Today, Holden's parent company General Motors announced it would axe the iconic Australian car brand by the end of the year. In a statement, GM said the brand was no longer competitive in the current market and would be "retired" from sales, design and engineering across Australia and New Zealand by 2021. Here, we look back at this giant of Australian motoring history.
Australia's Own Car
Australia's first mass-manufactured car arrived when the Holden 48-215 rolled off the production line in 1948. The car maker began life in 1856 as the saddlery business JA Holden & Co, but it was its merger with General Motors in 1931 that sowed the seed of ‘Australia’s Own Car’. At the time of its launch, Australian motorists mainly drove British and American cars, but they quickly embraced the local nameplate, and soon there were buyer waiting lists of more than a year.
In our January 1, 1949 issue, Open Road was “pleased to present to members its report upon performance and design of the new Australian-built car” and published a thorough road test that stated: “From impressions and data gained on the recent tryout over the pre-war course, the main conclusion is that the first Australia mass-produced car is a real success and lovely to drive.
The impact on local manufacturing was immediate. Three hundred Australian companies supplied components, parts, materials and services for the first Holden. Ten years later, such was demand for Holdens, that figure grew to almost 4000. At its peak in the 1970s, with the mighty Kingswood rolling off plants all over the country, the company used 5000 local and overseas suppliers. Holden had assembly plants in every state of Australia, as well as in New Zealand and South Africa.
But 69 years after Australia’s first car was born, the closure of the Elizabeth manufacturing plant in South Australia on October 20 will bring the dream of a locally-built car to an end. The sun may be setting on the Holden empire, but it will always be an indelible part of Australian history and will still have a presence in Australia beyond 2017, with a national sales company and a national parts distribution centre.
As the ‘car made in Australia for Australia’, Holden’s 48-215 (commonly known as the FX) was the source of much national pride. Before the turn of the decade, and into the ’50s, the FX and then FJ sedans, panel vans and ute models, were finding homes in driveways of new suburbs and streetscapes throughout Australia and providing mobility to a new generation. A new body shape, the FE, was followed by the FC in 1958, which made Holden a two-to-one market leader over its nearest rival.
A six-cylinder engine, known as the ‘grey motor’, powered the 48-215 and, with only minor changes, models up to the EJ. The beloved six-cylinder, a design that underpinned most Australian vehicles at the time, had a capacity of around 2.2 litres – similar to size in many small car and SUV engines today.
What Open Road thought of the FE Holden in 1956...
“Completely new in appearance, the latest Holden has greater power, improved road manners and more interior comfort.”
The Sixties saw Holden go through a period of fast growth and even faster cars. The introduction of the FB marked the start of the decade, with its American-inspired wraparound windscreen and tail fins. The EK closely followed it and was notable as the first model offered with an automatic transmission. The EJ came next and was a big departure from the EK in its appearance, with a lower roofline and a softer rear styling replacing the fins. The Premier debuted in the EK with luxury features (at the time) like leather trim, bucket seats, metallic paint and standard heater/demister.
Then, arguably just as iconic as the 48-215 and FJ, came the EH. It ushered in the famous Holden red motor – a 149ci six-cylinder (or more powerful 179ci version that formed the basis of the first sporty Holden, the S4). Power steering became an option for the first time. The rust prone HD and HR models followed and a larger 186ci found its way under the bonnet.
In 1968, the HK became the first model to offer a V8 engine, a US-sourced 307ci Chevrolet unit. The two-door Monaro was also launched and its marriage with the 327 and, later, 350 Chevrolet engines, heralded the start of the Aussie muscle car era.
What Open Road thought of the EH Holden in 1963...
“Important additions and product changes in the Holden are announced by General Motors. Most dramatic is the availability of two completely new engines to power the EH.”
In what’s best described as the ‘Kingswood decade’ (sorry Torana!), the all-new Kingswood made its 1971 debut. A myriad of transmissions, paired with local and imported six-cylinder and V8 engines, must have been a huge headache for workers at Holden’s assembly facilities, but certainly not for fans of the cars.
Around half a million Holden HQs were produced through to the mid part of the decade. The much-loved Holden one tonner commercial range commenced alongside the existing ute range. The HJ followed, with only the Australian-built 253ci and 308ci V8s and 173ci and 202ci sixes available. Then, in 1976, the HX range arrived and brought a raft of emission controls that effectively strangled engine performance.
The final version of the Kingswood arrived in 1977. The HZ was most notable for the introduction of Holden’s ‘Radial Tuned Suspension’ and for dragging the ageing design into the modern era until production ended in March 1980, which was also the year that the TV series Kingswood Country debuted.
What Open Road thought of the HQ Holden in 1971...
“To sum up, this is a good family-type car that handles and rides better than previous models, but the test car appeared to be abnormally heavy on fuel.”