Thursday, March 04, 2010

Australian Car Culture, an Australian, and his 28.7 litres' worth of Mercedeseseses

You, my dear readers, are an eccentric lot. There’s the guy with the eclectic car collection-- Corvair, E-Type, NSX, etc. The mad scientist who is working on a V12 engined BMW in the dark sub-Arctic winter-- for fun and relaxation. And this dude, who has an unusual obsession with Mercedes W116s in general (he owns five), and the 6.9 in particular (he owns three).

Wait, what?

I introduce to you: Lukas from Australia.

1. Australian car culture. Please describe the Australian's relationship with his car for us. How do the vast Outback and the country's legacy as a British colony affect the relationship, if at all? What are some popular cars driven by average Australians? Holdens and Fords? Japanese? German? Are there any American cars there?

There was an advertisement made by GM Holden in the 70s that had the jingle "Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars". That summed the era up well - the great Australian dream was to own your own home with your own car in the driveway. Having a car is a symbol of status (although this concept has been in decline since the 1990s), and often a necessity. I think the main reasons for this are the distances travelled in daily life, and the lack (or perceived lack) of viable alternatives. We have the 8th highest per-capita car ownership in the world - the U.S. is 16th.

For the many that live in outer-suburban, rural and remote areas, there genuinely are often no viable alternatives - public transport does not exist except perhaps for the school bus and the local taxi service; and the distances between towns is too great for non-motorised transport. For those living in the metro and inner-city environments, reasonable public transport does exist; but I would be in a minority in suggesting that it was a viable alternative. The public transport options could definitely be better, but I think the crux of it is that most people can afford to drive rather than catch a bus, train, tram or ferry, so they do. This equation is slowly changing in the inner-city areas of the large cities - peak traffic is only getting worse, the cost of parking can be as high as AU$50 per day, and petrol prices have climbed steadily in the last few years in particular - current average is about AU$1.25 per litre (U.S. $5/gallon). Over the past 5 or so years, the awareness of climate change, reinforced here by a long drought, has also risen sharply.

Up until the late 80s, car ownership was all about (GM) Holden and Ford- you were either a Holden man or a Ford man. The leading models from these firms for many years were the Commodore and Falcon respectively, although the next-size-down models, such as the Torana / Gemini and Cortina / Laser, also played a part. Both Commodore and Falcon made sense for Australian families and conditions - they were large, powerful, solid and simple - well suited to the weekday grind and then towing the boat to the coast on the weekend.

From that time on, the level of choice available grew markedly - Australia now has one of the largest ranges of car makes and models in the world I think. As the market's range expanded, people started to buy something other than a Falcon or Commodore - Japanese cars were the first big wave, mainly with cars like the Corolla, (Nissan) Pulsar, Lancer and Civic. After them came the Koreans - Hyundai made a big push into the market based on price, and made new car ownership available to a part of the population that could not afford it prior. At the moment, Chinese makers are just starting their big push - companies like Great Wall and Chery are the first - they are also competing on price. The trend is for a new set of players to enter on price, and then move upmarket (relatively) in terms of quality, range and sale price.

The Europeans have mostly been here for a long time, but their pricing has meant that they are always niche or minor players. There is a luxury car tax of 33% that is payable on the part of a car's price that is over a threshold amount (around AU$57,000 at present) - most of the Europeans hit this threshold, which adds to their expense. Mercedes, BMW and Volvo are the 3 most prominent brands, Audi has had a good run for the past few years as well. A few U.S. brands have made it over here as well, but American cars are generally regarded as poorly built and with no

special appeal. The large-car appeal that U.S. cars might have is generally already filled by the local large cars, so there is no real reason to buy one. The PT cruiser is probably the most common U.S. car here, and the 300C has done reasonably too.

300C wagon safety car at AustralianV8 Supercars race

The best sign of the change that the Australian car market has undergone is that both the Commodore and Falcon, whose sales have been falling steadily, have a real possibility of being discontinued within 10 years.

2. Please tell us about your W116 collection.

First was a white 350SE that had been parked in a yard for about 15 years. It has low kms, but is rusty and has a ruined interior. That is what started it all, and caused me to look into 116es properly, most notably bringing my attention to the 6.9. As I started work on the 350, it became apparent that the rust was worse than I had thought, so when a Euro 6.9 came along on ebay, I took the plunge. That car came with a 450SEL as a parts car, so one became three. Over the course of the next year, a further two 6.9s were up for sale at the right price, so now there is a total of five 116es - 28.7L total engine capacity. The biggest expense to date has been building a 4-car garage to house the 6.9s.

3. Why the W116? What's the fascination?

I didn't actually know what a 116 was until researching the 350SE just before purchase. I'd seen the ad for it in the paper, looked it up on the web, and realised it was one of those Mercedes that I'd seen around town occasionally and liked the look of. To me they are just right from a design point of view - classic yet not old, stately, elegant. As it turns out, they also have a reputation for reliability, robustness and good engineering. 116 fans say they are one of the best cars Mercedes ever made, which is what I suppose most enthusiasts think of their favoured vehicle, although in the case of the 116 Mercedes mechanics seem to agree.

4. Tell us about W116s and Mercedes in general in Australia. Are they generally imported in Euro-spec trim? U.S.-spec? British/Japanese-spec (since they're right hand drive)? Australian/Kiwi/Fiji-spec?

Most w116 models were available in Australia directly from Mercedes -these had U.S.-specification engines for some reason, which meant lower power due to the smog rules the U.S. had at the time - about 25kW less in the case of the 6.9. Fortunately, they didn't have the U.S. bumpers and headlights. Cars with Euro engines seem to have originally been delivered to the UK or perhaps Hong Kong. I can't really say for other early models in Australia - it would make sense to bring the UK model over here too, but Mercedes tends not to always do the sensible thing. These days, M-B Australia seem to be able to decide for themselves what specification the models have, although I'm sure Stuttgart still has a say. They have just decided to drop the A-class altogether - the B-class is selling better and will fill the gap apparently.

5. I saw this unrestored 6.9 with less than 300 miles for sale for U.S. $175,000. Is any 6.9 worth that much?

The common perception is that 6.9s in general are under-valued, and I agree. They cost more than a large house when new, and comparable cars of their era are worth considerably more now. Prices in Europe are a little higher. As for $175,000 - everything is worth what the buyer is willing to pay; that car has been on the market for a while now.

6. What is the state of motorsports in Australia? What do people watch and follow? Australian V8 Supercars? Mark Webber and F1? Something else?

V8s are hands down the most popular form of racing - the annual Bathurst 1000 is the Australian equivalent of a religious pilgrimage. I suppose F1 has a fair following too, but it is somewhat distant - people relate to the V8s because they are notionally the same cars as they own and drive - F1s are far from that. While I'm not familiar with the scene, there does seem to be a fairly active amateur racing scene as well - families or friends cobble together a car and race or rally it. Car culture outside motorsports is also strong - my home town Canberra hosts an annual event called Summernats that is all about burnouts, extensive modifications and show and shine.

7. Around the major population centers in Australia, is rust a major issue for cars? What environmental factors help or hurt the preservation of older cars there?

In the coastal areas and cities, yes - Sydney for example is warm and relatively humid most of the time. Inland cities and regional centres are quite dry on the other hand, and well suited to preservation. As seems to be the issue for California in the U.S., the large amount of strong sunshine here can cause considerable damage to cars, inside and out. Most w116es, for example, have burn marks on the inside of the sun visors - it happens while they are folded up, due to car cabin temperatures.

8. What is the most interesting road in your country to drive? Why?

The popular answer would have to be the Great Ocean Road in Victoria - a windy road along the coastline that takes in the 12 Apostles - a series of rocks sticking out of the sea. I'd also suggest any of the alpine roads during summer - the scenery up there is beautiful.

9. As you know, Pontiac here stopped selling the G8, which is the Holden VE Commodore over there. What are some other interesting new Australian-made cars that we don't have here?

There are only a handful of cars made here - Commodore, Camry / Aurion (v6 Camry), Falcon and Ford Territory. I think the Falcon is an under-rated car - it is essentially a more refined version of the Commodore, but still with plenty of "cheap and powerful" capacity that makes the Holden appeal. The Territory is a good car, but probably too small for the U.S. market. Regarding the Commodore - the Pontiac treatment to the bodywork does it no favours in my opinion, and the wagon and utility are also quite smart looking vehicles that the U.S. is missing out on.

Ford FG Falcon

10. Can you recommend a movie that is set in Australia which has great chase scenes involving Australian cars (besides Mad Max)?

I've not seen any of the Mad Max movies, and can't think of any featuring chases with Australian cars. "The Castle" and Eric Bana's "Love the Beast" would be good examples of Australian car culture.

11. Why do you love cars?

I'm not sure I do - for every interesting car there are ten bad or boring ones out there, and as someone that rides a pushbike to work every day, cars tend to bring out the bad side of people. We use them inefficiently, they are bad for the environment, and very resource-intensive. On the positive side, the good ones provide an outlet for great design and engineering in a way that little else can. It's a great combination of form and function that is accessible and customisable, there is always scope for improvement, and it goes fast.

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