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by Carl Walrond

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.

History of motorcycles

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.

Trials, rallies and racing

Reliability trials

From the early 1900s bike owners grouped together and held trials to test the reliability of their model of motorcycle. These trials were popular with enthusiasts and dealers as they could use results to advertise their models – if they performed well.

Close call

A high tide sometimes left only a narrow strip of smooth sand for beach racers to ride on. Racer Geoff Hockley recalls occasions ‘when the rideable strip of sand between the soft sand of the upper beach and the rough, wet portion on the sea side was barely ten feet wide, and the “whoosh” as two riders passed each other travelling in opposite directions at a combined speed of something approaching 200 m.p.h. [320 kilometres an hour] was somewhat disconcerting.’1

Beach racing

Racing on beaches was one of the earliest forms of motorcycle competition. Beaches were wide open spaces where riders could test their machines’ speed without worrying about horses on the roads. From around 1905 a number of beaches – including New Brighton in Canterbury, Ōhope in the Bay of Plenty and Ōreti in Southland – were used for organised races. In the 2000s, only certain beaches can be used by vehicles, and these are often designated as legal roads, so they still have speed limits.

Grass track and speedway racing

Early motorcycle owners wanted to test how fast their bikes could go, and it was not long before they were racing each other on grass tracks – mostly at horse-racing venues such as Trentham Racecourse in Wellington. Racing events were usually over a mile (1.6 kilometres). The first grass race-track fatality was in 1914 at Palmerston North’s Awapuni Racecourse.

In the 1920s the horse-racing fraternity began to look down on the numbers of people attracted to these events, and banned motorcycle racing on their courses. Motorcycle fans then developed dirt-track racing, also known as speedway. New Zealand’s first speedway course was at Kilbirnie Stadium in Wellington. It opened in 1929 with 13,000 spectators attending the opening night, and the track lighted for night racing.

While most riders were male, the visit of Irish speedway rider Fay Taylour in 1929 showed that women could foot it with the men. New Zealanders such as Ivan Mauger and Brian Briggs (‘Briggo’) established themselves as professional riders in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Briggs won four world speedway titles and Mauger six.

Road racing and motocross

New Zealand’s first grand prix (organised road race) was held at Cust in rural Canterbury, at Easter 1936. Around 6,000 people showed up to watch the race, which was held on gravel roads. There were 24 starters, and the winner was W. Nelson, with a time of 2 hours 41 minutes and 12.6 seconds. The New Zealand Grand Prix became an annual event at Cust. It was moved to Ruapuna race track in Christchurch in 1963.

Motorcycles were also raced on gravel roads and isolated tar-sealed roads. Tourist trophy racing took place on roads closed to other traffic. It began on Waiheke Island in 1931, although New Zealanders had been competing at the Isle of Man event (the world’s most famous tourist trophy race) since 1910.

Motocross, which involves racing trail bikes on an off-road circuit with many mounds and hollows, often in muddy conditions, became increasingly popular from the late 1960s.


The Brass Monkey Rally is New Zealand’s best-known rally and has become a regular event on the keen motorcyclist’s calendar. It is held at Ōturehua in Central Otago over Queen’s Birthday Weekend. The rally’s name alludes to the low winter temperatures, often below freezing – ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’, as the saying goes. The first rally in 1980 attracted 309 riders – in 2007 around 3,500 took part. A huge bonfire is lit to help keep riders warm, and there are prizes for the best and worst bikes, and for the longest distance travelled to the event.

  1. Quoted in M. A. Bull, Vintage motor cycling: a record of motor cycling in New Zealand from 1899 to 1931. Masterton: Hedley’s Bookshop, 1970, p. 84 Back

Customisation and production

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

Bikes and the law


Motorcycles have been subject to rules ever since they were introduced. Initially people feared that they would startle horses. Legislation was passed in 1902 against travelling at ‘a greater rate of speed than is reasonable’. The Motor Vehicle Act 1905 required owners to register and license motor vehicles, including motorcycles.

Most early offences were minor. Riders were fined for riding on the footpath to avoid the muddy wheel ruts of roads. Speeding also attracted a fine. In some towns early speed signs were erected – 10 miles (16 kilometres) per hour round corners and 6 miles (9.6 kilometres) per hour across intersections. From 1955 motorcyclists were required to wear helmets when exceeding 50 kilometres an hour. Helmets for motorcyclists and pillion riders became compulsory regardless of speed in 1973.

Accident risk

New Zealand research has shown that a motorcyclist is 14 times more likely to be involved in a crash leading to death or injury than a car driver. Motorcyclists in accidents are protected only by their clothes and helmets. Riders often wear heavy black leather jackets and trousers – for protection against the wind and in case they come off the bike.

In 2007 there were 65,658 registered motorcycles and mopeds, just 2.7% of the vehicle fleet – yet motorcyclists made up nearly 10% of fatalities. From 2001 to 2007 the number of motorcycle registrations rose 28%, but the number of deaths rose by 80%. In 2008 the government was investigating new regulations, including compulsory use of headlights during the day, and not allowing those on learner and restricted motorcycle licences to ride powerful bikes.

Licensing and rules

Motorcycle licence applicants must be at least 15 years old. All new licence applicants go through a three-stage graduated licence system.

Riders of mopeds (small low-powered bikes) do not need a motorcycle licence, but must wear approved motorcycle helmets, obey other rules, and hold a New Zealand vehicle driver licence of any class. Mopeds have a power output of up to 2 kilowatts and are capable of a maximum speed of 50 kilometres an hour. If these are exceeded then the bike is defined as a motorcycle and a motorcycle licence is needed.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Motorcycles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 11 March 2010