We already know that, come October 20, operations at the long-standing Holden plant in Elizabeth, South Australia, will cease. That’s old news – we’ve known since January.
But what’s happening at the factory until then? And exactly what goes into each and every Holden Commodore, Holden Caprice, Holden Sportwagon, and Holden Ute built at Elizabeth, prior to the last car rolling off the production line later this year? I hopped on a plane to Adelaide to find out…
Video credit: Archive photos courtesy Steve McNicol/Railmac Publications.
We Aussies are a funny bunch. We love odd things like Vegemite, XXXX Gold beer, and trying to bowl leg spin at a mate in the middle of summer on a pitch made entirely of sand.
We’re also an undeniably passionate mob too. It might be about food, or coffee, or cars, but a lot of us tend to wear our heart proudly on our sleeve when it comes to the things we adore most.
It’s 6am, and Martin Merry hands me a hi-viz vest and gives me the hurry up, before briefly laying out the basics of how to safely get around the factory grounds without getting cleaned up by any passing traffic.
A Holden employee for 33 years, Martin is the director of vehicle assembly operations at Elizabeth, and he tells me we’d better be quick, or we’ll miss it.
You see, I’m not only there to see first-hand how a Holden Commodore comes together. I’m there to see one very specific Holden Commodore come together: my own.
That’s right. After much anguish and countless guilt-ridden battles with myself – and years of professionally heaping praise upon them as genuinely good cars – I made the decision to throw most (read: all) of my life savings at a brand-new Holden Commodore.
And as Martin cracks the door to the factory’s general assembly area, I see it for the very first time. My car: incomplete and hanging from a bright yellow Eisenmann overhead conveyor chain hanger.
So what have I bought? Well, consider where I ended up, the result of several planets aligning.
We all know that, despite the locally-produced Holden Commodore and Sportwagon coming to an end on October 20, the two models will live on in the form of the next-generation Opel Insignia-based 2018 Holden Commodore.
What won’t live on, however, is the Holden Commodore Utility – better known as the Holden Ute.
A fan of utes since way back, the idea of buying one had popped into my head before. But owning one of this country’s final-ever utes, well, that would be an incredibly special thing.
Sadly, I am no cashed-up entrepreneur or real estate mogul – motoring journalists might have one of the best jobs in the world, but it’s a profession that’s rarely highly paying – so I was content with a base, V8-powered, manual, SS ute. That’s it, and I’d be happy.
Except, after seeing Holden’s ‘just offensive enough’ bright green Spitfire paint colour in the flesh for the first time, I knew I had to have it.
“You can only get Spitfire on an SS V Redline,” I’m told.
You only live once though, so here I am in the same South Australian factory Holden has been producing Commodores in since 1980 – when production switched from the old HZ Holden to the then-new VC Commodore – having my mind blown watching my very own car being built.
Effectively following an identical manufacturing process to many of those early Commodores, each 2017-built VFII Holden Commodore goes through the same steps, regardless of body style.
At its manufacturing peak in 2003, the Elizabeth plant produced 780 vehicles per day, running three shifts.
Back in those days, it was the era of the VY Commodore, and cars built included the Commodore sedan, wagon, and ute, as well as the Adventra, Cab Chassis, Caprice, Crewman, and Monaro.
Today, a total of 945 employees – a number Holden says is to be maintained until October 20 – work together to help to produce 175 vehicles per day, running one shift.
It all starts in the press shop, where each car’s one-piece floorpan, body sides, and roof, are all pressed into shape out of coil steel. And if you’ve never seen a rack of freshly-pressed VFII Holden Ute body sides, believe me, it’s quite the sight.
From here, it’s off to the body shop, where 225 stations of framing takes place over the next one hour and 20 minutes.
Framing is where the floorpan, body sides, and roof are all joined together to form the car’s raw skeleton, and, depending on body style, around 3500 robotic spot welds are carried out.
Although approximately 75 additional manual spot welds are also added, the approximate number of robotic spot welds is highest in the long-wheelbase Caprice (3898), followed by the Commodore Sedan (3455), Sportwagon (3245), and finally, the Ute (3119).
Next up, vehicle bodies enter the paint shop.
Here, robots have 20 minutes contact with each car to apply paint.
However, with every car undergoing vital electrocoat body sealing and galvanisation processes, as well as receiving several layers of base and top coats, the whole paint process for each vehicle generally takes around 16 hours. And, believe it or not, if an owner has opted for an optional black roof for their car, the already painted car is manually masked up to cover everything but the roof, and taken back through the whole process again, just to have the roof painted once more, but this time in black. Crazy stuff.
With the body painted, it starts its journey through general assembly, travelling through 144 stations via an overhead conveyor chain hanger or a height-adjustable skillet lift, with everything from carpets to the headliner installed – a highlight here being the super-cool, through-the-windscreen installation of the dashboard.
Before the last stages of final assembly can begin, engines – Port Melbourne-built 3.0-litre and 3.6-litre V6 engines and Mexico-sourced 6.2-litre LS3 V8s – transmissions, and exhaust systems are all united and married up with their respective vehicles, as are axles, and front and rear suspension components.
This is precisely where production of my green ute is up to when Martin introduces me to it for the first time. And at exactly 6:10am, the line fires into life.
From this point on, cars very quickly take shape.
Since Holden reduced production numbers to 175 vehicles per day, each vehicle – regardless of model – is allotted the same six hours and 42 minutes to complete the circuit from ‘Trim One’ to ‘Final Three’, with shifts running until 2:10pm.
With cars steadily moving down the line, headlights and front and rear bumpers are installed, before the suspension is bolted up and secured into place.
From here, cars take a brief detour above the main assembly floor to receive their first sip of fuel in preparation for an imminent first start-up.
Fuel on board, they re-join the main line to have their specifically ordered wheels attached – a process made significantly easier thanks to an in-house Holden-developed wheel carrier device that means workers simply have to line up the holes with the wheel studs and tighten up the wheel nuts using a multi-spindle nut spanner, all without any unnecessary heavy lifting. Smart.
Along the way, I’m privileged to meet, shake hands, and chat with numerous production line workers – all friendly, smiling, and playing their part in the creation of these final Commodores.
Two of the more senior staff I’m introduced to are David Depares and Jed Carmen.
Holden employees for 28 years and 13 years respectively, David is a final line senior group leader, while Jed is general assembly’s manufacturing and engineering manager.
Chatting with both about exactly which Holden is their favourite, it’s clear where their passions lie.
“The last-generation (VX- to VZ-based) Monaro is probably my own favourite,” David tells me.
“It was just a classic shape, a nice looking car, and they still had that fairly hand-built feeling to them.
“It was nice to bring such an iconic name back as well, and have another car be part of that history. It was good and they still look good today.”
As for Jed, “The VF Series II SS V Redline – there’s no doubt that’s the best car Holden has ever made.”
“I’d get a Sportwagon because of the needs that I have, but an SS V Redline Sportwagon is what I’d get. They are absolutely my favourite. Definitely.”
With doors split from their respective cars following paint – allowing door trim and electrics to be installed separate to the rest of the car’s build – the next station sees doors finally reunited with their associated vehicle, but only after all seats have been installed first.
Seats in and doors on, it’s time for each car’s badges to be carefully and precisely stuck on – a task completed by hand, with the aid of accuracy-ensuring templates.
Cars then move onto a lift, and are raised up above the assembly floor once again, before being transferred over to an adjoining line where they are lowered once more.
Here, wheels touch down for the first time, key fluids are added, engine covers are fitted, and the first of several inspections are carried out under a series of super-bright lights.
Panel gaps, alignments, and finishes checked, I’m presented with my first opportunity to sit in my car.
Thing is, with SIP operator Paul King – a Holden employee for 13 years – jumping into the driver’s seat to complete a raft of initial checks, I’m relegated to the passenger seat.
From ensuring the car’s keys are programmed correctly, to making sure all infotainment and climate control systems are operating as intended, Paul (pictured below) also checks all interior lights, power window and mirror switches, and other ancillaries. He then pushes the engine start-stop button to tick my ute over for the very first time. A very cool little moment indeed.
With 6.2 litres of LS3 V8 rumbling away in the background, the ABS anti-lock brakes are primed, and the rear-view camera, head-up display, lights, indictors, and horn are all checked.
As the car rolls through its next brightly lit inspection point, the line stops. In fact, the whole of general assembly has stopped, with the noise and buzz of manufacturing replaced by a strange, quiet calm.
What’s going on? It’s 8:50am: time for ‘Smoko’. And for the next 15 minutes, everyone has a chance to have a sit, a chinwag, and a quick bite to eat.
While sat, I have a brief chat with body fits team leader Joe Romeo.
At Holden for 14 years, Joe is almost more excited about me buying a Holden Ute than I am… almost. And as a gesture, he tells me he’ll personally have another look over the ‘Green Meanie’ once the line kicks back into life again. Thanks Joe.
The next Aussie legend I get to meet is Billy Tidswell (below right).
A Holden employee for 19 years, Billy’s official job title is DVT (dynamic vehicle test) team leader, however, he’s also the man – with some help – tasked with installing the black sports bar yet to be fitted to the back of my ute (an off-line process similar to the decal application required for all Motorsport and Magnum special editions).
A fair dinkum character with an ear-to-ear grin that can light up a room, Billy tells me about his Mum, who also worked at Holden.
“It’s been good [working here],” Billy tells me. “It’s going to be a sad time [though].”
“My mother was here for 26/27 years. And when I started, I thought I’d retire [here]. But, nup. Nothing we can do about it now.”
Sports bar installed and looking sharp, my freshly-signed ute (thanks Billy) re-joins the line, with Billy driving it to the next station, where a wheel alignment is completed from underneath the car, at the same time Billy adjusts the headlights to ensure they are aimed correctly.
The car then enters an enclosed space, featuring a four-wheel rolling road. This is DVT, and this is where Billy gets to stretch the legs of each and every Commodore he gets behind the wheel of.
Following a series of on-screen prompts displayed on a large drop-down monitor in front of us, Billy accelerates through each gear (first to 27km/h, second to 40km/h, third to 65km/h, fourth to 90km/h, and then first fifth and then sixth gear to 110km/h), before activating and setting the cruise control.
The brakes and stability control system are then tested, and a variety of other automated checks completed. Pleasingly, Billy and I then see the words we were both hoping to see: ‘Test Passed’.
Back out onto the assembly floor, the ute proceeds down the line for its last few stages of production – another inspection, a high-pressure water bath to check for any potential leaks or seal issues, and finally, Holden’s tried and tested ‘rattles and squeaks’ test track.
To find out more, I’m introduced to Paul Hitchmough (above left), one of the team leaders responsible for quality.
At Holden for more than 19 years, Paul spent four years working in the body shop, before moving to quality, where he’s remained for the last 15 years.
Driving out of general assembly and onto the test track, Paul stops for a brief moment to test that the ute’s electronic parking brake is working correctly, and then sends the car down the short but rattle-provoking test track.
Comprised of various lumps and bumps, the course includes off-set speed humps, sequential ropes affixed to the ground, tightly-packed ruts, a coarse-chip road surface, a sequence of not-insignificant potholes, some elongated divots, and lastly, a handful of aggressive road cutaways, alternating smooth bitumen with rough cobbles.
“You’ll normally hear if there’s something unusual,” Paul tells me as we get underway.
“I was going to say, normally you hear the tonneau cover [rolled up and tucked behind the ute’s two seats] but that’s not even making a noise.”
Reminiscing about a trip to Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground in Victoria – where his Dad worked for 25 years – Paul tells me how the Elizabeth plant’s compact ‘rattles and squeaks’ test track compares with the one Holden uses at Lang Lang.
“Their track is huge,” Paul says. “This is like a little baby.”
From here, the ute is driven over to the Toll yard and parked up, so the logistics company can ready the vehicle for transport.
“They will do further checks of their own, and [then] it’ll go off – hopefully – to your destination for you to pick up.”
And that’s it. The end of the line.
With the production process done and dusted, its time to pause and take stock of exactly how much goes into each Holden Commodore. Literally.
Go for an SS V Redline Sedan and you’re looking at 2297 parts. Choose a Sportwagon and you’re talking 2356 parts. Or, do what I did and opt for a Ute, and there’s a total of 2102 parts, all put together by the humble and hardworking folk at Elizabeth.
What’s really impressive though – and it’s something I had the privilege of seeing and experiencing first-hand – is the genuine care, passion, and dedication everyone at Holden’s Elizabeth plant puts into their work, whatever the job.
Even more extraordinary to think about is this…
While October 20, 2017 will mark the end of local production for Holden, the same care, passion, and dedication that has gone into the final batch of VFII Commodores, is as much a part of each and every Holden that has left the production line floor at Elizabeth, since the very first HD Holden was completed more than 52 years ago, on January 19, 1965.
So, whether – like me now – you’ve got a brand-new VFII, or if you’re the proud owner of any Holden built at Elizabeth, know that each car produced at this hugely important plant has always been, but even more so come October, will always be, special.
A huge thank you to Martin Merry, David Depares, Jed Carmen, Brad Cook, Joe Romeo, Paul King, Paul Hitchmough, and Billy Tidswell, and everyone else who had a hand in building my silly green ute, as well as Megan Lloyd, Mark Flintoft, Sean Poppitt, and Chris Golomb for their assistance in making this feature story possible. It truly was an experience I’ll never forget.
Click on the Photos tab above for more images by David Zalstein.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss this story below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.