Today marks 12 months since US car giant General Motors announced Holden would be axed at the end of 2020. Now we can reveal the secret plans to save the once proud brand, and how desperate the situation really was in the years leading up to its demise.
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EXCLUSIVE

This is going to make uncomfortable reading for Holden fans but, after absorbing the following information, even diehard enthusiasts will likely be relieved General Motors called time on Holden when it did – rather than soldiering on under the following radical proposals.

And so, 12 months to the day after US car giant General Motors shocked Australia by announcing Holden would be axed by the end of 2020, CarAdvice can exclusively reveal the desperate plans considered by Holden executives and Detroit in the years leading up to its demise.

The proposals are so radical many readers may find them hard to believe, however CarAdvice has seen Holden documents outlining several secret strategies to keep the brand alive in the wake of falling sales – and General Motors’ gradual withdrawal from other right-hand-drive markets.

We have also verified these plans with senior Holden insiders who were part of the team trying to turn Holden around.

The documents show Holden started to hit the panic button in early 2017, before the last homegrown Commodore rolled off the production line in October that year.

Originally, the next-generation Holden Colorado was supposed to be an adaptation of the more expensive US model. However, those plans changed and the Thailand-built Colorado was instead going to be a re-design – or a "top hat" – rather than an all-new model.

And so Holden embarked on two secret missions, first to Japan and then to China.

In early 2017, General Motors approached Japanese car maker Honda – with which it would later form a global joint venture on autonomous (2018) and electric technologies (2020).

According to those close to the discussions, General Motors offered Honda a rebodied version of the next-generation Colorado ute in return for a rebodied version of the next-generation Honda Jazz, which Holden could sell as the new Barina.

General Motors’ Thailand factory (pictured below) – which built the Colorado, due to become Holden's top-selling model once the homegrown Commodore was gone – was under-performing due to weak sales in Australia and the region.

Even though the Thailand facility was one of the most cost-efficient assembly lines in the GM world, its output wasn’t high enough to remain viable in the long term. (After the Holden shutdown announcement in February 2020, GM's Thailand factory was sold to China's Great Wall Motors).

GM figured Honda might want a ute to fill out its line-up – especially in Thailand where pick-ups dominate the market. The tie-up would also boost output on GM’s Thailand production line, amortising costs.

But those plans weren’t well received. For whatever reason, Honda didn’t want a ute and it had already decided the next-generation Jazz would not be developed for Australia because the profit margins on city cars were slim – and shrinking.

The Honda approach by General Motors occurred under the watch of Holden boss Mark Bernhard, who had returned from China in 2015 to transition Holden into the post-manufacturing era – and who was the first Australian boss of Holden in 25 years.

Holden set about doing the best with what it had. The US-sourced Holden Equinox (2017) and Holden Acadia (2018) SUVs – converted by GM factories to right-hand-drive at considerable expense – were intended to buy Holden enough time to figure out its next step.

As history would show, Holden Colorado sales stalled and Australians didn’t embrace the Equinox and Acadia, despite both vehicles being fair competitors in the SUV segment.

Insiders and dealers blame poor marketing decisions immediately following Holden’s local manufacturing shutdown for the sharper than expected sales decline, a topic we’ve covered in detail here.

The slowdown was so dramatic – and "intention to buy" survey results were so weak – that in early 2018 senior Holden executives had already begun to express concerns General Motors would shut the brand amid falling sales and the slim hope of a recovery.

Mid-way through 2018 Holden was running out of road – and GM in Detroit was running out of patience as it watched sales hit reverse month after month.

A new Holden boss, Dave Buttner, a distinguished veteran of the car industry and former head of Toyota Australia – who helped drive the Japanese brand to 15 years in a row of market dominance – arrived in August 2018.

As part of the recruitment process, GM executives lured Mr Buttner out of retirement with the promise of new right-hand-drive models developed in Detroit.

“Don’t worry Dave, we’ve got you covered,” he was reportedly assured by a GM executive.

But then in the following six months, those promised new right-hand-drive models started to disappear – and so too did key people from Holden’s product planning department.

And so in early 2019 senior Holden executives explored their most radical proposal yet: a tie-up with China’s biggest car maker, SAIC, the parent company of the MG and LDV automotive brands.

General Motors had established a 50:50 joint venture with SAIC in 1997, so the lines were already open.

While the Honda plan was dismissed by both parties relatively quickly, Holden spent more time and more detail on a potential SAIC tie-up – possibly because it became evident this was the last roll of the dice.

Documents seen by CarAdvice show Holden proposed sourcing rebadged versions of the LDV T60 ute, LDV D90 SUV, the LDV G10 van – alongside MG3 and MG6 passenger cars and MG GS and ZS SUVs.

Another proposal even suggested selling MG and LDV cars under their own badges alongside Holdens and Chevrolets.

The plan allowed for Holden to develop its own suspension tuning for Australian roads, using its Lang Lang test track, so the cars would “drive like a Holden,” as one insider described it.

Under the proposal, this meant most of Holden’s future showroom line-up would have been sourced from China’s MG and LDV brands, with the addition of the Equinox and Acadia – and certain US Chevrolets converted to right-hand-drive locally by Holden Special Vehicles, such as the Camaro and Silverado.

The factory-built right-hand-drive Corvette was already coming because those plans were locked in before Holden started to tank.

Indeed, in a cruel twist, the Corvette’s right-hand-drive program was used by GM numerous times to assure concerned Holden executives throughout 2019 nothing was wrong – and Holden’s future was not under threat.

“Guys, Corvette is coming, of course we’re committed to Australia,” was how one Holden insider described Detroit’s response to concerns about the future.

But not everyone at senior levels of Holden management believed the rhetoric, and they privately wondered where future cars would be sourced.

Holden’s SAIC tie-up with MG and LDV – which was investigated throughout much of 2019 – turned out to be a bigger and more complex task than it seemed on the surface which, presumably, is why it was eventually ruled out.

MG re-entered the Australian market in 2017, this time as a factory-direct operation with support from China’s head office. And at the time LDV was – and still is – distributed locally by independent importer Ateco.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s now apparent Holden was too arrogant – or ignorant – to figure out MG and LDV didn’t need Holden for them to succeed in Australia. They were already well progressed on the path to success.

Holden’s proposal had even sized up the chances of luring LDV away from Ateco, with insiders assuming that as far as Ateco management was concerned “everything is for sale”. In other words, Holden could snatch LDV from Ateco's grasp, but GM would need to pay for it.

If Holden could somehow get all parties to agree, the plan was to get the brand back to between 90,000 and 100,000 new vehicle sales annually in Australia, split up by 60,000 from GM-Holden, 18,000 from LDV, 18,000 from MG and 2500 from HSV’s Chevrolet models.

It turns out Holden’s proposal over-estimated those figures. In 2019, Holden posted just 43,000 sales – and in 2020 MG delivered about 15,000 new cars while LDV reported 9000 vehicles as sold.

Incredibly, some Holden insiders suggested a tie-up with MG and LDV “would offset the negative impact of the withdrawal of Opel-sourced vehicles from the Australian market”.

In another twist, many former Holden showrooms have since been filled with MG and LDV vehicles – wearing their own badges.

It’s unclear exactly when Holden’s radical proposal to partner with MG and LDV lost momentum. But it’s apparent, based on our research, the end of the road for Holden was beginning to look imminent – to those in the know – in late 2019.

Holden boss Dave Buttner stood down unexpectedly on 2 December 2019 – after just 16 months in the job – and eight days before the imported Commodore was axed from the local line-up.

Two-and-a-half months after Mr Buttner's departure, General Motors lowered the curtain on Holden, on 17 February 2020 – a year ago today.

Although Mr Buttner has never said so, Holden insiders say he didn’t want to be responsible for two major automotive closures. Mr Buttner oversaw the Toyota Camry factory shutdown in Melbourne in 2017 and reportedly didn’t want to have Holden die on his watch.

It’s unclear whether Mr Buttner was formally notified of General Motors’ intentions to close Holden. But an executive with his experience would know how to read the signs.

It is routine for car companies to plan five to 10 years in advance. When these discussions stopped or became vague, Mr Buttner likely figured the end was near.

Some enthusiasts will wonder why Holden didn’t simply keep building V8 Commodores. Many Holden fans still get fired up on social media, perhaps not looking in the mirror – or what car is in their driveway.

Unfortunately, in the end, there weren’t enough people buying brand-new V8 Commodores to keep the dream – and the factory – alive.

The reality is the performance sedan market is fading globally, not just in Australia. Even the Kia Stinger twin turbo V6 has an uncertain long term future. The first Kia Stinger could be the last of its type. The next one could come back as an electric car, if at all.

So while many Holden fans will rightly be mourning the loss of an icon today, at least their memories can’t be taken away from them.

But if the above plans had come true – and Holden cars became rebadged MGs and LDVs – it’s probably best the brand was put to rest, rather than watch it suffer for years on life support.