Story: Motorcycles

Page 3. Customisation and production

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Building and customising

New Zealanders have a history of building or customising motorcycles. A Timaru man, Cecil Wood (who also helped early aviator Richard Pearse build his aeroplane), was probably the first person to design and build an engine-powered bicycle in New Zealand, in 1895. Pearse himself also built a motorcycle, somewhere between 1905 and 1910.

In the early 1900s the Stokell brothers of Canterbury, keen fishermen, bought and repaired motorcycles so they could get to rivers. But they found the bikes unreliable and decided to build their own.

Invercargill man Burt Munro customised his 1920 Indian bike and set world speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in the 1960s. He was elevated to fame when Anthony Hopkins played him in the 2005 film The world’s fastest Indian, directed by New Zealander Roger Donaldson.

No to B. O.

Motorcycle enthusiast Stewart Oliver owned 63 bikes in his youth. When he had children he thought of naming a daughter Bonnie after the Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, but he thought that Bonnie might grow up to resent the initials B. O.

New Zealand bikes

Many other New Zealanders have tinkered in sheds building their own scooters or bikes as they could not afford to buy them. During the Second World War, they made their own bike parts when these could not be imported.

Some even began manufacturing. From 1959 to 1963, around 100 Stewart motor scooters were designed and produced by Auckland man Jack Stewart. The Mountain Goat was an early small farm bike manufactured in Waitara, Taranaki, by Motor Holdings Ltd. – but it never really got past a limited production run. There was even a New Zealand-designed bike called ‘Maori’, produced in England. Its designers, A. R. Bannister and George Johns of Gisborne, patented its variable speed gear in 1914. The bike was belt-driven, a design that soon lost out to chain-driven bikes. In 1915 a ship carrying about 20 ‘Maori’ bikes to New Zealand was lost at sea.

In the 1980s and 1990s Christchurch man John Britten designed and built his Superbike the Britten V1000 from scratch. It won national events and competed successfully in international racing events. With its lurid pink and blue colours and intestinal-looking exhaust system, it has been described by one rider as ‘a sculpture capable of 300 km/h’.1


Motorcyclists have long been associated with bikie gangs and crime. But the gangs are a small minority. New Zealand has many motorcycle clubs and other groups that band together as they love motorcycles and riding.

Different brands or types of motorcycles also have surges of popularity – for example in the 1960s Italian Vespa scooters were popular with some urban youth and were seen as the embodiment of cool.

In the 1950s motorcycles were associated with ‘bodgies’ and ‘milk-bar cowboys’ – young men who parked their bikes outside milk bars. Magistrates fined ‘milk-bar cowboys’ and ‘pie-cart Casanovas’ £5 to £20 ($200 to $900 in 2008 terms) for mile-a-minute racing on suburban streets. Girls riding pillion on a motorbike driven by a male were termed ‘pillion pets’, and were seen as having loose morals. It was unusual for women to ride bikes themselves.

Leather-clad rebels who dressed like motorcyclists were glorified in movies such as The wild one (1953), featuring Marlon Brando, and Rebel without a cause (1955), starring James Dean (even though he does not ride a motorcycle). In New Zealand young motorcyclists were known as ‘milk-bar cowboys’ in the 1950s, ‘mods and rockers’ in the 1960s and ‘bikies’ in the 1970s – but these were only ever a minority of motorcycle owners. Today the black-clad rider of a Harley-Davidson may well be a middle-aged urban professional.

  1. Quoted in Felicity Price, ‘The making of John Britten.’ New Zealand Geographic 75 (September/October 2005), p. 106 Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Motorcycles - Customisation and production', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 11 Mar 2010