We all have fond memories of our first car. Unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, your first car tends to be a family hand-me-down, or something paid for with a pittance. Mine was the former, the old family car that had since been replaced: a 1997 Holden Astra GL 1.8. By the time I inherited it, three of its wheel covers were gone, it had a nasty key scratch all the way down one side and a bad case of sunburn. One of the doors hadn’t opened since my father had attempted to fix something I can’t recall and ended up breaking the door, and trim pieces had fallen off throughout the cabin. It was the ultimate beater. Naturally, I absolutely loved that car.
When my mother first bought it, it was a beauty. Mum had looked at some other small cars, and as the car buff of the family I went along for the ride. I distinctly remember being unimpressed by the base model Corolla, finding it too bland and spartan. Mum, being quite a fiscally prudent woman, was intent on a small car. Her previous one, a canary-yellow Holden VH Commodore SL with a brown-vinyl interior, had a serious case of tin worm on the rocker panels but was otherwise mechanically sound. Still, it was now more than ten years old, and Mum felt it was about time for a new car.
The old Commodore took a visit to the wrecker’s, and Mum went looking around. Thanks to my avid Which Car? Magazine consumption, I’m sure I helped with the hunt. I recall that I corrected a salesman at a Kia dealership, and also took Mum to a Proton dealership. Hey, I was a kid.
an identical Astra I found, in mint condition
The competition in the small car segment was fierce then (and remains so today). The Ford Laser and Mazda 323 twins were solid, high-quality small cars, but not the cheapest, due to the rising Yen. The aforementioned Corolla was reliable to a fault, but oh-so-dull. The Subaru Impreza had been targeted for cost-cutting in an attempt to bring down its price, leaving the base LX with embarrassing exposed wheels and giant black plastic bumpers. Suzuki’s Baleno (Esteem in the U.S.) was a complete nonentity that I rarely saw. Chrysler’s Neon was new to the market, and enjoyed the ignominy of having the last three-speed automatic for sale in Australia.
Nissan and Honda had just redesigned their Pulsar and Civic, respectively, and both of them were blockier, cheaper-looking and less attractive than their predecessors. Mitsubishi’s Lancer was available, but it always seemed a second-tier alternative to the Corolla. Likewise, Hyundai’s interestingly-styled Lantra; actually, only Hyundai’s Excel was making any major headway here, and that was due to its bargain drive-away pricing.
If the Lantra was second-tier, the forgettable Proton Wira (above) was a third-tier alternative, even though its Mitsubishi Lancer bones were sound. Actually, Proton has never been taken seriously here since its arrival two decades ago.
Daihatsu’s Applause, the smart little notchback that had a hatchback, had undergone an embarrassing end-of-life facelift with a toothy chrome grille and cheap brightwork. Kia’s Mentor had just arrived–and good luck finding one of those on the road–and Daewoo had just launched its Nubira, with which I would later become acquainted.
Finally came the Europeans, with the attractive Peugeot 306, Volkswagen Golf and SEAT Cordoba. Peugeot has always been a bit player here, though, and Volkswagen was then nowhere near its current sales position (VW is close to breaking into the Top 10 manufacturers by sales). SEAT arrived here in 1995 with the smartly-styled Ibiza, the dumpy sedan-derivative Cordoba and the aging Toledo, after which they promptly disappeared, reappeared in 1999, and then disappeared again.
That left one compact: the Holden Astra. What was new to Australia in 1996 was already four years old in Europe. While the Astra was Holden’s first Euro-sourced compact (manufactured in the UK by Vauxhall), its name had been used down under once before, on Holden’s rebadged ’80s version of the Nissan Pulsar which itself was replaced by the Nova, a rebadged Toyota Corolla.
Although the old Astra seemed to enjoy moderate success, the Nova was a bit rarer on Australian roads. The same was true of other Button-Plan rebadges, including the Holden Apollo (Toyota Camry) and Toyota Lexcen (Holden Commodore). Thus, out went the rebadged Japanese models, and in came the Europeans. First was the Barina, switched from a rebadged Suzuki Swift to a rebadged Opel Corsa. Then came the Astra, followed by the mid-size, Apollo-successor Vectra. A memorable advertising campaign accompanied the launch of the Astra.
The Astra arrived with two body styles, three engines, two transmissions and three trim levels available. The base, gray-bumpered City came with a 1.6-liter, 99-hp four mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed auto. It had cheapo wheel covers,and came equipped with only an airbag, power steering, six- speaker stereo and central locking. The mid-range GL sedan and hatch added body-colored bumpers, electric mirrors, fog lamps and a more powerful 113-hp 1.8-liter four. The top-of-the-line GSi came only as a hatch equipped with a body kit, alloy wheels, sport seats, sport suspension and a leather steering wheel. It also had a nice power bump, as its 2.0-liter four punched out 134 horsepower. I have never seen a GSi, which is a shame. The hatch was frumpier than the smart-looking sedan, but the GSi did come in an electric banana-yellow color that really made it pop.
Mum loved the Astra, which she called her “little red car”. How could you not love it? The first Euro-sourced generation was not very common, so it had the rarity factor–and it looked damn sharp, especially in the pleasant maroon my Mum chose. Fog lamps made it look a little more expensive, too, and overall it just looked more expensive and stylish than the Japanese competition.
The interior was also extremely pleasant, with nice textures, stylish upholstery (alternating blue-and-red stripes on gray cloth), light plastics and an airy greenhouse. It wasn’t faultless though: There was uneven fit and finish quality and blanked-out buttons where higher-spec overseas models had real ones. While as a child these things annoyed me, otherwise I loved the interior, which was decently roomy for our family of five, as well as the big boot.
Eventually, though, Dad’s company car became our primary family car. The Astra fell into obsolescence, driven only once a week to stop the battery from dying (which happened on many occasions). This was around 2003; five years later, when it came time for me to get my license, the Astra became mine. By now, the aforementioned cosmetic problems had arisen: It looked like crap. But hey, if I accidentally bumped it, who would notice? If it sat out in the sun forever, it wouldn’t matter. A chronic oil leak was the only mechanical problem, although the muffler developed a hole which made it very noisy. But it didn’t smoke, it always started, and it left stranded only once. My only regret was not getting a decent photo of the interior, which I always admired despite its propensity to shed plastic trim pieces.
photo courtesy of Picknpayless.com.au
The best part? The Astra was fun to drive. Sure-footed handling, a great ride/handling balance and a slick shifter made it a joy to belt around. The ride wasn’t too stiff or too noisy (other than the dodgy muffler). In fact, for a four cylinder, it sounded quite good. Also, the shifter wasn’t too notchy, and the car felt light on its feet.
The Astra launched in 1992, but it rode and handled better than the floaty, crashy 2002 Nubira that replaced it. The Astra’s interior was much nicer to look at and touch than the Nubira’s. The latter had a plastic-y, drab interior that squeaked and felt flimsy to the touch. Where was the decade of progress? Still, it was bought as a run-out as the Daewoo brand was being withdrawn, and it came with leather seats–never mind the notchy shifter and weird seating position. It was cheap, and now it’s gone–and I won’t be looking at that junker through any rose-tinted glasses.
I throttled my little Astra, and friends of mine were slightly terrified to sit in it. My good friend Betsy also informed me that the car smelt “dusty, like it was about to die.” The timing belt did bite the dust as I was driving to work one day (it was one of the most unpleasant sounds I’ve ever heard), but fortunately, the car died just as I was pulling into a parking spot. The parents paid to have it fixed – hey, I was a university student – and also paid for the oil leak to be repaired and the muffler replaced. Yes, it was the sunk-cost fallacy in action: The car was worthless by this point, but they kept paying to fix it.
But I couldn’t bear to part with the Astra, knowing I’d miss it even as I actively saved to replace it. It was time to move on, and in 2011 I bought a car that was truly my own: a 2004 Ford Falcon BA XR6.
The TR Astra lasted only until 1998. It had done what it needed to do: introduce Australians to a European small Holden and to the Astra nameplate. It made way for the TS Astra, which was the first small Holden since the Gemini to crack the Top 10 in sales.
As for my Astra? As much as I knew I would miss it, I never drove it again after buying the Falcon, and it sat there until the day my dad traded it–not for money, not for another car, but for one weekend’s use of a dumpster. Now it belongs to a young girl, and I hope she’s enjoying it as much as I did.
The “Button Plan”. The Australian equivalent of the malaise era or the decline of the English motor industry in the sixties. Dark times indeed.
I couldn’t begin to describe the “sticker engineering” but every single car built during this period was horrid, even the donor cars were tainted forever.
And Holden was the worst although Ford ran them a close second.
I thought about a list of all the cars produced under the Button plan (named after the senator behind it, not the clothing component!), and sure enough there is one on Wikipedia. I have added to the table, but as it doesn’t display properly have changed the layout.
Original vehicle: Ford Falcon ute (XF)
Car replaced: Nil
Comment: Purely a re-sticker job, no changed parts. Had double the Ford warranty.
Original vehicle: Holden Commodore (VN, VP, VR)
Car replaced: Nil
Comment: Ran alongside Toyota Cressida until 1993
Original vehicle: Nissan Patrol (GQ/Y60)
Car replaced: Ford Bronco
Comment: Only vehicle on list not manufactured in Australia
Original vehicle: Nissan Pintara (U12 Bluebird)
Car replaced: Nil
Comment: Introduced alongside existing midsize Ford Telstar (Mazda 626 derivative)
Original vehicle: Nissan Pulsar (N13)
Car replaced: Holden Gemini
Original vehicle: Toyota Camry (V20, XV10)
Car replaced: Holden Camira
Comment: Replaced by Opel Vectra
Original vehicle: Toyota Corolla (E90, E100)
Car replaced: Holden Astra
Comment: Replaced by Opel Astra
It is interesting that Nissan provided vehicles to both Ford and Holden but I don’t think there was an overlap. Mitsubishi were the other local manufacturer at this time, but did not share any of their vehicles. Nissan stopped local vehicle manufacturing in 1993, after the Corolla production stopped in 1999 there were no more small cars built here until the Holden Cruze two years ago.
Great list John. We didn’t get any of them over here new (our government displayed insanity in other ways!), but there is a privately imported Astra (the N13-based one) in town; I once passed an Apollo on the motorway; and there was a Maverick in my hometown back in ’91 (the Patrol-based Maverick, not the smaller Nissan Mistral-based Maverick that we also have here). I have many of the brochures though, so that quenched my curiosity!
I read about the N13 Astra and the E90/100 Nova in Wheels at the time, and thought that Holden had done better than Ford/Nissan to differentiate the Astra and Nova styling from their donors. It wasn’t until the annual flood of JDM used imports was entrenched here that I realised the Holden-specific front and rear end lights and bodywork was largely just from JDM versions of the donors that weren’t sold new in Australasia. My teenage illusion was shattered lol!
Original vehicle: Suzuki Swift
Car replaced: none
Comment: replaced by Opel Corsa badged as Holden Barina.
Ditto re the Button plan. I was on the other side of the Tasman, but Wheels kept me informed (and mystified!) at what was happening. Although I must say, the Toyota Lexcen brochures are a mice touch in my brochure collection, and very good for confusing folks.
Still plenty of Astras floating around over here too William – and many more Opel basged versions have come in as Japanese used imports. They seem to be reliable and dependable. Not nearly as much fun as your XR6 though!
Holdens have fascinated me. I spent a couple months in Perth in 1994 – with the American Navy and on foot. But I spent a fair amount of time sightseeing…and I remember the Holdens of the time, many of them looking like variations of the 1972-era Chevelles. Very attractive use of the flowing Coke-bottle theme; their own cars yet unmistakably GM. There being no Internet, I couldn’t learn much about Holden, although it was obviously – like Vauxhall and Opel – a foreign subsidiary of GM, given access to design and engineering pools but allowed to grow in its own way.
A shame how badge-engineering and political expediencies (the Button Plan as mentioned) turned this make into something else, something repeating a theme overplayed elsewhere.
A big seller over here as a Vauxhall ,especially in 3 door hatchback guise,unfortunately popular with the chav/boy racer types and some horribly butchered examples blare round.I’d like to see your Falcon Aussie iron rocks and you drive on the correct side of the road!
Yeah I lived in Aussie during the Button period stupi ideas abounded as did stupidly rebadged cars Nissan and Ford shared shitboxes Holden and Toyota shared cars Chrysler returned to the Aussie market with the rubbish old fashioned and incompetent Neon. GMH was at the time building the GM world supply of 4cylinder engines shippinf engines to the UK for assembly into Vauxhalls and the same power plants to Korea for assembly into Daewoos of which the Pontiac Lemons was the Korean equivalent to your Astra which though new when your parents bought it is really a 1984 car and not a good one.
Ah, a boy’s first car. Even when it’s something really basic like your mom’s old Holden 3-door sedan with the optional passenger side front wheel cover, getting that first car is such a game-changer. The opportunities for mayhem increase exponentially…
That first car can be a magical experience, kind of like your first girlfriend. Years later, in objective terms, the car may not seem like much when compared to your later cars (my first car was a worn out 1971 Ford Custom 500 – a POS), but the memories will stay with you for the rest of your life.
I found your analysis of the small cars offered in Australia very insightful, with your mom (mum) settling on just the right car with that Goldilocks reasoning, “not too hot, not too cold, but just right”. I’d never heard of a Proton before, but learn something new everyday on CC. Thank you for taking the time to write this article!
Proton was a Malaysian manufacturer, started by the Malaysian Prime Minister with heavy backing from Mitsubushi; it was given extensive aid in the form of punitive import tariffs on other makes. Basically a crony-capitalist startup.
Proton was mixed in with Malcolm Bricklin; he wanted to import the Proton Saga, a Mitsubushi licensed model, to the States to replace the suddenly-out-of-favor Yugo. He struck a deal with Proton’s CEO/Prime Minister Mohammed; but nobody consulted Mitsubushi, which was selling the same car in the States as the Lancer.
Mitsubushi pulled the plug, leaving Malcolm and Mohammed screaming at each other…and Yugo of America plunging into bankruptcy.
Noone here cared what Mitsubishi thought and both NZ & OZ got Protons Hyundais and Mitsubishi originals reliable little dungers but nuthin special to drive.
Back in the high school our drummer had an Astra just like this one, the Opel version ! It was peculiar as they all were hatchbacks or wagons…we loved that car, it was roomy, had a soft ride and we could smoke (anything) inside it…our buddy was a crazy guy and I still remember 120 mph rides on the backroads blasting loud punk rock ! I’ve once rode in the trunk too…pretty roomy !
Although I am unfamiliar with the car, I always enjoy reading about a fellow’s first wheels. Well done.
I never owned one of these but Kym Valentine’s Neighbours character had one of these as a first car back in the day on the show.For those of us who have lived in parts of the world where it also existed as an Opel I saw it as a late 20th century version of the original Opel Kadett that my father had back in the sixties in Singapore.I was drawn to the later TS series given my parents history with that car but the Holden dealers when it came time for me to get my second new car didn’t want to know my family which was an insult.Now If only We had known a fellow school mate of my brothers worked at a GMH dealer I would have done anything to avoid a Corolla or another Mazda at the time.
My only experience, circa 2000 driving a RHD car was this car in New Zealand. A Rover. Don’t know much about it….but sure seemed like a badge engineered version of something LOL.
Napier, The Art Deco City, was beautiful. But so is the rest of NZ.
I think they were based on a Honda.
Yes, it’s an R3 series Rover 200. They were sold here new. The previous series, the R8, was pretty mcuh the same as the Honda Concerto, also sold here new. Wikipedia says the R3 was launched after Rover and Honda divorced, and as such only uses some carryover parts from the R8. Apparently they attached Maestro rear suspension and floor to increase space. A workmate had an R3 200, it was a nice little car. Cartainly felt 95% Honda though.