Early Motoring in Canterbury


By Wayne Stack – SDC Historian.

The first two internal combustion engine cars arrived in New Zealand in February 1898, although they could not be legally driven on the colony’s roads at that time. ‘Motoring’ was so new that legislators had not yet decided how to deal with the unfamiliar contraptions. The engines for these early cars had only been developed by Gottleib Daimler in Germany fourteen year earlier in 1884, with Karl Benz’s first primitive petrol-driven tri-car not being built until the following year.

Motoring in New Zealand was first formally promoted by Wellington MP William McLean when he introduced a private members bill seeking permission to import and drive motor vehicles and to store flammable substances for their propulsion. This resulted in the introduction of the Motor-Car Act (1898). The act limited the speed of vehicles to twelve miles per hour, with vehicles having to be registered with local authorities and after sunset having to carry a forward facing light.

The first car (a Benz) to arrive in Canterbury was shipped to Christchurch by Nicholas Oates. He was to receive the first traffic fine because he failed to stop the vehicle when he came upon a tethered horse. The horse bolted, taking the lamp post which it was tied to, with it. This resulted in Oates receiving a hefty fine of £30.

Steam-powered cars were also introduced around this time, with a locomobile steam car being the first car to make a journey from Dunedin to Christchurch in 1901. The first steam-powered car (more accurately a motorised buggy) in Australasia was built in the Addington Railway Workshops in 1880 and was said to have travelled up to 30mph.

Motoring as a pastime was not a popular concept with some sectors of New Zealand society around this time. Horse-drawn cartage was the traditional mode used by freight carriers and motor vehicles were initially seen as a threat to this, while church leaders advocated that motorists should not be able to drive on Sunday – the Sabbath.

At the turn of the 19th century the poor state of the roads in Canterbury, especially in rural areas, limited motoring mainly to town and city streets. The roads in country areas were mostly poorly maintained bridle tracks whose conditions were at the mercy of the weather and geography. Dusty in summer and muddy in the winter, the corrugations in the roads threatened to shake the early cars to pieces, with the abrasive silica dust damaging exposed engine parts.

For many years there was a lack of bridges on country roads and drivers were forced to ford rivers and streams, sometimes with dire consequences to the driver, passengers and vehicles. Likewise, the roads and tracks in the foothills and mountain passes challenged the most-hardy of drivers and vehicles.

For these reasons the Model-T Ford, which was introduced in 1908, proved to be very popular in New Zealand, especially with farmers. It was simple and robust and could take the knocks from poor country roads, bush tracks and farm paddocks.

Early motorists did not have to obtain a licence, this did not occur until 1924, while compulsory third-party insurance was not introduced until 1928. Warrants of Fitness for private motor cars was not obligatory until as late as 1937.

Cars were expensive and owning one became a status symbol, although they were put to practical use. They became an essential tool for rural doctors in being able to deliver bedside services to their patients in isolated areas.

Early motorists had to carry their own petrol supply in four gallon tins known as ‘flimsies’ which they bought from the local grocer or blacksmith. It was not until 1926 that petrol bowsers were introduced.

Over the years motoring has become an important aspect of the social life of New Zealanders. The Automobile Association was established initially to promote social gatherings for motorists, with the first club started in Christchurch as early as 1900. Such activities grew in popularity over the years with the arrival of bigger touring cars in the 1920’s and 1930’s. And it is these cars of yesteryear that provide a continual reminder of the golden age of motoring in New Zealand.