Australia's best-ever cars

Australia's Best Cars 2016/17

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Holden 48/215 – 1948

While the Australian car industry is just months away from oblivion, it wouldn’t have existed at all without this car. A scaled-down version of a North American Chevrolet, the first Holden was beefed up to cope with local conditions. It was light enough to be agile on our bumpy roads and fuel consumption was great. It spawned every full-sized Holden family car since then, as well as forming the inspiration for the various competitors that followed. The first Holden wouldn’t have happened at all without a few visionaries and plenty of government support. How things have changed…

Mitsubishi Magna TM – 1985

Mitsubishi Australia formed out of the ashes of Chrysler’s Australia operation and went head to head with the establishment. To do that, it needed a family car and that was the Magna. Although it was based on a Japanese-market car, Mitsubishi was smart enough to know that it needed to be wider to suit local tastes and needs, so the Japanese car was sliced down the middle and gained 65mm of new metal as well as a lot of strengthening to suit our conditions. Front-wheel-drive was still new to Aussie families, but the Magna delivered in every regard.

Ford XA Falcon – 1972

The first Falcons built in Australia were largely re-hashes of US designs. They were good-looking cars compared with the Holdens of the day, but they lacked that uniquely Aussie flavour. That changed in 1972 when the XA Falcon arrived. Yes, it still had touches of Americana about the way it looked, but the actual design work was done here. As well as a sedan and station-wagon, there was also a ute and a panel-van and even a two-door hardtop. Rugged and dependable, the XA Falcon sold up a storm and proved that designing things in Australia for Australians could really pay off.

Holden VB Commodore 1978

The fuel crisis of the 1970s convinced Holden that smaller was better when it came to family cars. So, production of the old faithful Kingswood was wound down and a European sedan from GM-owned Opel was chosen as the replacement. Early testing in Australia broke the cars in two, leading the visiting German engineers to suggest that it would be more effective spending the development money on better roads, rather than making the car stronger. But Holden persisted and the Commodore was born, raising the bar for local car dynamics. Not everybody liked the smaller interior, but nobody argued with how the new Holden handled and rode.

Holden VT Commodore 1998

Another European design adapted to suit local conditions, the VT was the Commodore that took Australian sedans to world standards in dynamics. Independent suspension across all models made for a much more comfortable big car, and the VT Commodore had higher levels of body integrity and build quality than ever before. It quickly became the best-selling car in the country, and deservedly so. The VT’s world-class credentials were backed up by a deal that saw the car re-badged as a Chevrolet Lumina and exported to the Middle East. And that was the point at which the Australian car industry had truly arrived.

Ford XP Falcon 1965

Ford’s earliest locally-built cars were almost the death of the company. Designs borrowed from the US market were seriously underdone in an engineering sense and, when put to the test on Australian roads, they simply fell apart. The First Falcon, the XK, soon earned a reputation for flimsiness and the Falcon story could have ended right there. But it didn’t, only because Ford started making running changes to the design and, by 1965, it had arrived at the fourth version of the original design, the XP. Suddenly, the bugs were ironed out and the XP was a worthy choice for the Australian consumer. A brutal and risky, 70,000 miles non-stop reliability run proved the point to buyers and saved the company.

Toyota Camry XV10 – 1993

Toyota started building the Camry in Australia in 1987, but the early years of production were centred on the relatively narrow Japanese-market version. Clearly, if Toyota wanted to tackle the locals, it had to think bigger. Or to be specific, wider. Fortunately, Toyota had developed a wider bodyshell for the Camry mainly for the US market, and it soon became clear that it could work here too. From 1993, the Camry was built here and marketed as the ‘wide-bodied Camry’, a tag that stuck in the minds of buyers (as it was meant to). Within months, Aussie-made Camrys were being sent first to Thailand and then to the Middle East. In line with the government’s Button Car Plan, the Camry was also badged as a Holden Apollo up until 1997. A true landmark car.

Ford Coupe Utility – 1934

It’s disputed by some historians, but Ford Australia is credited by many as having invented the car-based utility in 1934. The story goes that a Victorian farmer’s wife wrote to Ford asking why nobody made a car that could take the family to church on Sunday and the pigs to market on Monday. Ford put its only product designer, a young engineer named Lew Bandt, on the task and he came up with the Ute as we now know and love it. Based on a 1934 Ford V8, the result was stylish and pleased farmers’ wives all over Victoria.

Ford XR Falcon GT –1966

Australians love their performance cars. And if that car can also be family transport, great. The idea was popular in the US, but the XR Falcon GT of 1966 was the original Aussie muscle car. By fitting the basic Falcon with a V8, manual transmission and some sporty bling, the Falcon GT was born. It led to a market sector that is still current and thanks to improved efficiency and packaging, the idea remains relevant.

Holden Monaro CV8 – 2001

The born-again Monaro of 2001 proved people-power can’t be ignored. In the late ’90s, a small group of Holden employees worked after-hours on a top-secret project. The plan was to build a two-door version of the VT Commodore, mainly out of interest. But the end result was so stunning, it made it to the Sydney Motor Show in 1998, meeting with a huge public response. Holden knew it had to build it and call it Monaro. And in a coals-to-Newcastle move, the V8, full-sized coupe was exported to North America, the spiritual home of such things.

Written by David Morley
February 21, 2017