By the end it was was best known for the drunken brawls that marked its conclusion each year, but for a time the Undie 500 was a (relatively) innocent Christchurch-to-Dunedin lark. Chelle Fitzgerald met up with Undie 500 founding member Matt McCloy for a nostalgic look back.
This is an edited version of a story that appears in the first 2020 issue of Critic, the University of Otago student magazine, out now.
It began as a simple hitchhiking race; by its end the Undie 500 was a legendary part of South Island student life. Running from 1988 to 2009, the annual Undie 500 event involved student participants buying a warranted and registered car for less than $500, decorating it, and driving it from Christchurch to Dunedin. It was facilitated by the Engineering Society of Canterbury University (ENSOC) and for a time the man at its centre was Matt McCloy, who as ENSOC sports officer was in charge of organising “drinking horns, rugby tournaments, the keg every Saturday, those sorts of fun activities”.
The Undie 500 started life in 1986 as a hitchhiking race from Christchurch to Dunedin, though “not many of them made it,” says McCloy. The following year it became a car race, with a maximum budget of $300, “but then not many of the $300 cars even made it – I don’t know if any made it”. Undeterred, McCloy and his friend Pete Taylor decided, “right, $500, up to $499, buy a car, do a race down.” They purchased a Holden Special for $186 and named her Doris.
Decorating the cars was part of the event from the start. “It evolved from the Engineering Ball [in 1988], where our friend Buckweed was driving his wannabe girlfriend home, and we decided ‘oh, we’ll pick up some road signs and a few other things on the way home.”(Theft is a bad thing which we in no way endorse – ed.) With eight or nine of them squeezed into a car, they arrived home with “quite a lot of road signs, and those big flashing lights” in the back.
They quickly stashed all the evidence in the garage, where they found some “horrible” paint with which they disguised Doris the car. “So, we thought, right, we better have the Undie 500 next week”.
The inaugural Undie 500 that year comprised about 12 cars. “We did the rules up and invited a few people. There had to be a sober driver, who drinks a couple of jugs at the last pub, the Gardies.”
That first event was attended by the students who had been part of both the hitchhiking race and the $300 car race. “They were all the mechanical engineers who supposedly knew everything,” says McCloy, laughing. As the official driver of Doris, he found himself picking up other contestants along the route. “We ended up with like 14 in the car. [With] big bench seats, [we had] four in the front, four in the back, then another few in the ‘back’ back.” As cars broke down, the other contestants picked up as many of their stranded cohorts as they could. “We were a bit full over the Kilmog,’ he says with some understatement, referring to the huge hill at Dunedin’s northern entrance.
The following year, the convoy had doubled to about 25 cars, including Doris with a brand-new paint job for a second voyage. “We were the only ones to use the same car from the previous year,” McCloy says proudly. In the third year, attendance doubled again, with around 50 cars making their way down south.
Asked about the most memorable moments from the Undie 500, McCloy sheepishly recounts a car going up in flames. “Look, it was an environmental disaster about to happen that some petrol was going to run into the gutter, so putting it on fire was saving the environment. The fact that it ran up the gutter and went into a car had nothing to do with me.” This and other shenanigans were part and parcel of the Undie 500, which steadily grew larger through the years. In later years it attracted media attention for all the wrong reasons, with riots breaking out in Dunedin’s student quarter in the aftermath of the event every year from 2006 to 2009.
Eighty arrests were made over the two nights of the 2009 Undie 500 event, which saw police push back the crowds with pepper spray and riot shields as rogue bottles and bricks rained down on their riot gear. Firefighters were called in to fight the many blazes breaking out, threatening cars and flats. As a result of the 2009 carnage, the Undie 500 was cancelled by the University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA) due to the inability of ENSOC to control the behaviour of people – students and non-students alike – who were turning up to the event in droves.
McCloy says he’s still sad about the cancellation of the Undie 500, attributing it to “the closed-mindedness of councils. New Zealand is a great place – let people be intuitive, get on, be innovative and do shit … part of that is people having fun.”
Doris the Holden Special now lies in her final resting place, buried “in a spot by my old man’s farm, down by a riverbed”. As her bumper corrodes with the years and she returns slowly to the earth from whence she came, she revs on in the memories of those wild young engineering students who took her on the ride of her life to Dunedin.