Story: Cars and the motor industry

Page 1. A motorised society

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Car lovers

New Zealanders love their cars. In 2005, with 607 cars for every 1,000 people, the country ranked third in the world for car ownership after Luxembourg (647) and Iceland (632). Of people aged over 18, 82% of New Zealanders owned cars, compared to 89% in the US, 80% in Britain and 70% in Australia.

Cars and the motor industry have shaped New Zealand for more than 100 years. Although New Zealanders’ dependence on cars has been criticised, many see their car as an extension of house and home.

Historically, the car was the ideal transport solution for New Zealand’s small rural population, dispersed over a relatively large land area with rugged terrain. Low-density housing in towns and cities led to the car also being the favoured transport choice in urban areas. Only one city – Wellington – has an extensive suburban rail network and, while all major cities have suburban bus services, many people prefer the freedom that cars allow.

New Zealand’s first cars

The McLean Motor Car Act 1898 legalised the operation of motor vehicles, providing they were lit after dark and did not go faster than 12 miles (20 kilometres) per hour. That year William McLean of Wellington had imported two Benz cars, New Zealand’s first motor vehicles. It was another two years before Aucklanders saw their first car.

Extinct cars 

A 1912 car magazine listed a number of available makes, mostly names that have long since disappeared: the De Dion Bouton, the silent Sunbeam, a 10-horsepower Austin, the Siddeley-Deasy, the noiseless Napier, and the American Mitchell, Maxwell and Buick. Only Buick survived in the 2000s, and only in very small numbers in New Zealand. 

The first cars were expensive. The French Darracq, a good touring car (larger, open-top cars, which usually had both front and back seating), cost £275–£600 in 1912 ($48,000–$105,000 in 2020 terms), depending on horsepower. The Mitchell, advertised as ‘the aristocrat of American cars built on English lines’, was £495 ($86,000).

In the early 1900s cars cost more than senior public servants earned in a year, so the initial market was limited to professionals, especially doctors, and wealthy sheep farmers. The first car in central Canterbury was owned by the runholder at Rockwood station, who had to send to Sydney for petrol.

Growth in car ownership

From 1925 owners had to register their motor vehicles. By 1929 there were more than 150,000 on the road. New Zealand had one car for every 10 people, second only to the US (1:5) and ahead of Australia (1:15) and Britain (1:47). Cars were becoming more affordable, and their numbers reflected the country’s prosperity in the 1920s.

Annual registrations dropped during the 1930s depression, but by 1939 they were well ahead of the previous decade. However, many people still could not afford a car.

The arrival of the age of mass motoring was symbolised by the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959. New car registrations reached 102,000 in 1973, the year of the first oil shock, which brought massive increases in petrol prices. This number was not exceeded until 1989.

By the early 2000s vehicle registrations had increased significantly, with more than 200,000 cars, both new and second-hand imports, appearing on the road for the first time each year. In 2020, 1.7% of all vehicles were electric, three times the proportion just two years earlier.

How to cite this page:

Eric Pawson, 'Cars and the motor industry - A motorised society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Eric Pawson, published 11 Mar 2010, updated 1 Dec 2014