The cessation of the Holden brand at the end of 2020 closes an epic chapter of the Australian automotive story.
With a tale that pre-dates the car, Holden has been intrinsically linked to the national psyche; according to the 1970s advertising, the brand is right up there with football, meat pies and kangaroos.
Generations of Australians have had their life-long car purchasing decisions bestowed upon them at birth, with the Holden brand forever in combat with Ford, a rivalry no more apparent than on any race track any given weekend.
With 33 victories in Australia’s Great Race, the Bathurst 1000, Holden’s motorsport pedigree is peerless, with the marque’s driving roster over time becoming household names.
Win on Sunday, sell on Monday rang true for Holden: the Commodore was the highest selling car in Australia from 1996 for 15 straight years, although the various Commodore models had nothing on the HQ Kingswood, which sold a remarkable 485,650 units between 1971 and ’74, a record for the company.
The Holden story however began a world away from the Kingswood, with J.A. Holden & Co. commencing trade as an Adelaide saddlery in 1856.
Morphing over the years through different partnerships, Holden’s first contact with the automotive world came in 1908, offering minor repairs for car upholsteries, with the business quickly growing into a full-scale producer of motorcycle and car shells.
Adding to the bare chassis for various marques, Holden’s Motor Body Builders completed Model T Fords prior to taking on the exclusive task of supplying bodies to General Motors in Australia.
By 1926, GM had established a network of plants around the country, with the American brand merging with Holden once the Great Depression hit in 1931.
With a focus on contributing to the War effort, car production took a back seat through the 1940s, that was until the 1948 launch of the 48-215, with the designation simply marketed as the “Holden”.
The brand boomed into the 1950s, first with the introduction of the Ute to the marketplace, and later with the FJ and FE, which was offered in a station wagon configuration.
Taking inspiration from Chevrolets, the FB brought in classic American styling when it hit the showrooms in 1960, with the EK model taking on and outlasting the newly introduced Ford Falcon opposition, with the car better suited to the harsh Australian conditions.
The EJ was followed by the EH, with the brand forging its own identity with each successive facelift, while the HR set new safety standards with the inclusion of front seat belts.
Developing smaller Vauxhalls for local conditions at first saw the HA model, then later in 1967 the Torana, while the larger Monaro Coupe was introduced a year later.
A legend was born prior to the commencement of the 1970s, with the creation of the Holden’s own inhouse V8 powerplant, with the configuration defining the brand for decades.
Such was the dominance of the company in the marketplace, Holden’s tally of 200,000 sales in 1970 has subsequently only ever been topped by Toyota in modern times.
The introduction of the HQ in ’71 made an iconic bookend for the decade with the Commodore, whose 1978 introduction marked 25 consecutive years of market leadership down under for Holden. The 1980s proved to be more challenging for local manufacturers, with changing government regulations taking hold, as Holden commenced production partnerships, firstly with Nissan and later with Toyota.
The brand bounced back in the 1990s, growing to nearly 30 per cent market share off the back of the introduction of the $600 million dollar VT Commodore model, which was later outdone by the “billion-dollar baby”, the VE Commodore in 2006.
Since 1954, Holden proved to be an export success story for the nation, with various models finding favour in markets worldwide, rebadged under brands such as Chevrolet, Pontiac, Vauxhall, Buick, Daewoo.
Conversely, cars from Nissan, Toyota, Opel, Chevrolet, Daewoo, Isuzu and Suzuki were all fitted with the famed lion and stone emblem for local consumption.
The brand also a featured a long line of improved performance versions, initially through the Peter Brock owned HDT Special Vehicles organisation from 1980, with the Tom Walkinshaw founded Holden Special Vehicles outfit taking over factory-backed duties in 1987, along the way adding in luxury adaptations to the range.
Following economic difficulties stemming from the Global Financial Crisis and protracted negotiations with the federal government, the decision came from Detroit to cease Australian production at the end of 2017.
Since that shutdown, Holden has battled with a showroom of cars sourced from Germany, Canada, Thailand and South Korea, which has ultimately led to the end for the brand, with General Motor walking away from right hand drive markets worldwide, with the last three countries being Thailand, New Zealand and Australia.
While the Holden badge may be disappearing from new car showrooms, Motorclassica will forever have a home for this most iconic Australian marque.
Photo credit: GM Holden Australia Press Room