Though now synonymous with riot police, couch burnings and general depravity, the Undie 500 (read: “undie-five-hundie”) had humble beginnings – just ask Doris, the ‘67 Holden Special. The annual event was a tradition spanning from 1988-2009, with a history as long and messy as the drive itself. Organised by the Engineering Society of Canterbury (ENSOC), the Undie 500 was essentially an all-day pub crawl on wheels, in which Canterbury students would make the 360km journey from Christchurch to Dunners. The one condition: it had to be done in a car purchased for under $500 (hence the name, though this would be relaxed due to inflation in later years).
Cars were required to have a sober driver and be warranted and registered, but most of all they were required to be decorated. Prizes were awarded for categories such as “Best Dressed Team” or “Best Engineered Car”, which lead to convoys of more-than-pimped rides often resembling parade floats rather than cars. Regrettably, there was also a “Most Politically Incorrect Car” category, which aged just as well as you'd think. Throughout its run, the Undie 500 saw vehicles decorated as Thomas the Tank Engine, the Batmobile, and Noah’s Ark, to name a few, and naturally attracted a lot of attention from both national and international media. However, despite recent efforts to revive the event, the Undie 500 has vroomed its last vroom, so to speak. Its decades-long story has been punctuated with a controversial reputation, meeting a rather fiery end.
The first seeds of what would become the Undie 500 were planted in 1986, when ENSOC organised a hitchhiking race from Christchurch to Dunedin to watch the annual Canterbury University Engineers v Otago Surveyors rugby match. In 2020, Critic reporter Chelle Fitzgerald was fortunate enough to interview Matt McCloy, founding member of ENSOC, on the creation and early history of the Undie 500, which we’ve reprinted here:
The inception of the Undie 500 began in 1986 with a hitchhiking race from Christchurch to Dunedin, “but not many of them made it.” The following year they made a $300 rule to buy a car and go down, “but then not many of the $300 cars even made it. I don’t know if ANY made it.” Undeterred, Matt and his friend Pete Taylor decided, “right, $500, buy a car, do a race down.” They purchased a Holden Special 186: “It was great, it was called Doris.”
Decorating the cars was always 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 we’d pick up some road signs and a few other things on the way home.” With a carload of “probably seven or eight of us,” they ended up getting home with “quite a lot of road signs, and those big flashing lights” in the back of the car.
They quickly stashed all the evidence in the garage, where they found “all this horrible paint from the landlord” which they disguised Doris with. “So, we thought, right, we better have the Undie 500 next week.” The inaugural Undie 500 that year comprised of about 12 or 13 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. It started at the Bush Inn [in Christchurch].” Matt’s son Ben had taken him to the site of the Gardies recently and pointed out that Matt was “almost crying when we went to the Gardies” – now the Marsh Study Center on Castle Street. Matt frowned at his drink: “It’s disgusting there. There’s no requiem or anything.”
That first event was attended by all the boys who had been part of both the hitchhiking race and the $300 car race. “They were all the mechanical engineers who supposedly knew everything.” As the official driver of Doris, Matt “picked those guys up, because their car had crapped out”. They ended up picking up two other carloads, in the already full Holden Special. “We ended up with like 14 in the car. Big bench seats, four in the front, four in the back, then another few in the ‘back back’.” As carloads broke down, the other cars picked up as many of their stranded cohorts as they could. “We were a bit full over the Kilmog.”
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.” In the third year of the event, attendance had doubled again, with around 50 cars paving the way down south.
Matt was involved in the event for three years before passing the torch down through ENSOC, likening it to the Engineering Ball. “We used to run that, too - 600 people, open bar. There were enough people rolling on so that it just kept going. There were always people willing to step up and do shit.” His voice betraying a touch of ENSOC pride, he pointed out that ENSOC is a very historical society. “It’s one of the oldest societies in New Zealand, dates back to the 1880s. So, there’s quite a bit of passing the chequebook on [...] Quite a good group of people to do shit with.”
In what can only be considered a heroic effort, Matt sheepishly recounted 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 and larger, attracting national news coverage in later years with riots occurring from 2006-2009, culminating in a highly negative public opinion towards both students and the event itself.
At its peak, the Undie 500 would attract thousands of student onlookers, though the number of participants would become limited to 150 in 2003. Despite being organised by UoC students, the Undie 500 was heavily embedded in Dunedin student culture – after all, the weary passengers would end up on Castle Street at the Gardies, where they’d be met in spectacular fashion. The rally was routinely held around the last Friday of August mid-sem break, with drivers winding up in Dunedin early Friday night and traditionally staying for Saturday night, too, for a decent Castle piss-up with the breathas (or the archaic “scarfies”) in the warm glow of a burning couch. In the days before adding rubbish to a fire was a serious breach of the Uni Code of Conduct, couch burning was surprisingly legal - until the DCC changed laws around backyard rubbish burning in 2013. Couch burnings go back to at least the ‘80s as an Otago tradition, but experienced a sharp uptick after the legal age to purchase alcohol was lowered to 18 from 20 in 1999, with police reporting increases from about 60 to over 360 a year. It was also so commonplace during the Undie 500 that for most of its lifespan, cops “didn’t bother counting them on those nights.” For an inter-uni weekend rager following a costumed, drunken, five-hour minimum parade down the country, the Undie 500 was pretty uneventful. Until it wasn’t.
2006 - Stoking the Fire
2006 was a different time. Critic ran ads for legal highs, some of you had only just escaped being almost swallowed, and Campus Watch wouldn’t even be a thing until 2007. Couch burning was an unquestioned part of the Undie 500, and as participants and partiers alike would be hitting Castle that weekend in ‘06, fire engines were already stationed on the street on Undie Saturday - usually the rowdiest of the two nights. With student enrolments increasing (they used to do that) and more unofficial cars joining the Undie 500, that Saturday night would see a crowd of a few hundred on Castle Street. 13 fires were lit in under four hours.
Police were well aware of the reputation of the Undie 500. With extra staff on that night, they were called out to Castle Street to help control the fires, but arrived to students being “tackled” by firefighters. Students were told to move on by police, but when this failed the cops “had to take a heavy hand” and began to control the crowd with batons. Students would later claim that the police presence “blew it up a bit.” The scene quickly devolved into further chaos, with police allegedly going into flats and dragging students onto the street. Bottles were being tossed, a row of at least 11 bare student arses (I counted) mooned the cops, and some students were dancing naked around the flames. 30 arrests were made for disorderly behaviour, however no injuries were recorded. Police would refer to the students’ behaviour as “just a charade” and “not the worst incident”, because it really was a different time. Few news outlets referred to this event as a “riot” at the time, some even opting for “near-riot”, but the precedent had been set.
2007 - Okay, Definitely a Riot
“We were able to follow the dotted couches that were burning along the way, like a guiding path right to the heart of Studentville – Castle Street.” - UoO student (2007).
After the previous year’s events, the ‘07 Undie would see a temporary liquor ban placed on Castle Street for the duration of the weekend, and an ‘Operation Undie 500’ squad of police. In their ten months of planning for the event, ENSOC also worked with local authorities in Ashburton, Timaru, Oamaru, and Dunedin to attempt to minimise the disruption. Police would later say that “they got it wrong” and didn’t have enough manpower, with only 36 staff in their weekend taskforce. This time, the crowd numbered in the thousands, and the debacle was substantially worse than the year prior. It was clear that it was a drunker, rowdier crowd.
Students from both unis had spent all day drinking for the event, and things kicked off in a blaze much earlier than usual. Years later, Critic would speak to Officer Ian Paulin, who’d “dealt with the Undie 500 right from its inception” and recalled how the nature of the event had spiralled over time: “It just became more about the party at the end of it than the actual event [...] it reached a point in 2007 where it was just massive.” Around 80 fires were set (including cars this time) and bottles were thrown once more. 69 people were arrested (nice), only 9 of whom were Canterbury students registered for the Undie 500. The arrests were initially made for disorderly conduct, but for 21 this would eventually be upgraded to rioting (though later downgraded as the charge was “very difficult to prove”), with many facing convictions. Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin would describe the carnage as “disgraceful”, declaring that the Undie 500 was over.
2008 - The Underground Undie
In 2008, ENSOC attempted to work with local groups and authorities to create a management plan for the Undie 500, complete with participant bonds to guarantee good behaviour and a proposal to fund a concert on Undie Saturday to create a controlled outlet for what was predictable debauchery. The Mayor denied their request, so the Undie 500 was cancelled. Just kidding – despite the denial, around 100 rogue UoC’ers travelled down for an ‘Underground Undie 500’, resulting in another riot. However, this time it saw a lot more non-students at the event who had come along seemingly to start shit. Potentially due to another liquor ban from the Council (with some voting against, citing the need to deal with the ‘Underground’ organisers instead), all was quiet for most of Undie weekend – until someone lit a couch on fire around midnight Saturday, just in time for Gardies to close and shepherd hundreds of drunk people onto Castle Street, where chaos ensued. Someone blew up a letterbox. 100 police were rostered and this time many arrests were made.
2009 - End of an Era
“It's just a mentality that's around at the moment. Everyone was expecting a riot, so a riot happens. It's self-fulfilling." - UoC student and Undie participant, 2009.
2009 saw the final official lap of the Undie 500. It ended not with a bang, but with a – nah, sike, of course there were bangs, because there was another riot. After the inter-organisational failings of the previous year, ENSOC were determined to install as many safety measures in place as possible, even rebranding the Undie as a food drive in which UoC participants brought over 1,000 cans of food to donate to Dunedin food banks. However, the Mayor once again refused to cooperate with ENSOC, condemning the event. The Undie 500 itself ran successfully, as it often did – with another temporary liquor ban in place, and ENSOC’s “good behaviour” bond instituted – but the after-parties saw the now formulaic violent face-off between students and police. That year, the focus on the Undie itself had dwindled, with fewer cars and less of a spectacle. Until drunk idiots poured out of the Gardies onto Castle and started burning shit. Again. This time, the arrests numbered 60 over the weekend, and many injuries were tended to by emergency services. Police reportedly had to bring in extra canisters of pepper spray as they pushed the crowd back.
Canterbury students blamed Otago students and vice-versa, as well as the sensationalism of the event that attracted non-students. Others still would blame indifference from the Council or overzealous police, who an Otago student said “did a good job overall, but they can't always distinguish who are being dickheads or who just want to have fun,” having pepper-sprayed people in their flat doorways and charged uninvolved residents on adjacent streets with liquor ban violations. At least 17 Otago students faced convictions. Some experienced devastating burns. Eventually, the Christchurch earthquakes put the final nail in the coffin, with later attempts to reinvent the Undie being unsuccessful and the University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA) pulling the plug altogether. The fire had fizzled out.
Matt was saddened when the Undie 500 in its original form was cancelled, attributing it to “the closed-mindedness of councils [...] NZ 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 founding fathers who breathed life into her.