The credits roll for our dream machines

On a wind-whipped day a very long time ago my dad took me to the second-hand car dealer's lot.

On a wind-whipped day a very long time ago my dad took me to the second-hand car dealer's lot. Down the back of a row of ageing clunkers, a lot of them rusted from the sea air, sat the machine that would grant a young fellow his dreams: a boxy creation of steel and acres of glass, the body painted dullish grey, matching the clouds. I ached for it. The long bonnet, the big boot, the gear-shift hanging off the steering column - an arrangement known as "three on the tree" - an AM radio, the slippery vinyl-covered bench seats.

My father, unable to persuade me to so much as glance at any of the other offerings - here an Austin, there a Vauxhall, a VW Beetle, a Zephyr that had seen better days - handed over a couple of hundred bucks and I suddenly owned a Holden, even if it was eight years old.

Crucially, it wasn't a Ford Falcon.

You were either a Holden bloke or a Falcon bloke in those days. It was a cultural statement.

There were a few hippies with VW Kombis, individualists with hotted-up Minis, rakes with MGs and a slew of poor sods who made do with Hillmans and Humbers and worse, but the vast majority yearned for either Holdens or Falcons, and they were as spiritually separate and argumentative as the Catholics and the Proddies used to be.

Whatever your prejudice, both Falcons and Holdens offered freedom and what we figured was style. The machines we could afford were pretty standard family cars with a lot of miles on them, but the mere brands linked us to the dream of their hero brothers - the Ford Falcon GTHO, the world's fastest four-door sedan, and the Holden Monaro 350, both powered by fire-breathing V8 motors.

Our elbows slung nonchalantly from the wound-down windows of our lesser vehicles, we could live vicariously through the exploits of such beasts each year on the mountain at Bathurst. The truly deluded, cruising laps of their home streets on a Saturday afternoon, could imagine themselves as Peter Brock or Allan Moffat.

Australia's film industry, which understood the business of image and street culture, paid homage to a Ford Falcon muscle car: the 1973 Falcon XB was the star in both Mad Max and Mad Max 2. An entire TV series, Kingswood Country, revolved around the notion that suburbia was Holden territory.

It wasn't until 1997, when foreign vehicles were well-established as objects of desire and status, that our old fondness for Australian cars was deemed ripe to be turned into gently sophisticated merriment.

In the movie The Castle, Darryl Kerrigan's request to his son to clear the family driveway became part of the language that defined the battlers: "Ay Steve, can you move the Camira? I need to get the Torana out to get to the Commodore."

Steve Kerrigan: "Sure thing Dad, but I'll have to get the keys to the Cortina if I'm gonna move that Camira." Even then, most of these vehicles were small.

Now the Ford Falcon, finally, is to go the way of dinosaurs, it is confronting to imagine how the remaining petrol-head armies, the sea of blue-clad Ford fans and the red ocean of Holden spruikers will cope on Bathurst weekend. And what about the annual Deniliquin Ute Muster, where thousands of tricked-up Falcon and Holden utilities dominate the competition? How can you have a war when one of the combatants doesn't turn up?

This coming end of a sort of transplanted American Graffiti has been inevitable for a very long time, of course.

Let others yammer about rational things like fuel prices and high Australian dollars, reduced tariffs, the vast choice in imported cars, the difficulty in home-grown manufacturing for a small population with high wages, the rise of the world car and the shift in taste to small vehicles and SUVs.

For those of us who can remember, it all began with the demise of the drive-in movie theatre. No one had thought of mobile phones or email or Facebook in the grand days of the big car, so your entertainment involved mobility.

You kept in touch with friends by visiting them, driving around with them and, if you were of a mechanical bent, spending your weekends tinkering with motors. Fuel cost a bit more than 40¢ a gallon in the early '70s, or a bit less than 10¢ a litre. Even those of us on low wages didn't worry about hitting the road.

The picture on Australian TVs was grim black and white until 1975 and there were no home video players, let alone DVDs or multi-media streaming through the internet.

Just about every town, thus, offered as the pinnacle of evening entertainment a drive-in movie theatre.

If your car had a big enough boot - which both the big brands boasted - you could sneak mates in. The tariff at the drive-in was based on how many people were crammed into a vehicle. It was amazing how many single drivers cruised in, their mates hidden away in the locked boot. And if you had a date, why, the bench seat was a marvellous set-up.

Though women's liberation had begun to grab the imagination, the majority of young drivers were still young men. You didn't have to wear a seat belt by law in Victoria until December 1970. Girls tended to slide over the bench seat and snuggle their boy as they drove around. The absence of a floor-mounted gearshift and a centre console was particularly important in the evenings, when the projectors at the drive-in movie theatres began flickering.

Could it be mere coincidence that drive-ins began going dark about the same time that the big car makers began installing impediments to free movement in the front seat?

The rise of the floor-mounted stick shift coincided with the introduction of colour TV and the invention of the home video, too. Who needed a big car with a bench seat when you could cuddle up on a couch at home?

The big car began losing its allure to young Australians and resumed its original purpose as a family vehicle. Boring. All those young men and women began growing older and turned sensible, filling the back seat with kids possibly conceived years before at the drive-in.

It was the beginning of the end. Governments began pouring billions into keeping a fading culture alive. Holden is left trying to survive by producing a Commodore that is supposed to be as sophisticated as a BMW. And the Falcon is toast.

Perhaps they hadn't noticed what had happened to the drive-ins. Amazing, really, that it took so long.

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