Holden VB Commodore

Holden VB Commodore

If there’s one thing that has become crystal clear to me in my forty something years in the motor industry, it’s never to lead the way in car design. Which probably makes me dull and boring, perhaps jaded, cynical even, but let me expand on my depressing thoughts.

Holden is currently being slagged on all sides for building a large family car in times when buyers no longer want that sort of car. Yet in the mid 1970s Holden looked well into the future and provided a smaller family car. A European sized family car, it was called the VB Commodore. Aussie engineers installed six-cylinder Holden engines and beefed up the suspension from that designed by Opel in Germany.

What happened to the car created by the brave new global thinkers at GM Holden in 1978? It was swamped in the sales race by Ford’s big, not particularly sophisticated, Falcon. The next all-new Holden was again a large car, about the same size as a Falcon…

You would think that Ford Australia, smiling all the way to the bank, would have stuck with tried and proven conservative designs. But no, Ford too got an attack of future-thinking 10 years later and came up with a radically shaped Falcon called the AU.

After very successfully using ‘X’ and then ‘E’ in its model names from its introduction in 1960, Ford decided the curvaceous new Falcon deserved a model code from the front end of the alphabet. There was also much talk at the time of the AU being the abbreviation used by Australia in the gloriously futuristic world of the worldwide web.

Ford AU Falcon

Ford AU Falcon

The AU Falcon leapt a couple of generations forward in car styling – just compare its line with cars penned by many other marques five to ten years later to see what we mean.

So hostile was the response to the AU Falcon that Ford Oz had to drag forward bulk money from upcoming R&D projects to change the looks of the AU Falcon, then found itself seriously short of cash when the time came to design the next generation models.

Ford Falcon BA and FG were dull and boring shapes that didn’t offend anyone, but didn’t attract many either. And at about that time Aussie buyers started to drift away from large cars and fell in love with big 4WDs instead.

Adding insult to injury, the new Fairlane models of the time also suffered from money being dragged from their budgets and put into the ‘fix-the-Falcon-fast’ program. New Fairlanes looked like Falcons with an extra bit stuck into the middle. If you’re paying top dollar for a prestigious Ford like the Fairlane the last thing you want is for people to think you’re driving a Falcon…

In a few short years Ford Fairlane went from a seemingly unassailable number-one position in the sales race to being quietly and shamefacedly removed from the new-car price lists.

Let’s move overseas for other examples of cars too far ahead of their times. To Sweden, and Volvo and Saab.

Both companies made the mistake of leading the way into the distant automotive future. My first experience of turbocharged petrol engines was in Saabs back in the mid 1980s – today it seems as though two out of every three new European cars I road test have a turbo engine – yet other marques generally didn’t really get serious about turbo engines until the last five years.

Saab, sadly, is nothing but a footnote in automotive history – though there are still occasional talks about its factories being used by some radical thinkers to build new-design cars of the future. I wish them well, and hope they have large bank balances.

1978 Saab 99 Turbo

1978 Saab 99 Turbo

Remember when Volvos stood out from the crowd because they used daytime running lights (though that term wasn’t to be invented for about 25 years) back in the ‘70s? The rest of the world laughed so loudly at the silly Swedes and their extra lights that an embarrassed Volvo gave up the idea. Nowadays, about 90 per cent of cars I’m reviewing have DRLs as standard equipment and owners think they are just so new-age cool.

1983 Volvo 240

1983 Volvo 240

Volvo went financially bung and is now being supported by Chinese car maker, Geely.


About Ewan Kennedy

Ewan Kennedy, a long-time car enthusiast, was Technical Research Librarian with the NRMA from 1970 until 1985. He worked part-time as a freelance motoring journalist from 1977 until 1985, when he took a full-time position as Technical Editor with Modern Motor magazine. Late in 1987 he left to set up a full-time business as a freelance motoring journalist. Ewan is an associate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers - International. An economy driving expert, he set the Guinness World Record for the greatest distance travelled in a standard road vehicle on a single fuel fill. He lists his hobbies as stage acting, travelling, boating and reading.
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