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Australia’s Car Culture – A National Obsession, Observed

Australia’s Car Culture – A National Obsession, Observed

Australia is car-crazy. Always has been. For decades, the Holden-Ford debate has been a major topic of conversation, and if you scratch an Australian motorist on anything to do with their car, you’ll get your ears talked off. Anything to do with car service is likely to create a debate, or at least set off a few stories about the issues.

The real car culture got started in the 1950s. The Baby Boom was in full swing, and the postwar population was surging. The building industry doubled the size of Melbourne and Sydney, and the newly affluent middle class went out and bought cars like never before.

That was where the real Holden-Ford rivalry took off. Holden, a GMH subsidiary, was touted as the Aussie car, although Fords were built in Australia as well. The 1950s Holdens and Fords were tough cars, big steel cars with a range of tail fins and designs which even to this day look like strange, cartoon cars, but it’s since been generally agreed that they were great cars under the bonnet, whatever the designs.

A whole series of generations of amateur car mechanics was also born. The great Australia weekend involved a Saturday or Sunday out fixing the car (whether it needed fixing or not, if it didn’t it was called “tuning”) as often as a run to the pub or the beach. Australian suburbia became a sea of cars, with attached car fanatics.

The next generation of cars included some true classics. The Holden Kingswood and the Torana were respectively grunt cars and a famous teen hoon-mobile, although arguably the hoons cared more about the car than themselves. The Kingswood became the police car; the Torana became the car being chased. These cars became truly loved, despite their social roles.

Ford stuck with its basic Falcon design from 1959. This American design was intended to be a competitor with Holden, which was at that time dominating the Australian market, and the Falcons were the first cars to really challenge that domination. The original Falcons were quite big cars, and looked good. They were never quite the cultural icons that the contemporary Holdens were, until the GT series, real “muscle cars”, and they were also racing cars.

From the arrival of a real competitor onwards, the Holden- Ford contest was on, and it’s never stopped. A thousand new brands have come on the road since, but unless they’ve had some power under the bonnet, they’ve barely been noticed by the Australian car culture. Some European cars, notably the E type Jaguar, the RX 7 and the XJS, have made people sit up and take notice, but they’re not quite in the traditional image of the suburban car culture.

Since those times, the Commodores and Fairlanes, Hyundais, Mitsubishis and other cars have “diluted” the pure Australian car culture, but never really changed it as a social phenomenon. It’s a pretty safe bet that as long as people in Australia are talking about car repair and anything related to cars, the “car culture” will always be with us.