Australia’s favourite cars through the decades

A Ford Ranger Raptor driving on a dirt road

Blanche Clark

Posted September 05, 2023


From the Holden Monaro, to the VT Commodore and the Toyota HiLux, we look in the rear-view to see which cars have made the biggest impression on us as a nation over the decades.

Every decade there’s a car that’s a star. It’s more than a top-selling vehicle; it’s a car that reflects our needs and aspirations, and shapes our culture.

Although affordability and availability influence our choices of makes and models, our favourite cars over the decades also reflect our love of innovation, eye for style, and desire for reliability and high-performance. Sometimes disruptions, such trade restrictions, tariffs and import quotas, have limited our choices, but we’ve always kept abreast of world trends. 

Picking the best car for each decade since the 1950s, when car ownership became a reality for one in 10 households, is tricky. Sometimes the cars we loved pioneered new technology, sometimes they were the perfect size for families, and sometimes they had design features we couldn’t resist.

So, taking sales figures, cultural significance, and iconic status into account, what follows is a list of Australia’s favourite cars over the decades since the 1950s. 

Watch Steve talk about his 1966 VW Beetle restoration

The road we have taken

The romance between Australians and their cars took off in 1900, when Harley Tarrant built Australia’s first petrol-driven car in a South Melbourne workshop.

The Tarrant car (there’s one on display at RACV Club in Melbourne’s CBD) Was overtaken in 1908 by the more affordable and powerful Ford Model T, which was assembled by local dealers with an imported chassis (called a knock-down kit) and a locally made body. It was well suited to the Australian terrain and popular with farmers.

Ford and Holden began assembling cars in Australia in the 1920s, but it was a bumpy road for the automobile industry through the Great Depression and World War II. It wasn’t until the late 1940s, when town planning focused on suburban growth and new road systems, that the number of passenger vehicle owners began to grow.

Tarrant motor car on display

Manufactured in 1906 by Harley Tarrant (1860-1949), this vehicle has a two-seater roadster style body, which was constructed during its restoration in the 1960s. It is on permanent display at RACV City Club.


 

Rubber hits the road

Fast forward to 1955, and ABS data shows one in 10 Australians owned a car, with Holden the driving force in car sales, thanks to the locally-made Holden 48-215, launched in 1948, and Holden FJ in 1953. 

Over 66 years, from 1955 to 2021, the number of passenger vehicles registered in Australia increased from 1.4 million to 20.1 million. Holden was a dominant force for the second half of the 20th century, but our tastes changes as the new millennium dawned. Toyota became the top-selling brand in 2004, with 21 per cent share of the market, ahead of Holden with 17.9 per cent, Ford with 11.9 per cent and Mazda with 6.8 per cent.

Although it broke our hearts when Holden ended local manufacturing in 2017, it didn’t take long for us to switch to the next big thing. SUVs and utes soon overtook traditional passenger sedans, wagons and hatchback as our favourite type of cars. 

Likewise, our uptake of EVs in the past year shows we value innovation and reliability, and no doubt sales will soar when the price is right.

Historic car advertisement

The 48-215, or FX, sparked a nationwide desire for more powerful, reliable and affordable cars. 


 

1950s

Holden 48-215 

The Holden 48-215 – unofficially known as the FX – was the first car to be mass-produced in Australia. After extensive testing on Melbourne roads, the first one rolled off the assembly line at Fisherman’s Bend on 29 November 1948. 

A four-door sedan with Chevrolet styling and seating for up to six people, it was marketed to families as an alternative to the large American cars and the smaller British cars that dominated the market at the time. Sales took off in the 1950s as consumer confidence and prosperity grew, following the uncertainty and austerity of the post-war period. 

The 48-215 was tough, reliable, fuel efficient and affordable, and covered typical Australian distances in good time – all benchmarks that guide our car purchases today. 

Holden Monaro on display

An Australian-made 1969 HK Holden 327 GTS Monarao Coupe Sedan on display at a motor show in Melbourne. Image: ALAMY


 

1960s

Holden HK Monaro

One in every two cars sold in Australia was a Holden in the 1960s, and Mercedes Benz was the luxury car of choice. British and European 4-cylinder cars were still popular, but Holden, Ford and Chrysler’s locally built 6-cylinder models suited those Aussies keen for power, efficiency and driving ease. 

Arguably, the Holden EH was the icon of the 1960s, holding the record to this day as the fastest-selling car in Australia (250,000 units in 18 months), but in terms of cultural impact we’re giving the gong to the first muscle car, the Holden HK Monaro GTS. Powered by a V8 engine, the Monaro drove itself into the history books with a win at Bathurst in 1968, and although it was quickly superseded by the HT Monaro, it’s still prized by car fanatics today. 

Datsun 120Y

The popularity of the Datsun 120Y was based on trouble-free running and excellent fuel economy. Image: ALAMY


 

1970s

Datsun 120Y

Holden was king of the road, with Falcon preparing to overtake. But the Datsun 120Y stands out as the economy king of the 1970s. With an international oil crisis crippling fuel supplies, 

Australians were keen for small cars with good fuel economy Year-to-date figures, as reported in The Canberra Times in December 1976, showed 27 per cent of all new passenger car sales were in this class, with Holden Gemini the leader but not considered as economical as the Datsun 120Y in second place. 

The Datsun 120Y was said to suit the average buyer. It was “frugal to run and fun to drive” and well equipped with disc brakes, push-button radio, heater-demister with 2-speed fan and electric windscreen washers, all things we take for granted today. A two-door manual sedan cost $3624, compared with Holden Gemini TX Manual at around $4000, making it the car of choice for younger Australians. 

1970s Ford Falcon Fairmont XB sedan

The Ford Falcon Fairmont XB sedan was renowned for its starring roles in the movies Mad Max and Mad Max 2. Image: ALAMY


 

1980s

Ford Falcon

It took Ford three decades to knock Holden off its pedestal as Australia’s premier car manufacturer, but the Ford Falcon swooped in and made its mark with the introduction of rear suspension that was unique to Australia, along with improvements in fuel economy, engine performance and handling. 

Ford's Falcon-Fairmont range topped June 1982 sales, with 7097 units registered, compared with GM-H Commodore’s 6045. Ford retained the top spot for the next seven years. Notably, Ford Falcon is also one of the most iconic cars on film, appearing as it did in the original Mad Max movie. 

Holden Commodore

The VT GTS Holden Commodore was produced by Holden's performance division, HSV (Holden Special Vehicles). Image: ALAMY


 

1990s

VT Commodore

General Motors Holden Australia turned out its five millionth car in 1990 and was soon riding high on the sales resurgence of the traditional family-sized six-cylinder car with its VP, VR and VS Commodores. 

But it really hit the mark – after five years of development - with the release of the VT Commodore. Good looking and great to drive, it was fitted with Independent Rear Suspension across the entire range and increased safety features. The Holden Commodore became Australia’s best-selling car for 15 consecutive years between 1996 and 2010. It was sadly erased from Holden’s line-up in 2019. 

Toyota Corolla

Toyota grabbed the title of Australia's number-one car brand from Holden in 2004. Image: Matt Harvey


 

2000s

Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla is the proverbial tortoise that eventually won the race. Introduced in 1966, it was considered simple, affordable, and reliable and became a best-selling car worldwide within a decade. 

Sales were robust in Australia, but it was considered too bland to get excited about; it was simply a workhorse that did the job of getting you from A to B.  But a new look and feel to the Corolla range in 2004 did wonders for its image. 

Turns out we are suckers for front-lip spoilers, chrome plated grill surrounds and smart interior trims. Corolla achieved top-seller status once in 2005 (September), twice in 2006 (June and July), three times in 2007 (January, June and December), as well as in January 2008. It went on to top the market from 2013 to 2015 and still endures today. 

Mazda car

The Mazda3 debuted in 2004 and claimed the best-seling model title in 2011. Image: Matt Harvey


 

2010s

Mazda 3

The Mazda3 debuted in 2004 and was noticeably sportier than the Toyota Corolla. It was popular for its reliability and performance, and became the best-selling model for 2011, edging out Holden Commodore by 812 vehicles to finish with 41,429 sales. 

But the third generation, which arrived in 2014, was notably superior, with Skyactiv Technology, and we liked its sharp good looks. Mazda3 had an edge over most of its competitors, with drive comfort and a solid engine line-up. Road noise was a bugbear, but that’s not the reason sales began to decline towards the end of the decade; it was the rise of the SUV and the Australia’s passion for riding high and our tendency to follow US trends.

Toyota Hilux

Australia’s favourite workhorse dates back to 1968, and the latest model appeals to both tradies and families. Image: Supplied


 

2020s

Toyota HiLux

Australia’s favourite workhorse dates back to 1968, but the eighth generation HiLux turned the “you beaut” tradie ute into a family lifestyle vehicle. With cabin refinements, safety tech, and autonomous emergency breaking, it offered safety, reliability, and a sense of adventure. 

In 2016 (the same year it was launched) it became the first commercial vehicle to top the Australian sales charts, with a comfortable lead of 42,104 units compared with the Toyota Corolla (40,330), Hyundai i30 (37,772) and Ford Ranger (36,934). 

It has held the top spot for six years, breezing into the 2020s with all the bravado of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. But as any Marvel hero knows, there’s always a threat on the horizon, and in 2023 it’s the new-generation Ford Ranger ute.

But perhaps a better snapshot of the cars we love is revealed in recent data from the Australian Automotive Association. It shows the most popular vehicles registered in every local government area in Victoria - and in this case the Holden Commodore still rules.

Ford Ranger Raptor first drive review | RACV


Beyond 2023

Ford Ranger Raptor, EVs?

Though most cars on our roads are still powered by petrol and diesel today, alternatively-powered vehicle sales are accelerating.

In terms of electric vehicles, Tesla has been a major player in the Australian market with its Model 3 four-door sedan – but given our penchant for SUVs it’s likely its Model Y, released in late 2022, will find favour with families who want to transition to cleaner energy solutions.

Its main competitor is Kia’s EV6, which drives like a hatch, but is technically an SUV courtesy of the ride height, and has been designed to suit local roads. It’s a good choice for Australian households who are embracing solar power and battery storage as a way of combating the rising cost of living and transport costs.

But the beast you’re most likely to notice on our roads in 2023 is the 2022 Ford Ranger Raptor - a petrol powered four-door ute that will appeal to tradies, off-road enthusiasts and urban warriors.

Demand for all these vehicles is outstripping supply, so it will be a year or so before we can determine what’s likely to be the most popular vehicle this decade.

The information provided is general advice only. Before making any decisions please consider your own circumstances and the Product Disclosure Statement and Target Market Determinations. For copies, visit racv.com.au. As distributor, RACV Insurance Services Pty Ltd AFS Licence No. 230039 receives commission for each policy sold or renewed. Product(s) issued by Insurance Manufacturers of Australia ABN 93 004 208 084 AFS Licence No. 227678.


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