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The history of motorcycle sport and of Motorcycling New Zealand (MNZ) spans more than a century. Formed in 1916 as the New Zealand Auto-Cycle Union, the organisation is one of the oldest sporting bodies in the country.

To commemorate its 100 year anniversary, MNZ commissioned Ian Dawson, a former road racer with a number of national titles to his name, to compile the history of kiwi motorcycle racing.

The result is ‘100 Years of Motorcycle Sport in New Zealand, 1916-2016′.

This stunning record of history contains something for everyone, from road racing, beach racing, hare scrambles, TTs, ATV, speedway, moto trials and enduro to modern day motocross and much more. 

The History and Evolution of MNZ

This précis was written by Wayne Green in February 2000, based on a detailed historical study of NZACU/MNZ history by the late Ken Duncan.

Motorcycling New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Auto-Cycle Union) commenced operations as the governing body for motorcycle sport in New Zealand in 1916. The New Zealand Auto Cycle Union (NZACU) was formed after the North and South Island Unions decided to join forces to help stimulate motorcycling sport and to draw up rules for the safe conduct of the sport. Records show that informal meetings took place as far back as 1911, but it was on 22 April 1916 at Napier that an informal meeting was held to get things started. Then on 3 June at Palmerston North a meeting was held to draft up the rules.

On 16 August 1916, the first Annual Meeting was held at Dannevirke, where the rules and regulations were adopted. The first President was Gus Torstonson, H Osgood was Secretary and L Lloyd Treasurer. The affiliated clubs were Palmerston North, Ashhurst Sports Club, Woodville, Napier and Hamilton.

1917 saw Stuart Erskine as President and Mr Lloyd as Secretary. Then in 1918 Mr Torstonson was returned as President for two years with Mr Lloyd as Secretary and Treasurer.

Mr AE Davey was President for a two year term starting in 1920. At this time the general fund stood at fifty pounds, four shillings and sixpence, with the benevolent fund at two hundred and twenty four pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven pence.

Grass track racing was a feature of the twenties and early thirties and was held on racecourses. The names of C Goodwin (AJS), Tom Morgan (Harley Davidson) and H Moller (Norton) were prominent over the years but to one man – Percy Coleman on a Harley Davidson – belongs the title ‘King of the Grass Track’. He won the Heavyweight championship 10 years in succession.

In 1921, Mr Arthur Way of Marton took over as National Secretary, a position he held for at least 15 years. At the 1921 conference in Auckland, Mr WA Spragg was elected President, a position he held until 1935.

In 1925, the Union’s rules were revised and they were incorporated under the Incorporated Societies Act.

The 1926 conference met in Napier, 1927 in Palmerston North, then the next four years in Marton. At the 1932 conference, there were eight clubs represented: two from Auckland plus Hamilton, Manawatu, Napier, Rangitikei, Foxton and Pioneer from Christchurch.

Speedway hit the scene in Auckland and Wellington in 1929, with Christchurch and Dunedin forming tracks the following year.

The New Zealand Federation was granted affiliation to the ACU London in 1930 and, in this same year, Percy Coleman was the first New Zealand rider to represent the country in the Isle of Man TT.

In 1931, the first New Zealand Tourist Trophy was run on an unsealed road on Waiheke Island and was won by Sid Moses, the man who later introduced decimal currency to New Zealand.

1936 saw the first NZ Grand Prix held at Cust, a famous road racing circuit some miles from Christchurch. It became a traditional Easter event and volunteers had to sweep and oil the circuit before racing could begin. The event is still held annually but since 1964 the venue has been the sealed circuit at Ruapuna (now Mike Pero Motorsport Park), southwest of Christchurch.

The NZACU was in recess over the years 1941–45 as many riders were on overseas duty during World War II. Records from the day note “the Executive Committee, in co-operation with the Auckland Traders, protested to the Minister at the petrol restrictions imposed on motorcyclists, but were unable to obtain any concessions …”

Later in the annual report, the President concludes: ” Our main object at present is to win the war and it is pleasing to record that a number of our riders have enlisted and we congratulate them in volunteering for active service and hope that they will return safely to the Dominion.” Mention is made of the holding of “patriotic motorcycle meetings” to be held in co-operation with the local patriotic committee, presumably with fees and donations being made to the war effort.

The prediction in the 1945 annual report that motorcycling would flourish due to the number of servicemen and motorcycles being reintroduced to everyday life in New Zealand proved well founded. If the records are any indication, motorcycling struck a boom time unparalleled since the 1920s, with active clubs and racing activities springing up all over the country. Events such as the ‘Hamilton 100’, ‘All Powers Air Strip Championship’, ‘Patea Road Race’ and ‘NZ Miniature TT’ sprang up in the late forties. Championships which had, prior to WWII, been either open or of three capacity divisions suddenly burgeoned into National, North & South Island Championship classes.

Grass track racing virtually came to an end at the cessation of the war due to the inability to use horse racing tracks for events. Although quarter mile tracks on private property helped revive the sport, and in 1948 and 1949 the one mile track in Marton was used successfully for meetings, post-WWII racing became dominated by road racing.

The war also made an impact on the NZ attendance at the Isle of Man TT. The race was not run during 1940-45 and, during 1946-48, problems with finance and travel kept delaying plans to send a New Zealand competitor. Finally, in 1949, Sid Jensen made it to the event and finished fifth in the Senior TT and twelfth in the Junior, the best result of a New Zealander thus far.

By 1946, Benevolent Fund pay outs ceased with the arrival of the new Social Security system in New Zealand. Injured riders were now entitled to Social Security payments but could not receive other payments, such as from this fund, as well.

At the invitation of Sporting Promotions Pty Ltd, Sydney, a team of racers representing the NZACU were sent to take part in a season’s racing in Australia. Led by Henry Falls (Captain), the members included George Mudgway, Harold Fairhurst, Ron Seed and Len Perry.

A dramatic speedway accident involving five riders at Palmerston North in 1947 sent shockwaves through the sporting fraternity. Racers Howard Tolley and Jack Woods later died of their injuries. Woods was Wanganui’s leading rider and Howard Tolley was a partner in the motorcycle firm Tolley & Spence, a member of the NZACU Executive and President of the Ixion Motorcycle Club.

The NZ Grand Prix held at Easter 1948 attracted 10-20,000 spectators and the NZ TT was won by Len Perry on a Velocette in 2hrs, 10mins, 33 secs. Perry also won the junior title at the same event. The Hamilton 100 was also held in front of 10,000 spectators and had a field of 97 competitors while the NZ Beach Championship open title was collected by S Winterburn aboard a Norton covering the 20 miles on Muriwai beach in 17mins, 21 secs.

The President reported the past year as having been “a grand year for motorcycling in New Zealand”. Membership numbers of clubs and individuals were now back at the high levels of the pre-Depression days and race meetings were thriving with record fields and spectator attendance.

The report also notes: “Owing to representations by the Union, motorcyclists are at last officially represented on the Road Safety Council.”

Bikes which had been minority marques gained a new lease of life after the war with the development of fast, reliable, twin cylinder engines, typified by Triumph, Norton and Velocette, which kept a large loyal following. Mr Phillips 350cc Springheel Velocette draws special mention in the records of the annual report. This machine is one of the first ever to have more than simple marque and capacity recorded. Almost certainly the model is recorded by virtue of its being an unusual and innovative machine – one of the first motorcycles to reach New Zealand with ‘real’ suspension.

A polio epidemic kept crowd attendances down at Auckland events during 1948.

District Stewards were introduced in 1949. Meanwhile the NZACU and motorcycling in general continued to grow stronger and, in some cases, this led to friction with the local authorities. There is one point that arises from the notice taken of the clubs by the authorities: “… the Income Tax Department will undoubtedly show more interest in the Financial Statements of clubs than hitherto, and it behoves all our affiliated members to see that these annual returns are properly prepared and audited”.

In the period just prior to 1951, Mr T Mason of Hamilton took over as the National Secretary. He held this position until 1959 when Mrs DM Cook, also from Hamilton and Mr Mason’s assistant for many years, took over the job and became Secretary and Treasurer. She held these offices until 1972 when failing health caused her retirement.

In July 1955, Russell Wright and Bob Burns set world records for solo and side car motorcycles respectively. Russell clocked 185 mph and Bob 162 mph at Tram Rd, Christchurch. Both men rode Vincent 1000s.

Mr Tom McCleary Snr of Christchurch served two years (1957-58) as President when the conferences were held in New Plymouth and Hamilton. In these two years, the kiwi Isle of Man TT team won the teams prize in three of the four major events.

The team members were John Hempleman (Captain), Noel McCutcheon and John Anderson in 1957, with Noel McCutcheon being Captain, John Anderson and Peter Pawson as team members in 1958, when they won both the Junior and Senior team prizes.

Hugh Anderson’s four world titles as a Suzuki Works rider – the 50cc and 125cc crowns in 1963, the 50cc title in 1964 and the 125cc title in 1965 – were an outstanding achievement during this time.

The 50th jubilee of the NZACU was held in Palmerston North in April 1965. Tim Gibbes, the man who brought modern motocross to New Zealand, won the NZACU trophy for the Jubilee Motocross held in conjunction with the celebrations.

In 1968, South Canterbury motorsports enthusiast and stalwart Angus Laurensen of Timaru took over as President for two years and oversaw the establishment of the permanent circuit at Levels.

Len Payne of Wanganui held the President’s chair in 1970 for three years. The newly instituted national series for motocross had been his pet project. As convenor of that committee, Len would be one of the longest serving members on the NZACU Executive.

During the 1970s, the popular Marlboro Series was run for five years, attracting many overseas riders. In 1973-74, four rounds were held and kiwi Dale Wylie won. From there on, it became a five round series and Pat Heenan won the next three years. 1977-78 saw the series conclude, with Australian riders taking a clean sweep.

Auckland’s Don Tomkins became the next NZACU President and held the post until 1974 when Whangarei’s Ivan Ace became President. Ian Dougherty took office as President for the 19756 season after contributing more than two decades to the sport in Otago and Taumaranui.

Murray Butler succeeded Ian Dougherty’s term in office, and Murray was given life member status of the Christchurch Corsair Motor Cycle Club.

Ken Duncan of Dunedin became President in 1979 and served for five years, then Blenheim motocross rider Des Boyce had a two-year term as President following several years as an executive member.

1979 was also an impressive year for speedway, with the New Zealand team of Ivan Mauger (Captain), Mitch Shirra, Larry Ross, Bruce Cribb and Roger Abel and team manager Trevor Redmond winning the World Team Cup.

Max Cleverly of Hamilton was the first full time National Secretary and an office was established in Hamilton. Max, a former prominent road racer and an accountant, served some seven years as secretary before leaving to go into business of his own account.

The road race history would not be complete without mention of the Castrol 6 Hour held for some fifteen years at Manfeild, near Palmerston North. Many of New Zealand’s top riders cut their teeth at the 6 Hour, including past winners Ginger Molloy, Graeme Crosby, Dave Hiscock and Aaron Slight.

Graeme Crosby’s two World Formula One titles in 1980 and 1981, as well as outstanding performances at other circuits and in the Isle of Man TT, kept kiwis in the top spots of motorcycle racing.

Mrs Sandra Perry of Hamilton took over as Secretary in 1981 and in 1989 the office was shifted to Huntly.

In 1982 the International Six Days Enduro (ISDE) was held in Czechoslovakia. It was the first time New Zealand competed and the team of Darryl August, Graham Harris and Mark McDonald rode brilliantly, each gaining a prized bronze medal.

The NZACU was an affiliate Member of the Auto Cycle Union (Great Britain) until 1983 when the FIM (Federation Internationale de Motorcyclisme), the world governing body, accepted the NZACU as a full member at its Congress in Benalmadena, Spain.

This allowed New Zealand riders to officially ride as New Zealanders rather than as English riders.

1986 saw a first in the organisation’s history when Kevin McCleary (Christchurch) became President, the first son of a former President to be elected to the position. Tom McCleary had represented the NZACU on the Road Safety Council for many years and he spent countless hours devoted to safety helmet standards, a service which was recognised by the granting of the Queen’s Service Medal.

New Zealand initiated the World Superbike Championship in a proposal to the FIM Congress in 1986-87. In the first year of its inception, New Zealand hosted the final round of the World Superbike Championship on 2 October 1988 and continued to host rounds in 1989, 1990 and 1992.

The FIM recognised multiple-time World Speedway Champion Ivan Mauger in 1987, awarding him the FIM gold medal at the FIM Paris Congress.

New Zealand hosted the Annual FIM Congress in Christchurch in 1991 and in 1992, John Shand (Christchurch, but formerly from Mosgeil) succeeded Kevin McCleary as President.

In 1994, the former NZACU was renamed Motorcycling New Zealand Inc (MNZ). Errol Conaghan from Palmerston North was elected to the position of President at this conference.

At the 1995 FIM Congress in Karlstad, New Zealand motorcycle designer John Britten was awarded a bronze medal posthumously.

New Zealand celebrated another World Champion in 1996 when Shayne King won the World 500cc Motocross Championship title.

From a meager beginning of 52 members from five clubs MNZ, has grown to number several thousand members and over 60 clubs throughout New Zealand.

It now boasts riders with international reputations and status, including Aaron Slight and Simon Crafar, Darryll and Shayne King and a host of riders waiting to take their place on winners podiums around the country and around the world.

We look forward to being able to celebrate more New Zealand World Champions.

Disclaimer: While every attempt has been made to give as accurate an account of the NZACU/MNZ history as possible, we are unable to accept responsibility for errors or omissions. The study by Ken Duncan is available from the MNZ office.