There are two things everyone remembers: your first kiss and your first car. From Beetles to beamers, utes to discos, Australians have always had a love affair with the motor car, whether it be Australia's own iconic Holden, Ford's mighty muscle cars, the superfast, supersleek sportcars of Europe or even the elegant vintage horseless carriages of the early 20th century. Our fascination with cars, trucks, motorcycles and even tractors seems to know no bounds, with collectors and museums all over the country putting their best on show.
Every state has at least one and even the smallest towns can be home to a super-sized shed full of gleaming, passionately-polished chrome, or atmospheric old garage packed to the rafters with garagenalia and assorted automobilia. Some collections are publicly funded, others are a pool of individually-owned vehicles on loan, but the most recent collection to open its doors to visitors is all owned by just one man. Gosford Classic Car Museum, which opened in late May, is home to the biggest private car collection in the country, with more than 400 cars on show at any one time. It's a vast warehouse (it used to be a Bunnings) with more than $70 million dollars worth of metal on display with everything from vintage classics to modern supercars including 35 Ferraris, lots of Porsches, Rolls Royces and four generations of Lamborghini as well as a couple of more humble conveyances such as a 1964 Datsun ute and a Morris Minor, although it's a $5 million red Ferrari LaFerrari that seems to elicit the most "phwoars". The collection's owner, entrepreneur Tony Denny who made a fortune selling second-hand cars in former communist countries across Europe, buys and sells around 20 vehicles each month, so every six months around a third of what's on the floor will be new to the collection.
According to the Will Ford, the museum's marketing manager, the big crowd-pleasers of the current stable include the LaFerrari – "it's just not a car you would ever see on the road in Australia" – and the Aussie Invader III, a jet-powered car that did over 1000km/h on the Australian salt lakes. "Our one-of-a-kind Onyx Black Ford Falcon XY GHTO Phase III, built for the 1971 Sydney Motor Show, is another big drawcard as it's the only one ever made in that colour and considered by many to be the most coveted Australian car in existence," says Ford.
But it's not just the machinery and automotive engineering that gets visitors revved up. According to Ford the popularity of motoring museums and collections like this one is that while they showcase super rare cars you would never see on a suburban street, they also provide an opportunity for visitors to view examples of cars from their childhood.
"When I was a kid, I had a collection of about 15 1/18th scale model cars which I kept on a shelf in my bedroom and still own to this day," Ford explains. "These have been my dream cars my entire life, and every single one of them is here in the museum in real life."
"Cars mean different things to different people," he says. "Some people love the engineering and craftsmanship, others love the memories that come flooding back when they see a car they haven't seen for 40 years. The most exciting thing for us is talking to people and hearing their stories."
"We all remember family road trips in the old Holden or Ford that seemed to take forever," muses Ford. "I think we love cars not only because we rely on them so heavily, but because of the great memories we associate with them."
Matthew Lombard, curator of the National Motor Museum on the outskirts of Adelaide, agrees.
"These cars may remind us of family holidays, or trips to the beach," says Lombard. "For previous generations the obtaining of a driver's license and a car was the key to freedom and a milestone on the path to adulthood. As well as this we have always loved to tinker with things and invent or personalise items around us, including the motorcar."
The cars on show at the National Motor Museum might be a little less shiny and significantly more used than those in the Gosford collection, but the vehicles on display, which range from an 1899 Shearer – the oldest Australian-built vehicle still running – to 1920s tourers and motorcycles in a recreated 1920s garage, a Depression-era ute and mid-century classics including a 1948 Holden, all offer a road trip down memory lane. Here the focus is not just on the history of motorised transport in Australia, particularly Australian-produced and engineered vehicles, but on the social influence of the car in Australia. There are some great fun interactive family exhibits, a drive-in "experience" and a huge collection of toy and model cars.
"We also collect automobilia associated with the motor vehicle in Australia. We particularly try to collect the stories associated with this too," explains Lombard, who describes the museum's collection as both extensive and eclectic.
"We have a lot of cars which were used by everyday people in their everyday lives," says Lombard, including "motorcycles as well as light commercial vehicles such as a Hawkers Van and a few heavy commercial vehicles including buses."
But it's the stars of the silver screen that steal the show, according to Lombard.
"We have Tom Kruse's Birdsville Mail Truck which is very popular with people of a certain age, mainly because they were children when the film came out in the 1950s. We recently acquired a vehicle from the third film in the Mad Max trilogy and this is popular with people with young families, again because they were children or teenagers when this film came out."
As far as iconic vehicles go, however, you can't go past the showpiece of the Landmarks Gallery in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, a FX Holden prototype that became the definitive model for millions of cars. It is, according to Dr Daniel Oakman, senior curator at the NMA, one of the most popular objects on show at the museum, alongside Phar Lap's heart. "Both objects have become symbolic icons of our nationality. The Holden story became our story," he says, "Building our own car was a reflection of our industrial maturity after World War II. It demonstrated our capacity to recover from the war, our ability to employ migrants coming from Europe and our new relationship with the US.
So much more than just a mode of transport, Oakman believes the Holden was a symbol of Australia's post-war prosperity. "It was a vision of our future," he says. "As an historical object it will become even more significant now that local manufacturing is about to end."
FIVE MORE MOTORING MUSEUMS
1. NATIONAL AUTOMOBILE MUSEUM OF TASMANIA
Cars and motorcycles from the early 1900s through to today, with four themed displays each year. All vehicles are privately owned which means the collection changes regularly as new exhibits become available. 86 Cimitiere St, Launceston. Daily 9am-5pm (10am-4pm during winter). namt.com.au
2. AUSTRALIAN MOTORLIFE MUSEUM, NSW
Cars, motorcycles and all manner of jaunty jalopies on show, as well as lots of signs, accessories, promotional items, tools, badges and petrol pumps, caravans and books. Highlights include the NRMA Heritage Museum and the Wayne Gardner Collection. Tuesday to Sundays 9.30am-4.30pm. Darkes Rd, Kembla Grange. motorlifemuseum.com.au
3. NATIONAL MOTORCYCLE MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIA, NSW
The ultimate bike shed, this purpose-built complex at Nabiac on the mid-north coast, 140km north of Newcastle, houses more than 700 motorcycles and an enormous array of motorcycle memorabilia, toys, a library of motorcycle books and magazines. 33 Clarkson St, Nabiac. Daily, 9am-4.30pm. nationalmotorcyclemuseum.com.au
4. MOTOR MUSEUM OF WA
Set to double in size by the end of next year, there are currently more than 140 vehicles on display, as well as historic motor racing photographs, old automotive tools, petrol pumps, 2000 hub caps and quite possibly the largest collection of model cars in Australia. 99 Lord St, Whiteman, WA. Daily 10am-4pm motormuseumofwa.asn.au
5. ROAD TRANSPORT HALL OF FAME, NT
Alice Springs is the birthplace of the road train, so where better to build a museum dedicated to the preservation and presentation this unique form of Aussie road transport. Highlights include historic trucks and vehicles, a vintage car collection, photographic displays and transport memorabilia. 2 Norris Bell Ave, Alice Springs. Daily 9am-5pm. roadtransporthall.com