The challenge of early roads
History and geography have been major factors in New Zealanders’ wide-ranging involvement in motor sport. The connection between sport and everyday transport was quickly established after horses were brought to New Zealand for military use in 1840. Horse-racing events became popular throughout the country in the 1840s, setting a pattern for motor sport that followed soon after the first car imports.
Roads often preceded rail in the early years of settlement of the young, sparsely populated colony. The first roads were barely an improvement on existing foot, horse and cattle tracks, but they became increasingly important for transport and access. In the early 20th century most roads were still unmetalled and often turned to mud when it rained. Vehicles made in the United States were designed to cope with similar conditions and were therefore especially popular among the first New Zealand car owners.
Celebrated early car races included return runs between Invercargill and Dunedin by Thomas Stone and R. M. Murie. Their 1908 challenge for a £50 bet saw Stone’s De Dion finish in 11 hours, 32 minutes. Murie’s Russell broke a spring and arrived back in Invercargill by rail. The following year Murie used an 18-horsepower Reo for the rematch while Stone drove a 10–12-horsepower Darracq. Neither finished – Stone’s car went over a bank and Murie’s ran into a load of hay.
First car races in New Zealand
William McLean of Wellington imported the first cars in 1898. His two Paris-made Benzes were followed by other early famous-name imports such as Darracq and De Dion Bouton from France, Argyll from Scotland, Star Stuart from England, and the American Eagle, Oldsmobile Stanley, Pope Toledo and steam-powered Locomobile from the United States. By the early 1900s these carmakers were aiming to boost sales by claiming success for their models in major events and land-speed record runs overseas. New Zealand car owners were therefore well aware of the impact of motor sport in the US, Britain and continental Europe.
Christchurch claims to have staged the first motor sport races in New Zealand. Four vehicles competed during a ‘gaslight gala’ at Hagley Park in 1901. It was won by R. H. Every of Temuka on a home-made motorcycle.
First car clubs
The Automobile Association (AA) established its first New Zealand clubs in Auckland and Canterbury in 1903. By 1905 clubs had also been formed in Nelson, Otago and Wellington, each marking the occasion with a mass rally of members. In December 1905 Canterbury AA organised the first full-scale car race. Its Great Automobile Gymkhana (a race that includes skill tests, such as obstacles) at Addington trotting grounds saw 30 cars take part, watched by 800 people.
First car trials
Competitive reliability trials followed early efforts to achieve long-distance runs between towns and cities. Auckland AA organised the first major reliability trial in 1905. This four-day event to Taupō and back was won by a Darracq, followed by a Rover and a Cadillac. Auckland AA also ran a trial from Auckland to Wellington in 1906, again won by a Darracq. Canterbury AA followed the sporting example in 1908 with a four-day event. Of the 37 starters, only 27 finished the 880-kilometre course. The run included a hill climb at Barry’s Bay, won by a 20-horsepower Vauxhall. In later years this car gained fame in speed tests and trials, reaching a speed of more than 100 kilometres per hour on New Brighton beach in 1912.