Holden is history

The famous Holden 48-215 (FX) standard sedan, production No. 1440 S, made in 1951. Powerhouse Museum collection. B1662.
The famous Holden 48-215 (FX) standard sedan, production No. 1440 S, made in 1951. Powerhouse Museum collection. B1662. 

Australians are reeling with the announcement on 11 December, 2013, that Holden, an Australian icon, will stop building cars here in 2017. How has this happened? With some 66 makes available in Australia these days, twice the choice US drivers have, clearly we don’t like football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars quite enough any more.

In 2014 Holden will have been in the automotive business in Australia for a century. They were originally carriage builders and saddlers and called Holden & Frost back then. Their first motoring work was to make a custom built body on a Lancia chassis. In 1917, following the Government embargo on imported bodies, the firm began producing bodies for imported Dodges and Buicks. In 1919 they re-organised and formed a new company Holden’s Motor Body Builders. By 1924 Holden’s had one of the world’s most advanced production lines at Woodville in South Australia and exclusively supplied bodies to the Australian branch of the United States company General Motors Ltd. Holden’s accounted for half of Australia’s total production of motor bodies producing 35,000 units annually and even then employing 2,600 people.

Sectioned 1928 Chevrolet National sedan body made by Holden's Body Builders Ltd, Woodville, South Australia. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of Holden's Motor Body Builders Ltd, 1930. H3457
Sectioned 1928 Chevrolet National sedan body made by Holden’s Body Builders Ltd, Woodville, South Australia. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of Holden’s Motor Body Builders Ltd, 1930. H3457.

One of my favourite objects in the Museum’s collection relating to Holden’s early years is a sectioned 1928 Chevrolet car body. It clearly shows the influence of the coach building trade at the time with its intricate timber-framed, steel-skinned bodywork. It was sectioned by Holden’s to show the construction. Some 200 pieces of timber, bolted, screwed and glued together, were required for one Holden car body. The timbers included coachwood, Queensland maple, Pacific maple, cudgerie, southland beech, alpine ash, Japanese beech and Oregon. These were all seasoned artificially in kilns to prevent warping and the knots and defects cut out during milling.

A 1939 turret top all-steel "Master" sedan Chevrolet body built by GMH, on display in the Transport exhibition of the Powerhouse Museum. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of General Motors-Holden’s Ltd, 1940. B697.
A 1939 turret top all-steel “Master” sedan Chevrolet body built by GMH, on display in the Transport exhibition of the Powerhouse Museum. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of General Motors-Holden’s Ltd, 1940. B697.

The Great Depression caused a huge drop in demand at Holden’s. General Motors purchased Holden’s in 1931 to become General Motors-Holden’s Limited managed by Laurence J. Hartnett. GMH pursued a policy of purchasing Australian materials where possible and in 1934 departed from the traditional US body style by producing a Chevrolet coupe utility, the famous ute. By the mid-1930s the cars began to be more streamlined. The touring car almost disappeared by the end of the decade with sedan and coupes being the favoured bodies. In 1937 GMH released an all-steel body known as the ‘uni-steel turret top body’. It was the first Australian-made car to have an all-steel body made of only four pieces of prefabricated steel, shaped by giant presses then welded together. These steel sections formed a stronger, lighter and much cheaper car body.

Interior of the 48-215. Powerhouse Museum collection. B1662.
Interior of the 48-215. Powerhouse Museum collection. B1662.

In January 1948 GMH announced it would release its new Australian-built car and on 29 November, 1948, 1200 men and women including the Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, stood around a humble, ivory coloured car which appeared from behind silver curtains to the strains of a ten-piece orchestra. The Holden, designated the 48/215 and later commonly nicknamed the FX, was adapted from an American design and became Australia’s first successfully mass-produced car. It had exceptional performance, for a low-cost, four-door, six-passenger family car. Apparently it was so popular and the buying queue so long that dealers didn’t need salesmen, they only wrote orders. The dimensions and 6-cylinder power plant set the design pattern for the majority of cars sold in Australia over the next twenty-five years. GMH soon had assembly plants in five States and its share of the booming vehicle market rose from 20 percent in 1950 to 50 percent in 1958.

"Kingswood" badges were located on the boot lid and front mudguard of Holden HQ models. Powerhouse Museum collection, 2005/65/11
“Kingswood” badges were located on the boot lid and front mudguard of Holden HQ models. Powerhouse Museum collection, 2005/65/11

Over the years the Holdens rolled off the assembly lines. But surely one of the most iconic models must have been the Kingswood. A total of 495,650 Kingswood HQ Holdens were built between 1971 and 1974, which was more than any other Holden model to date. Four years work went into its design and it was planned to be the car of the seventies. The car was the first ground-up redesign of the Holden since it was first sold in 1948. Its name has been immortalised and satirised in Australian culture with the TV sit-com “Kingswood Country” which first screened in January 1980. The main character was Ted Bullpitt whose most precious possession was his Holden Kingswood. He objected to other family members driving his car and would hide the keys. Bullpit famously said he glad wrapped the car’s tow bar and steam cleaned the glove box!

So with Christmas just around the corner it’s timely to reflect on the loss of this great Australian car which has been so much a part of the nation’s cultural identity. This is perfectly summed up in the alternative ‘Jingle Bells’ lyrics:

Dashing through the bush, in a rusty Holden Ute.
Kicking up the dust, esky in the boot.
Kelpie by my side, singing Christmas songs,
It’s Summer time and I am in my singlet, shorts and thongs…

Post by Margaret Simpson
Curator of Transport, Powerhouse Museum

FJ Holden Special made by General Motors-Holden Ltd, Bunnerong Road, Pagewood, NSW, in 1955 on display in Auto Obsession in 2014. MAAS collection 85/795. Image by Phillip Simpson.
FJ Holden Special made by General Motors-Holden Ltd, Bunnerong Road, Pagewood, NSW, in 1955 on display in Auto Obsession in 2014. MAAS collection 85/795. Image by Phillip Simpson.

Since writing this post in December 2013 the Museum has acknowledged Holden’s contribution to Australian motoring history by displaying its FJ Special and EH Premier in the Auto Obsession exhibition in 2014. In 2015 a large archive of Holden related material dating from 1948 to 2010 was acquired into the collection. This includes 78 booklets on specific Holden models and even a Holden promotional Frisbee. Holden is certainly well represented in the collection with full size cars, car bodies, cutaway cars, design mock ups, car parts, badges, engine plates, toy cars, commemorative coins, art works and photographs.

Rayner Hoff's proud Holden lion will roar no more in Australia. MAAS collection 87/1. Image by Peter Garrett.
Rayner Hoff’s proud Holden lion will roar no more in Australia. MAAS collection 87/1. Image by Peter Garrett.

A couple of the standout objects include the plaster Marquette for the Holden lion made by Rayner Hoff in South Australia in about 1927 and the art works of Margaret Dodd. So if you want to say goodbye to Holden, come and see our FJ currently on public display at the Museums’ Discovery Centre at Castle Hill in north-western Sydney, appropriately with an original 1950s caravan.

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6 responses to “Holden is history

  • My name is Willis Little and I live in Utah, USA. I have recently purchased what I have found to be a very rare 1932 Chevrolet-Holden Ute right hand steer canopy top. After much research I have found that this car was originally built in Australia. I have a number of photos that I will be happy to share if you will please send me your email address. The car has an Holden ID tag attached in the proper place, inside left door on floor. The tag reads: Body #4, Model Chev – EXP, Series 306, Job No 3042. By comparing this tag with that of the “Moonlight Speedster”, there are some striking similarities. Number one, the Holdens tags are the same and number two the Job numbers are only four digits apart. The Ute is 3042 and the Speedster is 3406. Assuming the job no. is the order in which these two cars were built, it is not unreasonable to believe these two cars were built on the same day. How the Ute found it’s way to the US is still a mystery at this point. What EXP means is uncertain but could very well be a prototype model or experimental. I have not been able to find anyone who has ever heard of a 1932 Ute let alone ever seen one. If there was more than one build, nobody seems to know. If there was more build, this one may well be the “lone survivor”. My intent is to find someone who would value it for what it is. It deserves proper restoration and preserved as what could be the very first Holden Ute ever built.

    Your reply would be appreciated,
    Willis Little
    willislittle@yahoo.com
    Phone – 801-560-6952
    Address: 545 So. 1350 East
    Fruit Heights, Utah 84037

  • Thanks for your comment about your 1932 Holden ute Willis. I believe that Holden bodies were built in Australia on Chev chassis from at least the mid-1920s. I think the best source of information about your vehicle is likely to be from the VETERAN & VINTAGE CHEVROLET ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIA (QLD) INCORPORATED. Their web site is http://www.vvcaaqldinc.org.au/2.php. Good luck with your research.

  • Hi To all that are interested in 32 chev roadster ute,s
    I have in my back shed a 1932 factory roadster ute built by Holden . It is currently under restoration and was purchased some 30 years ago from a gentleman who assured me that it has not been a home job as he obtained it from the original family who purchased it new. It does differ some what from the one in the US ,the cowl appears to be a 32 , the bumper is a two bar type the same as the Australian cars, it does not have chrome bonnet doors as used on the upper market models but does have the cowl mould and trumpet horn, the ute tub is straight sided with no bead/moulding around the top edge and the tail gate is opened from the inside by a large leaver type catch, the rear springs are much heavier than that of a sedan . I will hunt up the I D tags and as soon as I can find them will post the numbers etc If there is anybody else that has info on these ute,s I would much appreciate making contact

  • Mr Little,
    Since early childhood I have had a keen curiosity for cars, and after 60 years that curiosity refuses to be satiated. As of late, I’m a fan of an Australian Drama series called “A PLACE TO CALL HOME”. It plays on PBS every Saturday night.
    One of the characters (the towns’ Doctor) drives a Holden. It took looking up “Austraian Automobiles of the 1950s” to learn the name of the car. I had never heard of the make before, so I’m somewhate excited to check the car out.
    If you are willing to I would really like to see what the cars’ interior is like. I’d also be interested in learning more about the car, in general.
    Thanks so much for preserving these things for posterity. I have a collection or two of my own and I’m always happy to give an impromptu dissertation to anyone who asks! Be Well! Jim Boxley – Kingman, AZ

  • And to be completely confusing Holden HQ and HJ cars were built in South Africa as Chevrolet models. Most had American 3.8 and 4.1 Chevy stovebolt Six motors but also 3.3 and Holden 308 V8 and Chevy 327 and 350 also available. All were given South African and American names ie Kingswood= Kommando, Ute = El Camino. I own a 1973 Constantia AQ which was a top range Statesman HQ in its native Australia. Car has American motor and box, as well are the hubcaps. Instrumentation in English and Afrikaans. Car is well respected on the road by all that see it. I used to own a 1977 Chevy Caprice Classic AJ which in reality was a Holden Statesman Caprice HJ.

    Is any info available in Australia on these South African variants which were partially built from imported kits with a fair amount of local content?

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