The winds of change were blowing strong in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, with major advances and experiments in science and technology having taken place at this time.
The Ashburton Guardian often published sections on scientific matters, including articles and opinions from all around the world. A prime example of this comes from 1888, where a newspaper from Missouri claimed that street railway motors would be able to reach 100 miles per hour within the next ten years.
Articles about various new technologies such as motors, electricals, and powered tools were also common. Some of these ideas were so unfamiliar that one article compares the storage of electricity to a horse storing its breakfast.
One article of note was an 1888 interview with Thomas Edison regarding his terrifying “talking wax dolls” – dolls with phonographs embedded in their chests that recited prayers and songs. Edison eerily claimed that his “little maiden never has a sore throat, and she never refuses to sing when called upon to do so.”
These dolls, produced commercially in 1890, were a flop. Children allegedly found them more scary than cuddly. While these dolls were indeed a failed venture, one particular invention proved to be more important than anybody anticipated.
The Horseless Carriage
A Guardian article from October 1896 stated somewhat dramatically that “the horseless carriage is upon us.” The notion of the motor car meant something different to everybody. Some were scared that certain areas of the transport economy would be drastically affected, such as the railroad.
The idea of the horseless carriage was treated with as much weight as splitting the atom by the writer of this 1896 article, who was seemingly grappling with the morality of cars – were they going to be used for unspeakable evil? A small comparison was made by the journalist between a car and a horse, where the main problem of the motor car was that it could explode.
Despite scepticism, it seems a majority of people were fascinated and excited by the notion of the motor car and the science behind it. Once cars became readily available and prevalent, there was one make of car that Ashburton loved and bought above all others – the Ford Model T.
Model T Mania
The Model T was so significant to the people of Ashburton that a club for Ashburton Ford owners was established. The Model T was not as common as cars are today, but it was common enough. An advert ran in the Guardian in 1913 claiming that there were over a hundred Ford owners in the district at the time.
“An Imposing Display of Motor Cars” were available for viewing and purchase on Tancred Street the year before, and for years to follow. Model T Fords were marketed to different kinds of people, including farmers who were promised a reliable workhorse that could not get tired.
While they were not rare, they were still quite expensive. More adverts ran in 1913 listing the prices of Ford runabouts and touring cars – £190 and £205 respectively – prices that amount to roughly $30,000-33,000 today. Other car makes could be much more expensive than this, such as high-end models of the French Darracq, which cost nearly $90,000 in today’s money. Clearly cars were a major status symbol, and the club for Ford owners was without a doubt an exclusive one.
The potential for fun with motor vehicles was realised quite early on, as the first mixed motor race in New Zealand was held at Hagley Park in 1901. Over the following years, motorsports began to diversify and races were held on beaches, horse race tracks, and at various other locales.
If racing was not your style, then there were plenty of opportunities for recreation that were inherent to motor cars – you could go virtually anywhere, after all. The Ashburton Ford Owners club took their cars out in force on picnics, and on annual runs to nearby scenic locations.
That 1888 prediction that motors would reach high speeds within ten years was slightly off, but its implications were half right – motor technology was to develop significantly within a short period of time, which completely revolutionised the way we thought about travel.
By Connor Lysaght
1 East St. frontage of G. Hefford & Co with two Model T Fords. Mr McBride in the centre was the delivery van driver and delivered goods all over the county
2 G.H. Carson’s Garage in Tancred St Ashburton 1919-1928. This later became the premises of become Drummond & Etheridge
3 Opening run to ‘Borathat’ the residence of D.Thomas, 1905. Motorists & cyclists gather outside the Post Office.
4 Ashburton Ford Owners Annual Run 1916 to Lake Coleridge passing through Methven