Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Related Images

The Motor Age

As was the case in other countries, the internal-combustion engine profoundly affected New Zealand. It is not known exactly when the first motor vehicle appeared in New Zealand, but several early attempts were made to construct them. It is said that a three-wheeled machine was built in Timaru in 1896, using a fuel mixture made up by a local chemist. In 1898 McLean, of Wellington, imported two Benz cars, and the McLean Motor Car Act of the same year recognised the fact that the new vehicle had arrived. There were some limitations on the use of the vehicle and a few local bodies tried to exclude it from certain roads altogether on the grounds that horses and other farm stock would be frightened.

Early records of motor-vehicle registrations, which were made by local bodies, are incomplete, but estimates from fragmentary data would seem to show that there were at least 500 motor vehicles, mostly cars, on the roads in 1905. By 1910 the total had grown to probably 3,500; by 1915 the rate of growth had accelerated to an estimated 17,000. By the end of 1920 there were about 50,000 motor vehicles on the local body registers. The Motor Vehicle Registration Act of 1924 provided for a centralised system of motor registrations under the Post Office and, at the first national census of June 1925, there were 106,000 motor vehicles registered, including 71,000 private or business cars, 22,000 motor cycles, 1,030 motor buses, and more than 11,000 (mainly small) trucks.

New Zealand has today probably more private cars per capita than any other country except the United States. Practically all car components are imported, though most cars are assembled locally. Since the war, shortage of overseas exchange has reduced car imports to the extent that there is a large demand for new cars, which, if satisfied, would bring about a marked rise in the index quoted. One effect has been to increase the number of old cars in the private car fleet, about two-thirds of which are over 20 years old, and their lack of efficiency and high cost of running constitute an indirect but very real economic loss to the country.

The following table shows the numbers of cars at 10-year intervals from 31 December 1925 to 1955, also for 1962 to 1964.

Year Private and Business Cars* (000) Population (000) Cars per 1,000 Population
1925 82 1,401 58
1935 143 1,570 91
1945 198 1,728 115
1955 384 2,165 177
1962 564 2,520 224
1963 617 2,575 240
1964 674 2,627 257

*Excludes Government-owned cars, but includes these in the 1964 figures.

The private motorcar is no longer the luxury it was in the 1920s. It is a necessity now in many New Zealanders' opinion, if only of slightly less priority than family housing. One tends to regard the private car as merely an instrument of pleasure, like a television set. The increased mobility it has brought has widened our culture and economic life and has largely helped to foster national, as distinct from local, thinking. In the days of horses few New Zealand farmers were able to make more than a weekly trip to town and many considered themselves fortunate if they were able to travel to town once in six months. Twenty miles was then considered to be a long way to travel in one day. The car has, however, made farm life more tolerable and the farmer is able more easily to manage his affairs. It has, in the same way, become an essential part of modern business, especially of salesmanship. It is handy for the family and allows the wage earner to live far from his job and at the same time avoid the “tyranny of the time-table”.