New Zealanders love their cars. In 2005, with 607 cars for every 1,000 people, the country ranked third in the world for car ownership after Luxembourg (647) and Iceland (632). Of people aged over 18, 82% of New Zealanders owned cars, compared to 89% in the US, 80% in Britain and 70% in Australia.
Cars and the motor industry have shaped New Zealand for more than 100 years. Although New Zealanders’ dependence on cars has been criticised, many see their car as an extension of house and home.
Historically, the car was the ideal transport solution for New Zealand’s small rural population, dispersed over a relatively large land area with rugged terrain. Low-density housing in towns and cities led to the car also being the favoured transport choice in urban areas. Only one city – Wellington – has an extensive suburban rail network and, while all major cities have suburban bus services, many people prefer the freedom that cars allow.
The McLean Motor Car Act 1898 legalised the operation of motor vehicles, providing they were lit after dark and did not go faster than 12 miles (20 kilometres) per hour. That year William McLean of Wellington had imported two Benz cars, New Zealand’s first motor vehicles. It was another two years before Aucklanders saw their first car.
A 1912 car magazine listed a number of available makes, mostly names that have long since disappeared: the De Dion Bouton, the silent Sunbeam, a 10-horsepower Austin, the Siddeley-Deasy, the noiseless Napier, and the American Mitchell, Maxwell and Buick. Only Buick survived in the 2000s, and only in very small numbers in New Zealand.
The first cars were expensive. The French Darracq, a good touring car (larger, open-top cars, which usually had both front and back seating), cost £275–£600 in 1912 ($48,000–$105,000 in 2020 terms), depending on horsepower. The Mitchell, advertised as ‘the aristocrat of American cars built on English lines’, was £495 ($86,000).
In the early 1900s cars cost more than senior public servants earned in a year, so the initial market was limited to professionals, especially doctors, and wealthy sheep farmers. The first car in central Canterbury was owned by the runholder at Rockwood station, who had to send to Sydney for petrol.
From 1925 owners had to register their motor vehicles. By 1929 there were more than 150,000 on the road. New Zealand had one car for every 10 people, second only to the US (1:5) and ahead of Australia (1:15) and Britain (1:47). Cars were becoming more affordable, and their numbers reflected the country’s prosperity in the 1920s.
Annual registrations dropped during the 1930s depression, but by 1939 they were well ahead of the previous decade. However, many people still could not afford a car.
The arrival of the age of mass motoring was symbolised by the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959. New car registrations reached 102,000 in 1973, the year of the first oil shock, which brought massive increases in petrol prices. This number was not exceeded until 1989.
By the early 2000s vehicle registrations had increased significantly, with more than 200,000 cars, both new and second-hand imports, appearing on the road for the first time each year. In 2020, 1.7% of all vehicles were electric, three times the proportion just two years earlier.
During the 1920s, brands from North America were the most popular vehicles – from 1925 to 1929, they provided 83% of new cars. Fords came from Canada and brands like Chevrolet from the US. Ford’s popularity was based on the Model T, which was sold until 1927.
There are few high-performance sports cars in the New Zealand. In 2007, 42 Aston Martins, 32 Ferraris, 21 Maseratis and 7 Lamborghinis were registered for the first time.
From the 1920s preferential duties and then import licensing favoured British cars. Initially, the most popular was the Austin 7. Much smaller than the Model T, it was the first mass-produced car to have what became the conventional control layout of pedals, gearstick and handbrake. It sold from 1922 to 1939. In the late 1960s British cars still comprised more than half of all new cars, with Australian-sourced brands by then accounting for another third.
In the 1980s Japanese models rapidly gained popularity, and in the 1990s there was growing importation of second-hand Japanese cars. Access to well-priced late-model cars increased the country’s already high level of car ownership.
New Zealanders generally prefer large cars suited to long-distance travel and recreation. In the 2000s this preference was reflected in the large numbers of big-engine four-wheel-drive models, known as SUVs (sports utility vehicles), 4WDs (four-wheel drives) or, jokingly, as Merivale or Remuera tractors – because most see no more challenging terrain than the school run.
Between 2005 and 2007 the five most popular new cars in New Zealand were the Holden Commodore, Toyota Corolla, Ford Falcon, Mazda 6 and Toyota Camry. Both Holdens and Fords originate in Australia, yet only 7.5% of new car sales were Australian models – 70% were Japanese. When second-hand imports were taken into account, an even higher proportion of cars first registered in the mid-2000s came from Japan.
Since the 1950s New Zealand has had an ageing car fleet. Wartime conditions and controls on outflows of foreign exchange restricted access to new vehicles built overseas. Restrictions on importing cars began to ease in the 1970s, and from the 1990s imports of second-hand cars exploded.
One measure of the desirability of cars is which models are most frequently targeted by thieves. In 2004–8 these included powerful Japanese vehicles such as the Nissan Silvia and 200SX, Subaru Impreza and Legacy, and the German BMW 325 coupe.
In 2007 the average age of cars was around 12 years. Models with medium to large engines predominated. In 2002–7, the most popular engine size was 1,801–2,000 cc, and more cars with engines of 3 litres (3,000 cc) or more in capacity were registered than those with engines of less than 1.4 litres (1,400 cc).
Only about 8% of cars registered in 2007 were diesel-powered, compared to 40% in the UK. Relatively few diesel vehicle options were available in New Zealand, but this situation was changing.
In 1907 the government introduced a 20% tariff (import tax) on cars that arrived in New Zealand already assembled, to protect local coachbuilders and car assemblers. The tariff was reduced to 10% during the First World War, and from then until 1924 more cars were imported assembled than unassembled.
In the 1930s tariffs increased, but continued to favour unassembled cars. British cars attracted a tariff of 5% for unassembled and 15% for assembled. The tariff on cars from the rest of Europe and from America was 50% for unassembled and 60% for assembled.
The government introduced import licensing in 1938, which restricted the number of vehicles imported. Buying a car was no simple matter – the intending buyer chose a model from a list, then faced a long wait. Those with overseas funds could import any car they liked, but had to pay tariffs on them. This intervention was designed to keep down the cost of imports, and to protect car assembly and related industries in New Zealand.
At first only the wealthy could buy cars – people like doctors and sheep farmers. Most drove themselves. An exception was Robert Heaton Rhodes, a Canterbury landowner and member of Parliament, who bought his first car, a Rover, in 1907. After backing it into a ditch, he employed a chauffeur.
Car assembly had its roots in earlier trades. In the early 1900s, coachbuilders and wheelwrights quickly moved into building bodies for imported motor-vehicle chassis.
One such firm – Rouse and Hurrell of Courtenay Place, Wellington – took up a Ford Motor Company agency in 1908. It was renamed the Colonial Motor Company in 1911. In 1922 Colonial built New Zealand’s first specialised car assembly plant – a steel box of nine floors, based on the Ford assembly works in Ontario, Canada. At over 30 metres high, it was Wellington’s tallest building at the time. The top two floors were used for administration. Assembly of cars from imported packs of parts started on level 7, and finished vehicles were driven out from the ground floor. The company built smaller assembly plants in Parnell (Auckland) and Timaru. In 1936 Ford built a new factory in Lower Hutt and took over the assembly and distribution of its vehicles,
Morris cars were assembled by Dominion Motors, founded in 1912 by Charles Norwood. It built a factory in Auckland in 1935.
George H. Scott became the official factory representative for Austin in 1919, having been the agent since 1909. Out of this company and its distributors emerged Austin Distributor Federation (ADF), the assemblers of the Austin brand.
In 1926 General Motors opened a plant in Petone, Hutt Valley. At first it produced American Chevrolet, Pontiac and Buick cars, adding Oldsmobiles in 1928. Its first British Vauxhalls were built in 1931, along with Bedford trucks.
Todd Motors developed out of an Otago-based Ford agency, and in 1935 built a car plant in Petone. It assembled Chrysler and Dodge cars, and, by arrangement with the Rootes group, Hillman (including the popular Minx), Humber and Sunbeam models.
Australian Holdens were imported as assembled cars from 1954, and the first FE series Holden emerged from General Motors’ Petone plant in 1957. A large new plant at Trentham in Upper Hutt was opened in 1967. Here General Motors built such vehicles as the Holden HQ series, Commodore, and Vauxhall Viva.
In the early 1970s more than 80% of new cars were supplied by General Motors, Ford, Todd Motors and Dominion Motors. The New Zealand Motor Corporation (NZMC) was formed in 1970 by the merger of ADF and Dominion Motors.
Japanese cars gained an increasing market share in the later 20th century. The first Toyotas were built in Christchurch and Thames in the late 1960s. NZMC entered an assembly arrangement with Honda and built cars in Nelson, in a plant that had been set up for British Triumphs in 1965. In 1975 Todd Motors replaced its Petone plant with a large new facility in Porirua which produced Mitsubishi vehicles.
New Zealand’s car assembly industry grew largely as a result of protectionism – tariffs and import licensing that discouraged imports of assembled cars. By the 1980s the government had realised that it would be cheaper and more efficient for cars to be assembled in the country in which their main components were made.
In the late 1980s the Motor Industry Development Plan led to reduced tariffs on imported vehicles, which were then able to compete with domestically assembled cars. Australian cars were already duty-free under the Closer Economic Relations agreement. This, and a growing flood of second-hand Japanese imports, led to the demise of local assembly by the end of the 1990s.
General Motors closed its Petone plant in 1984 and its Trentham plant in 1990. It had assembled nearly 600,000 vehicles in New Zealand. In 1994 it changed its name to Holden New Zealand to focus on the sale of its main brand. All of its cars were imported assembled from Australia.
Todd Motors’ Porirua plant was sold to Mitsubishi in 1987, the last of the assemblers to be taken over by the parent company. With continuous efficiency improvements, it lasted another 11 years before closing.
In 1997 Ford and Mazda stopped assembling cars in Auckland, and in 1998 so did the other remaining producers: Toyota, Nissan and Honda. That year, all remaining tariffs on imported cars were removed.
‘If we could afford a car, it would be either tiny (think Morris Minors and Fiat Bambinas) or really big and bulky with masses of chrome (think Chevrolet Bel Airs and the Vauxhall Velox). We drove on narrow, winding and often unsealed roads with no safety belts, no safety glass, poor brakes and lousy handling.’1
The motor assembly industry relied on a wide range of local component manufacturers and suppliers. These had developed since the 1930s, when industry was encouraged with tariff protection, and later with local content requirements for cars imported unassembled. Component manufacturers included Exide batteries, Dulux paints, Tubular Steel exhaust systems, and makers of bumpers, upholstery, rubber components and tyres. In the 1990s such companies were also affected by the reduction in tariffs on imported vehicles.
Jobs were lost in South Auckland and Masterton when automotive-wiring manufacturers closed in the late 1990s. Pilkington Automotive in Hutt Valley had supplied glass to all New Zealand car assemblers. Despite moving into export markets, it closed in 2003. Radiola Corporation lost its car radio business, because imported cars arrived with radios.
Companies that had been geared towards export were less affected. One was Southward Engineering, which made exhaust systems for Australia. Another was Firestone, which built a plant in Christchurch after the Second World War. In the early 2000s it still manufactured tyres for the domestic market, and for export to Australia and the Pacific.
Ford was one of the first car manufacturers to have a wide network of New Zealand dealers and distributors. There were 27 Ford agents in 1914, 42 in 1915, and 82 by 1929. Wellington company Rouse and Hurrell (later the Colonial Motor Company) and Kingham and Andrews in Timaru acquired Ford agencies in 1908. The Otago and Southland franchise was taken up around 1910 by G. W. Woods & Co., a stock and station agent. In Christchurch, Henry J. Ranger started an agency in 1910, often customising Model Ts for the local market with special bodies and upholstery.
Todd Brothers, who had been Ford dealers in West Otago and then Dunedin, formed the Todd Motor Company in 1923. They lost the Ford franchise when they widened their brand range, breaching the Ford Motor Company’s policy of exclusivity. After establishing a head office in Wellington, they secured the right to distribute Chrysler vehicles, and by 1931 they also distributed Hillmans, Humbers and Sunbeams for the Rootes Group.
The operating hours of service stations were temporarily controlled during the oil crises of the 1970s. In 1974, in order to reduce the demand for fuel, closures were required from noon on Saturday until Monday morning. In 1979 closures were reintroduced, this time from 7 p.m. on Friday until 6 a.m. on Monday.
Many car dealerships also carried out repairs and sold petrol. The largest New Zealand petrol supplier was the Europa Company, owned by the Todd family. When sold to BP in 1972, it had a 17% market share.
The sale of petrol was regulated for many years through maximum and minimum prices. This practice was introduced in the 1930s to protect New Zealand petrol companies against ‘predatory pricing’ by multinationals. The minimum price limit on petrol was removed in 1987.
The first self-service pumps were introduced in 1969. EFTPOS (electronic funds transfer at point of sale) facilities were first trialled in 1985. In the 2000s most service stations were owned by the large multinational fuel suppliers: BP, Shell, Caltex and Mobil. The Australian independent Gull operated in the North Island, and a number of independent operators used the Challenge brand (owned by Caltex since 2001).
In the 1990s the previously small number of imported second-hand cars became a flood as tariffs on such imports were phased out. From less than 3,000 each year in 1985, imports had grown to 85,000 in 1990, and surged to more than 150,000 in 2004. Far more second-hand imports than new cars were being sold. Almost all had previously been registered in Japan, and 80% were Japanese makes – Toyotas made up 25%.
Many such cars had made only short stop-start journeys in cities, and reconditioning was vital as New Zealanders frequently drive long distances on the open road. In the early 2000s Toyota’s Signature Class second-hand vehicles, sourced locally and overseas, were reconditioned in its Thames works.
The surge in imports was one reason for the demise of car assembly in New Zealand. Avery Ford Motors, which reconditioned Japanese used cars, became one of the tenants of the former Mitsubishi assembly site in Porirua.
Garages had cars available for hire even before the First World War. Some ran taxis, had private hire cars (with a driver) and, later, self-drive rental cars. In 1940 there were 564 rental cars registered, a figure that risen to 1,200 by 1950, and nearly 3,000 by 1965.
Hertz, an international car rental company, came to New Zealand when Tasman Rentals (founded in Christchurch in the 1950s) acquired the franchise in 1977. By the 1980s, with the growth of the tourist industry, rental car firms were important buyers of new cars. In 1989 the Avis rental car firm bought nearly 600 Chryslers and Mitsubishis from Todd Motors, their biggest fleet deal to date.
Cars needed to be registered and licensed by a local authority from 1905. Annual licensing of all drivers was introduced in 1925. Before the Transport Department was established in 1929, road safety and car regulation was the responsibility of several government departments and 300 local bodies.
Since 1987 New Zealand has had a three-stage graduated driver licensing system. A learner licence is gained by passing a theory test and must be held for at least six months. During this time, a learner driver must be supervised by a driver with a full licence whenever they drive.
The next step is to gain a restricted licence by passing a practical driving test. After this, the driver can drive alone (except between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.), but cannot carry passengers without a supervisor.
Before applying for a full licence, the driver must have held a restricted licence for at least 18 months if aged under 25, or at least six months if aged 25 or over. The driver must pass another practical driving test, and will then receive a full licence, which must be renewed every 10 years.
Young people, particularly males, are disproportionately likely to be involved in a crash. However, in the 12 years after the introduction of the graduated licensing system, the number and rate of fatally or seriously injured vehicle occupants aged 15–24 nearly halved. In 2006, one-third of road users killed or injured were in this age group, and two-thirds were male.
While risk-taking behaviour is more pronounced amongst young males, when the crash statistics are adjusted to allow for the greater distances driven by young men than by young women, most of the gender distinction disappears. Driver inexperience seems to be an important factor in crashes. Loss of control on corners and head-on crashes are the main causes of fatal accidents. Cornering too quickly is the main cause of injury accidents.
From 1928 drivers were required to obtain insurance against their liability to pay damages arising from death or injury to others. The premium was payable to a nominated company with the annual vehicle licence fee. This scheme lasted until 1974, when cover for everyone was provided under the Accident Compensation Act 1972, again from premiums paid with the annual licence fee.
Compulsory inspection of vehicles was introduced in 1931, initially for passenger service vehicles such as buses, and later for goods vehicles and school buses. From 1937 this requirement was extended to private cars. The aim was to reduce the number of accidents caused by faulty vehicles. During and after the Second World War, few cars were imported and the warrant of fitness (WOF) inspection was essential to check the condition of an ageing national vehicle fleet.
WOFs were issued for six months. From 1985 cars less than three years old could receive a WOF for 12 months.
Seat belts became available in cars from the 1950s. In the 2000s it is compulsory for the driver and all passengers to use them.
A blood alcohol limit for drivers of 100 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood was introduced in 1969. This was reduced to 80 milligrams in 1978 and 50 milligrams in 2014. The legal limit for drivers under 20 years of age was lowered to 30 milligrams in 1993, and to zero in 2011.
Despite ongoing drink-driving campaigns, alcohol still plays a major role in road crashes. In 1996, 31% of crash deaths and 69% of serious injuries were alcohol-related. Innocent victims made up nearly half the total. People aged 15 to 39 had the highest incidence of death and injury.
An open-road limit of 50 miles (80 kilometres) per hour was introduced during the Second World War – when most roads were unsealed – to conserve tyres and road surfaces. As highway engineering and roads improved, the limit was raised to 55 miles (89 kilometres) per hour in 1963. In 1969 it was raised to 60 miles (97 kilometres) per hour on a few designated motorways.
In 1973, during the first oil shock, all limits were reduced to 50 miles per hour. The limit was metricated to 80 kilometres per hour in 1975, and lifted to 100 kilometres (62 miles) per hour in 1986.
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 began 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 or school, socialising, shopping and holidays, among other things.
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. During the 1920s and 1930s, many smaller country towns went into decline and services closed.
People living in towns or cities that had trams or trains had less need of cars. Even so, there were several times more motorised vehicles than horse-drawn vehicles in Christchurch in 1922. By the 1950s rising car use was causing a decline in public transport, as tram systems were abandoned and bus passenger numbers fell.
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, women and older children often acquired their own cars. As more women went to work outside the home and got driver’s 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.
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 pick-up times. Parents also drove children to sporting and recreational activities. Children grew up relying on cars. At the age of 15, young people could begin the process of getting their own driver’s 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 (1981). These appealed to a youthful 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 suited to youthful self-definition – 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 ‘petrolheads’ and ‘hoons’ of the 1970s and the ‘boy racers’ of the 2000s in their modified high-powered Japanese saloons were more recent manifestations of a potent mix of alcohol, youth and cars.
In the 1950s and 1960s the car was a symbol of modernity, the means to access new suburbs and escape the congestion of the inner city. New Zealand imported its transport-planning concepts, with a focus on motorway development and the free movement of vehicles, from the US and Britain.
In 1979 one of the few critics of the car in New Zealand, writer Monte Holcroft, characterised it as ‘hungry for space’. Referring to the effects of cars in cities and at rural attractions, he claimed that ‘by their own demands and enormous proliferation [they] are destroying the space they crave’.1
The sprawling nature of cities like Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Christchurch is a result of car-based transportation planning in the 1940s and 1950s. These places are highly dispersed and most residents are dependent on cars. In the early 2000s the average urban density of cities in New Zealand and Australia was 15 people per hectare, with 8.1 metres of road per person. This compares with 55 people per hectare and 3.0 metres of road per person in Western European cities and 150 and 2.3 in high-income Asian cities.
The popularity of shopping malls from the 1960s contributed to increasing car use. With their large car parks and suburban locations, malls were designed to be driven to; some are difficult to reach using public transport.
New Zealand cities initially grew around and along tramlines, which were later supplemented by bus routes. Public transport use plunged with the end of trams in the 1950s, and the rise in popularity of the car. By the early 2000s Auckland was described as having ‘arguably the worst public transport levels of any western city with a population of more than one million’. 2
In 1991 Auckland scored worse than even US cities in terms of public transport use. Use increased to a degree after the mid-1990s, when regional councils became responsible for urban passenger transport policy, and more attention was paid to routes, timetables and levels of service. Between 2001 and 2008 bus use increased by around 30%. Even so, in 2006 only 3% of journeys to work in Christchurch were by bus.
From the 1990s many main suburban streets and roads became very congested, particularly during the morning and afternoon ‘school runs’. In the 2000s a far higher proportion of schoolchildren were driven to school than in their parents’ day. Ironically, this was often due to concerns about traffic.
In the early 2000s, 16.4% of national greenhouse gas emissions were from road transport. Government policy was to halve transport emissions by 2040.
Cars shape the places where people live, and this is reflected in city and district plans. For example, in Christchurch car-free developments are not an option – rules for the inner city require that new houses have at least one parking space per unit. This is likely to change, as cities will need urban development strategies that promote more intensive development.
Rising costs of petrol, traffic congestion and concerns about the sustainability of sprawling cities dependent on cars suggest that the places people live in will need to be reshaped. In a country of enthusiastic motorists, the transition is likely to be a slow process.
Gardner, Roger. Ford ahead: a history of the Colonial Motor Company Limited. Masterton: Colonial Motor Company in association with Fraser Books, 2004.
Hawkes, Graham. On the road: the car in New Zealand. Wellington: GP Books, 1990.
Holcroft, M. H. Carapace: the motor car in New Zealand: a roadside view. Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1979.
Penman, Neil. The university on the hill: the history of Todd Park. Porirua: Penmanship Press, 2005.
Watson, James. Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: Ministry of Transport, 1996.
Webster Mark. Assembly: New Zealand car production, 1921–98. Birkenhead: Reed, 2002.