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Holden exit: Tracing 161 years of mobility

Golden days: Holden had almost 24,000 workers at its peak in the 1960s when cars such as the EH dominated the Australian market.

Australia’s own car-maker fades to black after 16 decades of Holden manufacturing

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Holden logo14 Oct 2017

HOLDEN can trace its history back to 1856, making it the second-oldest mobility company in the world after France’s Peugeot which dates to 1810 when it was founded as a coffee mill manufacturer before moving on to bicycles.

When Karl Benz was fiddling about with his first car in Germany in 1886, James Alexander Holden’s saddlery business in Adelaide had been turning out leather goods for three decades.

Holden took a new turn when the founder’s grandson, Edward Holden, joined the business in 1905, bringing with him an interest in those newfangled horseless carriages that were just starting to putt-putt-bang around the streets of the South Australian capital.

The company started its motoring venture by making motorcycle side cars and then progressed to car bodies in 1917 when World War I import restrictions led to a shortage of fully built up cars.

Back then, Holden’s Motor Body Builders was located right in the heart of Adelaide, in King William Street. Holden imported the rolling chassis from manufacturers such as Dodge and Chevrolet, fitted locally made bodies and distributed them for sale around Australia.

It even built Ford T-Model bodies for FoMoCo until Henry Ford built his first Australian factory in Geelong.

The business outgrew the Adelaide workshop and was relocated to Woodville in what was then the city’s outskirts. Production grew such an extent that General Motors could not ignore the trade Down Under, ultimately signing up Holden as its exclusive body builder for Australia.

In the depths of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, when Holden’s vehicle orders plummeted, GM swooped and bought the company, creating General Motors-Holden’s Limited in 1931.

Things started to look up as the 1930s drifted by, and even as war clouds started to gather again, Holden executives led by Holden managing director Laurence Hartnett were looking to the future, drawing up plans for “Australia’s own car”.

Two new factories came on stream – one in Port Melbourne in 1936 that included a new national headquarters in an art deco building that still stands today, and another in Pagewood, in Sydney, in 1939.

But history took another turn with the declaration of war on Germany in 1939, and instead of pressing ahead with the first Aussie family car, the more pressing duty of turning out armaments took precedence.

Field guns, aircraft engines and army trucks were among the goods churned out for the war effort over the next six years. Far from hurting Holden, war production greatly enhanced Holden’s skills and depth, leaving it well equipped to forge ahead as a manufacturer in the late 1940s as Australia came out of war mode.

After being shelved for a few years, engineering and design work started in earnest on Holden’s first full car which – contrary to the “Australia’s Own Car” mantra – was based on a Chevrolet design done in Detroit.

In 1948, the iconic 48-215 was born, with the Port Melbourne plant having the honour of turning out the first example. Famously, Australian prime minister Ben Chifley was on hand, stating: “She’s a beauty.”

The Australian public thought so too, with 18,000 customers signing up and paying deposits sight unseen.

Light, robust and economical (for the day), the six-cylinder Holden was priced at $733, which represented almost two years’ wages for the average Aussie worker back then.

In the 1950s, Holden was off and running as Australia’s number-one car manufacturer, a position that was only enhanced by the arrival of the famous FJ. Fondly nicknamed Humpy, the FJ was a facelift of the original car that subsequently was dubbed the FX.

New factories followed – visionary manufacturing centres in the post-war boom satellite cities of Elizabeth, on the northern fringe of Adelaide, and Dandenong, south-east of Melbourne, where a ready supply of migrants from war-torn Europe were grateful for a job.

The 1960s dawned at Holden in the shape of the FB sedan which, although inspired by 1950s Chevrolet designs, was more Australian than ever.

Exports began to right-hand-drive markets around the world, and by 1964 Holden’s workforce had reached 23,914 – a peak that would never be surpassed.

One reason for the employee boom was the arrival that year of the Holden EH – regarded by many Holden fans as the quintessential Holden model.

Armed with a new five-bearing six-cylinder engine – christened the “red motor” to differentiate it from the previous “grey motor” – the EH helped to forge Holden’s long-running battle against Ford’s new arrival, the Falcon, in a feud that would drive large car sales to the top of the motor market and create a local legend.

The arrival of each new Holden model captured Australia’s imagination in the 1960s and 70s. Holden dealerships would cover their showroom windows with paper in readiness for a synchronised unveiling the new beauty across the nation.

Excited spectators, often in their hundreds, crowded the footpaths outside.

The arrival of the first V8 Monaro two-door coupe in 1968 based on the Kingswood, was one such grand occasion, drawing gasps from awed witnesses, many of whom remember it to this day.

The arrival of the smaller, lighter European-based Commodore in 1978 – a response to the 1970s fuel crisis – was not greeted with the same enthusiasm.

For the first time since Holden started local car production, Ford’s Falcon gained the upper hand.

It got worse by the mid-1980s when Holden had a near-death financial experience, effectively going bankrupt and forcing parent company GM to bail it out to the tune of $700 million – a huge amount at the time.

Over six years, Holden struggled to regain its leadership, finally doing that in the late 1980s with the wide-bodied VN Commodore – seen as a more suitable Australian large car – only to see new nemesis Toyota take overall sales leadership for the first time in 1991.

Just before that, Holden had been forced into a shotgun marriage with Toyota at the urging of the Australian government which wanted the local industry to consolidate to become more efficient. The arrangement – United Australian Automotive Industries – saw Camrys and Corollas sold as Holden Apollos and Novas, and Holden Commodores sold as Toyota Lexcens.

The two companies were only too happy to tear up the arrangement after a few years.

During the 1980s and ’90s, a four-cylinder engine plant built and shipped millions of GM Family 2 engines to factories around the world, becoming the most successful branch of the Holden empire. It was Australia’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods for years.

In 2003, the four-cylinder plant was replaced by an all-new $300 million V6 factory at Port Melbourne. The plant was not only designed to build engines for GM in export markets, but for customers such as Saab and Alfa Romeo.

The modern hi-tech 3.6-litre V6 was also destined for Holden’s new VE Commodore – the company’s so-called “billion-dollar baby” – that, with its sophisticated multi-link rear suspension and other modern features, was the most advanced car ever engineered and designed in Australia when it was launched in 2006.

The VE’s locally engineered Zeta platform also underpinned the new-generation Canadian-built Chevrolet Camaro.

When the global financial crisis brought GM to its knees in 2007, the crisis almost took Holden with it. Then managing director of Holden Mark Reuss flew to Canberra to beg the Australian government for guarantees on a line of credit just to keep the production lines turning.

They did, and Holden went on to launch the VF Commodore, even though it did not realise at the time that it would be the last Holden model.

In late 2013, a rampant Australian dollar, increased competition from imports, a dying large car market, struggling suppliers hit by Ford’s decision to quit manufacturing and an indifferent federal government conspired to bring down Holden.

The V6 engine plant went first in October 2016, taking 190 jobs. Next will be Holden’s last car plant, at Elizabeth, where the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs will go this Friday.

Holden will live on in Australia, not just via its import car business but also its acclaimed design and engineering centre in Fishermens Bend and its vast proving ground at Lang Lang, in the Victorian countryside.

But it will never be the same.

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