If you were fortunate enough to score an invite to a Hollywood party these days, you’d be hard-pressed to avoid rubbing shoulders with an Australian actor. Tinseltown is awash with them. Academy Award winners Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush lead an ever-growing troupe that also includes Toni Collette, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce. Nor can we forget the recently deceased Academy Award-nominated Heath Ledger.
Not so well-known in the United States, or anywhere outside of Australia for that matter, is that cars from Down Under are also taking to American streets in increasing numbers. Earlier this month at the New York International Auto Show, General Motors Vice Chairman and industry heavyweight Bob Lutz joined rap artist 50 Cent on stage at the Javits Center in Manhattan to give a star’s welcome to the new Pontiac G8 GXP and G8 Sport Truck.
Pontiac is an American brand, right? Well, the badges might say Pontiac, but look a little closer and you will see a sign of the times. Companies are joining forces in the fight to stay competitive — Nissan, for example, shares chassis’ with Renault, and Suzuki and Fiat both employ the same framework on certain models. And while these Pontiacs have cosmetic makeovers (new grille designs) and left-hand drive setups (rather than Australia’s right-hand drive), at the core these vehicles are designed and built by GM’s Australian subsidiary, GM Holden Ltd, located near Melbourne. In their home country, the two cars go by the names of Commodore SS and Commodore SS Ute, respectively.
As an Australian, I felt all warm and fuzzy to watch Lutz and 50 Cent introduce to America two iconic cars from the country I call home. But Lutz, who almost single-handedly closed the deal with Holden several years ago to have these cars imported to the States, made no mention of their origin. Not one word spilled forth about the fact that the two Pontiacs are basically rebadged Holden Commodores.
What did get special mention was that both sit on rear-wheel-drive chassis’ and sport American-made 402 hp, 6.2 liter V8 engines fitted to 6-speed manual gearboxes. This is a rare setup in a world where automatic gearboxes are the norm. And that is a major reason why Lutz decided that the Aussie cars should be in the GM lineup; these Commodores, oops, I mean Pontiacs, excite rear-wheel-drive V8 lovers. GM does make other rear-wheel- drive V8 cars, such as the Corvette and Cadillac, but they start at around $60,000 — $20,000 more than the G8 GXP. Price aside, the Aussie cars are also powerful, have been praised in the local media for their on-road manners, and look like a Pontiac that’s attended grooming school.
The deepening relationship between Holden and Pontiac has not escaped the notice of GM’s main Australian competitor, Ford Australia Ltd., a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company. That company has its own successful rear-wheel-drive V8 sports sedans and sport trucks — such as the Australian- made Ford Falcon XR8, which has received rave reviews in the American press. Ford has yet to try to export them, but while the company is likely more focused on recent flat sales and the selloff of its Jaguar and Land Rover divisions to India’s Tata, the idea has legs. Though rare, this is not the first time an Aussie car has been exported.
Back in 1975, Holden shipped Premier luxury sedans to Mazda here in Japan, where they were fitted with rotary engines and rebadged as Mazda Roadpacers. Poor mileage in the wake of the first fuel crisis of the early ’70s, however, resulted in a mere 840 units being assembled.
Then, in 2001, the Holden Monaro, a V8-powered sports coupe landed in Australian showrooms and became an instant hit, so much so that Lutz imported the car to America and rebadged the car as the Pontiac GTO. But hard-core Stateside enthusiasts of the original 1960s GTO coupe, at whom the car was targeted, were not convinced by the simple makeover — a new Pontiac grille — though, and it soon disappeared from dealerships. The same Aussie-built Monaro was also sold as the Vauxhall Monaro in the U.K., where it enjoyed more fame, winning the influential BBC Top Gear “best muscle car award.” It was also marketed in the Middle East as the Chevrolet Lumina Coupe.
From what I heard and saw in New York, though, the two new Pontiacs have the credentials to succeed. They wear a made-in-America badge — something that’s become more crucial in post-9/11 America — but they have just the right amount of foreign-ness about them. Like Tiger Woods and Barack Obama, they have an acceptable mix of cultures, and that could mean all the difference when the cars go on sale by autumn this year.
Who knows, if these Holdens can make their mark as successful Pontiacs in America, then perhaps one day soon we might even see them on Japanese roads — wearing American badges, ironically.
Peter Lyon is a 20-year motoring journalist who covers the Japanese automotive industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.