Story: Cars and the motor industry

Page 7. Cars and society

All images & media in this story

Since the 1950s New Zealand life has been increasingly influenced by the car, and suburban development and family life have been shaped by it. Planning for motorways had already begun in the 1940s.

In the early 2000s, 80% of households had at least one car, and 25% had two or more. In 2006 there was one car for every 1.5 people in Auckland, and 17% of Auckland households had three cars or more. Most people were dependent on cars for travelling to work, school, socialising, shopping and holidays, among other things.

Country and town

In the early 1900s country areas had a higher ratio of cars to people, although horses were still a common form of transport. Cars opened new horizons to rural people – they could travel more frequently to larger towns for a better range of shops and entertainment. Consequently, during the 1920s and 1930s many smaller country towns went into decline and services closed.

People living in towns that had trams and trains had less need of cars. Even so, there were several times more motorised vehicles than horse-drawn vehicles in a traffic census taken in Christchurch in 1922. By the 1950s the rise in car use was the cause of the decline of public transport, as tram systems were abandoned and bus passenger numbers fell.

Cars and the family

In the 1950s and 1960s new suburban developments were built with spacious new homes, each with its own driveway and garage. As these new suburbs were further from town centres, those who moved there relied on cars. Cars enabled families to do more things together outside the home, like going for picnics and camping in the country.

As long as a household had only one car, the man would almost always drive, and women and children were driven. From the 1960s onwards women and older children often acquired their own cars. As more women went to work outside the home and got driving licences, there was a demand for a second family car.

Parents became concerned about street safety, partly due to greater volumes of traffic. Younger children lost much of their earlier weekday independence as walkers and cyclists.

Young people and cars

By the 1990s many children, especially those at primary school, were driven to school. This resulted in traffic congestion around school gates at drop-off and collection times. Parents also drove children to sporting and recreational activities. Children grew up relying on cars. From age 15 young people could begin the process of getting their own driving licence, and their own car.

While cars reinforced family life, they also symbolised escape from it, as depicted in Kiwi road movies such as Runaway (1964) and Goodbye pork pie (1980). These appealed to the audience’s disdain for authority and used the journey to explore themes such as being at odds with society.

Home is a place controlled by parents, but a car can be a personal space that has long lent itself to youthful self-definition – for showing off, listening to music, smoking and sex. The behaviour of young people in cars has long been a source of concern to adults. In 1906 a young Christchurch man died after being thrown from a vehicle driven by a drunk youth. The ‘petrol heads’ and ‘hoons’ of the 1970s and the ‘boy racers’ in their modified high-powered Japanese saloons of the 2000s are just the latest versions of a bad mix of alcohol, youth and cars.

How to cite this page:

Eric Pawson, 'Cars and the motor industry - Cars and society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/cars-and-the-motor-industry/page-7 (accessed 23 September 2019)

Story by Eric Pawson, published 11 Mar 2010, updated 15 Dec 2014