Think you've experienced the toughest drive possible through a traffic jam on a motorway that needs an upgrade? Check out this 1918 photo for a whole different meaning of traffic jam.

And it turns out it was published to give voice to motorists' complaints about the state of our roads.

But from near-impassable quagmire, to four-lane, high-speed expressway - what a difference a century has made on the main road from Auckland to Hamilton.

The Waikato Expressway is due to be completed in 2020. Its 4.8km Rangiriri section, which cost $125 million, was opened last year.


Near Rangiriri in October 1918, however, the Auckland Weekly News featured a photo of a car struggling in a what looked like a field of mud, except that the caption called it the "main arterial road between Auckland and Hamilton".

The road was in a "disgraceful condition", the paper commented, adding that the photo served as an explanation of Auckland's "good roads movement".

"It clearly depicts what is the average state of a portion of the road between Auckland and Hamilton for about nine months in the year."

Now. The Rangiriri section of the four-lane Waikato Expressway was opened last year. Photo / NZ Transport Agency
Now. The Rangiriri section of the four-lane Waikato Expressway was opened last year. Photo / NZ Transport Agency

Motoring historian John McCrystal told the present-day Herald that the good roads movement was the massed voice of motorists.

He said that despite there being many cars in Auckland in 1918, there were few roads for them to be driven on outside the city.

The road from the foot of the Bombay Hill, near Pokeno, to Hamilton was a clay quagmire most of the way.

"The car [in the Weekly News photo] looks to be a Chevrolet with 'roped' wheels. You can see examples of how useless the tyres were in conditions like this from the spare wheel on the running board and the spare tyre on the back of the car."

"People had to take great bundles of tea tree or flax and [do] what they call corduroy the road, which is making a temporary solid surface that you can roll over and collect all the stuff from behind you and put it in front of you again."

How the Waikato Expressway looked in 2012 near Te Kauwhata, just north of Rangiriri. Photo / Doug Sherring
How the Waikato Expressway looked in 2012 near Te Kauwhata, just north of Rangiriri. Photo / Doug Sherring

There was no "main road" from Auckland to Wellington in 1918, just disconnected sections, some almost impassable, particularly on the Central Plateau, McCrystal said.

In 1912, motorist Arthur Chorlton took five days to drive from Wellington to Auckland, in an expedition sponsored by the Evening Post.

The situation was as bad north of Auckland in what was known as the "Roadless North".

Decent long-distance roads for motor vehicles were in their infancy in the 1910s, when New Zealand was just starting its slow transition from long-distance train and sea travel, to driving.

The 27km-long Rangiriri Deviation, a new section of compacted shingle road to bypass some of the mud and replace other parts of it, was opened in 1925 with as much fanfare as a motorway would receive today. Some 1500 people were present, and 300 cars, of which 200 drove in a procession from Mercer to Rangiriri.

A Herald reporter observed: "Although the new way has still to consolidate to some extent ... a splendid surface stretched out before the cars, some of which touched 30 miles an hour [48km/h] as they sped over it."

Referring to the worst, muddiest section of the old road, Education Minister Sir James Parr said: "I don't suppose that any other six miles of road in New Zealand have heard more profanity than this section."

Soon after the completion of the Rangiriri Deviation, the last 600m of the Awakino Valley road southeast of Te Kuiti was metalled. It was the last link in creating the first all-metal road surface between Auckland and Wellington - via Taranaki.

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But despite the vast improvements near Rangiriri in 1925, the road and its successors have faced flooding, deep swamps and cultural issues.

Roadworks near Meremere were interrupted in the early 2000s by concerns about taniwha, spiritual creatures regarded as guardians of the nearby Waikato River.

In 1922, when construction started on the deviation, the work cut through an urupā (cemetery) near Mercer, from which human remains had previously been removed. Workers, the Herald said, felt the roading project was "under a potent spell".

Unemployed men were put to work in relief gangs but many were ill-clad, fell ill and had to leave during the job's first winter. This was compounded by problems with machinery. And near the Mercer end, a swamp, into which men sank up to their waists, required a vast amount of fill to create a base for the road.