Story: Motorcycles

From Burt Munro and the ‘world’s fastest Indian’ to John Britten and his Superbike, New Zealanders have a history of building and customising motorcycles. Although motorcycle riders have sometimes been associated with gangs and youthful rebellion, today’s leather-clad Harley-Davidson rider may well be a middle-aged urban professional.

Story by Carl Walrond
Main image: Indian racing motorcycle

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Early motorcycles

Motorcycles were invented in the late 1800s, when people started putting engines on bicycles. Motorised tricycles were first brought into New Zealand in 1899, and people began to build their own motorised bicycles.

Useful transport

Sidecars were added to bikes, and could carry a passenger or tools. Motorcycles were cheaper to buy and run than cars, so they were popular with travellers and tradespeople, including butchers, bakers and plumbers. Mary Watson of Marlborough used her sidecar to carry a washing machine to farmhouses to do their laundry.

Origins

At first, most imported motorcycles were from the UK, with some from the US. From the 1960s, Japanese brands like Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki became more popular.

Racing

Early on, motorcycles were raced on beaches, and on grass tracks at horse racecourses. From the 1920s, dirt-track racing (speedway) began. Motorcycles are also raced on roads and off-road tracks.

Today, the Brass Monkey Rally, held in Central Otago in winter, is New Zealand’s best-known rally.

Building bikes

Many New Zealanders have built or customised motorcycles. They include:

  • Cecil Wood, who designed and built an engine-powered bike in 1895
  • Richard Pearse, who also built one of the world’s first aeroplanes, and was the first New Zealander to fly
  • Burt Munro, who set world speed records in the US on his customised bike, and whose story was told in the movie The world’s fastest Indian
  • John Britten, who designed and built a Superbike, the Britten V1000.

Motorbike culture

In the 1950s, young men who parked their bikes outside milk bars were known as ‘milk-bar cowboys’. Some got in trouble for racing on city streets. It was unusual for women to ride motorcycles, but some rode pillion (sitting behind a male rider). Motorcycles became associated with rebellion and gangs.

Today, many people belong to clubs and enjoy riding their motorcycles in groups.

Laws

At first, people worried that motorcycles would scare horses. Riders were fined for speeding or riding on the footpath. Later, riders and passengers had to wear helmets.

Safety

Riding a motorcycle is much more dangerous than driving a car. In an accident, a rider is protected only by their clothes and helmet – so they often wear heavy leather clothing. In 2007, less than 3% of New Zealand’s vehicles were motorcycles, but 10% of people killed on roads were bike riders.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Motorcycles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/motorcycles (accessed 11 December 2018)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 11 Mar 2010