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Out with the old and in with new at Holden

Done and dusted: Holden’s historic manufacturing plant at Fishermans Bend is torn down to make way for a new technology precinct.

Historic Holden factory bites the dust as GM ushers in new era in Australia

Holden logo23 Aug 2018

WHILE General Motors executives were announcing a new high-tech future for vehicle engineering at Holden at the company’s shiny modern corporate headquarters in Melbourne this week, giant earthmovers were ripping down the past just around the back.
 
Holden’s historic but decrepit old car factory on the site where Australia’s Own Car was born in the shape of the Holden 48-215 in 1948 is being demolished to make way for a new technology precinct developed by the Victorian Government.
 
Much of the 37.7 hectare industrial block that Holden sold to the government for $135 million in 2016 has already been cleared, wiping away more than 80 years of manufacturing history that not only included Holden cars but also cannons and warplanes in World War 2.
 
Although Holden was founded in Adelaide where many of its cars were built, it was this Fishermans Bend site – acquired by Holden in 1936 – that became synonymous with the home-grown ‘FX’ sedan that is largely considered to be the car that put the Australian middle class on wheels.
 
Initially, GM cars such as Buicks, Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Vauxhalls were assembled there, until the war intervened in 1939. Holden took to making military vehicles, field guns and aeroplanes, with the latter flown out of the factory from the aerodrome next door – Melbourne’s first airport (and the reason Boeing has a factory there).
 
In 1946, after the war ended and when the Australian government was looking to take advantage of the manufacturing capability built up during those years, Holden engineers at Fishermans Bend began work on the new sedan that was based on a rejected Chevrolet design from the United States.
 
When the first Holden car rolled off the line there two years later, Australian prime minister Ben Chifley – on hand to celebrate the big occasion – is said to have commented: “She’s a beauty.”
 
While car manufacturing ceased at the site after Holden opened newer, bigger plants in Elizabeth in South Australia and Dandenong in Victoria, engine production continued there until 2016.
 
At one point, the Holden Engine Operations four-cylinder plant was the biggest exporter of manufactured goods in Australia.
 
While its manufacturing has been swept away, Holden is still very much a part of Fishermans Bend. Apart from its head office in Salmon St, it also has a large technical centre there – home to GM Design Australia and Holden Engineering.
 
The latter is in the process of recruiting an extra 150 engineers, almost doubling its ranks as it becomes part of GM’s Advanced Vehicle Development (AVD) network, responsible for developing new vehicle architectures for future models, including those powered by electricity and guided by autonomous technologies.
 
The design studio with its team of about 140 also spends much of its time working on advanced design, including concepts that are helping to shape new styling directions for GM’s major brands such as Chevrolet and Buick.
 
A fabrication workshop attached to the studio is one of only two places in the GM world to be capable of turning out fully fledged concepts and prototypes (the other is in Detroit).
 
Combined, the design and engineering operations will employ almost 500 people and work with an annual budget of $120 million, making GM’s Australian R&D effort second only to Ford’s similar Asia-Pacific Product Development Centre in Australia.
 
Combined, Holden and Ford will have at least 2000 staff working on future models, tipping more than $600 million into the Australian economy annually.
 
Holden executive director of engineering Brett Vivian told GoAuto at the announcement of the engineering expansion this week that all 150 new engineers would be accommodated in the current engineering campus at Fishermans Bend, in offices left vacant when much of the Holden engineering workforce was made redundant after the decision to axe local manufacturing.
 
He said that unlike the old days when engineers made lots of prototypes and components to test, almost all the work on the new vehicle technologies will be done electronically using advanced computer programs.
 
The engineering drawings can be easily shared with other GM AVD units, in places such as Detroit and Shanghai.
 
In future, Holden will be surrounded by other technologically minded organisations, including Melbourne University’s new School of Engineering, in the technology precinct.

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