The age of the automobile

It all changed in December 1904.

When Auckland motor car owner Dr W C W McDowell roared into Hawera's High St that month, the horses tied up at the kerb were spooked. Maybe they had had a vision of the future, the end of an era.

At the court case that followed to consider a charge of speeding, it was revealed that the doctor's chauffer, Mr Lindsay, often drove his vehicle at 12 miles an hour (19kmh) in town and 27mph (43kmh) on the open road.

The case had to be dismissed because speed limits for motor cars in Hawera were still to be set.

But the horses were right to be worried; the limits might not have been in place but the age of the car was coming and Dr McDowell and many others represented a huge shift that would change the Taranaki landscape forever.

Of course, the doctor was not the first. Samuel (Kickapoo) Hunter whizzed into Hawera from Stratford in 1903 on the way to his first dental appointments, having negotiated many miles of unfinished road.

He was to become the best known motorist of his day in South Taranaki, making a regular circuit of surgeries at Manaia, Kaponga, Stratford and Patea.

As a pioneer motorist he was well aware of the hazards of badly aligned corners and a lack of signposting.

Hunter was joined by other men - farmers, doctors, real estate agents, and stock agents who needed reliable and quick transport to their work, and all of them realised they needed an organisation to press their case for better roads.

Auckland motorists, who were both vocal and influential, formed New Zealand's first Automobile Association in May 1903. It was modelled on the Automobile Association in London.

With their frequent "runs" to well- known beauty spots and distant towns they quickly gained an appreciation of the roads and made their opinions known to members of Parliament and county councillors. The motoring correspondent of the Auckland Star told his readers in 1905 that it was now rare to see doctors doing their rounds driving a horse and trap. They had almost all found a car was a cheaper and handier proposition.

Hawera car owners decided to form an Automobile Association. The date was August 13, 1914, just one week after the outbreak of World War I. The new organisation determined to play its part in patriotic activities such as driving wounded servicemen from the train to their homes.

The following officers were elected: President Mr S Tonks, Vice Presidents, Messrs JD Willis, FG Kimbell, hon. secretary and treasurer Mr WA Webster; Committee, Messrs W O Callaghan, CH Walker, H Graves, FW Carey, and Dr Thomson.

In March 1915 the committee of the South Taranaki Automobile Association decided to write to the Hawera County Council. It asked that the corners of the Austin and Mountain roads be improved; that the Tangahoe Hill be widened at the northern approach to the bridge; that the Borough Council be written to suggesting that speed limit notices be erected at Glover and Waihi road corner, and on South Road opposite Mr Lovell's residence, cautioning motorists against driving more than 15mph within the borough.

It also wanted traffic inspectors to be tasked with detecting motorists who drove past the Hawera School endangering the lives of the schoolchildren.

It was no wonder that the chairman of the County Council observed with some amusement that with a helpful club like this they need not employ a borough engineer.

At its first annual meeting in August 1915, the president, Mr Tonks, told the members that there were now at least 600 cars and motorcycles in South Taranaki. Having established a good relationship with the several county councils in the district and having complimented them on putting up sign boards, they wrote to the Eltham County Council endorsing the notice board on the Eltham/Hastings road corner advising motorists of the likelihood of boxthorns on the road that would puncture their tyres.

In the Hawera and Normanby Star a small notice advised members and others that there would be a "run" to Opunake Beach where there would be a picnic. They would leave the Post Office sharp at 11 o'clock on February 16, 1916. This was to become an annual event. This occasion was reported to have brought together 24 cars and their owners.

At their 1916 annual meeting members were assured that visiting motorists had said the roads of South Taranaki were the best in New Zealand. However they had further requests to make to county councils about installing further direction posts pointing the way to Kaponga and Dawson Falls, and at Mokoia pointing to Patea and Wanganui.

Over the next year discussions were held with the councils about travellers on the road at night, motorists reporting how difficult it was to see unlit vehicles such as gigs, traps and bicycles and members of the public objecting to the bright lights of some oncoming cars.

Early in the life of the Automobile Association badges for paid-up members were issued, to be placed on the front of their cars. Though in many ways the motorists in New Zealand had a similar organisation to that in the UK, with a strong interest in sign boards and a roadside service to stranded motorists, they were different in their attitude to police and local authorities.

In 1919 the New Zealand Automobile Association, of which South Taranaki was a member, sent a request to local bodies that when painting a bridge it should be painted white.

After seven years of active work the local association went into recess until August 1924. The resuscitated club was led by Dr Thomson as president, vice- presidents S G Tonks and W O'Callaghan, secretary W G Walkley, and committee members P Cox, J Duffill, P O'Dea, A H Jones and Dr McGhie.

This new group of men led the South Taranaki Automobile Association for the next 20 years, and two of them, Walkley and O'Callaghan, went on to change the retailing of petrol in New Zealand and Australia in the 1930s and 40s.

Taranaki Daily News