A regional vintage car museum is celebrating the golden era of Australian automotive manufacturing, showcasing the “breathtaking” size and beauty of 20th century suburban leisure cruising vehicles.
The Gippsland Vehicle Collection’s latest exhibition takes vintage car lovers on a cruise down memory lane to the automotive hedonism of 1970s Australia — a time before fuel-efficiency and green credentials were front of mind.
‘Living in the 70s’ presents an impressive showcase of beastly coupes, muscle cars and stately king-of-the-road family classics, from a time when engines roared on front suburban lawns and mufflers marked territory.
Exhibition curator Chris Henry said Datsuns, GT Falcons, Monaros, Premiers and Statemans would all be on display, from a decade when the caravan and boating industry was opening up and people had more leisure time for holidays and weekends away.
“People wanted performance, they wanted V8 engines so that they could tow their boats and their caravans,” he said.
Although largely based on successful American designs, Australian cars oozed the bawdy bravado of a nation coming of age.
Gippsland Vehicle Collection secretary Sue Lawrence said “life was much easier” 50 years ago.
She describes how the home decor colour palette of lime green, tan and orange extended to the vibrant orange, yellow, green and red paintwork of 1970s vehicles.
“We were a lot more carefree in that era than we are today,” she said.
“You didn’t have the amount of turmoil and so forth.”
But Mr Henry said with the global petroleum shortage causing fuel prices to soar by the mid 70s, a period of economic “stagflation” would steer the market to more compact, fuel efficient vehicles.
“From 1975 onwards, people were conscious of fuel consumption, so that’s where the Japanese cars came in with those fuel efficient, four cylinder engines,” he said.
Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holdens
Mr Henry said it was an era in which Australian consumers were patriotic and wanted to buy things that were made locally.
“The Holden was basically the car of choice for a lot of people, but then the [Chrysler Australia] Charger was also the car of choice for a lot of people very early in the 70s,” Mr Henry said.
“This was when Australia made stuff; when we made Victa lawnmowers and we made Malvern Star bikes and Hills Hoists.”
However he notes that people were buying all sorts of cars at the time, including Falcons and European luxury cars.
According to Gippsland Vehicle Collection volunteer Peter Barnard, there were at least six car manufacturing plants across Australia in the 1970s.
“Volkswagens were assembled in Dandenong, Renaults and Peugeots were assembled in Heidelberg, we had Chrysler over in South Australia, Holden had three or four plants,” he said.
“Ford was here, Nissan were producing out in Dandenong, and then there was Bolwell.”
Australian company Bolwell, based in Mordialloc, produced more than 800 vehicles, manufacturing five different commercial models of sports cars between 1962 and 1979.
Mr Barnard said there was also a parallel parts and accessories industry in Australia at the time, selling wheels, brakes and Pilkington glass to the American market.
50 years of rapid change
There are many similarities between the 1970s and the 2020s: both decades have seen a time of great social and political change, protests, increased immigration and a focus on Indigenous rights, gender identity and connection to the environment.
Even the current “van life” movement is arguably a contemporary incarnation of the 1970s Sandman culture, which enabled nomadic surfers a sense of freedom with instant surfside free camping.
But Australia has changed dramatically since ‘We like football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars’ became a consumer catchcry of the nation half a century ago.
The decline of Australian manufacturing, the infiltration of computers, automation and the internet, and a shift in consciousness towards cleaner, greener products have changed automotive consumer habits forever.
These days the swagger, beauty and engineering of 20th century classic cars is shaded by criticism of their carbon footprint.
But despite their legacy, Peter Barnard argues these artworks on wheels were built to last, compared to modern vehicles which are crafted with cheaper and more disposable materials and technologies.
“The steel has changed, it’s got a lot more carbon in it so you can’t pull a dent out as easy, but electronics is probably where cars have become more complicated,” he said.
With the global automotive market now wedded to utilitarian SUVs, complete with cup holders and GPS navigation systems for time poor multi-taskers, Mr Henry said the golden age of 20th century suburban leisure cruising appears long gone.
“That era will be never duplicated again,” Mr Henry said.
“We’ll never see the size and the breadth of these cars — just the sheer size of them is breathtaking.”