From diving on World War II wrecks in the South Pacific, to riding dirt bikes across the Gibson Desert, sailing land yachts on remote salt lakes, and winching his way across flooded creeks and rivers, Norm Needham has spent much of his life chasing adventure.

Story Ged Bulmer

The musician and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan once said: “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do”. Only a lucky few get to merge their passion with their work, but Australian four-wheel-driving pioneer and adventurer Norm Needham is one. 

Norm grew up in the central-west NSW town of Orange, and remembers his first experience of four-wheel-driving as a 10- or 11-year-old, at the wheel of a wrist-wrenching Series 1 Land Rover. “My dad had a service station in Orange and I guess that’s where my interest in cars came from,” he says. “He employed a mechanic who was really old-school. I learnt a lot from him. I worked there as a bowser boy before and after school. My dad did a pretty roaring trade because he was into cars and there was a racing circuit at Orange called Gnoo Blas. Whenever there was a race, some of the drivers would come to my dad’s servo to tune their cars – because of the altitude they ran differently, so they had to get re-tuned – and I spent a bit of time with some of the racing drivers.” 

After school Norm took up an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner at Email Westinghouse, which made fridges, washing machines and other appliances in Orange. He moved to the company’s operation at Auburn in Sydney in his final year, where he specialised in tool- and pattern-making. “After I left there, I went travelling for a bit. I went to New Zealand for a year or so, and then back to Orange, where I worked as a fitter with a small-time engineering shop. I learnt to weld there and we built all sorts of things around the area. I met my wife Sandy in Sydney and we got married in 1970, and I later joined the LandCruiser Club, where I started working on LandCruisers.” 

Norm became member No.4 of the nascent Sydney-based Toyota LandCruiser Club of Australia, beginning an association that would last for the best part of 50 years, during which time he would hold the position of club president on multiple occasions, eventually becoming an honorary life member. 

“I bought my first LandCruiser then, which was my first 4WD really,” Norm says. “It must’ve been 1972 because I think it was the very first of the four-speeders, an FJ40,” he says. The club has been at the centre of many lifelong friendships and adventures, but perhaps none more important than his first trip to Cape York Peninsula in 1975, with fellow club member Ian Wright. “That was the first big trip and we were away for about three months,” Norm says, adding that it was still fairly rare for anyone other than locals to go that far north in those days just for the fun of it. Norm penned the story of the epic journey for the inaugural issue of Overlander 4WD magazine in 1976, but also shot hours of handheld Super 8 footage, which sat largely forgotten for decades, until a media-savvy friend offered to professionally edit and narrate it. The resulting documentary, which was uploaded to YouTube in 2018 and has since had more than 184,000 views, begins in Sydney with Ian and Norm fashioning floats, which they then ferry 3500km north on the roofs of their LandCruisers, in order to get their vehicles across the Wenlock and Jardine rivers. In a later scene, Norm is seen swimming the swollen Jardine to tether a rope to the far bank, in order to float the FJ40s across, something he acknowledges would be foolhardy in today’s crocodile-inhabited waters. 

The trip planted the seeds of an idea that germinated after he arrived back in the big smoke. “You could work as what they called a ‘shade-tree-mechanic’ in those days, without a licence or anything,” he says. 

This story excerpt is from Issue #132

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2020