The announcement of Holden’s retirement on February 17 should have come as no surprise, but the finality and totality of General Motors’ exit from Australia and New Zealand has made worldwide headlines.
As of January 1 2021 GM will withdraw from the Australian and New Zealand markets, even as an importer. They will meet their statutory obligations on service and parts supports and recalls.
For more details, the official announcement can be found here: https://www.holden.com.au/announcement
It’s a rapid decline to oblivion, given that car production only ended at Elizabeth, South Australia in October 2017. However, the sales numbers tell it all; tenth place in the sales charts, 43,176 vehicles sold in Australia in 2019, a fall of 28.9% over the previous year.
Adding in the 11,245 New Zealand registrations, total 2019 sales come to 0.93 White Hens, to use the favoured metric.
Holden’s 2019 best seller in Australia was the Colorado pick-up, at a lowly no. 17. Its Toyota HiLux rival occupied the number one slot, and on its own outsold the entire Holden range by 4473 units.
I’ll trust the curious to do their own research on Holden’s current offerings – a rag-bag of suvs and small hatches mostly sourced from zero-tariff territories. The exception is the sorry Insignidore, which is hit with a 5% import tax as an EU product.
Rather than dwell on the downfall of an Aussie icon, let us briefly consider Holden’s happier times.
General Motors was formally established as an assembler of motor vehicles in Australia in 1926. Even before this, Holden Motor Body Builders was producing coachwork on GM brands’ chassis along with those of other manufacturers, a significant business activity owing to Australia’s punitive taxation on complete imported cars. In 1931 General Motors (Australia) Pty merged with HMBB with the new entity titled General Motors-Holdens Ltd. The products were still sold under international GM brands; Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Vauxhall.
The first car to carry the Holden name was the 48-215 sedan from late 1948. Other potential brand names which made reference to the young and optimistic nation were rejected in favour of the surname of a well-connected 19th century immigrant from Walsall, who founded the saddlery company-turned-coachworks, and whose grandson Sir Edward Holden was chairman of General Motors-Holdens Ltd until 1947.
The 48-215 was a six-seat sedan with a softly tuned overhead valve in-line six cylinder engine. It was not excessively large, nor luxuriously appointed, and its engineering was certainly not leading-edge, but robust and appropriate to the conditions in which the car would be used. Thereby the first Holden effectively set the pattern for the Universal Australian Car for the next fifty years.
Only Ford’s 1960 Falcon, Australian built, but little changed little from the US version, rattled Holden’s complacency. High import taxes and the unsuitability of Rootes and BMC cars for Australian conditions underpinned Holden’s dominance. The Kingswood and its derivatives became as much a part of the nation’s life as Australian Rules and National Pies.
The 1971-1980 HQ-HZ series are seen by many as peak Holden, and the smaller 1976-78 Torana SL/R 5000 gained legendary status.
Their successors, the downsized Opel-derived Commodore eventually assimilated, and found its own place in the nation’s hearts, helped by the storming V8 derivatives.
2.4 million Commodores were made from 1980 to 2017, but Senator John Button’s 1984 rationalisation plan for the car industry, which aimed to improve productivity and widen consumer choice, instead started the slow decline of Australia’s domestic car industry. By the early 1990’s the Button Plan, which led to such mutants as Toyota Lexcen-badged Commodores, and Holden Nova-branded Corollas, had been abandoned in favour of phased import tax reductions. Nissan Australia ceased manufacturing in 1992, Mitsubishi held on until 2008.
In the post-Button era, GM and Ford’s Australian satellites demonstrated little agility in the face of Japanese and Korean competition, unfettered by tax handicaps and relieved of the need to assemble locally in order to compete. Australian consumers also developed a taste for premium European imports over the ‘cashed-up Bogan’ image of the more egregious domestic products – don’t believe anything you hear about the Aussies being a classless society.
In the last two decades, all that maintained Australia’s domestic vehicle industry was a series of state and Commonwealth government subsidised initiatives to sustain the pretence that manufacturing still mattered.
We should not mourn Holden too deeply, and instead remember the good times. Better a quick and final departure than descent into eternal badge-engineered Zombiedom.