The drive-in theatre, and how it lost it’s allure

The restored Starlight drive in Cinema sign which has been returned to the Federal Highway.The Age – 10 September 2016 – Tony Wright

They are almost all gone now, those sprawling temples to  entertainment, passion and the supremacy of the car – gone beneath weeds on the edge of towns, turned into car parks, developed for apartments or overtaken by industrial estates.

They were simple places invested with magic in the night: neon at the entrance, flickering images on a huge screen, the scent of fried chicken and hot chips fuming from the kiosk, little kids in pyjamas swinging in the playground.

The restored Starlight drive in Cinema sign which has been returned to the Federal Highway.
The restored Starlight drive in Cinema sign which has been returned to the Federal Highway. Photo: Rohan Thomson

I was reminded of this lost period by a flyer that arrived during the week, announcing the Coburg Drive-in was welcoming spring with a food truck festival and a screening of the new Bridget Jones movie.

The drive-in!

The original sign at the old Starlight drive-in.
The original sign at the old Starlight drive-in.

There are but three such places left in Melbourne – at Coburg, Dandenong and down the peninsula at Dromana.

They need quite a lot more than fried chicken and chips in the kiosk to bring in the customers these days, it seems apparent. Food trucks with alluring hipster names like The Little Jeepney and Real Burgers and Fancy Hanks and Manny’s Doughnuts and Simply Vegan Buns and more await spring’s crop of outdoor theatre-goers in Coburg.

Alas, however, no drive-ins at all remain in the Victorian bush.

From the 1950s to the ’80s, every place with the halfway right to call itself a town had a drive-in lurking out there on the edge.
Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Young tearaways loaded three or four mates in the boot, smuggling them by the ticket-box to save a buck or two. Lotharios in panel vans took their dates for more than the blockbuster. Whole families in Holdens rolled in for a cheap evening out.

There is, surely, a PhD awaiting the thesis that links the beginning of the end of both the Australian-built motorcar and the country drive-in to the demise of the wide bench seat.

There are generations of us who can name the first movie we saw at a drive-in. Mine was The Secret World of Walter Mitty, starring Danny Kaye.

My father drove us in from the farm, and the hot chips and the playground and a bed of blankets on the bench seat were more exotically pleasurable to us than the movie.

It would be many years before I read the original James Thurber short story about Walter Mitty, a nobody who fired up his life with grandiose and wonderfully adventurous daydreams. I came to realise movies lent a lot of us from nowhere places the Mittyesque ability to transcend the everyday, and the vast setting of a drive-in gave the imagination room to move.

Time and social change would eventually put an end to all that. Young people who once had only a car for the business of making out started moving into their own apartments. Cinemas became more comfortable and satisfying environments in which to watch better-made films with high-tech sound. The arrival of video made the home a theatre. The car bench seat was abandoned. The drive-in died, and one day those old temples will be of interest only to archaeologists and social historians.

For me, though, the drive-in lost its allure decades ago, the night I got ants in my pants before the main feature began on a winter’s night in Canberra.

It is unwise to remain stationary in winter in Canberra, where, soon after daylight leaves the sky, the temperature begins its slide, often to a long way below zero.

The operators of the Starlight drive-in on what was then Canberra’s northern outskirts advertised proudly that theatre-goers needn’t fear turning into a block of ice at their drive-in.

They’d installed dinky fan-driven heaters that sat attached to the posts that also held the tinny speakers you needed to hang on your wind-up window if you wanted to hear the movie’s soundtrack.

You’d drive up to your chosen post, wind your window halfway down, sling the speaker and the heater and wind the window back up as far as it would go. This meant the speaker blasted into your ear, the heater’s fan clanked loudly, hot air blew all over your head and, should you wish to leave the car for what used to be called a comfort break, there was a good chance you’d find yourself entangled in cables.

Still, a drive-in with personal heaters – wonderfully exotic – seemed the height of urbanity in the early 1970s.

New to Canberra from the bush, lonely and seeking the sort of entertainment that had enlivened nights in my old home district, I drove in and hooked up to the Starlight’s sound and warming gadgets.

The attraction was a new horror movie called The Exorcist.

As I switched on the heater, horror blew in before the picture had even started.

A nest of ants had taken refuge from winter in the metal box.

The moment the little machine fired up, its fan whirling and its heating element sizzling, a hot gust of enraged ants pumped into my vehicle.

They hit me in the ear, the hair and the face and scurried at speed beneath my collar. As I flailed and yelped and squawked, reaching desperately for the door handle, falling out and getting tangled in cables, the ant army spread everywhere, nipping without mercy.

I can’t recall ever wanting to return to a drive-in after that. Nostalgia has its limits, even in a new world of hipster food vans.

Muscle Cars 101 – Done So Right


There’s not nearly enough steel, chrome, two tone  paint or V8s in your life. Get some.

Wanted – As many clowns as possible


Even with all the clowns in the ANOCSC office we can’t fill this rally car. If you think you have the goods, please fold yourself into the closest small car you can find.

8 vs 4 – Steel vs Plastic – Mags vs Hubcaps – Torana vs Prius


A very nervous looking Prius wishing it wasn’t quite so boxy and plasticky in front of the Torry.

Badge – Beetle Boot


Turn Off And Get Out There In Your Old Car


Badge – Chevy 3100


Badge Triumph Boot


Hmmm, Today Do I feel Vintage (with or without roof), Old Skool Holden or Rockin’ Customline?

So many choices. So many options within those choices. So happy to have this conundrum.

The ANOCSC Truth Seeker patrol vehicle is now on the road and ready to find you (…and your old car)…


“Truth, like old cars and silly bikes, has no special time of its own.  Its hour is now – always.”

(paraphrasing) Albert Schweitzer


1960s Air Bag Fitting Station


Air bags have been talked about and used since World War II when they were used in airplanes. Today, they are used liberally throughout cars. Here’s the science behind them:

The goal of an airbag is to slow the passenger’s forward motion as evenly as possible in a fraction of a second. There are three parts to an airbag that help to accomplish this feat:

  • The bag itself is made of a thin, nylon fabric, which is folded into the steering wheel or dashboard or, more recently, the seat or door.
  • The sensor is the device that tells the bag to inflate. Inflation happens when there is a collision force equal to running into a brick wall at 10 to 15 miles per hour (16 to 24 km per hour). A mechanical switch is flipped when there is a mass shift that closes an electrical contact, telling the sensors that a crash has occurred. The sensors receive information from an accelerometer built into a microchip.
  • The airbag’s inflation system reacts sodium azide (NaN3) with potassium nitrate (KNO3) to produce nitrogen gas. Hot blasts of the nitrogen inflate the airbag.

Rather than worry about all that rubbish, this guy took the smart road and stuffed the cabin with cardboard and foam mattresses. Problem solved!!

Australia’s Largest Car Museum – Gosford

(Click on the photo to go to the article)tonydennycarmuseum

Tony Denny spent $70 million on cars to create one of the world’s largest classic car museums

TONY Denny bought and sold more than 5000 cars to get the 400 or so he wanted for the opening of Australia’s biggest car museum.

“It’s been a big year and I’ve kept thinking, ‘Am I mad?’,” he said on Thursday at a media walk-through before his Gosford Classic Car Museum opens on Saturday.

“There’s a lot on the line for me, financially, reputationally, but it’s very satisfying to be here today and see the cars on display. It’s amazing.”

One of Australia’s 200 richest people, Mr Denny’s love of cars started early – “We were a Holden family” – and his love of Australian cars saw an FJ Holden in the showroom of his Prague car business where he ran the largest used car network in Europe for more than two decades.

Standing beside the powder pink Holden EK Special from 1961, the kind of car he learnt to drive in, Mr Denny showed the enthusiasm that has seen $70 million dollars poured into the cars for the museum venture.

“I go inside the EK and it just smells beautiful. even from those smells it just ignites all those amazing growing-up memories. I love this baby,” he said.

The museum is in the former Bunnings warehouse at West Gosford and was bought in 2015. About 95 per cent of the cars were purchased in Australia, with the only imports some of the Soviet and Eastern European vehicles and some Ferraris.

One of the first acquisitions was the Nash, AMC, Rambler Museum of Western Australia and 53 cars owned by John Ivy.

The museum is the largest car museum in Australia and one of the top five largest car museums in the world. About 20 cars per month will be sold, and another 20 bought, so that every six months 120 new vehicles will be on display.

“What we’ve tried to achieve here is a broad range of cars,” Mr Denny said.

The cars range from Ferraris, Lambourghinis, Porsches and Jaguars to a tiny Australian-made Dart produced by racing driver Bill Buckle.

“The Australian cars. That’s where you’ll find me,” Mr Denny said.

Newcastle District Vintage and Classic Car Club member Brian Schasser and wife Dale favoured a Valiant SV from 1962. Mr Schasser’s passion is Dodges.

“He wanted a 1962 Dodge Phoenix from when he was 17. He got a 1928 Dodge Tourer and it took him nine years to restore it,” Mrs Schasser said.