed up to license the technology, which was mostly mechanical in nature, and probably our first “Savaday” or “Washrite” automatic machines appeared in the late 1960s. I understand the early production models were quite similar in external appearance to Hotpoints, but as time went on F&P became confident enough to produce their own control panel designs which were the major point of difference from AEI. The last series of these machines seems to have come out around 1980 and the three models produced then were the 370, 380 and 400 of which more below. F&P also produced matching clothes dryers but it’s unclear where the designs originated from and the technology for dryers in those days was very mechanically simple with just a motor driving a drum on rollers through a belt, with a basic on/off timer, perhaps with two heat settings, a door microswitch and a drum stop switch. For safety reasons later on these got a start switch that had to be pressed each time after the door was closed to start the machine. Likewise the Hoovermatic twin tubs that F&P assembled and their range of wringer machines were fairly simple in nature, compared to the automatic washers.

We’ll finish up this part by describing other brands of automatic washer that were produced in NZ. The major top loading machines were Norge and Champion branded. Norge was of US origin and the machines were assembled by, I believe, Cunninghams in Masterton, who also made Dishmaster dishwashers. Both the Norge and Dishmaster designs were unsophisticated compared to what F&P were making in the 1970s. Our family when we first moved to Christchurch in the mid 1970s lived in a house that had a Dishmaster installed under bench and it was a very simple design with an impeller in the bottom to spray the water and there was a gravity drain rather than a pump to remove the water. This was a front loading machine but a number of different manufacturers in this era, including F&P, produced top loaders that had an upper rack that had to be lifted out of the machine to get at the lower rack. These looked like a modified washing machine with a round tub inside. Top loading dishwashers, like wringer washers, are a technology niche that has pretty well vanished these days. Dishwashers became more sophisticated in NZ in the 1970s when F&P licensed General Electric US designs and started churning out front loaders that simply pumped the water from the bottom of the tub through top and bottom spray arms in a continuous loop. This is of course the basis for all modern dishwashers. Norge clothes washers were crude enough in parts that a model was produced with a solid walled bowl (most top loading automatics have a solid outer bowl to contain the water and a perforated inner bowl to hold the clothes). The Norge solid wall machine had to spin fast enough for the water to climb up the side of the bowl and then over the top to be extracted and this would have required a very powerful motor to rotate the bowl full of water at the time of starting the spin cycle. Unsurprisingly solid wall inner bowls are not seen anywhere these days. Norge also produced twin tubs and our family owned one in the 1970s which had a rather crude design to secure the spin lid closed of an arm which was turned across the lid and which also started the motor. It got replaced in our household by a Whiteway wringer whilst we were still living in the North Island which eventually gave way to a F&P 380.

To finish let’s have a look at the other major brand of top loader produced in NZ, Thor/Champion. Thor was another major US producer of whiteware in its day and their designs seem to have been licensed to Radiation, a UK company which set up a branch in NZ, mainly manufacturing in Dunedin. Earlier machines were still called Thor and later, Champion. Thor was technologically renowned in the US for the Automagic which was an innovative but unsuccessful design that combined a dishwasher and clothes washer into one, by interchangeable inner bowls which could be lifted in and out of the machine. It did not last long in the market because people objected to hygiene issues of washing clothes and dishes in the same unit. In New Zealand, Thor/Champion earlier top loader production included manual and semi automatic machines before finally achieving fully automatic production in their later years. My father’s parents in Lower Hutt owned one of the semiautomatic Thors which was notable in its design for having an internal tank to store the wash water for reuse multiple times (“suds save”). Semiautomatic Thors and Champions required the user to select each part of the cycle manually but a timer was fitted to stop the wash or spin after a period, and the machine had to be filled manually from a hose that was pushed onto washing machine taps. A drain valve control routed the pump output to the internal tank or to the drain hose, or return from the tank to the bowl, so there was no need for the user with the suds save to remove dripping wet clothes; the clothes could be washed and spun before being removed from the machine for later rinsing and spinning after all loads had been put through a wash. The suds save capability was carried over into practically all Champion automatic models that came along later and accounts for the relatively modest capacity of the clothes washing bowl compared to the size of the machine. Suds save was quite a popular water saving technology in automatic washers in the era and a lot of machines in the Australian market (Simpson etc) were equipped for external storage of the wash water in a tub, with special hoses to pump to and from the tub. These days “suds save” is not explicitly supported in most machines but is technologically capable through manual operating steps in a lot of cases (storing water in an external tub). Champion machines were not too sophisticated either with the suds save being the main innovation. In the mid 1980s they produced an innovative but unreliable front loader washer/dryer combination and then were bought out by Japanese giant Sanyo and eventually closed down.

Part 2 will cover the F&P/Hotpoint series machines. I owned one of these up until last week and before that, our family owned one, so, collectively we have about 40 years of experience of these machines.