Today marks an incredibly sad day, in the history of Australian automotive manufacturing.
The last car to roll down the production line is a red Holden Commodore SS-V Redline sedan, which will be retained by Holden to form part of its heritage collection.
While Holden is best known for the Commodore, the company was first started by James Alexander Holden in 1856, specialising in leather goods and saddles.
In 1905, the company began producing motorcycle side cars and vehicle body shells, also supplying tram cars to Melbourne throughout the ’20s. It wasn’t until 1924 that Holden became the exclusive supplier of General Motors’ American vehicles in Australia.
Shortly after in 1931, General Motors and Holden merged, creating a company called General Motors-Holden’s Limited (GM-H). This is part of the reason you’ll often hear people refer to Holden as Holden’s – it’s not just a South Australian quirk.
There was even a brief period where Holden was producing the Ford Model T. That ended when Ford Motor Company opened its manufacturing operation in Geelong, Victoria, around 80km down the road from Melbourne.
Holden’s headquarters at Fishermans Bend, Port Melbourne was opened in 1936, and still serves as the company’s Australian headquarters.
It was in 1948 that Holden hit its first major manufacturing milestone, unveiling the Holden 48-215 – also known as the FX. The car was so important for the company (and Australia) that Prime Minister Ben Chifley unveiled the vehicle in Port Melbourne at the company’s headquarters, saying “she’s a beauty”.
The car was priced at $733 (including tax), which may not seem like a whole lot today, but it was the equivalent of 94 weeks’ salary for the average Aussie worker in 1948.
It was so popular, in fact, Holden had 18,000 pre-orders for the vehicle before it was even seen in the flesh.
Holden’s local production capacity was in full swing by 1958, with over 40 per cent of local car sales wearing a Holden badge, and manufacturing operations underway in Elizabeth, South Australia and Dandenong, Victoria. It was also around this time that the FJ came about (1953), and export commenced across the ditch to New Zealand.
1960 saw the introduction of the FB, which was the first Holden built in left-hand drive for global export. At this point Holden was exporting cars to Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and Pacific Islands. Only two years later, in 1962, Holden cracked a million cars sold in Australia and around the world.
Holden’s employment numbers peaked at almost 24,000 in 1964, with the company operating in Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.
Despite Ford building the Falcon, and Japanese vehicles drifting into the country, Holden remained a bestseller with its hearty six- and eight-cylinder vehicles. It also reached a milestone in 1966, becoming the first local manufacturer to fit seatbelts on all models — something we take for granted today.
In 1978 the company announced what would become its most popular vehicle to date — the Commodore. It coincided with a massive local investment of $300 million that would see a new engine plant created in Port Melbourne.
The 1980s brought challenges for the brand, with the Falcon beating the Commodore in sales for six straight years. But, in 1986, Holden made a controversial move and plonked a Nissan six-cylinder engine under the bonnet of the new VL Commodore. Ironically, it was one of the brand’s better engines and paved the way for the epic RB30ET turbocharged VL Commodore.
By the turn of the decade, Holden was back on top.
The ’90s saw Toyota make it to the top for the first time, but it was still a huge period for the Commodore, duking it out with Ford’s Falcon until the VT Commodore was released in 1997.
The VT Commodore was the most successful Commodore for the brand, selling a little over 300,000 units in three years (still short of the HQ Kingswood’s total of over 485,000 units in the ’70s).
It was in the 2000s that Holden really began feeling the pinch of economics. Market share fell to a little over 15 per cent in 2006, after a $400 million investment in the V6 engine plant at Port Melbourne.
That engine plant would see the company develop V6 engines for General Motors, Holden, Saab and Alfa Romeo, coinciding with the commencement of export to Korea, China and Mexico.
Toyota overtook Holden as the best-selling brand at this point, and large car sales as a whole peaked at just over 200,000 – or around 34 per cent. By way of comparison, large car sales account for less than five per cent of all sales today (VFACTS September 2017).
Holden’s ‘billion dollar baby’, the VE Commodore, was unveiled to media in 2006 (very early days for CarAdvice). And while it was a sales success, it was launched right at a time when sales in large cars were on the way down.
The VE’s Zeta platform was used for cars like the Commodore, Commodore ute, Caprice and even the Chevrolet Camaro, making it an incredibly versatile platform and chassis.
But the VE came about just before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and a jump in living costs hit, which affected export sales and caused a tightening of purse strings.
In the higher ranks of General Motors, it was around this time that calls were being made on the level of investment in future products (such as an SUV line) and the viability of manufacturing.
Despite a number of government hand outs and support, the VF Commodore, launched in 2013, would be the last Commodore model to go on sale in Australia (with exception of the VFII).
While it’s an incredibly sad time for Australia and Australian manufacturing as a whole, it’s a time to look back on what we created.
Holden, Ford and Toyota will continue engineering (and in the case of Holden and Ford, designing) cars for the global market, with Holden and Ford retaining their respective proving grounds at Lang Lang and the You Yangs. Toyota continues to use the Australian Automotive Research Centre (AARC) in Anglesea.
An absolutely awesome subset of cars from turbocharged Falcons, to reliable and dependable Camrys, right through to tyre-frying V8 Commodores were created and tailored for the likes of you and I.
The game has moved on, and, from today, we’ll be a nation that can no longer wear the badge of a local car manufacturing industry.
Holden, Ford and Toyota, my hat comes off to you.
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