General Motors Holden Heritage

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General-Motors Holden

General Motors Holden

 1931 - present
Australia's ruling government, under its wartime leader Ben Chifley, recognised the need for rapid industrial growth from the moment World War 2 ended. Before the war, much of the country's wealth had come from the land, but post-war prospects suggested the country's real future lay as much in industry as in agriculture. What was lacking was the expertise to mould the transformation.

With the European war wrapped up, Australia approached the possibly interested British firms with a deal: set up down under, with money borrowed from the Australian government, to build an all-Australian car. To talk first to Britain was as logical as it was polite. However, the British car makers were less than enthusiastic about the offer; they had enough on their plates at home without becoming involved in an extensive overseas venture.

The government next turned to General Motors. The link was already quite strong. GM had secured the controlling interest in the coach building enterprise of Holden, which had been making bodies locally for Chevrolets, Vauxhalls and other models. Thus, piled high with favourable Australian government finance, General Motors-Holden, as the company was known, was ready to plant very deep roots the moment the Japanese put ink to the surrender document.

GMH's position was infallible. So many things were on GM's side, they could hardly have gone wrong: they knew from the start of peace what they were going to do, where they were going to do it and who was going to buy the product. In the immediate post-war years, Australia had shortages of most things, including petrol, but especially motor cars. And there was, literally, a civilianised army on the loose with pockets full of money.

A Car For The Masses

Rumours were rife; GMH's new car was going to be a car for the masses, a people's car that would sell in huge numbers, sell cheaply and motorise the whole country; it would be as big as a Buick and half the price; it would have a four-cylinder engine; it would be this, it would be that. Think of a figure and in those days it was already a rumour. However the shape, size and engine had been settled years before in Detroit.

In 1948, all was revealed for the first time. The long-awaited all-Australian car was called the Holden and Australians were told that what they wanted was four doors, six cylinders and six seats. Few argued: what they really wanted were cars, cars and more cars. GMH were the prophets of that desire. As a car, it could hardly have been more conventional: unitary construction (treated with great suspicion by those whose names were not high on the waiting lists); six-cylinder in-line engine with pushrod overhead valves and a single carburetor; three-speed gearbox with synchromesh on second and top; column gearchange; live back axle with semi-elliptic springs; independent front suspension using coils and wishbones; and hydraulically-operated drum brakes.

Bench seats front and back could accommodate three adults each and there was a good luggage compartment. There was some basis in reality for the six-cylinder six-seat concept. American cars had been an every-man's ideal before the war. They enjoyed a certain reputation for durability, and for sprawling space. When moving about over a very large and often extremely hot country, that sprawling space somehow seemed important.

1961 EK Holden Station Sedan
1961 EK Holden Station Sedan.

1961 EK Holden Special Sedan
1961 EK Holden Special Sedan.

1966 Holden Premier pictured with HB Torana
1966 Holden Premier pictured with HB Torana.

GM Holden publicity shot circa 1973, showing the original 48/215 in foreground, with HQ at right
GM Holden publicity shot circa 1973, showing the original 48/215 in foreground, with HQ at right.

1969 Holden Brougham, fitted with a 308ci V8
1969 Holden Brougham, fitted with a 308ci V8. It has achieved cult status with Holden collectors.

1971 Holden Torana SL Sedan
1971 Holden Torana SL Sedan.

From the humble Viva, the Torana grew into an all-conquering V8 muscle car. Pictured above is the SL/R
From the humble Viva, the Torana grew into an all-conquering V8 muscle car. Pictured above is the SL/R.
Furthermore, it gave the customers the feeling that they were getting a lot of car for their money. Although priced higher than most of the popular British cars of the time, the Holden seemed like good value. And it was good value for its makers, too. A simple, cheap car to produce, the Holden was offered in one model only; although a handful of station wagons were made. The demand for the sedan was so great that there was no need to diversify.

The Holden became the standard middle-class car. Below it were small Vauxhalls (locally assembled by GMH), Austins, Morrises, Standards and a few bold European imports, in- cluding Peugeot's 203 which won the first All-Round-Australia rally for Ken Tubman, who was victorious in the World Cup Rally (for Citroen) in 1974. Above the Holden were the traditional bigger British and American models like Jaguars, Rovers, Dodges, Chryslers, Fords, Studebakers and Buicks.

Conquering The Mark 1 Zephyr and Ford Pilot

Incredibly, all these makers were in with a chance in the late 'forties and early 'fifties. Yet none were fast enough on their feet to recognise the potential and do something about it. So, General Motors-Holden quickly paid back their government loan and, with the residue of the enormous profits they were making, expanded both their facilities in other parts of Australia (assembly plants cut down the cost of shipping complete cars over distances of up to 3000 miles) and bought a large plot of land on the outskirts of Melbourne to create their own proving ground-the first in the southern hemisphere.

If GMH's success (by the early 'fifties they had close to a 50 per cent share of the entire market) sounds like opportunism sponsored by expediency, then only a part of the story is being told. By the standards of the day, the product was good. It was strong, it was dust-proof and it had fair performance. The Mark One Zephyr came and went without making an impact except on the wallets of owners who found that the Macpherson strut front end was no match for the roads, and before it the Ford Pilot had very little to offer.

Helping Pontiac to Survive

By the time it finally dawned on Ford and Chrysler that all they were getting was the crumbs around the edge of a very large cake, the six-cylinder, six-seat concept was so solidly entrenched that any other path was out of the question. It was even said that GMH's profits were holding up the then-ailing Pontiac division of the parent company, to whom the profits were shipped. The first Holden, and the face-lifted versions that followed it, left a lot of room for improvement.

The engine, though, was nothing if not reliable and it had such good low-speed pulling power that the driver rarely had to drop back to the unsynchromeshed bottom gear. Top speed was around 85 mph and it would cruise at 70 comfortably enough. Eventually, Ford thought they could improve upon the Holden. They decided massively to expand their limited facilities to produce, with an almost 100 per cent locally-found content, the American compact Ford Falcon.

Chrysler opted for a less expansive and expensive operation for the production - with a higher imported content - of the slightly up-market Valiant. This was the second half of the 1950s and GMH had by then changed their model's appearance, but had remained faithful to the concept and most of the mechanical components. The threat of competition was to spark off a rash of engineering improvements in HoIdens, including a new engine in two sizes, with a seven-bearing crankshaft, optional disc brakes and a three-speed automatic transmission, but the basic six-cylinder, six-seat concept remained.

That was to change, too. Ford's initial hope that salesmanship would overcome every other consideration was soon shattered and they were forced into a rapid revision of the Falcon to make it more reliable and durable. From that point, they started to make progress against Holden, while Chrysler continued to remain reasonably exclusive, appealing to the upper end of a six/six market. Ford were also bolstering their image with a competition programme involving the locally assembled Cortina, plus a few Falcons running in rallies.

Holden's market percentage was being eroded and that called for some strong action, including the production of the S4 homologation special for the annual 500 mile production-car race. It was the chill winds of real opposition that swung the course of Australian motoring partially away from six cylinders to V8s. And with that initiative, GM backed it up with the two-door, four-seater called the Monaro - a range which was also to include a particularly quick version, again designed for competition purposes.

Bound by GM's Non-Racing Policy

Bound by GM's international non-racing policy, Holden's team was a back-door affair though. While Ford and GM battled it out on the track for outright honours, Chrysler opted for class wins and did well enough at that. Chrysler's up-market image was also a pin-prick for both Ford and GM, and both went further up-market with executive saloons. So did Chrysler, who already had something of a start in that area, but were unable to remain really competitive.

And all the time there was the options race. Choices of two sixes, two and sometimes three V8s, disc brakes, automatic, or three or four-speed manual transmissions, limited-slip differentials, power steering, air-conditioning and so on. Matched blow-for-blow by the opposition, Holden could not retain such a big share of the market and they eventually-slipped back to a position which, in 1974, was about 34 per cent, with Ford at 25 per cent.

With the move towards larger and more luxurious Holdens, GMH were finally able to abandon the part assembly/part production full-sized American cars bearing the Chevrolet and Pontiac badges. And the Australian version of the Vauxhall Viva fell under the influence of local stylists, who altered some of the basic lines, gave it lots of options and renamed the resultant product the Holden Torana. It was not, however, what the market really needed to compete against the flood of imports from Japan and Ford Cortinas.

Thus, as the normal Holdens, Falcons and Valiants got dimensionally bigger, the Torana started to grow, with heavy emphasis on competition activities; by 1976, it was somewhat larger than most Japanese small cars. General Motors-Holden has been a golden route for senior executives in GM. The path has traditionally taken them from South Africa to Australia to Vauxhall and thence to the head office of the Overseas Division in New York. There are enough pitfalls in that to give any executive a lot of experience.

When the VN Commodore was launched in 1988 exactly four decades after the first Holden - it cost $20,014 including sales tax. That was nearly 14 times as expensive as a 1948 Holden, but by 1988 the average male wage had risen to $491. Statistically speaking, that meant that a worker needed to complete 41 weeks on the job to buy a new VN. In 1948 the average male earned $15.60 and would have had to work around 94 weeks to pay the tax-inclusive price of a new Holden. It's not quite that simple, of course.

Car Ownership Becomes More Affordable

These wage figures are gross and the average worker now pays a higher percentage of income tax than in 1948. Then again, the average working week is now shorter and credit is easier to obtain, making car ownership more accessible to a greater number of people. Two-income households are also much more common. Even if the woman of 1948 was holding down a similar job to her husband, she would be getting around 25 per cent less money.

The VP Commodore hit the market with the base sedan priced at $23,992 - an unimaginable figure by 1948 standards but highly competitive in 1991. Comparatively speaking, the Hoiden was never cheaper than in the early 19708, when an average wage-earner could buy a new Hoiden with just 25 weekly pay packets.

Through all the fluctuations, the cars themselves became more sophisticated. If you compare the Holdens of the 1940s, '50s, '60s or '70s with today's models, an incredible amount of equipment is now standard that was then not even optional. As well as a plethora of luxury items, the modern Commodore has countless mechanical advantages and a higher standard of performance, handling and comfort. It was faster, quieter, more ergonomically efficient, smoother, roomier, better equipped, more robust, easier to drive and harder to steal.

Also see: Holden History (AUS Site) | Holden Heritage (AUS Site) | Holden Car Reviews
Popular Holden Cars circa 1970
How popular was the Holden? This photo, circa 1970, has a Humber, Ford and a couple of Valiants. The rest are Holden.
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