Extracted from the book Car Lovers, edited by John Dale and published by ABC Books in 2009
In 1968, when Holden launched a wild new two-door called the Monaro, Australia was still a flickering black-and-white world of men in shorts and walk socks. Tapping into the excitement of the emerging ‘youth market’, the Monaro was an instant smash, . tThe original Australian muscle car, and it has become one of our great suburban icons.
The muscle car was a noisy, over-powered, under-braked, unsafe, gas-guzzling, fire-breathing beautiful monster. It was an American invention, of course, that filtered down under, born in the early 60s when Detroit, looking for something to sell to the exploding baby boomer market, stuffed a big powerful V8 in a modest compact coupe, painted it day-glo orange, slapped on a few GT stripes and mag wheels and priced it cheap enough for even a young lair to afford. More than a mere colonial echo of some greater order, the Monaro was Australia’s own vernacular variation on a universal language – what only we could have called the ‘horn car’.
Once decried as ‘the decade taste forgot’, the ’70s are currently undergoing re-evaluation and revival. The rise and fall of the Monaro and other local muscle cars, or horn cars, is less a metaphor for the period than one of its actual narratives. For a few short years between the late 60s and mid-70s, before Australia very well expressed itself through pop culture mediums we take for grated today like films and music, nothing so much as this commercial-industrial consumer durable captured an essence of a strapping young country riding out its turbulent rites of passage, becoming both more confident and more consumerist. Giving the forks to prim old Anglophilia and Protestant wowserism in the first place, the Monaro was a product of archetypal Australian suburbia, a fusion of local and global, of the larrikin spirit and the sexual revolution – the Me Generation in overdrive, spunk in-car-nate – and it was rumbling around a corner near you, and me.
I was eleven years old in 1968, and I forced my father to take me to the Melbourne Motor Show to see that first Monaro. My father’s interest in such things couldn’t have been lesser, even though, as a traveling salesman, his company car (at the time a nice new ’67 XR Falcon) was central to our livelihood. To me, when that first Monaro came out, a time when any old new Holden was front-page news (which goes to show how desperate we were for – what? identity?), it was as if all the exoticism and potency of a far-off future world had landed just around the corner. My father and I trekked off to the Exhibition Buildings, me in my best – first and only! – new groovy outfit: a pair of dark blue pinstripe flairs with a white belt, desert boots and powder blue military-style shirt. My father hung back from the crowd, smoking a Philip Morris. I clambered to the front to stand agape at this thing that rippled with power and beauty. I worked up the guts to ask one of the girls in brocade pants suits for a brochure, which they were handing out by the hundreds. I felt, even then, an inchoate understanding that this car was at once a godhead and part of the family.
It was a big year, 1968, a time of affluence, conflict and transformation. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. The first TV broadcasts ‘via satellite’ were bringing the world direct into our living room. The Tet Offensive was a turning point in the Vietnam war. Flower power paradoxically led to fighting on the streets. At the end of the year, like a Christmas blessing, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. For the first time, we saw our own earth rising in the cold blackness of space, inspiring the birth of the environmental movement: the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
Like practically every other person on the planet with access to a TV, I was captivated by the space race. The Apollo lunar landing was the greatest adventure of the age. But if, in 1968, anyone ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wouldn’t say, Astronaut, or even Football Star, I’d say, Car Designer. Perhaps wanting to be an astronaut was aiming too high. “You can’t buck the system,” was a refrain I was to hear many times later as a rebellious teenager. And playing for St.Kilda – well, that was dream somewhere up in the stratosphere too, about where Ian Cooper flew for screamers.
But car design, car design could be a real career, the way I understood it, combining two of my main interests, drawing and cars. The drawing I inherited from my father, who had a natural aptitude discouraged in a less privileged, less artistic society. But cars? I didn’t get that from my father. But most boys, to this day, play with toy cars; I just graduated to plastic model kits and drawing reams of pictures of cars both real and of my own invention.
Many of my most vivid childhood memories involve cars: Like the time I couldn’t have been older than five and I stayed up late till my father got home with a new car, an EK Holden wagon. Through the dark and sleep in my eyes it sparkled. I remember running down the road after it when my father left for work on subsequent mornings: Daddy! Daddy!
The road leads out of town and it brings you back home again. Australia is a car country. Who above a certain age didn’t grow up in the back seat of a Holden?
I remember the Accident, in our red EJ in 1965, my father’s bloody head hanging through the shattered window, my mother and sisters screaming, my arm broken. I remember Uncle Ray’s Buick Elektra; you could only sneak peeks at it in the darkness of the garage – I never saw it driven – and I marveled at its dashboard clock, silently ticking through the gloom like a sentinel.
I remember when we got the XR. This – a Ford! – was treachery of the gravest order: Weren’t we Holden men? I was shocked that my father seemed to like it so much, but even more, that I secretly agreed with him. The XR Falcon, originally released in 1966, was a watershed Australian car, the first with the fast-coming Coke-bottle shape, which is the extremely inelegant term for the extremely elegant body style that would underpin the muscle car. With its long bonnet/short boot-formula with a flick or bounce in the hipline tapering to a ducktail rear end, the Coke bottle shape, so named because it resembled a sidelong Coca-Cola bottle, would become definitive of its era but also, remarkably, still looks fresh today. In fact, mass market cars never looked better; this was a zenith of Detroit design. The XR Falcon, as an offspring of Ford’s Mustang, the original 60s’ American (Coke bottled-shaped) pony car, was better-looking than any Holden, I knew that, but an ‘old’ loyalty didn’t want me to admit it. With all my inculcation in the art, my models and drawings, I was approaching an aesthetic of my own.
Of course, I had no idea really what being a car designer meant. I had no interest whatsoever in engineering. I can’t have understood a word of all the magazines I subscribed to like Sports Car World and Australian Hot Rodding Review, because they tended to be technical. I suppose I just liked the pictures. Sure, I liked the idea of a car that went fast, but more importantly, it had to look fast. If it looked fast just standing there, well, to this day that’s an ideal car designers still aspire to, an ideal I intuitively leapt to an appreciation of. To me, it was all only ever about the lines: Eye appeal. The shape and colour and gait.
Certainly, it was the flash American cars I preferred – not the Rolls Royce (old imperialism), but the Studebaker Hawk (the new world). I had a Corgi toy Studebaker Hawk in gold with a white roof (the last best-looking car with tailfins) and I loved it. I had a Corgi (or was it Dinky?) James Bond Aston Martin and I quite liked it too, but English sports cars, even European supercars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, just seemed all a bit too rarified, and for me paled next to the unsophisticated yet still ultimately lissom beauties of emerging American muscle: I had a couple of toy/model Corvettes, a metallic-midnight blue Buick Riviera. A Boss Mustang (the best Mustang). A red Mercury Cougar. A black Chev Camaro. An Oldsmobile Toronado! A Monkeemmobile! A Batmobile! Melbourne was cold and grey; these cars painted America as the promised land, an eternally sunshiny place where the streets were lined with these gleaming, gorgeous automobiles and there was two girls for every boy.
And that was the thing. Back in the mid-60s, there weren’t really any Australian cars that approached the glamour and promise of all the American iron that populated my personal gallery of super models. Until the Monaro.
The 60s didn’t really happen in Australia till the 70s. We got the Beatles straight up like the whole world, but 1967’s Summer of Love didn’t reach here till a few years later. One of the harbingers of the great changes Australia was about to undergo was the Monaro: There’s a whisper on the wind, the ad jingle breathlessly intoned …
With the pressure of an annual model turnover, the sheer rate of change in car design in the 50s and 60s is breathtaking. Cars today fire off the same basic platform for a decade. In the 50s and 60s, all-new designs appeared every two or three years, with annual facelifts in between. It was an extended frenzy of shopping and planned obsolescence.
Cars in the ’50s, with their sprouting fins and nosecones, aspired to an idea of the space age that quickly became quaint. A decade later when men were routinely walking on the moon, the muscle car was less about technology than sexuality and power, youth and independence, its classic Coke bottle shape an omnisexual union of feminine and macho, the automotive equivalent of a layer cut, clinging body shirt, flares and stack heels.
Detroit design, whose influence spread not just to Australia but all round the world, went through its own boom and bust cycles. After the reinvigoration of the post-war period ballooned out into the bulbous, chrome-bedecked excesses of the late 50s, straight lines returned to Detroit in the cleaner, Euro modernism of new decade’s compact models like the Falcon and Chevrolet Corvair. Then, after the Pontiac GTO was introduced in 1963 and the Mustang in ’64, the pony car, like a ripening nymphette, started filling out. The young adult, the muscle car, brought back curves, growing to an aggressive, full-bodied voluptuousness. Which was apposite. Where Playboy had been the index of sexual liberation in the 50s, now it was full-on Free Love. Now women were on the Pill, wearing miniskirts and bellbottoms. Acid was sexual as well as spiritual.
Holden’s response to the XR Falcon, the ‘New Generation’ HK, launched in early 1968, was underwhelming. It had the Coke bottle shape, to be sure, but none of the elegance of the Falcon. But when the basic Kingswood sedan was adapted into the Monaro, it was the transformation from a frog to prince, and the Monaro stole everything’s thunder.
The Monaro was Holden catching up with the culture on the street, shifting the emphasis from family to youth. Bodgies had long been hotting up old FJs (and Ford Customlines and Dodge Royales) and younger EHs, but the Monaro was something sexy and fast straight off the showroom floor.
The Monaro had all the glamour of far-off America but crucially with an unmistakable Australian flavour. It was a manifestation of an Australian dreaming of transcendence, and it would become an icon because in between the fall of religion and rise of consumerism, it filled something of a spiritual gap in suburban life in Australia.
Of course, I’d drawn plenty of my own versions of what a Monaro might or could be, before it actually came out. This was the would-be car designer – customiser, really –in me. I’d mix and match different favourite bits of existing cars to come up with something of my own.
I just loved drawing cars. I loved the forms, the flow, the balances, the detail and the resolutions: Styling I later learnt it was called, as opposed to the engineering side of design. I also later learnt that this was exactly how so many auto stylists started out, drawing cars as boys, just as I would learn that my bower bird-like proto-post-modernist approach was even then an industry standard, long before globalisation elevated the idea to a new paradigm.
Holden designers too had been sketching coupe versions of Holdens, virtually since the first Holden itself. In the early 60s, after GMH placed an order for a quantity of leather buckets seats, a rumor spread that Holden was making a sports car. The seats turned out to be for the new luxury EJ Premier.
Holden pen man Eddie Taylor drew some sketches of a fastback coupe version of the beautifully clean-lined HR of 1966, but Holden wasn’t keen on the idea given the poor sales of Falcon’s contemporaneous Futura hardtop.
1968’s HK bore traces of all its GM kin, just as all those cars overlapped too, not only the mid-sized, mid-priced Chevelle and Chevy Nova, but also the German Opel Rekord. Early clay models suggest Holden’s design studio at Fisherman’s Bend shifted an emphasis from Pontiac influences to the more conservative Buick, most notably in ‘the face’, the unfortunate ‘W-shaped’ nose-grille treatment. But if the HK’s agenda was largely set in Detroit, the more successful Monaro was conceived and born on Australian soil. All the Holden stylists - Eddie Taylor, American Ted Schroeder, even old-timer Alf Payze - did sketches of an HK coupe, before design chief, American John Schinella took up Ted Schroeder’s best proposal.
Since the V8 was never a birthright of motoring in Australia the way it was in America, Holden had to import engines from Detroit for the car. And even the mechanically illiterate like myself would be impressed that that donk was the 327ci unit out of the Corvette. Now nearly all the elements were in place. Now all the Monaro needed was a name.
The oft-told story goes that Holden design staff member Noel Bedford was driving through Cooma, southern NSW, on holidays, when he saw a sign that read ‘Monaro County Council’. Monaro is an Aboriginal word that had been taken as a name for the shire of the Snowy Mountains high country near Canberra.
The word obviously echoes Camaro, and as Noel Bedford has recalled, the sign was in western style lettering, which reminded him of Marlboro Country: the American West, the cowboy. Mustang Country. ‘Monaro County Council’ echoed all this, but it was very Australian too. What could be more Australian, after all, than something Aboriginal? Torana (meaning: to fly) was already proving a popular name for Holden’s new small 4 cylinder variation on UK GM’s Vauxhall Viva. So GMH checked the Aboriginal meaning of the word –variously spelled as Monaro, Monaroo, Monera, Maneiro, Meneiro, Meneru, Miniera, Monera, and Maneroo – and found it meant small hill, high plain, something like that, then checked whitefella copyright on it and found it was clear, and so the new coupe became the Monaro. It was an inspired act of appropriation.
Anticipation leading up to the car’s release was widespread. Schoolboys and petrol heads all over the country quivered at the mere idea of a fastback Holden hardtop. That single word, ‘fastback’, contained possibilities we might never have previously dared contemplate.
The car was launched to the public in July 1968, in tandem with the less fondly remembered Brougham (Holden’s attempt at a Cadillac). As potent and beautiful as it was in a wide range of metallic-candy colours with go-fast livery a ‘delete option’, what was extraordinary about the Monaro was that it took on a mystique almost from the first moment it was unveiled. It caused a sensation. In the six months to the end of the year, the Monaro would win everything - Bathurst, the Wheels Car of the Year award - but it was something less tangible yet much deeper that that fed the mystique.
I can remember going to the Motor Show and seeing the car and feeling a trembling sense of elation, excitement, that this was here and it was ours and it was really something. Sharing its whole front half with the basic Holden sedan, the coupe’s rear end was honed to a sweeping fastback, creating beautiful hind flanks around a pitch-perfect harmony with the intersecting arcs of the pillarless side windows. The lines contain traces, inevitably, of the GM muscle car range that included the Chev Camaro and SS and Pontiac Firebird, but most strongly of Oldsmobiles, the radical 1966 Toronado and the ’67 Cutlass. But then it was also curiously reminiscent of the opposition (Chrysler) Plymouth Barracuda of 1967/’68!
The Monaro was a unique hybrid marred only by sitting up too tall on skinny wheels. I understood that stock American cars looked better because they sat lower to the road; only later did I learn that high ground clearance was a big part of why Holden was always so successful in Australia, and so that’s why the Monaro didn’t more closely hug the ground. But even then there was something about that too, a certain modesty, even hokiness, that in the face of the Americans’ overstatement, further endeared the car to me. Like it was your gawky brother.
But maybe even more than actually seeing the car, it was the sales brochure I took home that embedded it in my private universe. The brochure was brilliantly designed to look like an album, a new LP by a rock band, and I pored over it like I pored over my collection of football cards and would soon enough, indeed, be poring over album covers. After the Beatles supposedly redefined rock in 1967 as an album form with Sgt. Peppers, the 12” vinyl LP was the new cutting edge of technology. The Monaro brochure was the same foot-square dimensions, with cool modernist art direction in dark blues. ‘Australia’s first sports machine’ said the sub-head. Monaro talks your language, the ‘liner notes’ went on. Man seeks excitement by instinct, Monaro supplies it by design. Beneath the beauty lurks the beast. 327 cubic inches of it. The most Monaro. ‘Cubes. Torque. Stickshift. Tach. Wide-ovals. Out to drive you wild! One thing that’s not often remarked upon, and is shown to great advantage on the brochure cover, is how pretty those original Monaro hubcaps were, especially with redwalls. It sets off the whole car. Little details like that can have a huge impact in car design.
Holden even pitched some Monaro ads at women. “Holden’s young body,” was one headline. When you own your own Monaro, the ball never ends. A debutante in evening gown sashays alongside an elegant GTS. Monaro is as good to drive as it is to be seen with. And as easy. It may look commanding but it does what it’s told when a lady stamps her foot.
The car’s associations with the Monaro high country hit Australians sooner than any Aboriginal links. Wasn’t this the setting of “The Man from Snowy River”? Indeed it was. Banjo Paterson’s signature poem is a tribute to the landscape and the men and the horses he knew so well. The myth of bush exerted an even stronger pull on Australians as we became more removed from it in the new suburban paradise. It was the same appeal built in to the Mustang, a reminder of the freedom and self-reliance of the old West.
The Aboriginal etymology of the name ultimately added an even more resonant dimension to the car. Some definitions had it meaning breast, which was surely an association that wouldn’t have hurt. Some suggested it meant a sort of fresh breeze, like a zephyr almost, but that may have come from the ‘Whisper on the Wind’ ad jingle: There’s a whisper on the wind – Monaro! (A thunder down the straight – Monaro! There’s a full-throated roar, there are four on the floor - and life is suddenly very Monaro!)
Maybe the meaning of the word itself changed to suit its new usage. As the standard joke goes, isn’t it an old Aboriginal word meaning “Holdens eat Fords for breakfast”? I once asked Monero tribe elder, songman and healer Bobby McCloud, if this was true and he just laughed and nodded towards his battered old Falcon in the driveway, which I took to mean, Well, I don’t know about that, I’ve always been a Ford man myself…
The Monaro was an almost defiantly Australian gesture, and I think that’s what I instinctively responded to as an eleven year-old. I loved the America I saw on TV and in its cars, but I loved even more the idea that we could create our own even better version of America right here. The Monaro was a pop phenomenon that pulled together all the disparate strains of the Australian idea of a horn car and gave mass produced vent to it: This horn car was a union with its owner, in other words, you, the consumer; a dialogue between producer and consumer. Tough, flash, fast. Sexy. Young men in Australia were undergoing a transformation, a revolution in the way they presented themselves, who they were, or might have been. When men started wearing long hair and colours – started wearing, say, purple flares with a white belt – they started looking at all shapes and colours in a different way. At school, all of a sudden, the tech drawing teacher with his tweeds and pipe and frog-eyed Austin-Healy seemed even more old hat when the new art teacher rolled up in a Monaro.
Norm Beechey, one of Australia’s forgotten folk heroes, became the first man to win the Australian touring car championship in an Australian car, in a Monaro in 1970, and that car, in glowing Shell yellow, with its air scoops and ajar bonnet and flanges for fat rubber, became a measure of how tough an Australian car, a Monaro, could be. “You know,” I read Norm say in Sports Car World, “there’s a lot of people who believe it’s just a hotted-up Holden. It’s a 100% racing car, the equal of any million-dollar Trans-Am Mustang or Camaro. And we’ve achieved it all here in one season with a budget only a fraction of what the Yanks have to play with.”
Johnny Farnham was photographed with a Monaro on one of his album covers. Doug Parkinson would have been a more likely match with his Afro plus trademark moustache like he was a walking Jimi Hendrix poster - that was Monaro, not the plastic, clean-cut Johnny Farnham with his bubblegum vaudeville for old ladies and little girls. The Monaro was Billy Thorpe in his trademark ponytail bellowing “Ooh Pooh Pah Doo” at Sunbury: And I ain’t gonna stop… till I create a disturbance… in your mind… create a disturbance…
Johnny Farnham actually drove a Fiat 124, and Billy Thorpe an Aston Martin, at least until it was repossessed when he went bankrupt; Doug Parkinson drove a Ford Transit loaded with his band’s gear.
Ronnie Biggs drove a Monaro — that’s who really drove a Monaro. Biggs was one of Britain’s great train robbers who was on the run in the 60s and spent a few years living undercover in Australia before he ended up in Brazil recording songs with the Sex Pistols and hosting soft porn videos. With his whole family, Biggs moved from Adelaide to Melbourne in 1967. He got a job at the newly opened Tullamarine Airport and allowed himself the one small indulgence he felt he could afford, or get away with, a brand new silver Holden Monaro.
By 1969, the cops were closing in on him. In October, they raided his Blackburn home, just around the corner from where we lived in Holland Rd., opposite Blackie South High. We were aghast to learn that such a notorious celebrity was so close. But it was too late.
There’s an urban myth that suggests Biggs was only moments ahead of the cops in his flight up the Hume Highway to board a ship leaving from Sydney Harbour. In this wild scenario, Biggs’s Monaro is only a nose in front of a squadron of police pursuit cars all the way up to the Murray River, the Victoria/NSW border, which, like the Highway Patrol in pursuit of Chuck Berry, they can’t rightfully cross. And so from the other side of the bridge Ronnie skids to a halt to thumb his nose at them, and then speeds off in a cloud of dust.
The reality was somewhat more prosaic. Biggs had already twigged and scarpered, and was hiding out in a motel when the cops raided his home at Blackburn. His escape was conducted calmly by driving out to the airport, leaving the Monaro in the long-term car park and, armed with a false passport, boarding a plane out of the country.
Either way, he gave the Monaro the best free ad Holden night never have asked for, investing it with some of the outlaw cache like Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde infamy) bestowed upon the Ford V8 in the 1930s.
The basic first generation Monaro was stretched across two more models, 1969’s HT and 1970’s HG.
The HT immediately improved on the HK with its new rear end treatment, which did away with the HK’s hideous scalloped boot lip and the GTS Monaro’s tacky extended taillight treatment, which was painted on rather than real glass. The HT’s new plastic grille was fussier than the HK’s nice neo-classical strings of chrome, but its bonnet was lifted, so to speak, by sumptuous non-functional air-scoops: This was a foreshadowing of the brilliant work with bulges that John Schinella would go on to do when he returned to Pontiac and in the early 70s sculpted the beautiful Trans-Am and Firebird.
The HT also marked the introduction of the 350ci V8 (borrowed from the Chev Camaro) for the top-of-the-line Bathurst special GTS. Many consider this the great Australian 60s car, and the best of all the Monaros.
Some prefer its follow-up HG GTS 350. They’ll tell you that’s because the HG GTS wasn’t bred for racing (with the XU1 GTR Torana having already taken over Holden racing duties from the Monaro), and so is a better-behaved road car. I prefer the HG too, but not for that reason. I prefer it because it cleaned-up the grille treatment. The HG’s grille is still plastic, but it’s a much smoother, neater mesh; now the Monaro looked as good coming as going. And as everyone knew, all you had to do to be worthy of, say, re-enacting the car chase in Bullitt with Steve McQueen, looking as good as his Mustang or his pursuers’ Dodge Charger, was widen the wheels a bit and lower it an inch or so. In, say, Monaco Maroon with gold livery, this was a car as tasty as anything the Yanks ever cooked up.
The early 70s was a golden era within a golden era for Australian cars, a brief, last moment in the sun before a drawn-out decline that lasted for most of the rest of the decade. An Indian Summer, in a way, for the 1960s.
For the first and, as it would turn out, last time, Holden, Falcon and Valiant went head-to-head-to-head with all-new, Australian-designed models: the HQ Holden, the XA Falcon and the VH Valiant. Never before had the Big 3 competed more directly or more fiercely. Never before had the cars been quite so big; never before, most importantly, had they been quite so Australian. And never before had the Big 3 each had a hot hardtop out at the same time.
But this renaissance was over almost as quickly as it began. Whitlam’s sacking in ’75 was a signal that, to paraphrase John Lennon, The dream was over. The world economy was shrinking for the first time since the Second World War, and the muscle car, as one consequence, began its protracted death throes.
The first cut was the now-fabled ‘Supercar Scare’ of 1972, when the muscle car was made the scapegoat in a public outcry over the rising road toll. But the big blow, triggered by 1973’s first Gulf War, was 1974’s first oil crisis. The muscle car had promised escape from suburban stasis, but now, with rising prices and unemployment, a big gas-guzzler in gridlock was part of the problem, not the solution. People were turning to small Japanese imports. The very survival of the traditional Australian sedan was on the line, let alone the muscle car.
The Monaro had opened up the two-door market in this country, but by the time Ford and Chrysler responded with their Super Bird hardtop and the Valiant Charger respectively, the Monaro was already moving on, or rather growing up and aiming more at a premium luxury buck. When the (formerly four-door) Falcon GT finally became a hardtop it was a car born too late, overweight, underpowered and ever doomed to suffer comparison to what might have been. Only the Charger got it all pretty right.
Holden virtually handed the Charger its market on a platter when it truncated the Monaro’s wild youth. The HQ Monaro, like its parent sedan, was an extremely elegant design. With its shark-like pointed nose and steeply raked tail, which owed a debt more than anything to the contemporaneous and gorgeous American Pontiac range, the Holden had a lightness of touch that its rival Falcons and Valiants very conspicuously lacked. When the standard Kingswood sedan was again shorn of two doors to create the new, second-generation Monaro, this time it was the transformation from a prince to a King, or perhaps a Queen. When the already heavy-looking XA Falcon sedan lost two doors, it somehow gained even more weight. The HQ Monaro, with its sharp nose and wrap-around rear glass, was a beautiful, svelte projectile of a car.
It might have been almost too elegant for its own good. The 350 GTS still straddled the top of the Monaro tree, but it was as if Holden’s heart had gone out of it. The Monaro was now more a prestige personal coupe like, say, the Ford Thunderbird or Buick Riviera, to the extent that the HQ even introduced a vinyl-roofed LS (Luxury Sport) model to sit alongside the GTS. If the Charger was a bra-burning student radical at a rock concert, the Monaro was an overdressed society dame wearing an evening gown at a barbeque. But at least neither of them was pumped up on steroids, as their American brethren were developing, or degenerating.
Some will say that the Monaro died with the HX of 1976, because after its predecessor, ’74’s HJ, was the last to offer the big 350 V8, the HX range included the last ‘true Monaro’, that is, a two-door hardtop, called the LE. The LE, which stood for ‘Limited Edition’, meant Holden was just tarting up a way to sell off a pile of coupe bodyshells, just as Ford would later do with its Cobra. Available only in metallic red with gold pinstriping, grotesque gold Pontiac ‘polycast’ (i.e. plastic) honeycomb wheels and a velour interior, the LE Monaro was about as close as Australia got to a full-on Superfly ride.
After the 1976 Australian Design Rules introduced emission controls that were the last straw for the muscle car, the Monaro name was kept alive – just – in 1977’s subsequent HZ range. The catalogue included a four door ‘Monaro’ GTS but the car carried no Monaro badging as such, only GTS decals.
To me though, the Monaro was dead long before that, after the HQ was first facelifted as the HJ and it introduced a boxy new nose treatment that completely killed all its predecessor’s poise – and which remained on the body, unchanged and marring it, till its final death in 1980. The HJ’s designers, American émigrés John Schinella and Leo Pruneau, who’d designed the first Monaros and most of the HQ (Schinella prior to going back to Detroit and Pontiac), had originally proposed a softer, even more Pontiac-like split nose for the car (as on the early Statesmen), but they were overruled by GMH MD Max Wilson, who wanted to do away with the perceived feminisms of the HQ. Wilson insisted on a front end that fired off the contemporaneous, ugly neo-Gothic Chevrolet, and it marred all the latter Monaros, even with dual headlights, as it did the entire Holden range. It was an unfortunate mistake that contributed to Ford’s continued pegging back of Holden, and to me and many others, left the Charger as the only remaining horn car worthy of the name.
The Tudor (two-door) Falcon may have been better-looking than its American ‘parents’, the Mustang and moreso Torino, and it may have formed the basis for the first black Mad Max custom Interceptor, but they were all among the fattest-thighed cars ever made. They were virtual flatbacks and they were fatbacks. But when the basic Valiant sedan was rejigged into the Charger, it was, again, the transformation from a frog to a prince. But unlike the Monaro, the Charger, whose perkiness was always attractive, only got better looking with age, even as it grafted on lashings of neo-classical chrome and other excesses: This was the Australian muscle car not going gently into the night, the real 70s’ sex drive: Hey Charger!
By then though, as much as the sight of a nice car on the street never failed to turn my head, as much as I knew I’d take a current Charger over a current Monaro any day, I no longer felt the same passion for cars. Certainly, I’d given up drawing them, unlike the other guys who were going to go on to become stylists. This wasn’t because I’d lived through the great golden era of Australian horn cars and sensed now it was ending – felt that, in a way, my work here was done (if by someone else) when the Monaro was born – rather it was because, like the cars themselves on a national level, I was riding out my own adolescence and the world was all of a sudden seeming a very different place to me too. Cars and I just drifted apart.
My father received a promotion in his job and we moved from Melbourne to Brisbane, where, as Queensland manager, his company car was upgraded too, to a new Fairmont. As if all that wasn’t culture shock enough, my parents then broke up. The Fairmont was silver with a black interior, in which you baked in the tropical Brisbane heat.
By 1974, I was studying architecture, which I suppose to my parents, and me, seemed like the sensible, grown-up application of my talents for draftsmanship and design. Auto stylist certainly wasn’t something on the career officer’s list in those days. But even architecture back then contained too much science, too much engineering, and it wasn’t long before I dropped out to enroll in a graphic design course at art college. But even then I was already writing about music for student newspapers, and so again I dropped out, to concentrate on, well, sex and drugs and rock’n’roll… the only artwork I produced now were my own versions of album covers, like that original Monaro brochure.
I had a couple of cars while still a student in Brisbane. My first, a $200 Beetle, was a restoration project my father organised with one of his reps at work in an attempt, I now suspect, to make a bit more of a man of me. But after dad’s underling duly restored the car as requested, with me watching on afraid to get my hands dirty, it was almost immediately rolled and written off by a mate I lent it to one drunken night out. I think my father pretty well wrote me off after that too.
I got another little car, a Vauxhall Viva, but they were about a sturdy as a sardine tin and I drove it into the ground in a matter of months. Then I got a Cortina, which was the car that delivered me from Brisbane to a new life back in Melbourne. I packed my typewriter, guitar, record player and record collection and drove down in a single, speed-fueled day (speed was starting to have a different meaning for me).
The Cortina died shortly after limping in to Melbourne, and for the next decade, living in the bohemian inner city, I had no need for and didn’t own a car. As much as the sight of a nice car on the street still never failed to turn my head (though new cars did that less and less frequently in the increasingly bland 80s) – as much as I took up with one particular girlfriend, I’m sure now, because she drove a beautiful 1959 triple-tone Dodge Custom Royale (those rockabilly chicks always had style) – I didn’t much give cars any more thought. Until I got married, in 1990.
Moving (back) to the suburbs, we needed a car. I needed a license too, because my old Queensland one had lapsed, So I got a new license, and we got an old HR. Beautiful the HR was, two-tone turquoise with a white roof, lowered and with wide wheels and twelve-slot chromies. Just seeing that car, even before we bought it, an old flame was rekindled.
At one point then in the mid-90s – exactly when I’m not sure, because the whole decade was a blur of making babies and books – I decided I wanted a Monaro. Had to finally have one. The car obviously still stirred in me some sort of unanswered longing.
So I took to scouring Unique Cars. It read a bit like Ribald, for whom I’d done some ghostwriting. It was hard to know whether the ads were more like death notices or love letters. It was quickly discouraging, with many cars’ asking price extending way beyond the four figures I could afford. But eventually I found a likely prospect.
I drove out to Regent’s Park in Sydney’s west in the two-tone gold HZ wagon we had at the time. It was an okay car too but it was about to fall apart due to rust, and we needed something to replace it. But the HK Monaro I looked at was a dog. If ever a car defined the opposite of original, this was it. There was maybe as many as 45,000 first and second series Monaros built: A few of them got written off; some were stolen and disappeared into that vortex; many were modified to death. This car was one of the latter. It was lowered in the front, raised at the back. The wheels were mismatched. The blue paintjob was a respray covering tons of bog. I got in and the whole transmission hump was gone, revealing some jerry-built new gearbox. Taking it for a drive it heaved and groaned and rattled and clanked, and when I applied the brakes, pulled viciously to the right – and they want six grand for this!? I never looked at another one.
I’ve never had much money – since the last golden Holden I’ve driven one $2000 Falcon into the ground after another – and I knew that prices for vintage Australian muscle were going to rise even further out of my reach (as indeed they have - one HK GTS 327 recently sold for a record $220,000!). I knew I would never own a Monaro and I was okay with that.
A few years after I didn’t buy the HK, Holden rebirthed the Monaro, in 2001. But I was never going to be tempted. The Monaro’s phoenix-like resurrection - a symptom, like the world-wide trend to ‘retro-futurism’ (cars like the new Beetle and the new Mini), of people’s dissatisfaction with the functionalist-utilitarian bland-out of so much popular design in the 80s and 90s - may well have marked full-circle for the car’s story, but I was never convinced. In a way, the new Monaro was the antithesis of the original: High performance (and now safety) aside, its styling was only slightly less soporific than its parent Commodore sedan, and it was not an exercise in egalitarianism but rather elitism: I mean, if I could have afforded its steep $60,000 asking price, I could have afforded the real deal!
And so as a Monaro-lover and a writer who’s published a book (Golden Miles) on the subject, I am, I admit, a dilettante. But I think it’s perhaps for this very reason, like a love that goes unconsummated, that I remain so ardent and faithful to the car.
It may be that the twentieth century auto age is one of history’s great mistakes; it may be that the muscle car was the shameless indulgence of a generation spoilt to the point of pure narcissism; but still nothing can quell the Monaro’s pull one me.
A vernacular language of Australian car design has by now infiltrated our broader cultural landscape, such that there are lines and associations that are unique, indelible and absolutely attractive, and that seem to go straight to the heart of a particular Australian sensibility - and it’s enough for me to be a fellow traveller through that same landscape that’s been shaped in some small way at least by my own dreaming. As a writer, my interest has always been the everyday realities and symbols of our social history, not the high art or great public events, and to me, these flaming chariots like the Monaro are our living, breathing suburban Grecian urns. The vernacular connects us to the history we made in our own backyard yesterday. The mere sight of a nice car on the street now is enough to brighten my whole day.
Flaunting its independence, resourcefulness and even wry sense of humour, the Monaro is a reminder of a time when Australia, the world, could be a wilder, freer place. Charging out of a brief window of opportunity between the end of colonialism and the beginning of globalism, the Monaro was the supernova of old capitalism, when the lunatics took over the asylum; when neither the bean counters nor public watchdogs called the shots but rather the designers, drivers and dream weavers. It was a time before the corporate sophistication/cynicism of what Naomi Wolf called the ‘brands, not products’ ethic; a time before globalisation and all its rationalisations, before industry regulation and the death hand of market research. A time before the local was subsumed into the global. We shouldn’t forget even – especially! – our mistakes.
Australia is a land of lazy highways and the Monaro, the eternal summer of adolescence, is a reminder of a that feeling of limitless possibility of having the wind in your hair and your arm out the window and the white line in front of you… You may well have been speeding, and blasting out Led Zeppelin or AC/DC, and passing around a joint and certainly not wearing a seatbelt, but desire has never paid much heed to rationalities like danger. In fact, in a nanna state as hysterically risk-averse, regulated and litigious as ours is today, desire becomes danger. Danger becomes desire.
These cars can become almost sentient beings. There is something palpable about a Monaro, the way they twitch and growl, as if champing at the bit, flicking a switch of hair from their forehead and rearing up… There is something in the lines that still soars even as they have carried the weight of so many unfulfilled dreams…
In these cars, these faces that sparkle and gleam, do I see my own reflection? Do I see only what I want to see? Looking for some sort of spiritual centre, or a signpost, and finding something in this iconography of my own origins, my own dreaming.
In the end, on those lazy highways, the road goes on forever. Like the standard 8-Track cartridge player in an LE Monaro, the tape loop rolls to a conclusion, clicks, turns around, and starts all over again. Are we there yet?
No matter how far you travel, you never want to get above yourself.