Home » How Strict Teen Driving Laws Changed Australian Car Culture Forever

How Strict Teen Driving Laws Changed Australian Car Culture Forever

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G’day again, Autopians! My last article had such a good reaction here that DT asked me to write some more for you. Heartfelt thanks from me for all the great responses from the Autopian community. In this article, I’ll briefly explain how driving licensing works in Australia, and how laws banning “high-performance” cars from being operated by teenagers/newly licensed people changed the face of motoring enthusiasm in Australia.

This subject was lightly touched on in the video where we celebrated Project Cactus passing a New South Wales Blue Slip (Unregistered Vehicle Inspection) and then going for a walk in downtown Dubbo to look at and discuss the cars we could find.

Img 20230112 170518 146

Pictured: the author.

All states and territories in Australia have a graduated licensing system. It differs slightly for each area, so I will stick to my native state of New South Wales (18 percent larger than Texas!) and give a brief overview of how the license system works before diving into the impacts.

Here in New South Wales, you can start driving from age 16 if you pass the computer-based Driver Knowledge Test and are accompanied by a fully-licensed driver when driving with a yellow “L” plate displayed on the front and rear of the vehicle. 

As long as you are accompanied by a fully-licensed adult, you can drive any passenger vehicle that is roadworthy and registered in Australia.

You need to complete 120 logged driving hours (less if you have professionally-instructed lessons) and hold the license for 10 months before you can take an on-road driving test and graduate to your P1 License, or “Red P’s.”

Cm Regal Green P Plate

Photo: Laurence Rogers

Now you can finally drive unaccompanied, with instant three-month disqualification for any speeding offenses and 90km/h maximum speed limit (even on 110km/h freeways!) You also cannot transport more than one person under the age of 21 between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless you have an exemption.

Additionally, you cannot drive any vehicle on the “prohibited” list (we will get back to this in a moment) or your license is disqualified for three months. Once you have had your Reds for 12 months (the counter resets if you have a disqualification), you can do another computer-based test and move up to your P2, or “Green P’s.”

Here you can now drive at up to 100km/h, carry more passengers under 21 (unless you had a disqualification on your Reds) and now you might get away with one minor speeding offense without being disqualified. 

Photo: via NSW

If you manage to hold this last provisional license for 24 months without a disqualification you will finally have a chance to complete one final computer-based test and receive your full NSW driver’s license and the freedom to finally drive any passenger vehicle that is registered and roadworthy within Australia.

If you obtained your Learner license on your sixteenth birthday as many kids do, if you make it unscathed through this license plus P1 & P2, you’ll likely be twenty or so by the time you get your full license issued.

So what then are you allowed to drive as a teenager in New South Wales? 

Teenagers Banned From Driving Cars With V8s Or Turbos

Prior to 2005, anything your heart desired that was roadworthy and registered in New South Wales or elsewhere in Australia.

The Prohibited Vehicles List for P1 and P2 drivers came into effect in NSW in 2005, with some other jurisdictions following suit in a similar fashion soon afterward such as Victoria and Queensland.

These vehicle restrictions came into being as a response to high-profile news articles relating to young drivers either being caught speeding at obscene velocities (a local highway near Dubbo had police catching at least one teenager a week, it seems, doing greater than 165km/h on a 110km/h section at the time), combined with the unfortunately also-common headline of cars loaded at or over capacity with teens having a crash and sending the children of five or more local families to the hospital or funeral home. 

The rate of injury and death was still trending downwards, but that didn’t matter in the face of special-interest groups and victims’ families.

In response, Red and Green P-platers were banned from driving a list of vehicles that were on a published list and classified as ‘high-performance’. The main criteria at this time were:

  • No V8s (unless diesel)
  • No Turbos (unless diesel)
  • No performance engine modifications

There were also some naturally-aspirated non-V8 vehicles that were on this first ban list, such as the Honda S2000 and Nissan 350Z. 

Notable omissions included the VW Golf R32, Mazda RX-8 (and any non-turbo rotary), Nissan V35 Skylines (which you know as the Infiniti G35/G37) and even more vintage vehicles built for speed but without eight cylinders or forced induction such as the Ford Escort RS2000, Torana GTR XU-1 and Valiant Charger R/T Hemi-Sixpack range of vehicles.

This first wave of restrictions had no allowance for power-to-weight, and so created the bizarre situation where things like an emissions-choked 1980 WB Holden Statesman Deville with a 5.0L “Blue” Holden V8 with 126kw trying to move over 1680kg of malaise-luxury was banned, yet a VN Commodore with the same exact power figure from a 3.8-liter Buick V6 and 370-fewer kilograms to accelerate was perfectly P-plate legal!

Likewise, small-displacement turbocharged engines from the likes of VAG were banned even if they didn’t make more power than the larger N/A engines they were replacing for fuel economy.

How These Restrictions Changed Car Culture In Australia

The impact this legislation had on my cohort and those of my one-year-older brother was immediate and I argue created a shift in not just the second-hand car market but the overall car market in Australia and the enthusiast landscape.

In my high school class (I graduated in 2007), most of the kids were interested in performance cars of one kind or another, especially the V8 Holdens and Fords as that’s what we saw racing around Mount Panorama every October and compared endlessly in magazines. I was more into WRXs as a result of Gran Turismo, our family being friends with the local Subaru dealer, seeing Possum Bourne and Colin McRae drive like gods on TV plus an older cousin being impossibly cool by having had a GC8 WRX and an ST205 Toyota Celica GT-Four and taking us for rides.

Prior to the law changes, as you can likely imagine it was a rite of passage for any young enthusiast to buy either a V8 or a turbocharged car as soon as possible to be king of the school car park. Vehicles like the Commodore SS or Falcon XR8 were frequently sought out in the newspaper classifieds or if you were exceedingly lucky you had one handed down through the family line after having been dad’s car, then your older brother’s, and then finally yours as depreciation hit these vehicles almost as hard as the V6 variants.

It was pretty common back then for said V8-obsessed lads to then stick with this vehicle for a few years before buying a new V8 sedan or ute of their own once they had a decent income rolling in and then also buying a cheap and sparsely-appointed Japanese ute for work if they were a tradesman after finishing their four-year apprenticeship and spending those four years uncomfortably jammed in the passenger seat of their boss’s Japanese ute.

With this V8 pathway no longer being an option, and a large percentage of the boys in our classes leaving high school straight for a trade of some kind, many went straight to the Japanese ute instead. This was also at a time when these utes were starting to become more sophisticated, with electric windows and air-conditioning starting to be standard features!

As a result, the V8 or turbocharged beast no longer was the king of the heap at school, and instead many boys either went directly to the Japanese utes and never looked back or just bought a six-cylinder Ford/Holden and then bought a new or near-new Hilux/Navara/BT-50/Triton once they had a liveable wage. 

The performance cars lost their broad appeal, and with the rising tide of 4×4 modifications plus these diesel utes becoming more refined and acceptable for ‘date night’ many of my peers forgot about performance cars altogether in terms of being vehicles to aspire towards owning.

86 Vl Commodore

Photo: The author

For me, it pushed me toward the 1986-1988 Holden VL Commodore. Lightweight and powered by a 3.0-liter inline-six, it offered good handling and a decent power-to-weight (115kw to ~1300kg) ratio that made it one of the quicker vehicles in my school car park at the time. With a killer audio install, it was perfect for blasting out some Pendulum or Addicted to Bass by Puretone, always a popular one with the kids addicted to subwoofers.

Being enamored with ‘70s vehicles from a young age (The Blues Brothers, Smokey and the Bandit and Mad Max 1 & 2 saw high rotation), the situation also pushed me towards Valiants with their brawny Hemi sixes.

In many ways, these vehicle restrictions for young people became a 21st-century version of the “Supercar Scare” of 1972. Unlike in the US, where your big-block muscle was put out to pasture around the same time due to upcoming emissions laws, Australia didn’t yet have these same restrictions threatening to kill off our ‘Supercars’ that were essentially homologation-specials for racing in the Australian Touring Car Championship, with a strong focus on the Bathurst 500-mile (later 1000-km) enduro.

The Sydney Morning Herald Sun Jun 25 1972 Resized

On 25th June 1972, the headline of Evan Green’s article exploded onto the front page of the Sun-Herald: ‘160MPH “Super Cars” Soon. Minister Horrified.”

Here is an excerpt, emphasis mine:

Australia’s three major car makers are about to produce ‘super cars” with top speeds up to 160 miles an hour.

But NSW transport minister Milton Morris said yesterday that he was appalled at “bullets on wheels” being sold to ordinary motorists.

The automotive “big three” General Motors Holden, Ford and Chrysler are building the cars for a head-on confrontation in Australia’s most important motor race, the Hardie Ferodo 500, at Bathurst on October 1.

The cars will be available to the general public for use on the open road…..

….Under the rules of the Hardie Ferodo 500, at least 200 basically identical units must be sold in Australia before a locally-made car can qualify for the race.

Therein lies the problem.

“I don’t mind expert racing drivers handling such machines on enclosed racing circuits,” Mr Morris told me.”But the thought that ordinary motorist of varying degrees of skill will be able to purchase these bullets on wheels and drive them on public roads is alarming.”

“I am horrified at the prospect of young and inexperienced drivers getting behind the wheel of such machines”.

“This is specially the case when the cars reach the second-hand market And their braking and suspension systems have deteriorated.”

This article generated a controversy that lasted a whole week and as a result of this media frenzy the Big Three (Holden, Ford and Chrysler) backed out of plans for higher-performance vehicles for the 1973 racing season under State and Federal Government pressure, using lucrative government fleet sales as leverage. These government fleet sales were a big chunk of overall sales for all three makers, so losing this contract could bankrupt any of them.

There were some high-performance models still released by the Big Three, but much more quietly and generally without as much lurid advertising, or even any advertising at all. The homologation rules were also changed in response. 

So did these rules actually fix anything? That’s hard to say. I’ve tried looking around for answers, and seems to be a lot like how violent crime has been dropping since the ‘90s—it’s hard to determine if the gradual decrease in car fatalities is from these rules, safer cars, other factors or all of the above. 

What I do know is there is no indication that this knee-jerk response altered Australia’s then quite-high road toll. Later developments such as mandatory seatbelt use, radial tires, alcohol breathalyzers and road improvements arguably did more to reduce fatalities than banning the maybe 600-odd homologation specials the Big Three put out each year at high prices.

Rather ironically, the 2005 P-plate laws seeking to remove these “bullets-on-wheels” from young blokes had the effect of those kids still addicted to performance cars instead either secretly hopping up our legal cars or building a car/drivetrain that would make absolutely bonkers power, ready to be driven/dropped in as soon as we got our full licenses. Instead of getting a stock V8 or turbo car and learning to master it, hitting age 20 and going straight to something with nearly double that stock power isn’t unusual among the car-crazed. 

Teens Used To Build Engines While They Waited To Age Out Of The Restrictions

Back in the days of the online forums, it wasn’t uncommon to see a teenager owning a Silvia, Supra or Skyline and either removing the turbocharged engine for a non-turbo equivalent or buying the naturally-aspirated version and then building up a turbo engine while marking the days until they could legally drop it in and suddenly have multiple times the power of their non-boosted mill!

Copy Of My Charger 2009

Photo: The author

I had intended to build for my ‘74 VJ Valiant Charger which I bought at 18 a 265-cubic-inch Hemi Sixpack engine with three 45mm DCOE Weber carburetors whilst still on my P-plates as this was legal at the time even with it having 300hp (compared to the ~160hp 245 Hemi Six it had) moving 1350kg due to it being an optional engine and not on the banned list. I now have an engine like that installed after much trial and pain, it only took me twelve years to do so!

NSW updated its regulations in 2014 and moved towards a power-to-weight-based list of restricted vehicles, allowing teenagers to drive things like the prior-mentioned 1980 WB Holden Statesman Deville with its strangled Iron Lion and more modern, efficiency-oriented turbocharged vehicles such as VW Polo 1.0 TSI. 

Current Restrictions: Power To Weight

The current restrictions in place limit kids to vehicles under 130kw/1000kg, so naturally-aspirated engines that didn’t get captured in the 2005 laws are now banned from P-platers such as some models of Toyota Aurion, most Tesla Model S variants (over 140 Tesla variants total), V35 Skylines and the aforementioned Holden Torana GTR XU. Not that many teenagers are driving $200,000 classics, but it also removes them using that engine package, curiously it doesn’t specifically ban the Hemi-Sixpack Valiant Chargers.

Strangely, the Maxda RX-8 early models (circa 2003) are banned, yet the later models are allowed. The same applies to the Toyota 86: the first-gen is legal but the new GR86 with the 2.4-liter engine is banned.

Toyota Gr86 Review3

Photo: Matt Hardigree

If you want to peruse the current New South Wales list and see if you can find some anomalies, check it out here.

There doesn’t appear to be any talk of changing these restrictions, even as we enter a more electrified era. If the NSW Government determines that an electric vehicle has a power-to-weight ratio equivalent of over 130kw/tonne then it’s banned from teenage use, or if there’s something else they don’t like about, it they will ban it anyway. As EVs come out that can accommodate family use and deliver incredible 0-60 times, it wouldn’t be surprising if there was a push to add restrictive modes to these cars should there be another media controversy. 

If there’s something about Australian cars or car culture you’d like to know more about, let me know. In the meantime, enjoy this Australian classic

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How An Australian Town Came Together To Help An American Fix The Most Hopeless Car On Earth

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87 Responses

  1. Thanks for opening our eyes to a whole car culture most of us didn’t even know existed.
    Although much of the licensing requirements of Australia and the UK seem overly oppressive to most of us, it does help to point out the absurd ease of obtaining a driver license in most US states and the resulting horrendous crashes of high powered or exotic vehicles being operated by untrained drivers.

  2. I never understood the 90kmh limit, especially when you’ve got B doubles running round on 100kmh, overtaking in 110kmh zones, then blocking off the 2nd lane for cars actually doing 110kmh… To me they should have just taught how to drive at 110kmh, especially considering what modern cars are like, which the majority of P platers are now running about in. And this comes from someone who was a defensive driving instructor as these rules were introduced in QLD.

    The motorbike licencing cluster around 2009 in Qld is another story in bureaucratic knee jerking madness.

    1. I can see 90 km/h compared to 110 km/h with 1960’s brakes and tires being a noticeable difference, but in 2005+ there is very little difference in control, reaction time, braking distance. And you’re right that it’s just making them a hazard to everyone else on the road who is allowed to go the speed limit.

  3. Great read! Pendulum resonated quite a bit. Bought Hold Your Colour as a CD when I was on a business trip to Reno NV and promptly gave the audio in my rented Pontiac Grand Am the biggest workout it ever had!

  4. Excellent article!! Thank you, Mr. Rogers! I had no idea it was THAT difficult to get a driver’s license in Australia! It seems like you could earn a university-degree down-under faster than a driver’s license! Madness!

    1. It’s even more difficult than the UK!
      (We have to wait until 17, do a theory test on a computer, then you could go the next day to your practical test, and if you pass, jump straight into any car you fancy. Assuming you could get insurance on it as a 17 y/o of course.)

  5. so I wonder how the EV’s are being classified? a Ford Lightning looks like a basic F150 Ute, but can outrun just about any V8 or Turbo charged car on the road. Even a lowly GM Bolt is dipping into the high 15’s in the 1/4 mile. I have to say, I used to kind of want to live in Australia, but the more I hear about these kind of draconian rules, the more I do not. I suppose it is like a Jeep, seems like a good and fun thing until you actually have to live with it day in and day out.

    1. I would wonder how long the prohibition against turbos can last. I think there will continue to be increasingly fewer vehicles that can even be had without one.

  6. Wow. My only takeaway from the video linked at the end of the article, is that the Australian police are incredibly patient and kind:
    https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2sps8g

    If thar was in the US, that level of defiance would’ve resulted in the kid being heaved out of his car via the window, and face down in the concrete, probably with multiple guns drawn on him lol.

    1. I want to believe this, but, knowing cops, nah, guarantee that was all show for the TV cameras. Just like American cop shows, they can’t show the police being bad guys, then the cops wouldn’t give them access to make the show in the first place! Think of the ratings, the money!

    2. “…Australian police are incredibly patient and kind.”

      So you’re telling me the Main Force Patrol was all made up, and no one was ever handcuffed and given a hacksaw?

  7. Even though there’s no ‘P’ plate system in the UK, some parents make their newly-qualified kids put them on their car anyway ,to show that they’re new drivers.
    Fortunately my parents didn’t because it was seen as something of a mark of shame when we were teenagers (not that I could have looked much less cool in my grubby, bottom-of-the-range, Polo).

  8. The writer of the newspaper article is Evan Green, I wonder if he’s any relation to Gavin Green, one time editor of Car magazine in the UK. I know he emigrated to the UK along with a number of other Australian auto journalists as part of the Australian media explosion in the late seventies/early eighties (Mel Nichols was another ex-Wheels man I think).

  9. Great article Mr. Rogers. Being a bit of an Australiaphile, I am enjoying your articles about Aussie car culture.

    I hope you will continue enlightening us on aspects of y’alls car culture down under.

    1. Thank you!
      I have a few more in the works, the next one is shaping up to be a deeper dig into some Aussie car history than I’d initially intended but should paint a clear picture of events. I won’t spoil anything yet!

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