Early Motoring Stories

We take motoring, and driving our modern cars, as a given. What of the early days when the horseless carriage was a newcomer, a novelty? Here are a few stories I found about those first days of the motor vehicle.     

May 1899 – Notes From England

Mr. H. Lucy, the well-known London correspondent, describes his first experience of a motor-car. He confesses to having shared in full degree the widely-spread prejudice against them through sheer ignorance, never before having ridden in one. ”Staying at a country house from Saturday to Monday, I had…” (he writes) “…the opportunity of learning at first hand something on the subject. A gentleman arrived in a motor-car, having driven over in 25 minutes from his own place, seven miles distant. It was a roomy vehicle capable of seating six persons. In the morning we went out for an hour’s spin, covering over 18 miles. That is, of course, against the law. But as the driver and all his passengers, save one, were Members of Parliament, some license must be allowed.  On a well-made road, the car put in 25 miles an hour. Happily no policemen were met.

1898 Daimler : might have been the model Mr Lucy wrote about.
Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

What I was struck with in the conveyance was the perfect command the driver had over its action, the ease with which it climbed hills and then the steadiness with which, under brake-power, it descended them. Then there was the absence of smell, the smoothness of the motion and the delight of careering along a highway at such a speed. This particular car costs £400, and its pleased owner is haying one built at a cost of £800. He tells me there are motor-cars made for two, to be had at 100 guineas. Compared with the country requisite of even a single horse-and-carriage, that is a temptingly moderate outlay”.

April 24 1901 – Cycling Reporter includes Motor Cars

“Demon” was the regular columnist on all cycling matters in Otago newspapers around the turn of the century.  In 1901 he predicted changes to involve the motor car. “Motor notes are to be found in practically all cycling papers now, evidence of the growth and development of motoring. In Europe, England, and the United States the automobile is going ahead in leaps and bounds, but the heavy taxes on motors imported into most of the Australian States will prove a heavy drag on the growth of the industry and pastime there. At the present time it costs £60 and upwards to land a car in Melbourne. This amount does not include freight, insurance, etc. and a model that sells in London for £200 cannot be landed in Victoria under £300”.

Thus A. G. Melville writing as “Demon” began a transition, his column rapidly changed from, strictly, cycling notes to expanding reports about the introduction of cars to Otago.

  Aug 1902 – New Plymouth First

The first motor car has been seen in New Plymouth. A lady and gentleman, evidently tourists, were the occupants of the car, which ran with surprising smoothness and without making any noise. Thankfully horses in the streets did not seem in any way frightened at the machine.


April 1903 – Advice from Rudyard Kipling in South Africa

Rudyard Kipling found the advent of the motorcar a good muse when he addressed a dinner given by the Capetown Automobile Club.  He was called on to reply to the toast to the kindred Royal Club of Great Britain.

Rudyard Kipling

He began by thanking those present for treating him like a human being…” where I come from everybody who is a motorist has been treated like pariahs”. He recalled the days of adventure with a hired Daimler, recalling the time when a policeman came and called on him to stop, and said he was going at 72 miles an hour. “We had, in fact been flat out for the last three-quarters of an hour pushing the machine up a hill! The pioneers of automobiles were the sport of Justices of the Peace, the sport of the police, and the bane of every carrier’s cart, but that had been changed to a great extent through the work of the Automobile Club”.

Before he left home he had been asked by a UK motor manufacturer what kind of a vehicle would best suit South Africa. Kipling replied “…absolutely dust proof, one that a Kaffir can drive with a screwdriver and with wheels about 5 feet high to allow for crossing sand and dust drifts”.

Someone interjected… “Oh! So it doesn’t have to have wings, then??!!”

“Seriously,” Kipling advised the Club, “go in for cars that had plenty of good springs, and that can negotiate fords at least three feet deep.  And never pay more than £1 for any dog that you might run over – anything beyond that sum is blackmail, and spells bankruptcy!”

 June 1903 – Automobile Association  Formed

The first automobile club in New Zealand was formed in Auckland with a membership of 13 to be known as the Auckland Automobile Association and its first president was Dr  A. Challinor Purchas.

Dr A. Challinor Purchas
N.Z. Graphic – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-18980312-328-4”Six influential gentlemen will meet on Wednesday June 10…” the New Zealand Herald reported, “… to discuss and frame the rules and regulations of the new association. Saturday afternoon and weekend runs will be features of the Association, and the Herald’s columnist called “Petrol” soon reported excursions had already been held to Onehunga, St Heliers Bay, Panmure and Sylvia Park. “Speeds vary from a crawl to 38 miles an hour (61kph) on the level…” he wrote, “… but Auckland’s roads are not in a fit state to exceed 20 -25mph”.  The last car – purposely last – on all Association runs is driven by Mr. G. B. Spinks. His automobile has been dubbed the “Ambulance Car” and its driver the “Doctor.” Should anyone get out to tighten a nut, to oil up, or to adjust this or that, “Doctor” Spinks is almost immediately on hand.

June 1903 – Auckland Roll-Call of Owners

The new Automobile Association lists some of Auckland’s first motorists: Dr Purchas, a 12 horse power (hp) Darracq, G. W. S. Patterson’s American, Mr H. Harris’ 5 hp Locomobile, Mr R Whitson’s 4hp Oldsmobile, Dr A. O. Knight’s Locomobile, Mr Moody’s Oldsmobile, Mr G Kenning’s two Locomobiles,  Mr G. B. Spinks’ Oldsmobile and Mrs G. de Clive Lowe’s Oldsmobile. Mr Leyland’s car should be arriving from the UK soon, and imports are also expected for Mr Bockaert and Mr Williams of Howick.

Members of the Auckland Automobile Association on an outing, June 1903
N.Z. Graphic – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19030711-113-2

July 1903 – Road Rage Identified

French psychologists identified a mania among drivers of motor cars and suggested that the crusaders against drunkards should turn some of their energy against motorists. The French Societe d’Hypnologie el do Psychology says “we are beginning to find chauffeurs (as we call them here) take on an abnormal state of mind when they’re behind the steering wheel. The driver becomes vindictive, furiously aggressive and lets himself be carried away with the angry impulse of the moment. It’s the same state of mind as the habitual drinker of alcohol”, said Mr Hachet Souplet at a recent meeting of the organisation.

Dr Edgar Berillon, among those who discovered “road rage”

Another specialist, psychologist Dr Edgar Berillon, said speed was addictive… “motorists become mad under the effect of the onward rush of the motor car… driving produces an intoxication that will be attended with greater loss of life than that of the combative violence of drunks”.

Jan 1905 – Motorists and Speed Limits.

“It’s an age of speed”, said the New Zealand Herald “…and it’s all about the burning question of the speed of motor-cars in relation to the safety of the public on the high roads. The motor-car is the luxury of to-day, and will be the life of to-morrow. At present we know it in itself, but we have not realised its consequences. The whole question amounts, to this: how in the face of the ever-increasing number of cars and of their speeds is our outdoor life to be modified? It’s obvious that in this modern state of affairs our lanes and high roads must be altered. Even when motoring is no longer merely a pastime of the rich, but has become the daily transport of the democracy; it will be out of the question that every road and lane in the country should be permanently unsafe for anything living, from a chicken to a Cabinet Minister to walk upon. The speed limit of twenty miles an hour is illusory, for, as a judge has said, negligence is negligence, whether at twenty miles an hour or at seven. The plain duty of every motorist is to go only so fast as is compatible with the safety of others who have an equal right to the use of the road. In the near future, when every road has many motors to the mile, all trying to steer among pigs, poultry, paralytics, and passengers of all kinds, safety speed will be cut down to a very low figure. An unpleasant prospect for the keen motorist”.

January 1905 – World Motorist

“Round-the-world motorist” American Mr. Chas. J. Glidden, accompanied by his wife, arrived in Auckland as part of his world tour in his 24 horsepower Napier car.

Chas Glidden, wife and chauffeur near Cambridge in the Waikato
S. G. Firth – N.Z. Graphic – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19050128-27-2

On arrival in Rotorua he described the roads as “bad”, but the countryside “charming”. Glidden went on to the South Island and was annoyed roads through the Buller and Otira Gorges were closed to motor cars on account of the deep fords. “It’s deplorable that two of your best scenic routes are in such a condition,” he said, “I will carry on to Bluff.” Once there he pointed out “it’s the most southerly point in the world at which it’s possible to drive a motor car. I am greatly pleased with my tour through the colony, which, with more bridges and improved roads will be an ideal country for motoring. He has so far  clocked up some 22,000 miles during his global travels.

March 1905 – Contretemps on Mangere Bridge

The meeting of the Mangere Road Board heard a complaint from a Board Member about use of the bridge across the Manukau Harbour linking Onehunga with Mangere.

”I was driving a flock of sheep off the Mangere bridge approach” reported Mr Henwood, “when a large motor car came along at great speed, and, crashing into the flock, maimed many of them and killed one. On attempting to stop the car and to get the name of the motorist he refused to give his name and drove away, expressing no regret”.

After a long discussion the Board resolved to frame a by-law to prevent a recurrence of such an incident, and to insist on motor cars carrying numbers for identification purposes in case of accident,

Mangere Bridge – a sign spelled out the new By Laws
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 957-236-2

It was also agreed that the Chairman and Clerk be appointed to interview the committee of the Automobile Society in reference to the matter.

March 1905 – All Over the Road

A motorist caused a bit of a stir at Onehunga. While going down Queen Street he allowed the machine to beat him, and it wobbled from one side of the road to the other.

Queen Street Onehunga, early 1900s
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 957-148-1

On one occasion the car got on the footpath, and narrowly escaped crashing through a shop window. On the return journey the motorist ran down a horse, fortunately without serious consequences.

May 1905 – Rover Pitches the Right Price

“Demon” the Otago Daily Times scribe was by now writing about as much about motor cars as he was about his former topic, Cycling. “The need of a thoroughly reliable motor car at a price within the reach of the man with moderate means is now being catered for by the “Rover” Company, which is placing on the market a 100-guinea (100 pounds, 100 shillings) 6 horse-power car.

Rover – unveiled January 1905

The two most interesting features about the vehicle are said to be the reduction in the cost of production and the maintenance of efficiency.  Dr Strang of Southland informs me that during the Easter holidays he toured round the Waimatuku, Riverton and Otautau districts in his 5 horse-power twin cylinder Clement-Garrard. “Davie” is very profuse in his praises of Southland roads, and says we have nothing in Dunedin to compare with them; but as Strang’s home is at Waimatuku we have, of course, to allow something for local preferences. Two motor omnibuses are now running in Christchurch and judging by their success in England, and on the Continent, these buses should be the precursors of many more in New Zealand”.

June 1905 – Social Commentary: The Fairer Sex

“Demon” writing in the Otago Daily Times noted a motorist “…out on the south road on Sunday who seemed to prefer mixing his motoring with the company of a number of the fairer sex and as a “goer” in both departments.  Though a discarder of multi-cylinder motors, he seems to be a strong believer in the multi-maiden principle – perhaps for safety”.

December 1906 – Taranaki Daily News: The Risks of Motoring 

The newspaper’s editor was reflecting on “ a little bunch of accidents that have occurred on New Zealand roads recently”,  hitting out at careless and callous motorists who, it was written “would gladly slay anything between the Cape and the Bluff, and who do, as a matter of fact, often enough succeed in maiming someone or other”. Penalties for errant motorists were hot hard enough, the leading article said, and “… it is imperative for maddened motorists generally to be rigorously dealt with”.

After a recital of recent serious accidents involving vehicles in various places in New Zealand, the writer concluded … “no motorist in New Zealand has yet been flogged or sent to jail for running over anybody. The milk cart horses have been frightened over precipices, the livestock that have been chased to death, the people who have been mangled by the cars haven’t yet had a chance of dealing with the petrol heads. The police are powerless, the magistrates lenient, because they all hope to be motorists someday, and the people are only bubbling. Someday the bubble will burst and it will hit a motorist”.  (Perhaps the writer was yearning for his first motor car!)

May 1906 – Antics, Feathers and Pay Out

“Motorists are getting sufficiently numerous in Wellington to make history,” says Wellington’s Post newspaper. “Motoring is growing steadily, with incidents as the inevitable sequel. A few evenings ago a couple of men in a motor car set out to display their skill in driving across the busy corner of Lambton Quay and Willis Street. Bystanders watched and although the driver proudly backed his vehicle rather skilfully, he overlooked a pile of woodblocks by a kerb, and shot his machine into the stack, to the great delight of the casual spectators.

A motor cyclist is also the hero of a sorry adventure. He was riding down the Johnsonville gorge the other day, when a rooster, with all the defiance of his race, crossed the track.

…died in a confusion of feathers…

There was a collision, a confusion of feathers, and the motor bicycle won, but only for moment. Some of the debris got into the works of the machine, there was a sudden jolt, and the jockey was pitched into the road, which retaliated by inflicting considerable personal disfigurement. Then the owner of the bird loomed up, and the poor, battered motorist was further stunned by a demand for about £5 compensation for the death of a prize rooster”.

June 1907 – Mrs Purchas Injured

Dr. A. Challinor Purchas was at the wheel of his automobile in Symonds Street, Auckland, about half past six in the evening when the car collided with a heavy spring-cart. Mrs. Purchase, who was accompanying the doctor, was thrown violently on to the front of the machine, and was severely bruised. The weather was very thick at the time and it’s thought Dr. Purchas did not see the only light on the horse-drawn vehicle- it was temporarily hidden from the motorist’s view. Dr. Purchas, himself, was dazed for a few moments by the force of the collision, but he soon recovered. Neither the horse nor the driver of the spring-cart were injured, but the front part of the motor car, was considerably damaged.

 January 1909 – Stop! Look! Listen!.

Police saw a car go through the railway level crossing when they were on patrol on Auckland’s waterfront in January 1909. Dr Herbert Myer Goldstein was at the wheel as he negotiated the railway tracks when two trains were about to cross. Police charged the doctor who said he misunderstood the signals. He was convicted and fined £1 plus court costs.


March 1912 – Early “getaway’ by car

All newspapers in New Zealand during March 1912 reported the case of five men acting as “hooligans” or “thugs” took part in an all-out fight in the bar of the Occidental Hotel, in Vulcan Lane, downtown Auckland.

The episode is one of the first in the city where a motor car was reported as used as a getaway vehicle when offenders fled the scene of their crime.

Occidental Hotel, scene of the fracas… and the getaway
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

On 8th March 1912 five men travelled by car to the Occidental Hotel where one of the men struck the only other patron present.  Banished, the five left but returned that evening. The barmaid refused to serve them because of their earlier behaviour, so they abused her. Other patrons stood up to defend her and very soon a scuffle broke out which developed into an all-out brawl in the bar: punching, kicking, headlocks and using an umbrella as a weapon. The barmaid called for help: the five men ran out of the hotel, got into their motor car and fled. Police found it was a hired car driven by chauffeur Arthur Williams who said he did not know the men. Detectives discovered that 4 of the perpetrators had taken sudden passage to Sydney but the fifth was arrested in Wellington, faced “grievous assault” charges, found guilty and jailed for one year.

May 22 1912 Fatality in Epsom

One of the last trams of the evening was making its way into the city along Manukau Road in Epsom at around 10 o’ clock on May 22nd when it was hit by a car near Gardner Road. The driver of the car, a taxi-cab, tried to avoid the oncoming tramcar but got his vehicle into a skid and a collision was inevitable. The tram’s step caught the side of the car, wrenched it, tearing the vehicle apart. A 25 year old man with serious head injuries was not easily extricated from the wreckage… and when he finally emerged a local doctor declared him dead. The driver and another 3 passengers were lucky to escape with minor injuries.

The crashed taxi on Manukau Road, Epsom
T. Bransgrove – Auckland Weekly News,
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19120530-16-3

It turned out the taxi had been hired for a local trip but the occupants decided to travel to Onehunga. The Inquest heard that the trip started in the city and progressed with a series of stops at different hotels along the route until the car reached the scene of the accident. The driver denied drinking: the others said they were sober. A jury found no one to blame.

April 1916 Learner Driver in Trouble

Miss Ella Lambert was being taught to drive by the Auckland agent who had sold her the car when there was an accident that landed the woman in court. She was charged with “being in charge of a motor-car without having previously satisfied the city traffic inspector of her ability to drive”. Accompanied by the agent (who did have a driver’s licence) the car was getting along Remuera Road when it passed a motor-bus.

Not a lot of traffic… Remuera Road intersection with Market Road, c1910
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A11225

At that very moment a man appeared from behind the bus. It turned out he was deaf and could not hear the car’s approach, nor the horn which was sounded to warn him. The agent took the wheel to avoid the man but, confused, the pedestrian moved into the path of the car and was knocked down. He suffered a broken leg. Apart from Miss Lambert not having proved her expertise behind the wheel to a traffic inspector, she was being taught to drive on one of Auckland’s streets that were off-limits to learners.

But in Court the Magistrate, F.V. Fraser, said the case was not serious and ordered the woman to pay costs!

See also Motorists’ Early Brushes With the Law  also in my Pioneers’ Section


RCC 2017


Sources Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand