How the road was won
The adventure of Pioneer Motoring in New Zealand
It was to be an unforgettable journey. On the morning of January 16, 1917, 40 southern Members of Parliament, 30 farmers and business people and a bevy of journalists and motoring enthusiasts clambered aboard a convoy of cars and set off from Auckland, for the Far North. In the course of 15 days they travelled on some of the worst roads in the country, enduring clouds of caking dust and wallowing through acres of churned mud as they proceeded from one small town to the next.
Bare-legged and mired to the knees, the politicians and their companions hauled on ropes to free bogged vehicles and cut bush to lay over sodden ground. Cars capsized, tyres burst and the hands and wrists of drivers ached with effort.
Locals no doubt derived grim satisfaction from the difficulties besetting the parliamentary tour of the “roadless North.” It had been one of their number, Kaitaia landowner Colonel Allan Bell, who had suggested the VIP tour to lift what northerners considered a veil of ignorance among southern politicians and influential farmers about the woes of a region which still relied for transport on horses and boats. In Bell’s view, failure to see the economic potential of the North had led politicians to divert investment in roads to districts they judged to be more promising.
To begin with the cavalcade’s progress was uneventful, though on the second day it was decided that the privilege of kicking up a cloud trail for those following should be shared, and by common consent the car conveying the Speaker of the House of Representatives surrendered its lead. In true democratic style, for the remainder of the journey the lead car was chosen by lot.
It was beyond Colonel Bell’s home town that things started to go badly wrong, with wet weather turning the Ahipara road into a slippery obstacle course. A welcome respite on the hard-packed sand of Ninety Mile Beach encouraged some drivers to open their throttles and coax their cars to a spine-tingling 60 miles an hour, prompting talk of a bright future for motor-racing at such a venue. Then it was back to wrestling roads, the party buying up one store’s entire supply of clotheslines and chains in anticipation of poor conditions ahead. It was a prudent move. The 26 km drive to the next town, Herekino—“chunking and slithering through mud and slush”—took six gruelling hours.
An equally arduous journey to Kohukohu, on the Hokianga, was the final straw for some of the travellers, who threw down their goggles and called it a day. Those who persevered enjoyed a largely uneventful return trip to History repeats: a party of MPs is to visit the Far North in May 2003 to become acquainted with the inadequacies of Northland’s roads—especially for handling the millions of pine logs approaching harvest.
Auckland, capped by a banquet at the Waverley Hotel. Despite what the tour’s organisers must have felt was ample evidence of the neglect of the North, the politicians proved slow to act, one member suggesting that other places, such as the King Country, were equally deserving. It was to be a further 15 years before the road even as far as Whangarei became an all-weather one.
The origin of many of New Zealand’s principal roads lay in the wars of the 19th century. Among them were the route from Wairoa to Waikaremoana, that from Cambridge to Tirau and over the Mamaku Range to Rotorua, the one from Pirongia to Kawhia and, most controversially, the Great South Road, from Auckland to the heart of the King Country (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 61). But it was the advent of the car that provided the momentum for road-building that so conclusively ended the county’s Age of Isolation.
It is not without irony that, at a time when the government was strenuously promoting the cause of rail, it was a politician Wellington MP William McLean, a land agent and company promoter—who almost single-handedly got the country motoring. While visiting England for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, McLean made a side trip to France, a hotbed of experimentation in the new automotive science, and became hooked on cars. Once back in New Zealand, he ordered two Benz automobiles through his newly formed New Zealand Motor Car Syndicate.
These, the country’s first internal-combustion-engine cars, which McLean named Lightning and Petrolette, arrived by steamer on February 19, 1898. Immediately, McLean came up against the unyielding force of the law, discovering that the two Benzes could not legally be driven on the country’s roads. So new was the sport of motoring that legislators had yet to decide on how best to deal with the unfamiliar contraptions. Customs officials, who didn’t have a category for motor cars, were thrown into confusion, and even members of the press lacked the vocabulary to describe them. “Neat looking vehicles without shafts . . . like ordinary hooded buggies mounted on rubber-tyred wheels looking like strongly made bicycle wheels” was how one journalist fumblingly conveyed his impression of McLean’s machines.
Officials and public alike could be forgiven their ignorance. The world’s first internal-combustion engine—built by Gottlieb Daimler—had appeared just 14 years earlier, and Karl Benz’s first primitive petrol-driven tricar not until 1885. Lightning and Petrolette seemed things of mere whimsy, with little place in the sensible, workaday world of horse-drawn drays, wagons and trams. With tiller steering, upright back-to-back bench seats and dainty carriagework, they were but a dim foreshadowing of the well-muscled motor cars of the near future.
Undeterred by bureaucratic misgivings, the resourceful McLean introduced a private bill seeking permission to import and drive motor vehicles and to store flammable substances for their propulsion.
After much debate the McLean Motor-Car Act (1898) was passed. The act limited the speed of cars to 12 miles per hour and stipulated that they were to display a painted identification mark which was to be registered with local authorities, and after sunset were to carry a forward-facing light.
A new breed of traveller was born. to publicise the new means of conveyance. Even before Parliament passed his bill, he reportedly “buzzed in and about amongst the crowd” at a Wellington procession celebrating the new eight-hour work day, attracting a great deal of attention from the younger generation while causing surprisingly little consternation among the bicycles and horse-drawn floats.
Once mechanised transport was legalised, more of the exotic vehicles quickly appeared on New Zealand streets. In September 1899, Aucklander Arthur Marychurch imported a car modelled on the Benz and made by the Star Engineering Company of Wolverhampton. Belt driven and with candle-powered headlights, it bore a striking resemblance, said one reporter, to a large invalid chair.
The Star was bought off Marychurch by Percy Skeates, who drove it along Queen Street and out to Panmure. News of the trip, which took 50 minutes, was telegraphed throughout the country. “The speed was so slow that you usually went with the prevailing wind,” admitted the modest owner.
In 1900, another Benz was shipped to Christchurch by Nicholas Oates, who promptly received the country’s first traffic fine. Oates failed to stop his car when he came upon a tethered horse. The horse bolted, taking with it the lamp-post to which it was tied, and the imprudent motorist landed a hefty £30 judgement in fines and damages.
In 1901, Dunedin had its first taste of automobiles when a Locomobile steam car was brought to the city, followed three months later by a second American steamer, a Pope-Toledo, which became the first car to make the journey north to Christchurch.
Perhaps most impressive of all the early motoring efforts was that of engineer Cecil Wood at his rural home in Winchester, South Canterbury. In 1897, Wood built New Zealand’s first combustion engine, using an explosive chemical substance made by a Timaru chemist. Three years later he incorporated the engine into the country’s first true motorcycle, and then, in 1901, built the first locally made petrol-engine car.
Wood’s influence also extended to the new field of aviation. He gave valuable help and advice to his near neighbour, Richard Pearse, who was then working on the southern hemisphere’s first powered aircraft at his Waitohi farm (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 44). Wood showed Pearse how to make spark-plugs and helped design surface carburettors for his home-built engine.
Others were less appreciative of Wood’s skill. Police threatened to sue the engineer for travelling at unseemly speeds, and dogs made strenuous efforts to get hold of the car’s wheels and tip him over. Once, when he was stopped by a local constable in front of a butcher’s shop, the butcher ran out wielding a cleaver and threatened to chop the car to pieces for frightening his horse. The long-suffering Wood was obliged on that occasion to push his vehicle home.
Fortune had not been noticeably easier on the well-connected McLean. Freight-carriers sent a deputation to protest about the threat to their livelihood posed by the ungainly motorised carriages, and doctors expressed the opinion that driving was bad for the health. Church leaders took a dim view of motoring on the Sabbath. Even an undertaker, when offered a car, refused outright. “I would not think,” he told McLean, “of driving poor dead souls at the rate of six miles an hour.”
The New Zealand Herald, which in early 1900 welcomed the motor car—if only as an alternative to the state-owned railways—seemed later that year to have a change of heart, and reprinted a diatribe against the machine published in Pearson’s Magazine in England, home of the machine revolution.
“Think how impassable the streets will be when thousands of motor cars are rushing along at the high rate of speed which they invariably adopt,” wrote the Pearson’s correspondent. “A horse does not run a man down if he can help it, but . . . the path of a runaway motor will be strewn with dead and mangled citizens, and when it finally runs into a lamp post and blows up the explosion will be worse than that of a fifteen-inch shell . . . Regarded as a machine, it is one of the noisiest and most objectionable that has ever been invented.”
Such passionate objections were understandable. The machine was being inserted none too gently into a transport infrastructure little changed since Roman times. Indeed, many would say that the Romans had enjoyed betterroads. Away from the railway tracks, most New Zealanders got around with the help of muscle power alone. They walked, rode bicycles or harnessed the strength of that most universally prized beast, the horse.
According to census figures, in 1901, the year of Wood’s home-grown car, no fewer than 266,725 horses were registered in New Zealand—one for every three people. Despite the slow infiltration of the motor car, the number of horses continued to grow until 1911, when more than 400,000 were at work in the country. The sight, sound and smell of them formed the very fabric of daily life. The streets of towns and cities resounded to the clip-clop of hooves and the jingle of harnesses, and the pungent smell of horse manure carried in the air. Hitching posts and water troughs were everywhere. A vast network of specialists, including farriers, saddlers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, harness-makers and livery-stable owners, existed to service the equine economy and its richly varied components: hansom cabs, trams, stagecoaches, omnibuses, traps, gigs, carts, saddle horses and more.
For motor-car enthusiasts, that dominance contributed to a major hurdle: the poor state of the country’s roads. Moreover, government focus on rail development soaked money which might otherwise have been available for road improvements, so that owners of cars in many provincial towns, having brought their new vehicles in by rail, were largely confined to a circuit of local streets.
In cities, the sharp metal surface punctured frail car tyres or, thanks to the passage of narrow steel cart wheels, formed dangerous ridges and ruts. In the countryside conditions were even worse, with roads—often little more than bridle tracks—at the mercy of weather and geography.
New Zealand, and particularly the rugged North Island, with its deeply etched rivers and treacherous clays, has never been easy for road-makers. The pumice lands around Taupo and Rotorua were especially bad, generating clouds of choking dust when dry and a paste of mud when wet. Their notorious washboard corrugations threatened to shake vehicles to pieces, and the abrasive silica dust damaged exposed engine parts. For many years bridges were sorely lacking throughout the country and drivers had to ford rivers unaided—often with dire consequences—while the steep gradients of some hills taxed the resources of the best drivers.
Despite such primitive conditions, several impressive achievements were chalked up by adventurous early motorists. At the turn of the century George Henning made the first journey by automobile from Auckland to Rotorua. Then, despite warnings of high winds on the hills, he determined to travel with his wife over the Rimutaka Range to Wellington.
Half-way to the summit Mrs Henning became alarmed and insisted on getting out of the car, whereupon she was blown into a deep ditch. Her husband nursed the Locomobile around a bend before stopping the vehicle and going to her aid. Later, with the kerosene headlamps continually going out and the wind showing no sign of letting up, the pair roped the car to a fence and retreated to a nearby worker’s cottage for the night.
In 1901, Nicholas Oates made the first motor-car journey from Wellington to Napier, hailed at the time as a remarkable feat. The unstoppable Percy Skeates, armed with a new 12 hp Darracq, set off in 1905 with the aim of becoming the first to reach the Mountain House on Mount Egmont by car. The trip, which also served as a honeymoon, demanded considerable resilience and ingenuity. When fording a stream, for example, Skeates adopted the technique of removing the engine’s spark-plugs, putting the car in first gear and hand-cranking it to the far bank.
In the winter of 1903, Aucklander Arthur Cleave and his teenage son made what was claimed to be the first automobile journey from Auckland to Napier via Taupo, just a month after taking delivery of a 5 hp Locomobilea petrol-fired, steam-powered vehicle. Father and son then pressed on to Wellington, reaching the capital almost two weeks after leaving Auckland. Emboldened by his success, Cleave then decided to make a pioneering run through the Far North, which at the time remained largely virgin territory for mechanised vehicles. His travelling companion, G. E. Alderton, wrote a detailed account of the journey in one of Cleave’s magazines, the New Zealand Motor & Cycle Journal (“The oldest wheel paper in the Southern Hemisphere”). For its outrageous succession of mishaps, the journey is worth lingering over. Cleave’s experiences, while verging on the surreal, would not have been unfamiliar to his fellow automobilists, and cameos were repeated in many accounts of early journeys.
Let Arthur Cleave, then, stand for his kind: In 1904, he shipped his well-used Locomobile north to Mangonui on the steamship Clansman and, having arranged for supplies of benzine to be established at various points on the intended run, set off to join it in company with Alderton, who was a self-confessed greenhorn when it came to mechanical wayfaring. Cleave had been warned by locals of the many places where he could not possibly get through, but, wrote the approving Alderton, “that was just so much caviare to my friend.”
The first job at the outset of the journey was to find the cook of the hotel in which they were staying and get the poker red hot. This was used to vaporise benzine before lighting the burner. That done, the oil was turned on and steam pressure got up to drive the vehicle. Having promised two travelling salesmen (“commercials,” Alderton calls them) that they would let the publican at Waipapakauri know they were on their way, Cleave and his passenger set off along narrow roads through the hilly terrain.
Soon they were going faster than Alderton felt there was any call for. “It did not give a fellow a chance to study the country at all . . .” It was, indeed, faster than Cleave had called for. He asked Alderton to tighten the brake band, which was duly done as far as the screw would allow. “Then we took another hill, and, Jesophat, we went, if anything, faster.”
Lifting the floorboard, they discovered under the brake lever a jammed bolt which prevented the brake working at all. They removed the offending item and drove on, only to find that the uneven road had rattled loose all the wheel spokes. They tightened these and pressed on once more until, within a mile, the car stopped dead.
They had, Cleave announced, “scorched the boiler.”A photograph in the published account shows the Locomobile tilted almost vertically on its hind wheels and precariously propped there by a plank of wood while someone sitting on a wooden crate tinkers with its underbelly—“expanding the tubes” in the words of the caption
The pump which kept the boiler fed had failed, the bottom of the boiler had burned and the copper tubes fitting into it had loosened and let water and steam escape. Cleave consulted a directory (fittingly, one produced by his own printing and publishing company in Auckland) and learned that there was a blacksmith some distance ahead, at Peria.
As luck would have it, a Maori appeared just then riding one horse and leading another. They persuaded the wary newcomer, who had never seen a car, to give them a tow to Peria. On arrival, Cleave instructed the blacksmith to make two tapered punches, and the travellers worked through the night by the light of the forge and on into the next afternoon to repair the car.
That done, they set off for Kaitaia and then on towards Waipapakauri. By this time it had grown dark, and they had the misfortune to ram a clay bank, snapping part of the undercarriage. This they repaired with splints made from battens pulled from a fence. “We were getting so used to accidents by this time that it became monotonous unless something happened,” wrote Alderton.
The pair reached Waipapakauri late at night to find the two “commercials” already in residence at the hotel and the proprietor, Joe Evans, expressing surprise that they had negotiated the swamp road in the dark. The next morning, having had another blacksmith strengthen parts of the machine that were beginning to come adrift, they began the return to Mangonui, Evans hitching a ride as far as Awanui.
Striking slippery, rain-sodden clay on a hill, they spent an hour roping the wheels and laying fern on the road ahead, only to run out of steam just short of the brow. In blistering heat, Cleave lugged water up the hillside from a distant stream, and, with the help of a tow horse from the nearest farm, got the machine once more onto gravel.
Eventually, they reached the Mangonui hotel—only to find the fleet-footed salesmen had once more made it before them. The next morning, “full of hope and confidence,” they set out for Kawakawa, 80 km distant. From the first, the wind played havoc with the boiler’s benzine flame, so the resourceful Cleave decided to use an alternative source of flame—the “pilot.” This had the unintended effect of setting fire to the machine’s fuel-soaked wooden frame, which was soon burning furiously. Fortunately they had pulled up next to a river, and with the aid of a canvas bucket the fire was soon doused.
The flames, however, had damaged a support beam, causing the engine to slump on the chassis and foul the gears. By holding a lever under the engine, the automobilists managed to overcome this handicap, start their machine once more and crawl toward Totara North for repairs.
Early the next morning they punted the hapless Locomobile across the harbour to Whangaroa, where they recommenced their journey, but just past Kaeo they struck the steepest hill in the north—Kukuparaire—and when Alderton climbed out to push the car, it struck him, sending him sprawling. The vehicle then hit a boulder in the road, causing it to engage the reversing gear, and the dazed Alderton was struck down a second time and had his leg run over.
With the help of yet another horse, they gained the summit, and with only a puncture to break the ensuing monotony, reached the Waitangi River at dusk. They “went at it,” and successfully forded the river, but in the process the driving chain was dislodged and one of the steel links was lost in the water.
“That was the first time on the whole trip that Arthur Cleave used any cuss words,” wrote his loyal companion. “He is a thorough motorist.”
They managed to retrieve the link and, beating it back into shape with an iron spike taken from the bridge, refitted the chain and got going again. After several more days of adversity, and with a mounting puncture count, they reached Whangarei and arranged for the machine to be shipped back to Auckland From his rich and varied experiences in the Far North, Alderton concluded that a steam car should only be used on city streets. “A practical engineer should drive it, and another should accompany it with a machine shop, and it should be owned by a millionaire.”
Steamers, nevertheless, had an illustrious history. They were the pioneering self-propelled vehicles of industrial Europe, and as late as 1906 the world land-speed record was held by a streamlined Stanley steamer, which ocked up an impressive 204 km/h at Daytona.
The Swiss engineer Nicholas Cugnot had built his first experimental steam trucks in the late 1760s, and by the 1820s massive and fanciful steam carriages had appeared on England’s roads as an alternative to horse transport.
Three things worked against them, though: a lack of investment capital, competition from the railways and the opposition of the vast industry which had grown up around the horse. Prohibitive tolls on mechanical vehicles shut down development for a time, then Parliament further turned the screw with the uncompromising Locomotives on Highways Act, which limited speed to 2 mph in towns and 4 mph in open country. For good measure, the punitive Red Flag Act stipulated that an attendant must walk ahead of any machine, carrying a red flag or, at night, a red lantern.
This reactionary legislation stifled automobile evolution in England for 40 years, so that when New Zealanders caught the craze it was primarily to continental Europe and the United States that they turned. One exception was English railway engineer Robert Scott, who worked against the tide, coming to New Zealand and, while manager of Christchurch’s Addington railway workshops, building in 1880 what was claimed to be the first motor car in Australasia. The machine, more accurately a steam buggy, was said to travel at upwards of 50 km/h.
Early steamers often had coke-fired boilers, which called for a chauffeur (French for “stoker”) as well as a driver. One of the particular properties of steam cars was their rapid acceleration, which gave them such an advantage in sprint races and hill climbs that they were barred from many events.
Nevertheless, their bulky boilers and the long time they took to start—up to half an hour from cold—were significant deterrents to ownership, and the fitting of effective electric starters on motor cars finally sealed their fate. Henry Leland, the head of American car-maker Cadillac, became serious about electric starters when a close friend died of gangrene after his jaw was broken when a car starting handle kicked back at him. When Cadillac’s 1912 model appeared with a self-starter, the last major flaw of the internal-combustion engine had been overcome, and steam was consigned to history.
For some manufacturers the future was clear even before Cleave’s Northland odyssey. In a 1903 issue of the New Zealand Sporting & Dramatic Review, an agent for the Locomobile Company of America announced that it was now building gasoline cars, though he valiantly declared that for the rough roads and steep hills of New Zealand its steam cars were “absolutely beyond comparison.”
An advertisement in the same magazine for Auckland engineering works and car importer W. A. Ryan & Co. carried a photograph of two men dramatically hunched forward on a spindly Oldsmobile as it gained the summit of Mount Eden. The advertisement declared that the Oldsmobile company, maker of “absolutely the simplest and most noiseless” motor car in the world, was concentrating exclusively on gasoline cars.
One early Oldsmobile owner was Auckland eye surgeon George de Clive Lowe, who, 25 years after the event, recalled one of the less common difficulties encountered in the driving seat. His Oldsmobile was garaged in a shed at the back of his Symonds Street property, which called for a sharp left turn once through the gates, followed by a smart reverse. On this occasion a clothes prop had been left in his path, and as he swept in from the street, with one hand still on the tiller, de Clive Lowe leaned out to push it away. He had, however, forgotten the washing line, “with the result that the line caught me under the neck and lifted me out of the car and threw me to the ground, while the car went on and came to a stop in the scullery.” He walked into the scullery to find the housemaid huddled in a corner and the cook on the table shouting.
Whichever machine a person chose—whether powered by steam or “explosion”—difficulties persisted. One, which lingers to this day, was that of what motoring purists might call bureaucratic meddling. It was as though, even as the motor car held out the promise of increased mobility and freedom for the masses, forces were at work to reign in that liberty.
A new act in 1902 clarified the powers of local authorities to pass bylaws regulating cars and decreed that vehicles should not travel at “a greater rate of speed than was reasonable.” Some councils determined “reasonable” to mean nothing in excess of a stately four miles an hour.
In a Dunedin Supreme Court case of around 1910, scripture was invoked to argue that a speed greater than the city’s (relatively liberal) 18 mph limit should be sanctioned. The defence lawyer quoted the prophet Nahum: “The chariots shall rage in the streets, they shall justle one against another in the broad ways, they shall seem like torches, they shall run like the lightnings.” To “run like the lightnings” was indisputably to go faster that 18 miles an hour, said counsel, neglecting to add that the prophet had pictured those chariots as an affliction.
More successful was Arthur Cleave’s attempt to get off the charge of exceeding a 20 mph speed limit in a “drawn vehicle.” Cleave won his case after pointing out to the court that the car was propelled, not drawn, thus very probably becoming the first New Zealander to get off a speeding charge on a technicality.
Cleave was also the first Aucklander to register a private motor vehicle, a Darracq, when the Motor Registration Act came into force on June 30, 1906. Cleave was given the plate A1, which he used on a succession of vehicles. It seems that when central government took over registration in 1925, yearly plates—initially green with white lettering—were issued. Only in the mid-1960s were permanent plates issued once more, though this time for the car, not the driver.
Early motorists were at least spared annual licences, which didn’t appear until 1924, and compulsory third-party insurance, which was imposed four years later. Warrants of fitness for private motor cars didn’t become obligatory until 1937.
At a time when automobiles were considered by many to be dangerous to limb and livelihood, recruiting public opinion to the motoring cause became an unwritten duty for owners and agents alike. Agents proclaimed various makes to be comfortable, reliable and vibration-free (all of which stretch belief, given the state of the roads), economical and without smell
One advertiser felt compelled to list seven reasons “why a motor car is better than a horse-drawn vehicle:
- It needs no daily grooming, consequently no man need be kept specially to look after it.
- It cannot shy, kick, or run away.
- It has no will of its own to thwart the wishes of its driver, and thus cause disaster.
- It is absolutely under control whilst a horse is not.
- It cannot fall sick and die.
- It can be stopped with certainty and safety in half the distance.
- No cruelty is inflicted by working long hours or climbing a steep hill with a full load.”
Readers will note that most of the above points have since been disproved by generations of drivers.
Motor cars were eagerly adopted by doctors, who saw in them a practical way of getting about to see patients and a means of declaring social status. De Clive Lowe went further, organising a meeting to establish a club of motor owners for social occasions but also “as a measure of protection against the menace of public opinion.” This was a variant of the Automobile Association in England, which was formed largely to warn motorists of police traps. The meeting, which led to the founding of the Auckland Automobile Association, precursor of the national body, took place on May 26, 1903—a mere eight years after the founding of the world’s first motor club, the Automobile Club de France. Other districts followed Auckland’s lead, including Christchurch, which started a club later the same year, Nelson in 1904, Otago and Wellington in 1905 and Rangitikei in 1907.
The AAA grew quickly, and frequently weighed in on behalf of members. In August 1904 it successfully argued against the Union Steam Ship Company’s “exorbitant” freight charge on imported motor cars, and later petitioned Auckland’s mayor to raise the speed with which cars could round corners—from a walking pace to a “reasonable” speed.
In 1907 it overturned a Waitemata County Council bylaw which charged £1 10s for every motor car passing through the county. The New Zealand Observer, for one, was pleased. If every local body in the country followed suit, said the paper, “[the working man] would not be able to take [his car] out of his own back yard without bumping against the tax collector or summons server.”
The founding of the AAA and the increasing popularity of motor jaunts coincided with the arrival of bigger touring cars to replace the once common two-seat runabouts. The AAA’s first Christmas run, to Ngaruawahia, Okoroire and Rotorua, pioneered a form of camping holiday which was to become enormously popular in New Zealand, the cars laden with separate tents for men and women and a third for dining in.
Repairs continued to be a headache. In the early years there was, perversely, no standardised thread among car-makers, so that when a nut worked loose on the country’s shocking roads, replacing it was seldom straightforward. Car fuel systems also habitually misbehaved. Until the introduction of bowsers in 1926, gasoline was only available in four-gallon tins, called “flimsies,” which were bought from the local grocer or blacksmith and came packed in pairs in a wooden case. For longer trips, motorists often strapped spare tins to their cars or, at a pinch, relied on getting fresh supplies from ironmongers, who kept gasoline for cleaning. Fortunate motorists might also be helped by travelling motion-picture exhibitors, who used motor spirit to power projection equipment. But whatever the source, the universal use of tins as containers often led to rust and other contaminants blocking jets or filters.
Then there was the never-ending battle with punctures, which, until the development of detachable wheels after the First World War, meant a laborious struggle to peel off tyres and repair the damage. The entrepreneurial Percy Skeates patented non-slip wheel covers for muddy roads, which dramatically reduced punctures. Others perfected the technique of stuffing damaged tyres with straw or grass in order to limp home.
As late as 1917 Victor Pagé, author of How to Run an Automobile, numbered among items to be carried in a sensible toolkit for the motoring “season” chisels, soldering iron, files and punches, drift pins, split pins and a pipe wrench. Cautious travellers added spade, axe, wire-strainer, chains and compass.
The booklet 200 Practical Points on Motoring (1920) suggested carrying such useful spares as “valves, springs and cotters for the engine, sparking plugs and washers, complete set of washers for joints on engine, magneto parts, spare fan belt, spare hosing for water tubes, spare carburettor parts, two or more spare tubes for tyres, one spare cover.”And that was just for a day’s outing.
Reliability trials and spectacular proving trips, which, like social runs, were widely reported, did much to advertise progress in car design and overcome lingering doubts among the sceptical. The first reliability trial, a return trip between Auckland and Taupo, was organised by the AAA in March 1906. It was such a success—only one car failed to complete the difficult 670 km trip—that it was made an annual event. Two years later, 43 cars entered the South Island’s first long-distance trial, from Christchurch to Dunedin and back.
In January 1926, a Chrysler, driven by the Australian Norman “Wizard” Smith, set a new record of 12 hours four minutes for the run from Auckland to Wellington via Taranaki. A Chrysler advertisement featuring Smith’s achievement noted that the time could have been slashed further if not for recent heavy dressings of loose shingle over much of the route, which called for reduced speed and “strict observance of the speed limits through every town and village and at every blind corner.” Chrysler was at pains to let it be known that their man “at all times makes public safety his first consideration.”
Four years later, Smith attempted to break the world 10-mile land-speed record at Ninety Mile Beach with his car Anzac, a Cadillac chassis surmounted by a 360 bhp Rolls-Royce engine and capable of a cracking 117 mph in second gear. Despite onlookers helpfully scaring gulls off with shotgun blanks along the surveyed 16-mile course, Smith failed in his attempt, but did set a New Zealand and Australia speed record of 148 mph.
In 1931, a sponsored Model A Ford sealed in top gear was driven from Auckland to Wellington, reaching the capital in under 11 hours. There was a serious side to the stunt. At a time when most cars were fitted with “crash” gearboxes, skill was needed to manage a change-down through the widely spaced ratios with anything like decorum. Any machine that made few demands in that department was an asset.
One of the most audacious proving trips of all was concocted by America’s Buick Motor Company, which conceived the idea of having one of its cars driven around the globe. The six-cylinder “Round the World” Buick arrived in New Zealand on April 28, 1925 having already clocked up 9500 miles, including a 540-mile desert run from Damascus to Baghdad, in which not even the radiator had needed attending to. The car added another 2281 miles to its tally during a fortnight in New Zealand, impressing prospective customers with its catalogue of features, including pressure-feed lubrication, overhead cams, electric starter and brakes on all wheels.
Within months of the Buick’s departure, General Motors announced that it was opening an assembly plant in New Zealand—the first car-maker to do so. By March 1927, just eight months after GM’s Petone factory had opened, the company was celebrating the completion of its 1000th vehicle—a Chevrolet.
Early cars inherited the heavy wooden bodies that were a product of the conservative coach-building industry and designed to meet the needs of the wealthy. Exquisitely proportioned to accommodate top hats and capacious dresses, and sporting heavy brass and chromium-plated fittings, Edwardian landaulets, coupés de ville, limousines, saloons and berlines demanded a prodigious amount of looking after.
Even at the time of Pagé’s manual, owners were expected to take maintenance seriously—something that made sense at a time when a motor vehicle could cost almost half as much as a modest city house. Pagé himself a mixture containing spermaceti, beeswax, asphalt varnish and “black vine twig” to protect seat leather. He also drew attention to the danger posed to paint varnish by the mud of city streets, especially when it was charged with ammonia from “animal traffic.”
There were some notable attempts to make coachwork less prone to decay, including the popular Weymann system, which involved covering a vehicle’s wooden frame with treated fabric or leather instead of the usual rust-prone steel.
Undoubtedly the most extreme solution was to be found on the two-seater coupé owned by Auckland coppersmith Philip Lewis. In a heroic attempt to prove that a car could be made to last indefinitely, and at a time when aluminium alloys were both expensive and weak, Lewis fabricated a body for his Dodge entirely from burnished copper. His 1000 hours of labour resulted in a vehicle that, while requiring intensive polishing to remove a single fingerprint, was reportedly still in perfect order and running smoothly more than half a century later.
Whatever the outward appearance of cars, there could be no doubt, even after just a decade on New Zealand’s roads, that they were here to stay. The trend was quickened by the spread of movies, which acted as an unofficial publicity agent for American car culture in particular, and by the First World War, which gave thousands of New Zealand men and women their first physical experience of mechanised transport. But what broke the price barrier and got the general populace behind the wheel was that motoring phenomenon and “heroine of a million journeys” the Model T Ford. The Model T had the American virtue of being built to negotiate primitive roads of the kind still encountered in New Zealand. English cars, while excelling in steering and braking to cope with winding country lanes, had been spoiled to tenderness by all-weather macadam roads, while European cars were high-geared to leg it over the continent’s network of relatively straight highways.
The old T, on the other hand, took the road—or muddy bush track or paddock—as it found it. Even on the day of its launch in 1908 it was behind the play technologically. The secret of the T’s success was its low price and robust construction. One of the first fruits of modern mass production, it was designed to overcome the terror of conventional clutch, throttle and gear levers. In place of these, the Ford had a hand throttle on the steering column, one pedal to change gear, another for reverse and a third to engage the brake. It had a good power-to-weight ratio, high ground clearance and excellent stamina and nationwide, and Automobile Association membership was climbing towards 12,000.
Bulk petrol was first imported in 1927, with new technologies such as thermal, then catalytic, cracking, which increased the amount of petrol obtained from crude oil, and rotary hydraulic drills, which doubled possible well depths, making fuel more affordable. Socially, the open car was losing favour to the enclosed as pleasure gave way to utility, and uniformity began creeping in. Though an astonishing 368 makes still appeared on the 1932 register, the riotous range of manufacturers and vehicle types was already consolidating through takeovers and attrition. In the 1920s the Calthorpe, Jeffery, Argyle, Siddeley, Angus Sanderson and others disappeared from New Zealand roads. The Depression of the early 1930s spelt the end of the Essex, Willys Knight, Swift, Clyno, Talbot, Dort and Oakland.
Most of the true advances in car design had appeared by the end of the 1930s, including synchromesh transmission, hydraulic brakes, automatic ignition and rubber engine mounts. Even automatic transmission was available.
By 1930 only half the acreage of oats was sown as had been just 10 years earlier, and in cities petrol stations became more common than stables had been during the dominance of the horse. Rural settlements began to lose their shops as the car brought bigger centres within reach, and the whole country began to be integrated into an efficient national economy.
The Main Highways Act of 1922, which effectively abolished toll roads, signalled a recognition that road traffic was becoming national and a determination by government to concentrate on road improvements. But it was 10 years later, in Europe, that conclusive proof came of the motor car’s triumph. That year the Cologne–Bonn autobahn, the first road designed exclusively for the machine, was opened.
New Zealand’s own motorways, the biggest engineering projects in the country’s history, form a fitting epitaph to the pioneering era. Coincidentally, in both Wellington and Auckland the planned motorways ran through old cemeteries holding the remains of founding pioneers, including Governor William Hobson and Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Despite intense protest, all were condemned to go.
As the mayor of Wellington said, standing beside Wakefield’s grave: “These men of great stature would not want to stand in the way of progress.”Or, no doubt, lie under its wheels.