Service cars were large cars used for passenger transport. They appeared in New Zealand from about 1905, when there were very few privately owned cars.
Some horse coach companies moved into service cars. Rodolph Wigley, who had taken passengers to Aoraki/Mt Cook from Timaru by coach from 1886, made service-car trips to the mountain from 1906, collecting passengers from the Fairlie railhead – and forming the Mount Cook Motor Company.
John Rutherford drove the first horse-drawn coach to Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1886, and the first service car 20 years later. The coach had taken two days; the service car took just one. Rutherford drove one of Mount Cook Motor Company’s new De Dion cars, and company founder Rodolph Wigley drove the other. Between them they ran over two dogs and blew all the tyres – tyres cost the company more than wages in the first years of operation.
Newman Brothers, which had run horse coaches since 1879, started running service cars in 1911. They would later move into buses. The company was based in Nelson, where there was no railway.
Service car competition
Many small service-car businesses started up in the 1920s. By 1930 there were 597 service cars in New Zealand. No licence was needed to go into business, and car sales firms made it easy by extending credit to prospective business owners. The roads were improving, and pneumatic tyres made car rides more comfortable.
In the fierce service-car competition of the 1920s and 1930s, some freelancers made a practice of arriving slightly earlier than a scheduled service and scooping up the passengers. The RM Company in the central North Island put touts on the Auckland–Rotorua train to push their services to passengers. And some drivers found treacle or sugar had been put in their petrol tanks, presumably by competitors.
Fierce competition meant fares fell, and operators often went out of business. By 1927 a dozen companies had come and gone on the Napier–Gisborne route, and in 1930 20 operators were fighting for customers between Auckland and Hamilton. Service-car numbers peaked in 1934 at 815.
Types of car
The early cars were the open ‘touring car’ style, often with a canvas hood that folded down. Cadillacs were by far the most popular make, and from about 1930, the Cadillac 353 V8 was the most common model. These were bought, often second hand, in the United States, and were ‘stretched’ and ‘rebodied’ in New Zealand, many by the Wellington firm Crawley Ridley. The chassis was lengthened, and a longer, wider body built in order to carry more passengers.
Many of these remained in operation until after the Second World War.