Colin Powell went without the customary gleaming limousine and dropped in on the Australian Prime Minister behind the wheel of a Volvo more than 20 years old.

The US Secretary of State, who has been in Canberra for ministerial talks, jumped at the chance of driving himself and his Australian counterpart in the coupé to John Howard’s official residence after his host discovered General Powell’s love of the marque.

Aware of the general’s hobby of restoring old Volvos, an Australian diplomat contacted Vince Harmer, a local enthusiast, to see if he would loan the car for the night.

When the 1980 Volvo, which had been written off in a crash 14 years ago and was rebuilt with a V8 Chevrolet engine, was presented to the Secretary of State he “drooled over it” , according to Mr Harmer.

After a diplomatically strained tour of China at the end of General Powell’s six-day Asian tour, arriving in Australia with its welcoming Volvo ride and sympathetic conservative Government gave the Americans the rare experience of being appreciated in the region.

The Bush Administration sent a distinguished team to Canberra in a visit designed to reinforce the good relations between the two countries and to secure the goodwill of a friendly nation in the region.

Mr Powell was joined in Canberra by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary. US officials made the extra effort with the Australian Government because the two nations share similar views at a time when the American Government finds itself increasingly criticised in Europe and Asia.

On America’s plan for missile defence and its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the United States and Australia wholeheartedly agree. The two nations also agree on an issue closer to Australia’s sphere of influence — renewing ties with the Indonesian military.

Legislation linking arms sales to human rights limits American interest but US officials pushed Australia to renew contacts. Mr Rumsfeld said: “I find the position of the United States, with respect to Indonesia, is, as far as I can tell, identical to that of Australia.”