Historic Car Brands
The Holden brand was once so typically Australian that the company’s jingle: “We love football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars”, resonated with almost everyone. Sadly that brand is current no more. If it’s any consolation, the jingle wasn’t essentially Australian, but was adapted from: “We love baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet”.
In 1852, James Alexander Holden emigrated to South Australia from England, and in 1856 established J A Holden & Co, a saddlery business, in Adelaide.In 1879 J A Holden’s eldest son Henry James (HJ) Holden, became a partner and effectively managed the company. In 1885, German-born H A Frost joined the business as a junior partner and the company became Holden & Frost Ltd.
In 1908, Holden & Frost started repairing car upholstery and then began to re-body older chassis using motor bodies produced by F T Hack and Co from 1914. After 1917, wartime trade restrictions led the company to start full-scale production of vehicle body shells.
H J Holden founded a new company in late 1917, and registered Holden’s Motor Body Builders Ltd (HMBB) on 25 February 1919, specialising in car bodies and using the former F T Hack & Co facility at 400 King William Street in Adelaide before erecting a large four-story factory on the site.
South Australian Government archives
By 1923, HMBB was producing 12,000 units per year and assembling bodies for Ford Motor Company of Australia until its Geelong plant was completed.
From 1924, HMBB became the supplier of car bodies various GM brands in Australia.
In 1926, General Motors (Australia) Limited was established and used bodies produced by HMBB on imported complete knocked-down chassis.
Holden Body badge on a 1928 Chevrolet – Sv1ambo
The Great Depression led to a substantial downturn in production by Holden, from 34,000 units annually in 1930 to just 1651 units one year later.
In 1931, GM purchased HMBB and merged it with General Motors (Australia) Pty Ltd, to form General Motors-Holden’s Ltd (GM-H). Its acquisition of Holden allowed General Motors to inherit an Australian identity, which it used to cultivate nationalist appeal.
World War II delayed car production and efforts shifted to the construction of vehicle bodies, field guns, aircraft and engines. During the War, the Australian government took steps to encourage an Australian automotive industry and GM and Ford provided studies that outlined production.
Ford’s proposal was the government’s first choice, but required substantial financial assistance. GM’s study was ultimately chosen because of its low level of government intervention.
Holden’s managing director, Laurence Hartnett, favoured development of a local design, while his bosses at GM preferred to see an American design as the basis for ‘Australia’s Own Car’.
During the last two years of World War II there was much non-military activity behind the scenes at GM head office in New York and in Detroit, as well as at GMH in Melbourne, as planning for the first ‘Holden’ intensified.
GM New York head office executives, Messrs E Bettle and Jesmore visited Melbourne and held meetings about the design of the proposed vehicle with the Australian team, headed by then managing director, Laurence Hartnett.
The Aussies proposed somewhat radical bodywork, while the Americans favoured what was to be a future Chevrolet design. The Australian design was code-named Project 2000-2008 and the American one, (GM) 195-y-15.
The GMH 2008 mock-up showed a wide-body vehicle with flat-top mudguards, squared-off headlights and full-width horizontal grille. The shape had more in common with the future Hudson 1948 Hornet than anything Chevrolet had on the drawing boards for post-War release.
The American studio’s 195-y-15 design closely aligned with the new models that Chevrolet subsequently released in the USA in 1949. It had a front mudguard downswept moulding that extended down the body sides, into the front and rear doors and the Aussies hated that.
Fortunately, the UK Vauxhall team didn’t like this body style either and modifications were suggested, including front mudguard shapes that didn’t extend into the door panels.
The GM ANZAC 195-y-15 clay model
When the GM head office execs left Australia, they were followed to the USA by George Quarry, who became GMH’s technical liaison representative. On 27th August 1945 he wrote home to Laurence Hartnett, spelling out in no uncertain terms how GM head office said the Holden was going to look.
The Australian Project 2000-2008 body design was ruled out, on the basis that it would finish up weighing 2400-2600 pounds (lb), in comparison with the Holden target weight of 2000-2200lb. (It’s suspected that the Yanks hated the look of it as well, but that criticism may have been voiced, but not documented.)
The American design was confirmed, but with redesigned bodywork. In Mr Quarry’s letter to Mr Hartnett he says the the changes were made after what he called a ‘warm discussion’ with the GM Styling department. (Given that the subsequent 1949 Chevrolets looked very like larger versions of the original ‘ANZAC’ badged 195-y-15 clay mock up, it’s easy to understand why the Chevrolet stylists were upset with the rejection of their shape by the Aussies and the Poms.)
Once the changes to the ANZAC mock up were made it was locked in by GM head office as the future Holden. That the Australian arm of the company would do precisely as it was told henceforth was made clear in George Quarry’s letter to Laurence Hartnett. Here is the Head Office five-step instruction:
The design and approval of the vehicle will be carried out in Detroit, under the direction of Mr McCuen.
The unit will comply with the proposition submitted to the Corporation: virtually the best package achievable by incorporating into the basic 195-y-15 vehicle the updated body developments.
No unknown or unproven Within-the-Corporation principles will be incorporated.
When designed, tested and approved here, using known American materials, thus proving the basic design, it will be transplanted to Australia for detail modifications to accommodate Australian materials and practices.
Design developments, after the introduction of the original model, will be an Australian responsibility, including regular submission of proposals to the Corporation and approved by the Corporation.
The first Holden to roll off the assembly line at Woodville, on 1st November 1948, was driven by Holden’s managing director Harold Bettle, with engineer Russ Begg in the passenger seat.
So, what was to become the Holden 48-215 began development in the USA. By the time it was released to the public, in November 1948, Laurence Hartnett was long gone from GMH and you can check out his following endeavour in our Hartnett brand story.
His replacement as MD at GMH was Harold Bettle; one of the American execs who had campaigned against Hartnett’s team over the car’s design.
1951-1953 Holden – Chris Keating
The first Holden was launched in 1948 and although officially designated ’48–215′, the car was marketed simply as the ‘Holden’. Unofficial usage of the name ‘FX’ originated within Holden. The retail price of ‘Australia’s Own Car’ was £675, plus tax.
During the 1950s, Holden dominated the Australian car market. GM invested heavily in production capacity, to meet increased postwar demand for motor cars.
The Holden 48–215 sedan was produced in parallel with the 50-2106 coupé utility from 1951 and continued with minor changes until 1953, when they were replaced by the face-lifted FJ model that introduced a panel van body style.
1958 Holden Special FC sedan – Sicnag
Holden’s next model, the FE, launched in 1956, offered a new station wagon body style. Strong sales continued and Holden achieved a market share of more than 50-percent in 1958 with the revised FC model, which was the first Holden to be tested on the new Holden Proving Ground at Lang Lang, Victoria.
1962 Holden EK Special Station Sedan – Chris Keating
In 1960, Holden introduced the FB, with styling inspired by 1950s Chevrolets, with tail-fins and a wrap-around windscreen.
In response to the newly-released Ford Falcon, Holden introduced the face-lifted EK in 1961, with optional two-tone paintwork and Hydramatic automatic transmission.
A restyled EJ came in 1962, debuting the new Premier model.
Holden EH Special – Jeremy
The EH update came a year later, bringing the new Red Motor, providing better performance than the previous Grey Motor.
The HD of 1965 introduced the Powerglide automatic transmission and, at the same time, an ‘X2’ performance option with a more powerful version of the 179-cubic-inch (2.9-litre) six-cylinder engine was made available.
In 1966, the HR was introduced, with new front and rear styling, higher-capacity engines and standard front seat belts.
Holden began assembling the compact HA series Vauxhall Viva in 1964. This was superseded by the Holden Torana in 1967.
Holden released the LC, a Torana with new styling, in 1969, with the availability of Holden’s six-cylinder engine. In its development days, the six-cylinder Torana was reserved for motor racing, but research had shown a business case existed for such a model.The LC Torana was the first application of Holden’s new three-speed Tri-Matic automatic transmission.
Holden’s manufacture of Chevrolets and Pontiacs ended in 1968, coinciding with the HK release. This introduced Holden’s first V8 engine – a Chevrolet engine imported from Canada. Variants based on the HK series included an extended-length prestige model, the Brougham and a two-door coupé, the Monaro.
The mainstream Holden Special was rebranded the Kingswood, and the basic fleet model, the Standard, became the Belmont.
The first Australian-designed and mass-produced Holden V8 engine debuted in the Hurricane concept of 1969 before being fitted to the face-lifted HT model.
Holden Monaro GTS 350 – GTHO
The V8 was available in two capacities: 253 cubic inches (4.1litres) and 308 cubic inches (5.0 litres). Late in HT production, the new Tri-Matic automatic transmission, first seen in the LC Torana, was phased in.
1974 Holden HQ Kingswood sedan – Chris Keating
Holden launched the new HQ in 1971, featuring a perimeter frame and semi-monocoque construction. The HQ sedans and station wagons had all-coil suspension and extended wheelbases for station wagons, while the utilities and panel vans retained leaf-spring rear suspension.The series included the new prestige Statesman on the longer wheelbase, replacing the Brougham.
The HQ led to a new generation of two-door Monaros and the HQ range became the top-selling Holden of all time, with 485,650 units sold in three years.
1977 Holden HX Monaro GTS sedan – Ferenghi
The HQ was face-lifted in 1974 with the introduction of the HJ, heralding new front-panel styling and a revised rear fascia that remained, with minor upgrades, through the HX and HZ.
Development of the Torana continued, with the larger mid-sized LH being released in 1974, offered only as a four-door sedan and with a choice of four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines.
Designated LX, both the Sunbird and Torana introduced a three-door hatchback variant in 1976 and a final UC update appeared in 1978, before both were discontinued in 1979.
During its production run, the Torana achieved legendary racing success in Australia, achieving victories at the Mount Panorama Circuit in Bathurst, New South Wales.
In 1975, Holden introduced the compact Gemini, the Australian version of the ’T-car’, based on the Opel Kadett C. The Gemini was developed jointly with Isuzu, GM’s Japanese then-affiliate and was powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine. The nameplate lived on until 1987.
Holden’s Commodore was introduced in 1978 as the VB. The new family car was loosely based on the Opel Rekord E body shell, but with the front from the Opel Senator grafted to accommodate the larger Holden six-cylinder and V8 engines.
Initially, the Commodore maintained Holden’s sales leadership in Australia, but it was narrower than its predecessor and its Falcon rival, making it less comfortable for three rear-seat passengers.
The successor to the Torana was the Camira, released in 1982 as Australia’s version of GM’s medium-sized ‘J-car’.
1981 Holden VC Commodore L station wagon – OSX
The 1980s were challenging for Holden and the Australian automotive industry. The Australian Government tried to revive the industry with the Button car plan, which encouraged car makers to focus on producing fewer models at higher, more economical volumes, and to export cars.
The decade opened with the shut-down of the Pagewood, New South Wales production plant and introduction of the light commercial Rodeo, sourced from Isuzu in Japan. The Rodeo was available in both two- and four-wheel drive chassis cab models with a choice of petrol and diesel powerplants.
The range was updated in 1988 with the TF series, based on the Isuzu TF.
Other cars sourced from Isuzu during the 1980s were the four-wheel drive Jackaroo (1981), the Shuttle (1982) van and the Piazza (1986) three-door sports hatchback.
The second generation Holden Gemini from 1985 was also based on an Isuzu design, but it was manufactured in Australia.
The new Holden WB commercial vehicles and Statesman WB limousines were introduced in 1980. However, the designs, based on the HQ and updated HJ, HX and HZ models from the 1970s weren’t competitive with Ford’s lineup and Holden abandoned those vehicle classes in 1984.
Sales of the Commodore also fell, with the effects of the 1979 energy crisis lessening and the Commodore lost ground to the Ford Falcon. Sales in other segments also suffered when competition from Ford intensified, and other Australian manufacturers, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota gained market share.
1988 Holden Camira JE SLX sedan – Jeremy
When released in 1982, the Camira initially generated good sales, which later declined because buyers considered the 1.6-litre engine underpowered, and the car’s build and ride quality below-average. (Allan Whiting owned a Camira station wagon that exhibited rust specs on top of the roof within two months of ownership. Then the pedal assembly fell off the firewall. It was the last Holden product he ever bought.)
Although the last two upgrades made the Camira a much better car, it lasted just seven years, and contributed to Holden’s accumulated losses of over A$500 million by the mid-1980s.
1988 Holden Calais VN sedan – OSX
In 1984, Holden introduced the VK Commodore, with significant styling changes from the previous VH. The Commodore was next updated in 1986 as the VL, with new front and rear styling. Controversially, the VL had to be powered by the 3.0-litre Nissan RB30 six-cylinder engine and a Nissan-built, electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission, because the Holden engine couldn’t operate on post-1986-mandated unleaded petrol.
The decision to opt for a Japanese-made transmission led to the closure of the Woodville, South Australia, assembly plant. Holden was then reorganised and recapitalised, separating the engine and car manufacturing divisions in the process.
In 1984, Nissan Pulsar hatchbacks were rebadged as Holden Astras, as a result of a deal with Nissan. This arrangement ceased in 1989 when Holden entered a new alliance with Toyota, forming United Australian Automobile Industries (UAAI). UAAI saw Holden selling rebadged versions of Toyota’s Corolla and Camry, as the Holden Nova and Apollo respectively, with Toyota re-branding the Commodore as the Lexcen. UAAI was dissolved in 1996, and Holden returned to selling only GM products.
Holden sold the subcompact Suzuki Swift-based Barina in 1985. The Barina was launched concurrently with the Suzuki-sourced Holden Drover, followed by the Scurry.
The Commodore’s recovery strategy involved the 1988 VN, a significantly wider model, powered by the American-designed, Australian-assembled 3.8-litre Buick V6 engine.
1998 Holden Caprice VS II sedan – OSX
In 1990, Holden reintroduced the Statesman brand and added the Caprice. Improvements, including the introduction of four-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS) came a year later.
ABS was added to the short-wheelbase Commodore range in 1992.
Another returning variant was the full-size utility, but based on the Commodore.
The VN Commodore received an upgrade in 1993 with the introduction of the VR.
1999 Holden Commodore VT SS sedan – OSX
Holden introduced the all-new VT in 1997, with improved handling and a stronger body structure that increased crash safety. The locally produced, Buick-sourced V6 engine powered the Commodore range, as did the 5.0-litre Holden V8 engine, and they replaced in 1999 by the 5.7-litre LS unit.
The Holden Astra and Vectra, both designed by Opel in Germany, replaced the Toyota-sourced Holden Nova and Apollo. This came after the 1994 introduction of the Opel Corsa replacing the already available Suzuki Swift as the source for the Holden Barina.
Sales of the full-size Holden Suburban SUV sourced from Chevrolet began in 1998 and continued until 2001. Also in 1998, local assembly of the Vectra began at Elizabeth, South Australia. However, the Vectra did not achieve sufficient sales in Australia to justify local assembly, and reverted to being fully imported in 2000.
2001-2002 Holden Monaro V2C V8 coupe – OSX
Holden’s market surge of the 1990s reversed in the 2000s decade. In Australia, Holden’s market share dropped from 27.5 percent in 2000 to 15.2 percent in 2006. From March 2003, Holden no longer held the number one sales position in Australia, losing ground to Toyota.
Holden revived the Monaro coupe in 2001, based on the VX Commodore architecture and the VX Commodore received its first major update in 2002 with the VY series.
A mildly face-lifted VZ model launched in 2004, introducing the High Feature V6 engine that was built at the Fishermans Bend facility.
2006 Alloytec V6 engine – Commodore SVZ – Senators
After the VZ, the High Feature engine powered the all-new VE that was based on the GM Zeta platform that was intended to form GM’s rear wheel drive future architecture, until plans were cancelled due to the 2007/08 global financial crisis.
Holden-branded Daewoo models began with the 2005 Holden Barina and the Viva, based on the Daewoo Lacetti, replaced the entry-level Holden Astra Classic, although the new-generation Astra introduced in 2004 continued on.
After discontinuing the Frontera and Jackaroo models in 2003, Holden had only one all-wheel drive model: the Adventra, a Commodore-based station wagon. The Daewoo-made Captiva 4WD came in 2006. The fourth model to be replaced with a South Korean alternative was the Vectra by the mid-size Epica in 2007.
As a result of the split between GM and Isuzu, Holden lost the ‘Rodeo’ nameplate. Consequently, the Holden Rodeo was face-lifted and relaunched as the Colorado in 2008.
In 2009 Holden announced that it would initially import a small car from South Korea and market it as the Holden Cruze.
From 2001 to 2012, Holden received over A$150 million every year in subsidy from the Australian government and, after 2007, that was more than Holden’s capital investment.
2010 Holden VE Commodore SSV sedan – OSX
In March 2012, Holden was given a $270 million lifeline by the Australian, South Australian and Victorian Governments, but failed in an attempt to secure future funding guarantees.
On 11 December 2013, General Motors announced that Holden would cease engine and vehicle manufacturing operations in Australia by the end of 2017.
In May 2014, GM reversed their decision to abandon the Lang Lang Proving Ground and decided to keep it as part of their engineering capability in Australia.
In 2015, Holden again began selling a range of Opel-derived cars comprising the Astra VXR and Insignia VXR, based on OPC models sold by Vauxhall, and Cascada. Later that year, Holden also announced plans to sell the European Astra and the South Korean Cruze alongside each other from 2017.
The end of Holden
Almost three quarters of a century after our 16th Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, said on Monday 29th November 1948, “She’s a beauty”, as Australia’s Holden 48-215 broke cover at General Motors’ assembly plant at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne, Holden’s Lion roared no more.
On another Monday, 72 years later, on 17th February 2020, a General Motors press release said: “The Holden brand will be retired by 2021 in Australia and local design and engineering departments will be shuttered”.
We knew the end of local manufacturing was coming, of course, because in December 2013, GM-H announced that it would cease its local production by the end of October 2017, committing however, to use the long-standing Commodore nameplate on its fifth-generation, fully-imported replacement.
After the shock February 2020 announcement, Historic Vehicles’ Jim Gibson contacted Alan May, the well-respected, now-retired past owner of the Holden dealership in Ulladulla, NSW. Following his long-time association with the Holden brand, Alan bought the Holden dealership in Ulladulla (NSW) in 1995 and moved it to a new, larger site 18 months later.
Back then, the timing was right, as Holden had the very popular VR, VS and VT car and ute models, which were very successful. Then, 17 years later, he sold the profitable business, along with his well-respected trading name.
“General Motors used to send out from the USA replacement managing directors for a set period of years, whose responsibility it was to oversee the Australian operation, ensuring its profitability and continued financial return,” said Alan May.
“This style of ‘revolving-door’ senior management lacked stability and was a major contributing factor to the lack of knowledge and understanding of our unique market, customers and component suppliers.
“However, one of these caretakers, Peter Hanenberger, a German-born automotive specialist who had worked 45 years of his professional career at GM, did a great job.
“He arrived here in 1999, as the new chairman and managing director and he retired at the age of 61, at the end 2003, when his tenure was over.
“Peter was a ‘people person’, who was passionate about his job and he made it his priority to learn as much as possible about our market.
“He gained the respect of the dealer network for his knowledge and also by listening to their opinions and taking positive action where needed.
“He set the platform with a business plan, pushing four-wheel-drive products and setting a template for exports.
“However, after he’d left and the next GM caretaker was sent over, it was all forgotten.
“We were basically treated like a small fish in a big pond.”
“We all know the extraordinary number of taxpayer-funded subsides – around $2 billion – that the Australian Government has tipped into GM-H over time in order to prop up this multinational conglomerate to continue manufacturing in Australia and to guarantee employment for its Australian workforce.
“Dealers have funded the cost of corporate building and pole signage, so what of that costly corporate signage now, with a franchise that is no more?”
The Australian Government wasn’t officially informed of GM’s decision to kill off the Holden brand prior to the media release and Alan says the dealers were not informed either.
Alan May reckoned the heartless arrogance of this corporate monolith to its loyal dealer-network and staff was nothing short of breathtaking.
Those dealers who were not already multi-franchised had the rug pulled from under them without notice and had to go shopping to find a replacement brand in order to stay in business. In some instances, that wasn’t possible, leaving dealers’ employees without a job.