Five Favorites from One Lucky Country

WOI 2008 45
Photo by Randy Stern

When I do research on various subjects, I try to have a global perspective in what I am examining. Sometimes, my attention is grabbed by something really wonderful. Most likely, it is something that I do not see every day.

It explains my interest in the Australian automobile industry. It is part of a greater interest in the place they call the "Lucky Country."

One would argue that Australia is still a "young" nation. Their head of state is actually a representative of Queen Elizabeth II. The real power sits in Canberra's Parliament with the Labor Party running a paper thin majority over the so-called Coalition (mainly the Liberals headed by Tony Abbott). It may be of note that the Labor party is about to have a vote on who runs their side of the house – the Prime Minister. Not sure whether it will be replay of the spurning of Kevin Rudd in 2009 that lifted Julia Gillard as PM – or the other way around. That's Australia's problem…we, in the States, have bigger concerns to worry about.

But, I will admit to a fond admiration for Australia. Its politics are as exciting as ours, but even more engaging. Australia has its social issues – some stretching from the time the British landed onto the continent. It appears that there is still a gap between the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander populations and the status quo. The struggle for LGBT civil rights are banked on a national push for same-gender marriage.

Australia also has one of the most in-tune Bear communities on this planet – just listen to the "Bears in the City" podcast out of Sydney, the Brisbane-based "Friday Night Furlosophy" video podcast, the "Cubby House" program on Melbourne's Joy 94.9 FM and follow along with "The Healthy Bear" featuring Melbourne physician Dr. George Forgan-Smith.

Most importantly, and please indulge me here, their men are very attractive.

In a sense there are huge similarities between Australia and my home nation. This is reflective of their automobiles. The standard Australian-developed automobile began as a size balance between the typical British and American automobile. The original Holden broke through as the first Australian car – period. It balanced contemporary design tenets with the needs of a wide-open nation. It had to be made to endure the vast conditions of a large, wide-open continent.

For decades, the Australian car had been an elusive piece of machinery outside of its shores. For a short time in the early 1960s, Hawaiian Pontiac dealers sold Holdens. It was not until last decade when the states saw a fully realized Australian product sold here – the Pontiac GTO coupe. OK, Holden had to modify the Monaro to fit our lovely safety and emissions regulations onto their wonderful coupe – along with a Pontiac nose.

For this edition of Five Favorites, I go across the Pacific to talk about the most elusive vehicles on the planet – to me, that is. These five Australian icons embodied the spirit of a lucky country with more than enough gumption to tackle the outback and those long drives between cities.

Then again, who calls them icons? Perspective, really…

1971-74 HOLDEN HQ: I'm certain there will be arguments as to which mainstream pre-Commodore Holden model should be given bigger billing. In my eyes, this is the one that truly put everything together. The HQ fused many elements of General Motors design and applied them to a contemporary vehicle for the time. It was easy to adopt across body styles – including the Utes. A Holden consumer had plenty to choose from – three main trim lines, the Monaro 2-doors and a wide range of sixes and V8s. The HQ also spawned a long wheelbase luxury car – the Statesman. In a sense, the HQ exemplified the typical Australian car: Purpose built with heavier gauge steel and more durable suspension and components. However, the HQ was a handsome car – whether it roamed inside Sydney or beyond the Blue Mountains towards Dubbo. From what I've seen on Flickr, there's plenty of HQs still running. This is indeed a testament of Australian engineering and manufacture.

1972-73 FORD XA FALCON: Just like Holden, the Falcon was an amalgamation of global Ford design. More significantly, it was the first wholly Australian designed Ford – not just an American Falcon re-engineered for Australian roads. Along with sedans, wagons and utes, the XA Falcon added something special to the Australian landscape – a fastback 2-door hardtop. Power ranged from a 3.3litre in-line six to a 5.8litre Cleveland V8. If the car looks somewhat familiar to you – you probably have seen a modified version in the "Mad Max" film series. The design language would continue through most of the 1970s in the XB and XC Falcons – revised versions of the XA. By taking command of their own design and engineering locally, Ford gained an equal footing in the Australian market with the rival Holden. Was this best Falcon ever? I certainly say so…Mel Gibson, notwithstanding.

1971-73 CHRYSLER VH VALIANT: There seems to be a theme amongst these early 1970s Australian cars how they have taken the idea of independence away from its former American donor to create something special on their own. The VH Valiant marked the first wholly Australian design and developed Valiant with some cues from Chrysler's "fuselage" design language of 1969. The new Valiant's arrival spawned a rival to Holden's Monaro and Ford's Falcon GT – the 2-door fastback Charger. The Valiant also came in sedan, 2-door hardtop, wagon and ute. A long wheelbase version was released off the same platform with similar design elements – the aptly named Chrysler by Chrysler. Power ranged from a Hemi 2.5litre in-line six to a 5.9litre V8. From an outsider's perspective, the Valiant may seem like the proverbial third wheel at a time when the big Australian sedan reigned supreme in Oceana (and other places – South Africa for example). It was the climax of Chrysler's presence down under as it all began to slip – thanks to a fuel crises and increasing pressure from Japanese imports onto a semi-protectionist market. While it lasted, it gave Australians a cult classic to enjoy decades later.

1991-96 MITSUBISHI TR/TS MAGNA/VERADA: As part of the sell off of its offshore entities, Mitsubishi took over Chrysler's operations in Australia by the late 1970s. It gave the three-diamond carmaker some needed capacity in a growing market where the Japanese were establishing beachheads south of the Equator on their side of the Pacific. Though developed in Japan, the big Mitsu sedan was given enough leeway to adapt to various markets when needed. The Magna arrived in 1991 to compete with the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon – except it was a front-wheel drive sedan and wagon. Not only that, the Magna had a four-cylinder motor standard – the Astron II 2.6litre. The Magna also came in a luxurious V6-only model – the Verada. Why mention the Magna/Verada? If you've seen one before, you may think: "Gee, does that look like the Diamante that sold in the states about that time?" Why, yes it is. Not only that, Mitsubishi Motors America imported the wagon version out of their plant near Adelaide. Just so happens that I used to like the Diamante – something close enough to the likes of the Toyota Cressida/Nissan Maxima/Mazda Millenia/Acura Vigor with its own dash of luxury, comfort and driving manners. It's Australian owners would certainly agree.

2006-Current HOLDEN VE COMMODORE: The primary reason why it is on this Five Faves list – the Pontiac G8. There's more to the story, however. The VE was seen as a global rear-drive sedan that was designed to firmly put Australia on the global map. This was a Holden product with high ambitions, hence yielding the largest investment of any new vehicle built in Australia. Again spawning a sedan, wagon and a Ute, the VE offered up a choice of the High Feature V6 and the 6.0litre Small Block V8. The VE also offers fueling with LPG and E85 – making it the greenest Holden ever. The hallmark of the VE is the fact that it was thrown in the waters of one of the toughest markets in the world – North America. Though the numbers did not reflect an inkling of success and the cost of importing the VE as the Pontiac was quite high, it still has a cult following akin to Chrysler's LX rear-drive cars. The G8 was a byproduct of what can be done when someone else has a vision of a global sports sedan that suits American tastes. It was a promise fulfilled, but thwarted by bankruptcy. The VE is still going strong down under and in other markets where it is sold.

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