This week, General Motors announced it was to end production of Holden vehicles in Australia by 2017. As the firm closes its plants, it will see an end to a 109-year history of car and component production.
The future of Holden is currently unknown: it will support a sales and parts business, but GM has not yet confirmed if Holdens will continue to be built elsewhere, or will simply become rebadged versions of GM’s other products.
What is known, is that Holden has a huge heritage, and is credited with creating Australia’s first car. But its history stretches back further. It was originally founded in 1856 as a saddle manufacturer but branched into the car industry as founder James Holden’s grandson Edward joined the firm.
Edward brought to the organisation his interest in cars, and the firm began production of motorcycle sidecar bodies and later, car bodies. By the 1920s Holden Motor Body Builders was supplying 12,000 bodies a year to Ford and GM. But the Great Depression saw the market collapse: in 1930 it built 34,000 units, a year later it made just 1651.
In 1931, HMBB was bought by GM which merged it with GM Australia. It was this new firm, General Motors-Holden that built Australia’s first car in 1948.
It might have been originally conceived as a Chevrolet for the American market – and rejected on the basis it was too small – but Holden made the 48-215 its own.
It wasn’t a knocked-down kit: Holden established its own foundry and forge, and the range grew to include sedan, business sedan and panel van models. In its pickup guise, it coined the ‘ute’ tag. The 48-215 was marketed simply as ‘Holden’, and more than 120,000 were sold in five years.
Holden’s second model, the FJ, launched in 1953. It was essentially a facelift of the 48-215, featuring bolder styling and its 2.2-litre straight-six saw power boosted from 60 to 65bhp. Almost 170,000 were sold in three years, and it remains one of Australia’s most iconic models and in 2005, inspired the Efijy, a Corvette-based concept.
The launch of the FE in 1956, and a revised version called the FC two years later, spearheaded Holden’s growth overseas. But despite sales in Southeast Asia and large parts of Africa, the firm’s focus was on its domestic market where it enjoyed a 50 per cent market share.
In 1960 was the launch of its third all-new model, the FB, just months ahead of the unveiling of the Ford Falcon. Against the Ford, the Holden looked dated, even if it was considered to be the superior car. In 1962 Holden responded with the launch of the EK, starting a programme of almost annual revisions lasting until 1968.
During the manufacturer of the FB-based models, Holden began assembling Vauxhall Vivas, proving demand was there for its own mid-sized saloon, the Torana. In later incarnations, it captured the car buyers' attention in various saloon car championships, and in 1974 it received a 5.0-litre V8 – all in a package only 350mm longer than a contemporary Viva.
In 1968 Holden ended production of Chevrolets and Pontiacs, and announced its next new model: the HK. It introduced a number of new names for its variants, including Monaro – a name given to its sporting muscle cars. Holden’s sales were on the up. In 1969 the firm built its two millionth car, an upscale HK Brougham, just 10 years after producing its ten millionth car.