Currently reading: Opinion: Holden’s death will anger some but should surprise nobody
Australian brand hasn’t had a bright future for several years, according to its former communications director
Autocar
News
4 mins read
17 February 2020

I remember it well. I was in charge of the media launch for the new Holden VF Commodore, and it was the first day of introducing what was Australia’s most significant new car in a decade. 

The road route was in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Earlier that morning, my opposite number at Ford had called me to say they had a "major announcement" at 11am. We hastily revised our programme so that all of the top-tier Australian motoring media were assembled at the coffee stop in time for the press conference. 

Holden’s charismatic Canadian managing director, Mike Devereux, pulled into the car park at the wheel of his cherry red VF Calais just as the conference kicked off, and the media assembled around his car to listen to Ford’s news on its radio. The company announced it was to close its factories at Geelong and Broadmeadows, Victoria and that the VF Commodore’s core rival, the Ford Falcon, would die with them. 

That was the first fatal blow to the Aussie car industry and one that would lead to Holden’s eventual demise just seven years later. I was there on an overseas development placement, away from my day job as head of press relations for Chevrolet UK, and was told I was being shipped out to GM’s Melbourne offices to launch six new cars in the space of year - something that sounded great fun. 

But when I got there, the job was very different. Instead of launching new cars, I was thrown in at the deep end into a sea of government lobbying and political posturing. Australia was in the middle of a general election campaign and the domestic car industry was being thrown around like a tampered-with cricket ball.  

GM had recently asked the Australian government for AUD 250 million of support (at the time, that was about £180 million), and the country’s Murdoch-dominated press had labelled it as a ‘bail-out’, a copycat of the car industry support package offered by the US government after the 2009 financial crash.

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It wasn’t, of course. That little episode cost the US $38 billion. Holden’s ‘demand’ was for co-investment to help develop the antiquated factory in Elizabeth, South Australia, to bring it up to the standards of a modern car plant. 

By contrast, it was less than a third of the money that BMW had received from the US government to build a factory in South Carolina, but Australia is a small country in a large land mass, and its citizens and media struggled to grasp the concept of global companies using government cash to bring manufacturing to their shores. 

Australia’s ‘big three’ – Holden, Ford and Toyota – were battling against huge manufacturing costs led by a strong currency. Australia’s mineral reserves were making the nation wealthy but also a difficult place for foreign companies to invest. And despite the efforts of those of us in corporate affairs (we actually worked closely with Ford and Toyota on policy), there was no way of getting the Aussie media to understand that governments and car makers did this all over the world.

Soon after Ford, Toyota announced it would cease manufacturing at its Altona plant in Melbourne, leaving Holden as the sole Australian manufacturer, building the Cruze and Commodore at Elizabeth on the outskirts of Adelaide and V6 engines for domestic and global use at Fisherman’s Bend in Victoria.

Julia Gillard - the prime minister and a supporter of the co-investment plan - was ousted from parliament, and with her Labour government went Holden’s last hope. Her successor, Tony Abbott, withdrew any level of support and by 2017 the production line at Elizabeth had ground to a halt. 

Holden was Australia’s national car company. It was bigger to Australians than MG Rover or Vauxhall ever were to us Brits and for years its cars were the best-selling models in a country that was fiercely patriotic. But as patriotism diluted and import tariffs were dropped, Japanese cars in particular became popular. 

When I left Australia, the top two sellers were the Mazda 3 and the Toyota Corolla. The new VF Commodore, which was a genuinely brilliant car, could muster only fourth place in the sales charts, and 80,000 cars per year wasn't enough to keep a factory in business, or indeed a brand. Holden, too, was tarnished. 

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Its reputation for big cars and utes gave it a ‘bogan’ image – an Australian slang term that means something between hillbilly and chav. The Bathurst 1000 saloon car race and a range of branded singlets worn by baseball cap-toting beach bums hardly screamed sophistication, and Holden had no place left in a cosmopolitan Australian society. 

Its demise will cause anger and outrage, but it's hardly a surprise.

Craig Cheetham (director of external communications for GM Holden, 2012-2013)

Read more:

General Motors axes Australia's Holden brand

Opinion: Holden's demise is sad but inevitable

The end of car production in Australia: what went wrong

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pip bip 18 February 2020

Holden death

Holden were doomed after the factory closed in 2017, why? after the loss of ZB Commodore and BK Astra hatch, all that was left was Trax (prod start 2013) Colorado (prod start 2012) Trailblazer (prod start 2013) Equinox and Acadia, the last two from north America are sales flops! our showroom is a ghost town these days

honestly Holden be killed off has happened quicker than i expected. still hurts though

we have audi and Skoda as well, but they're not enough to sustain the business going forward. sales volumes for VAG group products isn't as bis as in the UK. need a volume seller to fill showroom, but the only good ones are already taken, so Centrelink here i come sadly

pip bip 18 February 2020

Holden death

Holden were doomed after the factory closed in 2017, why? after the loss of ZB Commodore and BK Astra hatch, all that was left was Trax (prod start 2013) Colorado (prod start 2012) Trailblazer (prod start 2013) Equinox and Acadia, the last two from north America are sales flops! our showroom is a ghost town these days

honestly Holden be killed off has happened quicker than i expected. still hurts though

we have audi and Skoda as well, but they're not enough to sustain the business going forward. sales volumes for VAG group products isn't as bis as in the UK. need a volume seller to fill showroom, but the only good ones are already taken, so Centrelink here i come sadly

pip bip 18 February 2020

Holden death

Holden were doomed after the factory closed in 2017, why? after the loss of ZB Commodore and BK Astra hatch, all that was left was Trax (prod start 2013) Colorado (prod start 2012) Trailblazer (prod start 2013) Equinox and Acadia, the last two from north America are sales flops! our showroom is a ghost town these days

honestly Holden be killed off has happened quicker than i expected. still hurts though

we have audi and Skoda as well, but they're not enough to sustain the business going forward. sales volumes for VAG group products isn't as bis as in the UK. need a volume seller to fill showroom, but the only good ones are already taken, so Centrelink here i come sadly