The news of the Holden brand being abandoned by General Motors is not entirely surprising given the company’s decision to cease manufacturing vehicles in Australia in October 2017. Indeed, the writing was on the wall a few months ago when Holden announced it was killing off the Commodore brand.
Despite all signs pointing to the Holden brand being sent to the scrap heap in the sky, it still hurts that it’s come to this. At the end of this year, the Holden brand will go the way of other vehicle brands such as Saab, Rover and Pontiac. But in another way, the brand will live on.
Out of every automobile company that used to manufacture cars in this country, Holden held the closest relationship with Australians. Sure, everyone knew the parent company was General Motors. But unlike Ford, which universally applied its blue oval badge to all of its cars, Holden had its own distinct branding, regardless of where the vehicles were made.
The Holden brand differed substantially from GM’s product lineup in the United States and made us feel like it was our own.
Holden and Australia were linked, with the brand tracing back to a saddlery business in South Australia that commenced trading in 1856. It wasn’t until 1948 that Australia received its very first mass-produced, locally built car. Following the end of the second World War, Australia proved it was serious about manufacturing and the first FX Holden rolled off the production line in Port Melbourne, Victoria.
Since then, the Holden master brand has underpinned the launch of a number of iconic, local product brands: the FJ Holden, the Torana, the Kingswood, the Monaro, the Commodore and, who could forget, Holden’s uniquely branded panel van, the Sandman. Australian folklore has it that Holden dealers gave buyers of the Sandman panel vans the option of adding a bumper sticker to their new purchase that read “If this van’s rocking, don’t bother knocking.”
Holden was more than just a car brand to Australians. It spawned a TV series called Kingswood Country featuring Ted Bullpitt as a blustering, suburban father confused by the intricacies of an ever-changing world, safe in the knowledge that as long as his trusty Kingswood was parked in the garage, everything would be okay.
It was Holden that backed a young Peter Brock to take the fight to Allan Moffat and Ford, enabling him to conquer Mount Panorama and win the Bathurst 1000 car race a record nine times.
It was Holden that carried prime ministers, premiers, governor-generals and visiting dignitaries in its luxury Statesman and Caprice models.
And it was Holden that built the first Aussie Ute that proved to be such a hit with farmers and tradies alike.
It’s been Holden that has carried the Australian spirit, helping many of us to believe that a country located at the bottom of the world could punch above its weight.
In what proved to be a prophetic move last year, Jimmy Barnes released a single titled “Shutting Down Our Town.” It’s a song about the singer growing up in the north of Adelaide and returning to his hometown to find Holden closing operations at its South Australian factory. Before joining Cold Chisel, Barnes worked at the Holden manufacturing plant in Elizabeth.
Holden’s parent company, General Motors, is justifying the death of its local car brand by claiming it’s no longer economical to build right-hand drive vehicles, given that 75 percent of the world drives on the other side of the road. If such logic is to be believed, Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes, Porsche and Ferrari would all swiftly announce that they too are giving up on markets that drive on “the wrong side of the road.”
But the “25 percent excuse” from General Motors is nothing more than corporate spin designed to take the focus away from the real reason the Holden brand has been axed. The Holden Commodore was Australia’s best-selling car. While there were many economic reasons for terminating local manufacturing, it seemed that Holden’s sales and marketing team failed to grasp the enormity of just what it meant when the last Holden Commodore rolled off the production line at Elizabeth. The sad truth is that Holden couldn’t survive without its locally produced Commodore and subsequently scrambled to provide a range that Australians wanted.
Ford could easily cobble together a story for why it might end its presence in Australia. After all, it too has built cars locally for over 60 years and created the legendary Falcon brand. Unlike Holden, though, when the last Falcon was produced in Geelong, Victoria, in 2016, Ford chose to retire the Falcon brand. It accepted that Australians would miss the raw grunt of a V8 Falcon so replaced it with its iconic Mustang five-litre V8—in a right-hand drive configuration. It put money behind marketing the Mustang and did the same with its highly successful Ranger truck lineup.
The bewilderment of GM’s sudden announcement will no doubt continue in the months ahead. Australian taxpayers contributed billions of dollars to Holden’s operations over 70-odd years. It’s understandable that emotions will be running high as Australians react to the news. The announcement of 800 job losses at Holden’s head office will also attract unwanted attention for General Motors.
But, similar to brands like Pan Am and Ansett, the Holden brand will live on long after the last employee turns out the lights at the company’s headquarters in Port Melbourne. There are still hundreds of thousands of Holdens on the road and many more stored in garages, kept in mint condition. Holden will always hold a special place in the hearts of Australians.
While it couldn’t capitalize on the rise of SUVs or the shift to lower emission vehicles, Holden gave this country a brand we could all get behind. It gave us Peter Perfect, The Mountain, an intense tribal rivalry with the blue oval badge, and a backlog of legendary products that most companies would die for.
It’s highly unlikely any other Australian brand will ever be able to emulate the success of Holden.
Nick Foley is president, SEAPJ and is based in our Sydney office.
This article was first published on mumbrella.com.