Australia’s Home-Grown American Muscle Cars
How the Big Three responded to a muscle-car craze in Australia
Muscle cars are seen as an American phenomenon, but for a time in the 1960s and '70s, our fellow former colonists in Australia caught the muscle car bug as well. Popularity of the Australian Touring Car Championship racing series, as well as draconian right-hand-drive laws, led the American Big Three to develop a series of muscle cars designed exclusively for the Australian market—a rush that was nearly cut off at the knees after the "Supercar Scare" of 1972. Here's how Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler responded to the Australian need for speed.
Ford Falcon GT: Australia's First Muscle Car
The Falcon made its start in Oz much as it did here: As a humble, fuel-efficient compact. For '67, Ford introduced the new XR-series Falcon lineup with a performance version called the Falcon GT. It was powered by a 225-horsepower, 289-cubic-inch (4.7-liter) V-8 borrowed from the Mustang and augmented with a stiffer suspension and bigger brakes. Despite having four doors—a muscle car-no-no in the United States—the Falcon GT is widely considered to be the first muscle car in Australia.
For 1968, the redesigned XT-series Falcon GT got a 5.0-liter V-8 that routed 230 horsepower through a close-ratio four-speed transmission. The XW-series Falcon GT HO adopted the Cleveland 351 cid (5.8-liter) V-8 with 290 horsepower. In 1971, the XY-series Falcon was released. The GT-HO version now featured a shaker hood scoop, and while Ford claimed 300 horsepower, gearheads Down Under pin the engine's true output well north of 350 horsepower.
Nineteen seventy-two was a big year for the Australian Falcon: While Ford of Australia had influenced design changes since the mid-60s, the '72 XA-series Falcon was the first all-Australian model. The Falcon GT was finally offered as a two-door coupe, with the 300 (alleged) horsepower 351-ci V-8 as the top engine choice. (This was the Falcon best known to the world, thanks to a '73 GT that had a starring role in the film Mad Max. Several have made it to the States.) The hottest of the hot was the GT HO—0-60-mph in 6.4 seconds and a 142-mph top speed, making it the fastest 1972 four-door in the world. But Australian interest in muscle cars cooled rapidly after 1972 (for reasons we'll explore below), and the Falcon GT was discontinued after 1973.
Holden Monaro GTS 3xx and Torana GTR XU-1: GM Responds to the Ford Falcon
The infamous cross-town rivalry between Ford and General Motors didn't end at the Detroit city limits—or even at the International Date Line. Ford's success with the Falcon GT did not go unnoticed, and for 1968, GM's Holden division revealed its own muscle-coupe based on the new HK-series Monaro. The GTS 327 had a Chevrolet-sourced 5.4-liter V-8 rated for 250 horsepower. In the spring of '69, the Monaro was facelifted (now known as the HT-series) and the GTS 350 arrived with a 300-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8. Like the Falcon, the Monaro GTS 3xx cars were equipped with a heavy-duty suspension and bigger brakes.
The HG-series Monaro, introduced in 1971, had a reduced emphasis on performance—the GTS 350 was now down to 275 horsepower. The manual transmission was dropped for 1974, and when the facelifted version appeared the following year, the 350 was no longer on the option list. Holden wasn't done with muscle cars; it had simply found a new formula.
The 1970 Holden Torana GTR XU-1was a different kind of muscle car. Instead of a fire-breathing V-8, it had a 3.0-liter straight six-cylinder fed by three Stromberg carburetors. Output was only 158 horsepower, just over half that of the Monaro GTS 350, but the LC-series Torana was significantly smaller and lighter (in fact, it was a forerunner of GM's T-car, known to us as the Chevrolet Chevette). If the Monaro's M.O. was to beat the Falcon GT like a sledgehammer, the XU-1 aimed to carve it up like a scalpel.
The formula worked, with XU-1s proving quicker on the track than the Monaro. For 1972, Holden increased the engine's size and upped output to 190 horsepower, while further improving the suspension and steering. Holden sold around 1,600 XU-1s between 1972 and 1974. Holden also built an experimental V-8-powered Torana called the XU2, but the production costs were too high, and the threat of legislation against high-speed cars loomed large.
Even so, when the Torana was redesigned (TA-series) in 1974, it finally got the V-8 it wanted, a 240-horsepower 5.0-liter (308 cid) engine developed by Holden. Hottest of these was the 1977 Torana A9X, effectively a homologation special. These cars are rare today and exceptionally valuable.
Chrysler Valiant Charger: Chrysler's Late Entry in the Oz Muscle Car Race
Having waited until 1971 to get into the Muscle Down Under business, Chrysler had plenty of time to see what Ford and Holden had gotten right (and wrong). The two-door Valiant Charger was based on the Valiant sedan, itself related to America's ubiquitous A-body Valiant and Dart, but with a wider body and track. The coupe body was unique to Australia, while the Valiant's surname came from the famous American muscle car.
Chrysler offered the VH-series Valiant Charger with a couple of intriguing engines. The R/T used the 4.3-liter (265-cid) "Hemi 6", a unique-to-Oz inline six-cylider developed from a proposed (but never implemented) replacement for the famous Slant Six. The R/T could be had with a triple-carb "six pack" setup that yielded as much as 302 horsepower, well over the magic 1-hp-per-cubic-inch benchmark.
The Charger 770 SE came with the 5.6-liter (340-cid) V-8 found in Chrysler's American muscle compacts. It was tuned for 275 horsepower, but a single exhaust and automatic transmission watered down performance. The 340-cid V-8 engine was meant to go racing, but its heavier weight made it slower around the track than the six-cylinder cars, hence its use in the luxury-oriented SE.
A new VJ-series Valiant Charger appeared in 1973, not long after Chrysler withdrew from Australian touring car racing. Performance engines were paired to the six-pack six-cylinder and the 340-cid V-8, which (as in the States) was soon replaced by the 360-cid (5.9-liter)—albeit one detuned with a two-barrel carb and 255 horsepower. The VK-series replaced the VJ in 1975, and while it still offered the 360-cid V-8, increasing emissions regulations killed it after less than a year. Chrysler would continue to offer a 5.2-liter (318-cid) V-8 with a four-speed manual transmission through the end of the Valiant Charger's run in 1978.
The End of the Muscle Car Era in Australia
Why did the muscle car era in Australia fade so quickly? Ironically, it was the Ford Falcon GT, the car that began the muscle car craze, that helped to bring it to an end. A photo in the October 1971 issue of Wheels magazine showed the dashboard of a Falcon GT at 6,700 rpm and 100 mph—but it soon came out the photo had been retouched, and in fact the car was in fourth gear going 140-mph-plus. The Sun-Herald newspaper published an article that Ford, Holden, and Chrysler would soon be building street-legal homologation specials that could do 160 mph.
The uproar that resulted is known today as the Supercar Scare, with government leaders threatening legislation to ban cars faster than 130 mph. Chrysler responded by withdrawing from racing in Australia, and while it continued to build V-8 models, they were luxury models fitted with detuned engines. Australia was also facing the same rising fuel prices as the rest of the world. Ford discontinued the Falcon GT in 1973, signaling the end of the Australian muscle-car craze.
Classic Australian muscle cars
- Ford Falcon GT: Four- (and later two-) door muscle car with V-8 power
- Holden Monaro GTS: Short-lived V-8-powered response to the Falcon GT
- Holden Torana GTR: Compact car with straight-six power
- Chrysler Valiant Charger: Latecomer with triple-barrel six-cylinder and V-8 engines
- Holden Sandman: Car-based panel truck with V-8 power
- Holden Commodore: '80s revival of the V-8 powered performance car