What Makes Australian Cars Unique?

Cars usually reflect the culture that produced them. People often think that Australian cars are just like American ones. On face value, they are, but look closer and some big differences become apparent that can be explained by differences in car culture.. Australia’s love of performance cars and motorsport, it’s economy, and geography have shaped a class of car that resembles, mechanically at least, a four door version of an American muscle car, but is also different in some fundamental ways.

Following the second world war, Australia's economy had elements of both the US and Europe. Our large landmass and small population favoured a big, comfortable car for long journeys, but we weren't as affluent as the Americans and our cars weren't as cheap. The other thing to take into consideration is the fuel cost. Australia is geographically isolated with a small population. Nearly half the population is concentrated in Melbourne and Sydney, 800km apart. As a result, we've always paid more for petrol than Americans, particularly in regional areas. In the 1950s, a big V8 Ford Customline might have seemed like the ideal car to drive drive from Melbourne to Sydney, but not many people could afford to buy and run it. That wasn't going to work for Australia. Nor were European cars. No one wants to travel between Australian cities in an Austin A40 or a Citroen 2CV.

Between the wars, it was illegal to import car bodies, and Australians made do with locally built versions of foreign cars. But the Australian government saw a problem with this model,with the advent of monococque cars. Australia would have to start manufacturing their own cars and allowing importation of complete cars. The government searched for a company to build a car specifically for Australian conditions. GM had the answer in a Chevrolet-reject six cylinder sedan halfway between a big American and small British car. The Holden 48-215 and it's successors would dominate the Australian market for over a decade.

The right size for Australia - Holden 48-215

The right size for Australia - Holden 48-215

A particularly strange Australian niche that emerged in the 1950s was the luxury ute. Farmers were experiencing an economic boom and wanted to show off their wealth with their car. The trouble was that they needed a ute for work, but they couldn't afford a big American sedan and a Holden or Ford Zephyr ute. This demand was met by Ford with the Mainline, a ute version of the Customline sedan. Ford's American executives were completely baffled by the concept. "Why do you want to make a commercial pickup truck out of a Customline?". But the Mainline is a good example of Australia's long standing automotive needs and preferences. Owning two cars is a relatively recent concept in Australia, so we needed cars that could do everything. We also favour quality over quantity a bit more than Americans. Our cars have always been more expensive,  but they have better build quality. For the price of the Mainline, you could have bought a cheap car and ute, but you wouldn't. Nor would you buy a Mainline built and sold cheaply. The Mainline wasn't alone in the 1950s, Holden offered a Chevrolet ute above it's own utes. 

The existence of the Mainline in the 1950s baffled American Ford executives but was perfectly logical in Australia

The existence of the Mainline in the 1950s baffled American Ford executives but was perfectly logical in Australia

Holden’s near-monopoly was broken in 1960. In response to the Volkswagen Beetle, the Big Three Americans started working on new “compact” cars for 1960. The Ford Falcon was roughly the size of a Holden and cheaper to build than a  Zephyr. It was therefore able to provide actual competition for Holden whereas the Zephyr was too expensive. The Plymouth Valiant (as a Chrysler) would follow in 1962. These cars would prove to be the wrong size for America, but in Australia they were perfect. America’s unwanted small cars were the foundation for Australia's large cars in the post-war years, but from then on, they would go their own way.

The Ford Falcon was the first serious contender to the dominant Holden

The Ford Falcon was the first serious contender to the dominant Holden

Australians started taking interest in motorsport in the early 1960s with the Armstrong 500 and the Australian Touring Car Championship. The Armstrong 500 introduced the idea of win on Sunday, sell on Monday and gave us cars like the Ford Cortina GT500 and Holden S4. These aren’t really muscle cars, but they were our first performance cars. By the mid 1960s, performance had become a major selling point between Ford, Holden and Chrysler. Ford and Holden were selling high performance versions of their six cylinder family sedans: the Pursuit 250, and the S4, and Chrysler introduced a Valiant V8 in 1965. In 1966, two more important steps towards an Australian muscle car were made, the release of the  “Mustang-bred” XR Ford Falcon, with an optional 289ci Windsor V8, and a Mini winning Bathurst. The Morris Cooper S winning the Bathurst 500 outraged Ford, who commissioned a civilian version of the Police Interceptor Pack Falcon. The first Australian muscle car, the Falcon GT, was born. Holden then followed, and took things a step further, with the Monaro. The Monaro was Australia's first post war coupe and was designed to be youthful and sporty. Trouble is, few young people could afford a car worth more than their dad's kingswood. Chrysler, who had dipped their toe in the water with the Hemi Six powered Valiant Pacer sedan and hardtop, later addressed this with the Charger, a short wheelbase fastback coupe version of the Valiant. Unlike the Monaro, the Charger was cheaper than it's sedan counterpart.

Motorsport had created the first Australian muscle car and would continue to shape its development through the late 1960s and 70s. The battle to win Bathurst in the series production days produced the Holden Monaro GTS, the Falcon GTHO the Valiant Charger R/T and the Holden Torana GTR XU1. The objective of these homologation specials wasn’t so much to be a commercial success in their own right, but to win Bathurst and sell lesser models. Series production endurance racing ended with the 1972 Supercar Scare, but we still got V8 Toranas and wide body Falcon GT coupes. This pursuit of performance on the track, not just on the strip or between the lights, meant that homologation special Australian muscle cars handled relatively well for their size. The Falcon GTHO Phase 1 had a number of suspension upgrades and the first aerodynamic feature on an Australian car (the front splitter) in an attempt to make it handle. Rather than try to beat Ford at their own game, Holden responded in 1970 by replacing the Monaro GTS 350 with the smaller six cylinder Torana GTR XU1. Allan Moffat would win Bathurst driving Falcon in 1970 and 71, but Holden's move to the Torana would deliver a victory in 1972 with Peter Brock. Chrysler had also opted to run a six cylinder car, the Hemi Six Charger R/T E38 and later E49. The E49 was the fastest accelerating and most powerful six cylinder car ever produced until the the 930 Porsche 911 Turbo was released in 1975. Chrysler would never win Bathurst, with a best result of third in 1972.

Our love of touring car racing meant out muscle cars had to handle 

Our love of touring car racing meant out muscle cars had to handle 

The other big thing that really separates Australian muscle cars from American muscle cars is that with only a handful of exceptions they are all sedans. There has also been one hatch, the Holden Torana SS, one wagon, the Holden Commodore Sportwagon and since the early 90s, utes. The coupes we did have were short lived and borrowed heavily from existing sedans. In America, the Mustang didn’t share any panels with the Falcon it was based on, but the Monaro, Charger, Falcon coupe, Valiant Hardtop and Torana hatch were all coupe versions of sedans. Australian carmakers have never been able to afford to develop uniquely styled coupes. These coupes usually cost more than their sedan counterparts.  

This was a big problem. A small population and geographic isolation meant that cars have always been more expensive in Australia than in America, so historically, Australians have only been able to afford one car, so if you had kids, having a family sedan or wagon and a big V8 coupe was out of the question. Your second car had to be a small car, if you had one at all. A Kingswood/Monaro two car garage was too expensive in Australia. A Falcon GT or Monaro GTS sedan however could be your primary family car accompanied by an Escort or Gemini if you needed a second car. 

Most young people who didn't have kids couldn't afford a Falcon Hardtop or Monaro. By the time that Ford had released the Falcon coupe, Holden had already worked that our and had pitched the second generation Monaro a grand tourer aimed at older buyers, making the cheaper Torana the main performance model. Chrysler, too were positioning their Valiant Charger performance coupe below the Valiant sedan. The Charger was the biggest selling Valiant before it was inexplicably dropped. Meanwhile, the Ford Falcon coupe was tanking. By the time the XC was released, it was cheaper than the sedan. 

The Chrysler Valiant Charger was smaller and cheaper than the Valiant sedan

The Chrysler Valiant Charger was smaller and cheaper than the Valiant sedan

Even low prices couldn't save these large coupes. None of them survived the oil crisis to make it to the 1980s, not even the Torana. Young people were already stretched to buy and run a six cylinder or V8 coupe, so when fuel prices rose, they bought four cylinder alternatives like to Toyota Celica and Holden Gemini. The emergence of surf culture in the late 1970s also ate into coupe sales, with young people turning to panel vans instead. Surfers bought Falcon, Holden and Valiant vans because they could put a mattress in the back and have free accommodation at the beach. They would often customise their vans with murals and parts from their muscle car counterparts. In response to this trend, the big three offered the Holden Sandman, Falcon Surferoo and Valiant Drifter. Each with leftover parts from the Monaro, Falcon GT and Charger respectively. 

After few years, surf culture died off a bit and the vans disappeared. Muscle cars would survive as sedans only until utes surfaced as muscle cars in the 1990s. The only people who could afford to buy and run a V8 had families and needed something practical. Brock Commodores and the Falcon and Fairmont ESP appealed to buyers who could afford a new muscle car but had to have a sedan. This formula blending of sports car performance and family car practicality will last until the end of Australian manufacturing.

The influence of motorsport continued into the 1980s, with Brock Commodores and aftermarket Falcon Phase 5 and Phase 6 kits designed for Group C touring car homologation. Ford dropped the V8 in 1982, but Brock's influence still helped to shift V8 Commodores. When Holden and Brock split, Tom Walkinshaw established Holden Special Vehicles to homologate Group A touring cars for the Holden Racing Team and privateers. The first HSV, the Commodore SS Group A SV Walkinshaw, had independent rear suspension and a comprehensive wind tunnel developed aero kit to try and catch the Ford Sierra. 28 years later and American muscle cars have only just caught up. 

The plastic pig: HSV VL Commodore SS Group A SV Walkinshaw

The plastic pig: HSV VL Commodore SS Group A SV Walkinshaw

Group A's global demise lead to the introduction of Group 3A 5.0 litre touring cars in 1993, the category that would be renamed V8 Supercars in 1998. The rules were written to suit Ford and Holden and exclude everyone else without explicitly doing so. Racing no longer dictated new car design, but Australians still had an aversion to front wheel drive. Not only could RWD could satisfy our desire for muscle cars, it allowed family sedans to tow boats and caravans, and gave utes respectable payloads. A Ford Falcon Ute could carry more than its Japanese pickup rivals. In Amercia the Ford Taurus spread like the plague. When it was sold in Australia, hardly anyone bought it. 

Even without motorsport to think about, the vast majority of Australians live on the east coast, east of the Great Dividing Range. The Great Dividing Range and the Yarra Ranges north of Melbourne are home to some great driving roads, and with a massive speed camera and police presence in our cities and on our highways, Australian driving enthusiasts prefer these more isolated roads. This makes handling a higher priority for Australians than it is for Americans. The Ford Falcon XR6, developed by Tickford and released  1994, was Australia's version of the hot hatch, a sports car derived from a common family car. Australian families just happened to prefer large sedans to small hatchbacks. It was affordable, faster than it's V8 contemporaries, had grippy handling and was just as practical and more fuel efficient than a standard six cylinder Falcon. A car like the Falcon XR6 could only have come from 90s Australia. It's too big for Europe, and Americans have never had to compromise with cars. America has the economies of scale to make cars that only Americans want very cheap. America has a population of 250 million and very different expectations. A sedan doesn't have to be sporty, a sports car doesn't have to be practical and nothing has to handle. You can build the totally unrelated Mustang and Taurus, and sell them cheap to the same person. In Australia, you're selling a car only in a country of 20 million, that one car has to do everything for everyone. Particularly when many families could still only afford one new and one used car. The Falcon XR6 was the result. Equal parts family car and sports car. A Golf GTI if it were designed for a big, low population density country.

The EF Ford Falcon XR6 was faster than a HSV Clubsport

The EF Ford Falcon XR6 was faster than a HSV Clubsport

Holden had another go at the Monaro from 2001 to 2006. Just as the original was a Kingswood coupe, the new one was a coupe version of the Commodore. They struggled to get a business case together and relied on export sales to make it work. The Holden Monaro was sold as the Vauxhall Monaro, Pontiac GTO and Chevrolet Lumina SS coupe. It appealed to Australians, but Americans didn't like the styling. Maybe it should have been sold in America as a Chevrolet, then it wouldn't have needed that droopy Pontiac grille. A VE Monaro was considered, but it didn't stack up financially. Ford ran into the same problem when they investigated an FG Falcon coupe. Our population was too small to sustain niche models like coupes when the tariff walls had been all but torn down.

Holden revived the Monaro in 2001

Holden revived the Monaro in 2001

The 2000s came and brought with it the user-chooser company car. Two modern cars was and had been for a while, the default setting for middle Australia. Initially this was good for Australian manufacturers. Employees who could now choose their own cars and often got discounts for choosing the same brand as their company's regular fleet. Sales of the Falcon XR6 and XR6 Turbo, and the Commodore S grew rapidly, to the point where the XR6 was the most popular Falcon model for most of the FG/FG-X production run from 2008-16.

Today, cheap flights and a stagnating public transport network means most driving is done in the city. Car enthusiasts buying a new car are more likely to buy a hot hatch than a muscle car. Australia is one of the world's biggest markets for Renaultsport and GTI models make up a greater portion of Volkswagen Golf and Polo sales in Australia than the rest of the world. Australia is also one of the biggest markets for AMG as a percentage of total Mercedes-Benz sales. What really killed the large Australian sedan, is that families are now buying SUVs and 4WD utes rather than large sedans and wagons. These days only motoring enthusiasts care about performance or handling. With the way Victoria and New South Wales police speed, who could blame the average Australian for losing interest in driving and buying a faux off-roader or a 4WD instead of a car. Ford saw this coming in the late 1990s and released the Territory in 2004. The Territory was based around the BA Falcon,with a new Virtual Pivot double A arm front suspension design that would later be used in the FG. Strut stalwarts BMW were accused of copying the Territory's front suspension with the second generation X5. It set a new benchmark for ride and handling yet to be matched in the large SUV class and remains the only SUV to win Wheels Car of the Year. was the most popular SUV in Australia for the first few years, but an unwillingness from Dearborn to invest saw it lose market share in recent years.

The Ford Territory is a fine example of what the Australian car industry was capable of 

The Ford Territory is a fine example of what the Australian car industry was capable of 

Ford Falcon production ended in October this year. Holden Commodore production will end late next year. The factors that lead to the death of the Falcon and Commodore are different to those that put an end to local car manufacturing in general. It would have happened even if Broadmeadows (Ford) and Elizabeth (Holden) remained open beyond next year. The Falcon would have made way for the Ranger and the Commodore the Captiva. They will leave a hole in the new car market that no car can quite fill. Other RWD sedans are too expensive, except for the Chrysler 300, which is too big and doesn't handle as well, Australian cars are a product of a unique set of circumstances, and we might never see new cars like them again.