In early May 1903, Dr George Thomas Humphrey de Clive Lowe posted a letter to approximately 20 motoring enthusiasts, asking if they would be interested in starting an automobile club. A couple of weeks later, on 26 May 1903, Dr de Clive Lowe and six others met to discuss a proposal and by the end of the evening they had formed the Auckland Automobile Association (AAA).
On 4 September 1903, the inaugural meeting of the Canterbury Automobile Association (CAA) took place. Following closely behind in 1904 was Nelson, and in 1905 Otago and Wellington associations were formed. By 1930 there were at least 15 associations: Wanganui (1907), Hawkes Bay (1911), Wairarapa (1912), Marlborough (1913), South Canterbury (1913), South Taranaki (1914), North Auckland (1915), Oamaru (1923), New Plymouth (1924) and Manawatu (1928).
The inauguration of an association, or club, was celebrated with a 'run'. The first run was organised by the AAA in 1903 and five cars took part, driving from Symonds Street to Howick. 'Runs' soon became part of life in the motoring clubs and it was not long before they involved more adventurous routes and distances. The CAA was the first to introduce motor racing, organising 'the great automobile gymkhana' on Boxing Day 1905 at Addington.
The automobile associations pioneered the concept of the New Zealand driver's licence. In 1903 the AAA issued 'Certificates of Competency' to those who passed the exam. However, from 1925 local bodies began issuing the licences.
The associations adopted a lobbying role very early on - the two major issues of concern to them being road improvement and the tax burden on motorists. The AAA launched the first campaign 'Better Roads' in 1904 and over the following two decades the campaign consumed much of it resources.
One of the earliest functions of the associations was signposting. In 1915 the AAA began voluntarily marking routes, however, by 1922 there was a recognised need for someone to formally take on the role to improve signage and provide information on road conditions. Offering his services free of charge Roy Champtaloup undertook this service and by May 1923 he had erected 70 signs and danger boards.
In 1925 Mr Champtaloup drew the first official AA road map by hand, and shortly afterwards was appointed the AAA's Touring Manager. Soon map making became far more sophisticated and, for a time, both Auckland and Wellington associations had their own cartographic departments.
A number of automobile associations set up camping grounds around the country and in 1925 the AAA began a motor camp inspection service. A decade on, the AAA began offering advice to campground owners on what facilities and standard to maintain. Following the Second World War, these services expanded to an inspection and rating system for motels that had started to appear around the country. Each motel was given a grade on a scale of one to five stars. The system achieved significant status within the motel industry and favourable star ratings were printed in an annual AA Accommodation Guide.
The AA is best known for one service - providing roadside assistance to stranded motorists. In 1925 the Southland AA introduced an Overland on the roads as a first aid car for its members. While erecting his signage around the countryside, Mr Champtaloup also provided assistance to many motorists and saw a need for a patrol service. In 1928 AAA secretary George Hutchinson set up the AAA patrol.
In 1929 Mr Hutchison suggested, on behalf of the AAA, that a road safety programme be introduced in schools. Although there was initial resistance, the suggestion was approved by education authorities and soon schools in areas with volumes of traffic established traffic patrols. Automobile associations throughout New Zealand also began actively educating teenagers about driving, a role eventually taken over by the Ministry of Transport in 1954.
Although individual associations produced their own club newsletters, it was decided that a national publication was required. In 1935, representatives from a number of associations met and agreed to publish a monthly national publication titled 'The AA News'. HA Gilbert was appointed Managing Editor of the new publication, and during his 30 years in the role he renamed it 'New Zealand Motor World'. The publication was renamed 'AA Directions' in 1991 when the automobile associations merged.
In 1964 a Secretariat was formed in Wellington for the purpose of national advocacy. For many years George Fairbairn held the role of General Secretary. Mr Fairbairn was the public face of Motoring Affairs until he retired in 2005. The AA's lobbying, or advocacy, remains a cornerstone of the organisation, with a Motoring Affairs team led by Mike Noon dedicated to the task and based in Wellington. In 2007 the New Zealand government decided to dedicate all revenue collected through fuel taxes and road user charges to the land transport fund. This was in part the result of a highly successful lobbying campaign run by the AA over many years on behalf of motorists.
During the 1980s, the now 17 district automobile associations began to merge to form the New Zealand Automobile Association. The final merger of the NZAA (generally known as the AA) was achieved in 1991 and a corporate office was established in Auckland, under the leadership of Chief Executive Brian Gibbons.
Since the 1990s, the AA's products and services have diversified through numerous joint venture companies, franchise operations and business partnerships. Qualmark and AA Insurance are but two examples of them.
In March 1998, the AA introduced AA Rewards, a points-based loyalty programme for AA Members. AA Rewards enabled Members to collect points with purchases made at the five Partner outlets. Points were then able to be redeemed for $20 discount coupons which could be spent on goods and services at AA outlets and programme Partners, or reductions in AA Membership fees. AA Rewards grew to boast more than 50 Partners, making it one of New Zealand's largest loyalty programmes, and delivered over $80 million in value to AA Members.
In November 2011, a new AA Member loyalty programme, AA Smartfuel was launched, replacing AA Rewards. AA Smartfuel is a fuel discount rewards programme available free to all New Zealand motorists, with some additional benefits for AA Members. AA Smartfuel came about as a direct result of increasing fuel prices and Member feedback suggesting that Members would appreciate the AA's help in reducing the cost of fuel. New Zealand motorists can now use their AA Membership card or an AA Smartfuel card to accumulate ‘cents per litre’ fuel discounts when they shop at participating retailers, enabling a total combined discount on up to 50 litres of fuel.
In 2003, the AA celebrated its centenary and reached the one million Member mark.
Since 2004, the AA organised the bi-annual AA Energywise Rally to highlight the fuel consumption of vehicles and the benefits of fuel efficient driving. The supreme winner of the four-day rally around the North Island is the vehicle which costs the least to complete the rally route (including fuel and road user charges).
The AA Motoring Excellence Awards was introduced in 2005 and ran for six years. The annual awards aimed to identify and reward excellence amongst new vehicles and in areas of concern to motorists. The awards provided the New Zealand public with an independent assessment to assist with car purchases. Judging was undertaken by some of New Zealand's best motoring journalists, a top rally driver and technical and mechanical experts.
In 2012 the AA and Motoring Writers' Guild combined their strengths and created the New Zealand Car of the Year award. The award, which replaced the AA Motoring Excellence Awards, is announced annually and aims to provide New Zealand motorists with expert and independent knowledge to assist them when buying a vehicle. The event also announces winners in nine vehicle categories and a special safety award.
"One hundred years of motoring in New Zealand" by John McCrystal