News

Holden history: from the beginning to the end

Holden has been a part of our story for 72 years. Here's how it helped shape Australia.
- shares

General Motors has sold cars in Australia since 1902, setting up an Oldsmobile dealer north west of Adelaide – which continues to sell Holdens today.

However, the US giant first became involved with Holden in 1924. At the time Holden was a motor body builder, fitting its designs to other car brand’s chassis, graduating to this new fangled form of transportation after starting as a saddlery in 1856.

From 1924 onwards, General Motors did a deal with Holden to produce car bodies only for its vehicles.

General Motors then increased its stake in Australia in 1931, merging with Holden Motor Bodies to create the company known as General Motors Holden (GMH).

By the mid-1930s GMH had begun planning full scale local production of motor vehicles, but World War II delayed those ambitions as the company began shifting its manufacturing expertise to support the military among the allied nations.

After the war, GMH was left with the ability to make engines, chassis and vehicle bodies in-house and in 1946 the company began work on what would become the first Holden car.

Known as the 48-215, it was a scaled down version of a Chevrolet design that had been discarded in the US. After testing in 1947 it was ready for production by the end of 1948.

In November 1948 then Prime Minister Ben Chifley welcomed the very first home-grown Holden and famously declared “she’s a beauty”.

Holden went on to dominate the Australian car market for much of the next half century and shape the nation’s culture, accounting for up to half of all new vehicles sold in the late 1950s, while remaining at or near the top of the charts through to 2002, its last year as the nation’s favourite car brand.

Sadly, it will reach the end of the road by the end of 2020, just 18 years after it was last our most popular car brand.

The Holden story: a timeline

Compiled by Joshua Dowling

1856: Holden starts as a saddlery in Adelaide in 1856.

1908: Holden expands its business to include vehicle upholstery.

1914: Holden makes its first car body using horse carriage building techniques.

1918: Holden builds 587 car bodies (but not the engine, chassis, steering or suspension) as the automobile starts to overtake the horse and cart.

1924: General Motors signs a contract with Holden to manufacture local bodies exclusively for its cars.

1928: Holden’s famous “lion and stone” logo is created.

1931: General Motors buys Holden, establishes GMH.

1936: Holden assembles cars in Port Melbourne using foreign US parts. General Motors executives start to plan a uniquely Australian car.

1939: As the world goes to war, General Motors’ plans for an Australian car are put on hold. Instead the factory supports the war effort.

1948: On November 29, 1948 Prime Minister Ben Chifley launches the first Holden car in Port Melbourne and declares “she’s a beauty”. Dealers were reportedly holding more than 18,000 orders before the first one was built. Price when new: $1466 (£733).

1953: The FJ Holden goes on sale, priced from about $2046 new.

1958: Body assembly division at Elizabeth, South Australia, begins.

1963: The iconic Holden EH goes into production: 256,959 are built in less than two years. It is the biggest selling Holden so far.

1965: The Holden factory in Elizabeth begins full vehicle assembly.

1968: The Holden Kingswood goes on sale, bringing with it Holden’s first V8, popularised with the introduction of the Monaro.

1971: The HQ Kingswood goes on sale. An epic 485,650 were built from 1971 to 1974, making the biggest-selling Holden model of all time.

1978: The Holden Commodore is born. General Motors switches to a smaller sedan after two “oil crises” in the 1970s. The Commodore is an adaptation of a General Motors sedan from Germany.

1986: Holden does the unthinkable and fits an imported Nissan six-cylinder engine under the bonnet of the VL Commodore. It’s faster and more fuel-efficient than the V8. Holden markets the V8 for “towing” and the six-cylinder for “performance”.

But as the Australian dollar weakens the Japanese engine becomes too expensive and Holden hatches a plan for a GM-sourced V6 engine for future models.

1987: Peter Brock unveils a device called an “Energy Polarizer” and fits it to his latest series of HDT performance road cars. But Holden can’t verify Brock’s claims or find any benefit despite numerous engineering tests. Holden parts company with the racing legend.

1989: Holden switches its model-sharing deal with Nissan to a partnership with Toyota. Under the federal government’s consolidation plan, Toyota gets a version of the Commodore V6 (called the Lexcen), while in return Holden gets two four-cylinder cars: a version of the locally-made Camry, called the Holden Apollo, and a version of the locally-made Toyota Corolla, called the Holden Nova.

1996: The model sharing partnership between Holden and Toyota ends after slow sales and rising tension on both sides. The Commodore starts its 15-year run as Australia’s favourite car.

1997: Holden releases the new generation VT Commodore, it would go on to become one of the biggest selling Holdens of all time, with 303,895 built from 1997 to 2000. Holden would go on to build 207,339 VX Commodore models from 2000 to 2002.

1998: Holden stuns the industry when it unveils a sleek two-door Commodore concept car at the Sydney motor show. Originally designed to take attention away from the new Ford Falcon, the public and the media instantly label it the modern Monaro. Holden, which had no intention of producing the car, starts crunching numbers to see if it can make a business case.

2001: In December 2001, the Holden Monaro goes on sale. Executives in Detroit are so impressed with the car, they plan to export left-hand-drive versions to the US as a Pontiac GTO.

2004-2005: Holden exports 31,500 Monaros to the US as a Pontiac GTO – more than twice the number of Monaros sold locally over four years.

2006: Holden launches its “billion-dollar baby”, the VE Commodore sedan and WM Caprice limousine. Unlike every Commodore and Caprice before them, these vehicles are designed and engineered from the ground up in Australia. The underpinnings would also be used for the new Chevrolet Camaro sold in the US, but engineered by Holden in Australia.

Plans for a right-hand drive Camaro for Australia are scrapped during the Global Financial Crisis.

2007-2009: More than 41,000 Commodores are exported to North America as Pontiac sedans between November 2007 and February 2009, almost equivalent to Holden's annual sales of Commodore at the time – but the deal ends when the Pontiac brand is axed during the Global Financial Crisis.

2011: The Holden Cruze goes into production alongside the Commodore in the Elizabeth factory, having initially imported the model from South Korea since June 2009. Prime Minister Julia Gillard attends the ceremony and drives the first Australian-made Holden Cruze off the production line.

2012: Holden begins exporting the Caprice limousine to the US as a police car.

2013: The new generation Holden Commodore VF goes on sale in the same month Ford announces its factories will shut in October 2016.

October 2013: Holden begins exporting the Holden Commodore SS V8 sports sedan as a Chevrolet SS. It is also the basis for Chevrolet’s Nascar, putting the ‘Commodore’ in front of the biggest sporting audience ever.

December 2013: In Federal Parliament, treasurer Joe Hockey challenges Holden to “come clean” on its future manufacturing plans, with his “either you’re here or you’re not” speech. Days after Hockey’s speech, and one day after a Productivity Commission review, Holden boss Mike Devereux announces Holden will close its manufacturing operations in 2017.

7 October 2016: The last Holden Cruze rolls off the Elizabeth production line, the same day as Ford closes Broadmeadows and Geelong.

29 November 2016: Holden shuts its Port Melbourne engine plant after 68 years of continuous operation since 1948, and more than 10 million engines produced.

March 2017: General Motors sells its loss-making European brands (Opel in Germany and Vauxhall in the UK) to Peugeot-Citroen. The French car giant says it will honour its obligation to supply Holden with the Commodore and Astra. General Motors executives flatly deny rumours there was a secret plan to bundle Holden with the sale of Opel and Vauxhall.

20 October 2017: Holden builds its – and Australia’s – last car, a red Holden Commodore V8 in a private ceremony attended by 1000 factory workers past and present.

November 2017: Holden begins importing the new generation Opel Insignia – with a choice of four-cylinder or V6 power – and rebadges it as a Commodore. There is no V8 in Holden showroom for the first time in decades.

December 2017: Holden introduces the Equinox SUV (below), a five-seater designed to compete with the likes of the Toyota RAV4 and Mazda CX-5. Holden originally forecast sales of 32,000 per year; it has averaged less than 5000 annually.

October 2018: Holden introduces the Acadia SUV, a full-sized seven-seater from the US. The cost of the factory conversion to right-hand drive reportedly cost $100 million. Fewer than 4000 have been sold since it went on sale, which equates to more than $25,000 per right-hand drive vehicle on the additional engineering cost alone.

December 2019: Holden boss Dave Buttner, a former Toyota Australia executive, steps down on 2 December 2019 after just 16 months in the job. Marketing boss Kristian Aquilina, a 22-year veteran of Holden, is appointed interim chairman and managing director.

One week later, Holden announces the Commodore will be dropped from local showrooms and the model will be phased out as dealers clear remaining stock.

Early January 2020: Official figures for 2019 show Holden posted its lowest annual sales since 1954 after producing six of its lowest monthly results since 1948.

February 2020: General Motors announces it is getting out of all right-hand drive markets globally, with Holden dealers due to shut their doors by the end of 2020.


MORE ON THE HOLDEN CLOSURE