The rise and fall of Holden, the darling of the Aussie car industry

Moving Well | Dave Morley | Posted on 09 May 2020

The demise of Holden means so much more than the end of an automotive company.

The Holden the brand is gone. Fact. In a few months, you won’t see the Holden dealership sign as you drive through rural Australia. You won’t see Holden ads on TV, and motorsport will never be the same. You’ll have to make do with football, meat pies and kangaroos. Here are the ups and downs of a favourite brand.

Convoy of Holden Commodores driving down empty road

Holden VFII Series Commodores.


 


The ups

Although it started as a saddlery in the gold-rush era, Adelaide-based Holden soon worked out that the future was with the motor car. The company moved fast and by 1913 was making side-car bodies and by 1924, was the sole Australian body builder for General Motors. Which, of course, was the start of a beautiful relationship. 

General Motors Holden’s Limited was born in 1931 when GM stepped in and bought the operation, moving production to Fishermans Bend in Melbourne in 1936. The company was a major manufacturer of military hardware for the duration of World War II, but it was just after the war that GM-H managing director, Laurence Hartnett, began talks with the federal government with a view to building Australia’s own car.

Despite Laurence Hartnett being effectively sacked by GM in the run-up to the launch of the 48-215 (as the FX was properly known) Holden Number 1 rolled off the line at Fishermans Bend on 29 November 1948, overseen by an almost-smiling prime minister Ben Chifley.  

Holden had been clever enough to design the FX to suit local needs and tastes. As such, it was fast enough to cover typical Aussie distances, fuel efficient enough to be cheap to run, and very, very tough and reliable. In early testing it proved to be much tougher than the equivalent Chevrolet cars GM was using as benchmarks. The legend was emerging.

After your footy team, your preference for Ford or Holden was probably your strongest allegiance. It truly was about as tribal as Aussies ever got.

While Holden did revise the styling of its cars in the early years, not much changed mechanically. Why would it? By 1957, the Holden was being exported to 17 different markets and by the end of the 1950s, more than half of all new-car handshakes were happening in a Holden showroom. Australia really was Holden country.

The EJ (and subsequent EH) models of the 1960s represented the first real modernisation of the Holden, and were a response to the much more contemporary designs now being built locally by arch rival Ford. Things continued to improve for Holden buyers and in 1968, Holden launched the mighty Kingswood badge. By now, of course, the Japanese car-makers had started to make their mark, but the Holden was still king. In fact, the HQ model built from 1971 to 1974 was the brand’s most-successful-ever model with almost half a million sales.

By now, it was Holden and Ford and daylight third, and Australian motoring life had begun to revolve around the two brands. In fact, after your footy team, your preference for Ford or Holden was probably your strongest allegiance. It truly was about as tribal as Aussies ever got. From the schoolyard to the front bar, everybody had made their choice. Such fervour also made folk heroes of race drivers like Peter Brock and kept motorsport spicy and interesting. 

The Commodore replaced the Kingswood in the late 1970s and with the new car came a new level of driving dynamics. And that theme continued right through to the very last Commodores in 2017 which were – dollar for dollar – among the best big, rear-drive sedans you could buy anywhere in the world. However…

Holden WB ute in red

Holden WB Kingswood Ute.


 

Red Holden Colorado driving through canyon

Holden Colorado.


 


The downs

There’s no single reason for Australia losing Holden. The slow death of the once-mighty lion brand was the combination of politics, product planning, changing consumer tastes, new technology and boardroom decisions made half a world away. 

The rot set in for Holden in 2013 when the federal government refused to provide any ongoing financial support for the Australian car-making industry. Once that captain’s call had been made, all three local car-makers – Toyota, Ford and Holden – announced that they would be continuing on only as importers. 

By the end of 2016 both Toyota and Ford had switched off the conveyor belts. Holden held out the longest, finally calling it quits on 20 October 2017. 

Of course, by then, Holden was already recording a sales slump as consumers decided that big sedans and wagons were no longer what they wanted in the driveway. The phenomenon of the SUV was upon us. Holden’s only locally made SUV (-ish) effort had been the forgettable Adventra.

Meanwhile, the motoring world was also getting serious about hybrid drivelines and electrification. Possibly because it was a subsidiary of a conservative, US-based giant, Holden missed both the hybrid and electric boats. By a mile. Suddenly, anybody shopping for a hybrid car was scratching Holden off the shortlist. 

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for the Holden brand was GM’s decision to abandon production of right-hand-drive cars in any of its factories. GM knew that it cost the same to engineer either left or right-hand drive, but since something like 75 per cent of its global output was left-hand drive, GM followed the money.

That, of course, left Holden with no source of right-hand-drive cars. And if you can’t get your hands on a car that can be legally driven in the country you operate in, there’s not much point hanging out the shingle, is there? Either way, when you throw all those factors into the mix, it became obvious that, for Holden in the 21st century, the snakes were always longer than the ladders. 

Best and brightest 

  • The 48-215 (1948–1953): The car that started it all. It was tough and simple and it established the legend. 
  • The EH (1963–1965): The car that introduced us to Holden’s `red motor’ six-cylinder. A great package for the time and still remembered fondly. 
  • The HQ (1971–1974): Not the first Kingswood, but the best-selling Holden family car of all time. Nearly half a million buyers can’t be wrong. 
  • The VB Commodore (1978–1980): A thoroughly modern family car. The Commodore was based on a Euro design and made everything else look old fashioned. 
  • The VT Commodore (1997–2000): Another Euro design re-engineered for local conditions. The VT was not just good looking and dynamic, it was also the best-selling Commodore of the lot. 
Yellow Holden VB Commodore

Holden VB Commodore.


 

Holden ZB Commodore parked in front of rolling valley

Holden ZB Commodore.


 


Holden year: A timeline

  • 1856: James Alexander Holden arrives in Adelaide from England and co-founds a saddlery business.
  • 1908: The company moves into automotive trimming.
  • 1931: General Motors buys Holden to create GM-H.
  • 1936: Fishermans Bend plant in Melbourne established.
  • 1939: Holden joins war effort as a major manufacturer of military hardware.
  • 1945: Sir Laurence Hartnett, GM-H managing director, begins talks with the federal government over establishing local car-making.
  • 1948: Prime minister Ben Chifley unveils the first Holden, a 48-215, on 29 November.
  • 1951: Utility version of the 48-215 launched.
  • 1963: EH Holden launched, quickly becoming a national favourite and introducing the `red’ six-cylinder engine.
  • 1967: Holden launches the Torana as its second production model.
  • 1968: The Kingswood badge arrives in showrooms as the HK model.
  • 1971: The HQ model is launched. In four years it will find almost half a million owners and becomes the brand’s best-ever seller.
  • 1972: Holden’s favourite son, Peter Brock, wins his first Bathurst in a Torana GTR-XU1.
  • 1975: Gemini launched. 
  • 1978: The Commodore badge replaces the Kingswood as Holden’s mainstream big car.
  • 1982: The Camira replaces the Torana. It’s an instant flop thanks to poor quality.
  • 1987: The Button Car Plan encourages model sharing. Holden initially joins up with Nissan and then Toyota. 
  • 1997: VT Commodore launches and is a huge success.
  • 2002: Monaro badge revived for big coupe. Most are exported to US as Pontiacs.
  • 2004: Holden sales begin freefall in the face of changing consumer tastes.
  • 2013: Federal government withdraws financial assistance to the industry.
  • 2017: Holden shuts production line on 20 October. Commodore becomes a fully imported car.
  • 2019: Commodore model is dropped.
  • 2020: Holden announces on 17 February that it’s closing shop altogether.