Driving in Australia in a Rear Wheel Drive Car.

Note: This story was created in May of 1998.  I hope it is still has some relavence.  If nothing else, it has some pictures from 1998. 

 Driving in and around Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


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After a 14 hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney and a two hour flight from there to Melbourne we finally arrive about 10 AM Melbourne time.  An employee of our Australian subsidiary picks us up in a Ford Fairmont.  It is a boxy 4 door that that kind of reminds me of a late seventies Malibu.  It is right hand drive with a 4 speed manual.

We enter the freeway and the first sign I see is "RED LIGHT AND SPEED CAMERAS OPERATED THROUGHOUT VICTORIA."  I then see a huge sign suspended on a bridge over the freeway that says "DON'T KID YOURSELF, SPEED KILLS - RAC."  I am thinking that driving is not going to be too fun down under.  Over the next week my opinion of drivers and driving in Australia will vastly improve.

The freeway is posted at 100 KPH (62) and nobody is doing more than 100 (62), most are going about 95 (59).  We do exactly 100 (62) and do not get passed.  Just before the city I see a large sign in the medium "KEEP LEFT UNLESS OVERTAKING."  I begin to think there may be hope.

Traffic circle in front of our hotel.

As we are cruising in to the city, the southern hemisphere sunshine warming us through open windows, our driver tells us about the trams in the city.  They are trolleys,  powered by overhead electric cables, that travel on tracks in the city streets.  As we get in to the city it becomes apparent that they will add to the driving experience because they SHARE THE LANES WITH CARS.  You can drive on and turn across the tracks.  The trams also run through the middle of traffic circles without stopping.

After checking in to the Old Melbourne Inn just North of the city we walk the kilometer or so to Avis to pick up our car.  The counter person informs us that we get a free upgrade and asks what we would like.  She recommends a Holden Commodore.  A what?  She assures us that it is very nice.  I take the keys and open the left door to see there is no steering wheel.  I meekly walk around to the other side and get in on the right.  This isn't the last time that this will happen.  Driving back to the hotel I am very very careful to stay to the left.  I repeat "stay left" over and over in my head.  Through dumb luck I negotiate the "hardest traffic circle in the city" without incident.  I briskly accelerate on the last stretch before the hotel.  The suspension feels different yet satisfying as I pull away.

Holden Commodore

After managing to park the car in a very tight "car park" (parking garage) I decide to have a look.  Opening the glove box I see a Holden is really GM car.  Since the car is about the size of a Lumina I figure it probably has Lumina guts.  I pop the hood.  No hood rod, instead little pneumatic pistons hold it up. The label on the side says "Ecotec V6" so I expect to see a little 3.1 Chevy motor.  Instead, I stare in disbelief. I am mildly surprised to see a 3.8 Buick motor, but I am amazed to see that the engine is mounted for and aft proper like.  The CAR IS REAR WHEEL DRIVE!  I poke my head under to see a drive shaft.  Also, no straight axle rear end here - instead a fully independent setup.  No DRLs either.  While no one is looking I peek under a bunch of cars and find most are rear drive.  Wow! These are modern everyday sedans that a rear wheel drive.  What have we done wrong in America?

Remember when engines were mounted this way?

I use the car to drive back and forth to our office.  It is about 30 minutes and goes through most of the city.  I find the drivers very courteous.  No honking and even the cabs drive nicely.  This isn't Detroit.  The speed limits are almost always 60 (37), 70 (44), or 80 (50) KPH.  When I see a sign I look at my speedo and find myself driving just under the limit.  This must be how speed limits are supposed to be set.  Throughout my visit I never see a speed trap.  I also observe that the drivers almost never speed in and around the city.  Not even by 3 KPH!  I am sure the Speed Cameras have something to do with this but I also think the Australians just plain follow the rules because they want to.  Some intersections have signs that say "Red Light Camera Ahead."  At least they tell you where they are.  At other intersections, where there are no cameras, drivers do run the red.  This is mostly people making unprotected right turns. I can see that if they put a camera on some intersections grid lock would be the result since no one could make a right hand turn across traffic.

In the city they have signs that say "Turn Right From Left Only."  Remember, when turning right you have to cross oncoming traffic.   A cabbie tells me this is so you won't have to wait on the tram tracks to make a right turn.  You pull in to the intersection and then pull over to your left.  All the through traffic passes you on your right.  You wait for the light to turn red and the cars to stop.  You then turn to your right across traffic while everyone waits (tip : check for trams before crossing).  Locals call these "Hook Turns" and although goofy they seem to work.  I manage to to make it through the week without any major screw ups.

The Driver on the right is performing a "Hook Turn."  Driver must wait for the traffic on their right to go straight through the intersection.  Then if oncoming traffic is clear and they can beat the tram they may turn right.  Get that?

It is finally Sunday and we don't have to go in to the office.  One of the employees of our company drives a late 60s Galaxy 500 four door.  It is his everyday driver.  We of course strike up a conversion and he tells us of a car show about 80 (50) kilometers out of the city.  This is our first Sunday destination.  We get on the northern highway and head out of the city.  All of the major highways have numbers but the Australians don't ever use them, they use names instead.  Heading out of the city on the freeway there is a "KEEP LEFT UNLESS OVERTAKING SIGN" every five kilometers or so.  We follow the rule and so does everyone else.  Very nice.

Australian Galaxy 500.  Most Australian cars are four doors and right hand drive.

Everyone is still driving almost exactly 100 KPH (62).  When I reach a 100 (62) a beep sounds and an idiot light on the dash comes on that says "over speed."  I wonder if this is some cruel government mandate!  This annoys me the rest of the way to the car show.  As we near the show the terrain changes to wooded rolling hills and the freeway becomes a two lane highway.  Even though we know have oncoming traffic and crossroads the speed limit stays at 100 KPH (62).  Much more reasonable.  I am reminded that the Australians are a direct folk when I see a sign that says "Groggy Drivers Die."

We learn at the car show that it is one of the biggest in Australia at about 1200 cars.  A participant reminds me that there are only 17 million people in Australia.  The cars are a mixture of everything imaginable.  Most are right hand drive, although there are some left hand drive models imported from the US.  These have a sign on them that says "Caution, Left Hand Drive."  The most popular cars are old Ford Falcon GT's.  These were performance models built in the '60s and 70s.  They remind me off a Plymouth Roadrunner.  We explain to a 1962 Chrysler Valiant owner that his car was not built in Wyoming State.  His build sheet said Wyoming.  This was Wyoming street in Detroit.  He is quite excited about this tidbit and promises to include it in the next club newsletter. For some inexplicable reasons these old Chryslers are highly prized in Australia.

Ford Falcon GT collectors car.

Some of the cars have a large P or L placard on them.  We are told that the L is for "Learner."  When you first begin driving you must drive around with the L for awhile.   After awhile you get to put the P on instead.  I could not find out what the P stands for.  It may be "probation" because you need to drive around with this for awhile and have no problems before you can finally remove it.  We probably should have had an L on our car.

After the car show we decide to head Northeast on the smallest roads on the map.  These turn out to be two lane sealed (paved) roads.  Although they have no shoulders and can be very twisty they are clearly posted at 100 KPH (62).  Going down a long straight section the over speed bell goes off again.  I finally look around on the dash and find the mode button that controls when the bell goes off.  I set it to 130 (80) and life is good again.  Over the next hill a I see a Falcon GT heading towards us a good bit in excess of 100 KPH (62).  As it goes by, the exhaust note leads me to believe it is wide open reminding me of a scene for "Mad Max.".  The locals say the movie was filmed just north of Melbourne but we don't recognize any of the roads.
This Road is 100 KPH  just like the freeways!

Making a right onto another little road I decide to push the car a little.  It is a right hand turn across traffic on to a road that has an immediate left curve.  The turn in feels real good and as I hit the right hand apex I give it a little throttle.  I do not accelerate very hard away from the apex as I expect the usual under steer from a front drive car.  Of course, since this is rear drive, I don't get the understeer.  As the car nicely transitions for the left turn I decide to nail it coming out of the turn.  I am rewarded with some controllable power over steer.  Wow, I really forgot what it was like to drive a sophisticated rear drive street car.  I vow to never purchase another front drive vehicle.

Traveling down this road at a nice clip I see a local driver pull out from a side street.  It is a twisty road with little opportunity for passing so I assume my brisk drive is over as I will have to follow the slower traffic.  Instead, I am surprised to find the car in front of me driving at nearly the pace I was.  Throughout the trip I find many of the locals drive at a very competent rate.  No RVs or tourists going 30 MPH like you would see in America.

After a stopping at a scenic lookout we head down a steep descent made up of switch backs.  Just before the descent I see a group of super bikes parked in a turnout.  All of the Australian riders wear helmets so I assume they have a lid law.  The motorcycles in Australia are allowed to "white line."  This means they can ride in between the lanes of traffic.  The riders that travel around the city have my respect as daring individuals.  You can tell that without the utmost concentration and self confidence they would be splatted fairly quickly.

Scenic Overlook in the "hills."

I run the Holden Commodore down the hill hard.  I go full throttle on the straights and brake hard for the switch backs.  The turns themselves are banked nicely.  I find the car easy to transition smoothly from hard braking to turning.  The auto trans is slow to kick down coming out of the corners - the 5 speed would be nice.  Near the bottom of the hill I was starting to brake a little easier since after 6 or 8 hard stops I was expecting some brake fade.  I was surprised to not get any.  All in all a darn nice car.  I begin to wonder if it is possible to send one of these to the states.

Later as we pass over a vista we can see the city of Melbourne over 80 (50) Kilometers away.   Now the road is lined with fern trees as we head down towards the valley floor.  I spot a pack of three motorcycles coming up fast behind me.  I let them go by and begin to follow them down the hill.  After about five minutes of hard driving I begin to smell my brakes.  Even though the pedal isn't mushy yet I decide to back off and give the car a break.

We head back in to the city down a wide two lane highway.  This road is posted at 100 KPH (62) and drops to 80 (50) through the little towns.  As we get towards the city the highway becomes a limited access freeway and everyone once again starts obeying the speed limits.   Maybe it is those speed cameras.

We stop for fuel at a station in the city.  They have a self service liquid propane pump along with unleaded and "super."  Super is a leaded gasoline.  They use Propane in all the taxi cabs as well as many civilian vehicles.  Propane is almost one third the cost of petrol.  You do get about a 20% reduction on mileage with Propane.

Prices are in AU Dollars per liter.  It comes out to about $2 US per gallon.

The Australians use traffic circles or round-a-bouts extensively.  They seem to work very well in medium to light traffic.  It is so nice to not have to stop at intersections.  You can drive for a long time and never see a traffic light.  Makes me wonder why we don't use them more.

Even though the Australians strictly enforce their low freeway speed limits it is still enjoyable to drive around the other roads where speed limits are set appropriately. The drivers are far more competent than American drivers.  This probably has something to do with the driver training required.  The rear wheel drive cars are a joy to drive.  If GM and FORD build these cars for a market of only 17 million people why not build them for us?  These cars are an order of magnitude ahead of the last mid size straight axle cars built in the America.  Talking to a local about my liking of rear wheel drive he labels me a "pusher."  I guess I am.

Of course no down under trip would be complete without a visit to the Southern Ocean!

All text and photos Copyright 1998 Parker Thomas