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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, October 2017