Story: Motorcycles

Page 1. History of motorcycles

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Early imports

Motorcycles were invented when people began putting engines on bicycles in the late 1800s. The first motorised tricycle was brought to New Zealand in 1899, and by the early 1900s different motorcycle models were being brought in, mainly from England. One-off home-built motorised bicycles also began to appear around the country.

In the first decade of the 1900s, hundreds of motorcycles were imported each year. By 1915 yearly imports totalled over 2,000.

Early designs

Early models were essentially motor-assisted bicycles. Some were pedal-started, and the motor helped turn the wheels, which could still also be pedalled. On many early models the rear wheel was driven by a belt running from the engine rather than a chain drive – but the belt could slip in muddy conditions. Gears were changed using hand levers, riders did not wear helmets, and gas lamps were used for riding at night.

Have washing machine, will travel


In 1939 Marlborough woman Mary Watson, known as the ‘Happy Day Washerwoman’, bought an Indian motorcycle with a sidecar especially designed to carry her electric washing machine. She would travel to isolated farms, plugging her machine into the farmhouse mains to save wives the back-breaking task of hand-washing clothes. Watson often did more than 100 kilometres a day with her washer, vacuum cleaner and iron.



From the early 1900s motorcycles were mainly used by travellers and commuters. The introduction of sidecars, which could carry a passenger or other items, helped increase their popularity from around 1913. Bikes with sidecars were employed by many tradespeople. The initial capital outlay was much less than for a car, and running costs were lower. Motorcycles made good business sense for butchers, bakers, plumbers, postmen, farmers, police and firefighters.

Growth in use

The popularity of motorcycles has risen and fallen depending on economic conditions. They were very popular by the 1920s, when few people could afford a car, but could manage a bike and its much cheaper running costs.

Motorcycle registrations rose to 37,404 in 1930, but fell during the 1930s economic depression (18,362 in 1935) and Second World War (9,288 in 1943). After the war motorcycle numbers rose steadily. Growth was strong during the oil shocks of the 1970s, and numbers peaked at over 130,000 bikes in 1982. Registrations fell in the 1990s, probably because cars were relatively more affordable and petrol prices had dropped. Motorcycle numbers fell to 46,000 in 1996, but had recovered to 74,000 in 2007. With high petrol prices in 2008 continued growth was likely.

Origins of bikes

At first most imported motorcycles came from the United Kingdom, with the USA a distant second. From the 1950s the Japanese motorcycle industry, led by Soichiro Honda, grew rapidly. This spelled trouble for the British motorcycle industry. By the 1960s it was struggling to compete with mass-produced reliable bikes from Japan. The names Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha soon took over from Triumph, BSA, Norton and Ariel.

Many motorcycle owners develop a feverish commitment to their favourite manufacturer – their brand loyalty is very strong.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Motorcycles - History of motorcycles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 11 Mar 2010