Living in Whangarei you can't help pondering the traffic woes of Auckland commuters with the number of vehicles on our roads increasing. Cars are more diverse, interior gadgets digitised and even number plates are getting a facelift with personalisation.

In modern times, it is easy to overlook the hazards once faced by our ancestors, when the very first motorised vehicles hit the roads.

A reminder of those nascent times can be found at Whangarei Museum where staff recently uncovered some rare and rather primitive examples of vehicle recognition. Simplistic in form, they are made from small tin squares, painted with "W.B.C.", allotted registration number and year.

When donated by Mr B. Baxter of Morningside in 1965, no details were given of who these plates originally belonged to, but they would've been mounted on some of the earliest motorised vehicles in Whangarei.

Whangarei Museum staff recently uncovered some rare and rather primitive examples of vehicle recognition.
Whangarei Museum staff recently uncovered some rare and rather primitive examples of vehicle recognition.

Various cars were imported into the country from 1898, and in this year the first automobile legislation, the McLean Motor-Car Act, was passed. The act legalised the operation of motor vehicles, restricting their speed to 12 miles per hour (19km/h). It also stipulated that after sunset, cars were to carry a forward-facing light and had to display a painted identification mark which was to be registered with local authorities.

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Initially vehicle registration was a regional rather than country-wide practice. Vehicle owners were issued a number, but it was up to them to provide a plate which was made of various materials. These numbers had to be displayed on the vehicles' right-hand side and were often painted on.

Early 20th century cars cost more than senior public servants earned annually, so the initial market was limited to the wealthy. Although motor vehicles were not common in Whangarei until about 1916, the district's first car, a Cadillac, owned by Mr Fred Foote, arrived in Whangarei in 1906.

Despite the rapid growth of societies such as Automobile Clubs, many people were reluctant to embrace motoring as cars threatened the great equine infrastructure of coach painters, carriage makers and blacksmiths. They frightened animals, collided frequently with trees, bystanders, fences and street lamps.

The plates are made from small tin squares, painted with
The plates are made from small tin squares, painted with "W.B.C.", allotted registration number and year.

It didn't take long for the country's first traffic fine to be issued to a driver who in 1900 failed to stop his car when he came upon a tethered horse. The horse bolted, taking with it the lamp-post to which it was tied.

As roads improved, and motorcars pervaded towns, horse transportation gradually went into decline. Travellers ranged further with many clubs and organisations arranging outings for day trippers such as the North Auckland Automobile Association's run in 1915 from Weaver's paddock to Maunu to visit the new reservoir under construction.

When central government took over car registration in 1925, nationally issued plates were supplied each year and were United States-made green with white numbers prefixed with NZ, some of which are also held at Whangarei Museum. This was the only year the country initials appeared on plates until recently.

Today, vehicle registration can be done online in the comfort of your home. Who would've thought it, and who would have thought the number plates being used on their cars in 1919 would still be around almost 100 years later.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North.