Because Of William McLean

The Long and Winding Road

When Wellingtonian William McLean imported the first two cars into New Zealand in 1898 he can’t of been aware of the chaotic madness he was about to unleash on the country. 

Just what the 53 year old Scotsman and former politician was doing in Wellington in the first place is an interesting tale. Born in Grantown (a district of North Edinburgh), Scotland and the son of a shoemaker, William was first adopted by a parish priest before he moved to Rochdale in England to work as a cotton spinner at the age of 13. When the American Civil War caused a cotton famine, at the age of 18, William decided to head for New Zealand and the Otago Gold Rush. 

Unlike many others who ventured into the Otago gold fields with the hopes of finding a fortune, William it seems, had some success. After making enough money to open a small shop, when the West Coast Gold Rush in Hokitika sprung up, William packed up and headed for the coast. The West Coast must have suited him because during his time there he not only prospected for gold, he was a schoolmaster, an auctioneer and a mining and commission agent. At this point, in April 1877, William married Mary Elizabeth Crumpton where they continued to live happily on the coast until they moved to Wellington in 1884. Once again, William held several positions of employment which included an auctioneer, secretary for the Wellington Loan Company before becoming secretary to the Empire Loan and Discount Company and standing for parliament. 

After coming last in the 1881 Inangahua election, he was also unsuccessful in the 1887 Thorndon election and the 1890 Wellington election before successfully winning the 1892 City of Wellington by-election. William’s time in office lasted until he lost his seat in the general election of 1893. What all this means is that William McLean’s contribution to life in New Zealand wasn’t as a great businessman, he wasn’t known for heroic deeds on the gold fields and he clearly wasn’t a politician with a long and lasting career. Yet, his contribution to New Zealand’s identity is long reaching and forever lasting. William McLean’s gift to New Zealand, was the 1898 McLean Motor-car act. 

The act of 1898 which was passed in government legalised the operation of motor vehicles and set out the rules under which McLean’s two Benz cars imported from Pairs could operate. Among the rules and regulations that William McLean (and other motorists in years to come) had to follow was that they must be lit after dark and did not go faster than 12 miles ( 20 kilometers) per hour.’ Just think, if we could have somehow brought William McLean forward in time with one of his Parisian Benz cars to the year 2020, even he would have had to slow down on George Street in Dunedin to make the recently enforced 10 kilometers an hour speed limit. Although he would have found the assortment of blue and red dots covering the street quite bewildering. 

And so it was that in 1898, thanks to William McLean, New Zealand’s love affair with cars was born.


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