Skip to main content

Story: Coaches and long-distance buses

Travel in early horse-drawn coaches was slow, uncomfortable and dangerous, with vehicles sometimes swept away as they attempted to cross rivers. But Cobb & Co’s bright red coaches – which started out carrying hopeful prospectors to goldfields – became a New Zealand icon.

Story by Jane Tolerton
Main image: Cadillac service car, 1930s

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Early days

Horse-drawn passenger coach services began in the 1850s. But there were few roads, and the mountains, bush and rivers made it hard to travel on land. Sailing was easier.

Coach travel was uncomfortable – people got sore and bruised. Most rivers had no bridges, so passengers often had to get out and cross in boats. Sometimes coaches were swept away in rivers, and people drowned.

Coach drivers, known as ‘whips’, were tough men who worked long hours, often in dangerous situations. Accommodation houses on coach routes allowed passengers and horses to rest.

When railways were built, trains were cheaper and more comfortable than coaches.

Cobb & Co

From the 1860s, Cobb & Co began running regular coach services to the South Island’s goldfields. Their bright red coaches were light, strong and fast. Six to nine people could sit inside, with five on the outside seats.

Service cars

From about 1905, companies ran service cars – large cars built to carry passengers. They were brought from the United States, and rebuilt in New Zealand to fit more people. Many companies went into business and competed with each other.

Long-distance buses

From the 1920s, buses began making long trips. The roads were improving, and numbers of buses increased. From 1931 the government had to approve a company’s buses, timetables and fares. The government had its own coach service, which some private companies thought was unfair.

Most bus drivers were men, but some women began driving buses – especially during the Second World War, when many men were overseas.

Competition

From the 1950s, many more people owned their own cars. Flying became less expensive, and cheaper second-hand cars arrived from Japan from the 1980s. Fewer people needed to use buses, and services were cut. From 1983, fares no longer had to be approved by the government.

How to cite this page:

Jane Tolerton, 'Coaches and long-distance buses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/coaches-and-long-distance-buses (accessed 27 June 2017)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 11 Mar 2010