The Undie 500 student car rally left Christchurch for Dunedin
yesterday. This year, organisers are touting it as more
community focused, following three years of ructions at the
Dunedin end. Debbie Porteous looks at the history of New
Zealand's most infamous rally.
It has been 21 years since the first Undie 500 student car
rally and for many years it was a smooth ride to Dunedin from
Christchurch, but the ugly scenes in 2006, involving riot
police, arrests and fires, soured the rally's reputation and
the city withdrew the welcome mat.
This year, organisers of the Undie 500 have rebranded it as a
charity drive in the hope that it will bypass the trouble
that has followed it in the past three years.
Organised by the Canterbury University Engineering Society,
the rally was first held in 1986 and involves students
driving south in decorated vehicles bought for less than
$500, stopping at designated pubs along the way.
Last year, the rally was officially cancelled after the 2006
and 2007 rallies descended into chaos, requiring the
attendance of riot police to bring them under control, but
people gathered in Castle St in Dunedin's student quarter
anyway, disorder ensued and, again, dozens were arrested.
Not quite ready to accept things will be different this year,
police will greet rally-goers, and Dunedin party-goers using
it as an excuse, with an operation involving dozens of
Extra staff from the University of Otago's security team,
Campus Watch, are rostered on and have made special visits to
North Dunedin flats in preparation for the anticipated
disorder, while the city's firefighters are on the alert and
council rubbish collectors are at the ready for the big
By 7am tomorrow, it should look like nothing ever happened in
Castle St. Of course, nothing may have happened. After all,
the annual pilgrimage itself created little trouble until
In that year, unofficial cars joined the event. The night
after the rally arrived in Dunedin, things got out of hand.
Fifty-six students were arrested in Castle St, mainly on
charges of disorderly behaviour. The next year was worse,
with 69 arrests and more than 70 fires set.
More then 30 were arrested last year when partying continued
even though the official rally was cancelled.
In 2007, former rally organiser Steve Guiness told the Otago
Daily Times that, for much of its history, the Undie 500 had
been a novel event with its focus on decorating cars and
enjoying the drive south rather than causing trouble in
How the rally was started is unclear, but former Ensoc
president William Corke said one suggestion was it began
unofficially in 1987, with a small group of students who
dressed up and drove to Dunedin for a rugby match.
It began officially in 1988, launched to tie in with an
annual rugby match between Canterbury engineering students
and University of Otago surveying students.
That match still happens, alternating each year between
Dunedin and Christchurch.
This year, it was held in Christchurch.
Rather than travel south by bus, 1988's engineering students
decided to buy cars valued at less than $250 and decorate
them according to the type of engineering they were studying.
Electrical engineering students added lights to their
vehicles, mechanical engineering students built catapults and
levers and the civil engineering students built big
The event grew in popularity and was extended to include all
Canterbury students and vehicles decorated in a number of
themes, from Spice Girls in 1997 to batmobiles in 2005.
Engineering students remained keen to show their technical
skills, with some spending weeks on their entries.
In 2004, the organisers decided to cap the number of vehicles
to 150 for the first time to prevent overcrowding in the six
scheduled watering holes on the trip south.
Vehicles had to have a warrant of fitness and a sober driver.
Since then, keen participants have lined up from 6am on the
day registrations opened, eager not to miss out, and many
have had to be turned away.
Before 2006, there were few reports of trouble associated
with the event.
In 1995, the ODT reported one student arrested and charged
with assault during the event, and, in 2005, Canterbury
University spoke to two students following incidents in
While couch and rubbish burning in the student area the
weekend of the Undie 500 had kept the Fire Service
increasingly busy since 2003, no large police presence was
required until 2006.
Ensoc's 2009 president, Carl Shrimpton, has touted this
year's event as "far more community friendly", scheduling the
rally away from the traditional date around the August
university mid-semester break to try to ensure less drunken
behaviour, and also asking participants to bring cans of food
with them for food banks.
However, some of the focus of the event is still very much on
Ensoc has publicly encouraged Dunedin licensed premises to
provide entertainment and food to draw people to a more
controlled environment, a plea which it describes on its
website as: ". . . hook us up and throw some deals around so
that we can still have a mean time".
Participants are also reminded on the website how important
it is to behave this year.
"We have brought the Undie 500 charity drive back for you,
but it will require everybody's input to make it a success.
"We want and need to show Dunedin why we are doing this, the
tradition, the cars, and the rip-roaring good time that it
is, and show them why it is held so dear to the students of
the University of Canterbury."