Story: Cars and the motor industry

Traffic queuing on the  Northern Gateway toll road

New Zealanders love cars – they have the third highest car ownership rate in the world. Cars have shaped the country’s towns and cities, but – as traffic congestion and pollution increase – New Zealanders’ dependence on cars is becoming a problem.

Story by Eric Pawson
Main image: Traffic queuing on the Northern Gateway toll road

Story summary

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New Zealanders love their cars. In 2005 there were about six cars for every 10 people, giving it the third highest rate of car ownership in the world, after Luxembourg and Iceland.

First cars

The first two cars in New Zealand were imported by William McLean of Wellington in 1898. At first cars were very expensive and only wealthy people could buy them. As they became more affordable and more people drove, people were able to travel more easily than before.

Favourite cars

In the 1920s cars from North America were the most popular – Fords from Canada and cars like Chevrolets from the United States.

From the 1930s British cars were the most popular, partly due to having lower tariffs (import taxes) than cars from other countries.

Since the 1980s Japanese cars have been the most popular, especially once it became common to import used cars from Japan.

Car assembly industry

In the early 1900s some New Zealand companies switched from building coaches to assembling cars made from imported car parts. In 1922 the tallest building in Wellington was the new nine-storey Colonial Motor Company factory, which assembled Ford cars. Other car-assembly factories were built around New Zealand until the 1970s.

However, in the 1980s the government lowered the tariffs on imported cars, which made it cheaper to import them already assembled. Assembly plants started to close, and so did some local companies that made parts for New Zealand-assembled cars, such as manufacturers of car radios or windscreen glass.

Motor services

Other industries that relate to cars include:

  • car dealers
  • service stations
  • mechanics
  • car hire
  • taxis.

Driver licensing

There are three phases to getting a driver licence in New Zealand – the learner, restricted and full licence stages. Each step has fewer restrictions and more responsibility. A driver has to pass both theory and practical tests to become a fully licensed driver.

Vehicle requirements

Cars need to be registered, licensed and have a current warrant of fitness (WOF). They must also have seatbelts.


Young people are particularly likely to have car crashes, especially young men. Many crashes happen because of driver inexperience and driving too fast around corners.

Driving after drinking alcohol is another major cause of car crashes, and so there are limits to the amount of alcohol people can drink before driving.

Speed limits

At first cars weren’t allowed to drive faster than 20 kilometres per hour. Later it was raised to around 80 kilometres per hour on the open road. Since 1986 the open-road speed limit has been 100 kilometres per hour.

Cars and society

Cars made people less reliant on public transport, and also meant they could live in areas where there wasn’t any public transport. People often feel that cars give them more freedom, but they can become dependent on cars. With so many people driving, traffic jams and congestion have become common. In the early 2000s about 16% of greenhouse gas emissions were from road transport.

How to cite this page:

Eric Pawson, 'Cars and the motor industry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Eric Pawson, published 11 March 2010, updated 1 December 2014