culture

The death of Australian car names

As Australia Day rolls around for 2021, we look back at some of the best Aussie nameplates.

Like most other countries around the world, Australians are fiercely proud of their national identity. And at the same time, we’re a bit mad about our cars.

We have some unique traits to be proud of, which makes us somewhat of an anomaly on the global automotive landscape.

Our far-flung island nation is a right-hand drive market owing to the British history, but with a taste in cars more similar to America. We’re small market, but not so small to be insignificant. And historically, we’re more than willing to spend good money on expensive, fast and exclusive variants.

And across our 800,000-plus kilometres of roads, Australia is home to the longest national highway. Highway 1 does the 'big lap' effectively, and covers 14,500km.

And because of our vast landmass, Australia is also home to some of the longest, most remote and gruelling tracks in the world: Canning Stock Route, Anne Beadell Highway and Gunbarrel Highway all spring to mind.

Our often peculiar Australian vernacular of idioms and phrases have also crept into car names and badges over the years, helping cement Australia’s own unique motoring identity.

Sadly, these days, it’s all but gone. You’ll often need to know the geography of far-off lands, rather than your own, to understand the relevance of model names today. And deeper, more meaningful metaphors for ourselves are lost completely.

The Valiant Drifter and Holden Sandman in particular, from the days of panel vans, shaggy hair, shag pile carpet, rear-window curtains and outlandish decals, are now revered as a time capsule of Australia’s more hippy, somewhat hedonistic 1970s.

Other names like Toyota HiLux Surf, Suzuki Stockman and Holden’s badge-engineered Drover four-wheel drive hint at themes embroiled in our national historical culture.

Others are a bit more direct. The Subaru Brumby is a car and name as Australian as it gets, which was followed (in a way) by the equally local Proton Jumbuck. Both of these names have little or no meaning beyond our shores, the Brumby known as the Subaru Brat in other markets.

Feral horses and herds of sheep evoke images of a wild and rural Australia, popularised through the works of Banjo Paterson, A.B. Facey and Henry Lawson. And as much as modern Australia has moved on from such rural scenes and pastoral lives, they still seem to form a large part of our national identity.

Place names have also been a strong one when it comes to adding local flavour to our cars: Ford Falcon Longreach, Subaru Outback, and more recently, Toyota’s top-spec LandCruiser Prado: Kakadu. Much better than Sahara, in my opinion.

And maybe James Ward is onto something too, by proposing changing tack on the Toyota Fortuner...

This is becoming much less common these days. Often we’re subjected names of far-off places, instead of our own. Hyundai’s Tucson and Santa Fe are named after American places, as well as the now-dead Holden Colorado. Although not specifically, the Holden Rodeo (and Jackaroo, for that matter) had a more Australian flavour happening in my opinion.

Would the Ford Everest be any better as the Ford Kosciuszko? Perhaps not, and maybe Australia’s highest peak is a bit less marketable and consumable. What about Ford Hotham, or Ford Townsend? Bogong? Never mind…

However, I reckon Ford definitely missed a trick with the Ranger Raptor. Being an Australian-developed high-performance ute, Ford could have swapped America-centric ‘Baja Mode’ for something else: Finke Mode, Ghan Mode, Simpson Mode.

Holden, Australia’s dominant automotive force for so many years, was a hotbed of Australianised names: Barina, Torana, Camira and Maloo all have indigenous meanings.

Beloved local Holden nameplates might not be on showroom floors any more, but they did get another life on the big screen. Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok, wanted to inject a few local touches to the Marvel film (he's from New Zealand and the movie was filmed in Queensland). Spacecrafts in the movie were named after classic Holdens: Kingswood, Torana, Statesmen, and Commodore.

And Monaro, the name of Holden’s iconic two-door sports car, was supposedly stumbled upon by one of Holden’s design team.

The story goes, while driving through the Snowy River Highlands of New South Wales, known as the Monaro region, Noel Bedford was struck when he saw a sign: ‘Monaro City Council”. It reminded him of the Camaro, Chevrolet’s own two-door sports car, and he thought it to be the perfect name.

The name ‘Monaro’ comes from one of the indigenous Australian languages, and translates into ‘high plain’. When Bedford hurried back with his idea, the design team was still without a name for its hero car. ‘Monaro’ was instantly approved by the board, and history was made.

Toyota’s venerable Tarago is said to be named after the small town of the same name in the NSW Southern Tablelands. But, pronunciations seem to have varied since ...

Another interesting example is the Toyota Lexcen, a badge-engineered Holden Commodore which ran from VN (1988) to VS (1997). Lexcen might not mean much to the passing interest, but Toyota named its big sedan after a chap named Ben Lexcen, AM.

Hailing originally from the small remote New South Wales town of Boggabri, Lexcen was born Robert Clyde Miller. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, Miller went to a children’s home in Engadine before winding up with his grandfather at Newcastle.

After attending school and starting a fitting-and-turning apprenticeship, Miller’s attention quickly turned to sailboat design and sailmaking. After designing some radical and successful boats, Benjamin Lexcen designed Australia II, whose winged keel and lightweight design made it the first non-American vessel to win the prestigious America’s Cup, ending 132 years of American dominance.

Lexcen, the boat and crew were quickly made into national heroes, and the victory prompted Australia’s then Prime Minister to declare: "Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum".

I don’t know about you, but I’ll never look at a Toyota Lexcen the same way again.

There have been many Australian-ised special edition cars over the years, as well: Ford Falcon GT-HO ‘Super Roo’, Mazda RX-7 Bathurst (commemorating its success on Mount Panorama) and Lotus Elise Cup 250 Bathurst Edition (of which there are only six).

There are many special edition Holdens in the name of racing legend Peter Brock (and a Lada), and Craig Lowndes bagged a few as well. And although he is a Kiwi, Scott McLaughlin has recently put his initials against Herrod’s fettled Ford Mustang SM17.

However, the sad fact is: in a world where cars are rapidly homogenising on a global scale between forever-incorporating and merging brands, a bit of local flavour for our makes, models and variants seems like a thing of the past.

And that’s a real shame.

What names have we missed? And which names do you think brands could do better in Australia? Let us know in the comments below.

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