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Holden is no more

Holden is no more

“God bless the child that’s got his own,” ran the lyrics of the 1941 Billie Holliday song, but their wisdom was lost on 1930s Australian politicians, who allowed General Motors to take over Holden, a long-serving Australian body-building company. From that time onwards, the formerly-Aussie Holden brand was the plaything of US Big Business.

“Football, kangaroos, meat pies and Holden cars,” was clever marketing, but the original so-called Australian icon had strong North American heritage. That doesn’t mean that Holdens didn’t do a good job: some of their models were very, very good. However, there were some shockers and most of them were derived from European GM products.

I learnt to drive in the old man’s Holden FC and, years later, bought my first Holden product: a 1600cc Camira station wagon. My car-journo mates gave it a Car of the Year Award. It came with inbuilt rust and when the pedal assembly fell off the firewall it was time for it to go. I never bought another General Motors vehicle.

When the announcement of Holden’s demise was made on February 17, 2020, it came as no surprise to us at outbacktravelaustralia.com.au. Because GM ignored the shift in the market into 4WD vehicles that began in earnest in the 1980s, the Holden brand was doomed. I remember suggesting to senior GM-Holden executives at the launch of the first Isuzu-made Rodeo that they should make this vehicle and a wagon derivative in Australia for domestic and export markets, but the suggestion was greeted with polite indifference.

Australia was judged too small a market to have its own 4WD business, apparently, despite the fact that several truck makers had manufacturing and assembly operations here. I also pointed out to the GM-Holden people that Sweden, a country with fewer than eight million people, had global Volvo and SAAB-Scania businesses, with healthy export markets, but that was quietly dismissed. Today, Swedish-based Volvo is the third-largest heavy vehicle maker in the world.

From its beginning, Holden built cars that were offshoots of North American and European sedan designs and there was never any attempt at diversity. Ute, van and cab/tray derivatives were sedan-component-based. The few 4WD efforts that emerged from Holden were half-hearted and unsuccessful.

When the bulk of the company’s sales were rebadged, imported sedans, 4WD and SUV vehicles from Europe and South East Asia, with no Holden parts at all, the rationale for Australian manufacturing disappeared. When that poorly executed badge-engineering strategy didn’t work for a company that was Commodore-focussed and seemingly couldn’t adapt, the next step was the demise of the whole enterprise.

At OTA, we feel very sad for local Holden employees and for those in the dealership network. Loyalty has been rewarded in the American Way. Hopefully, the Holden staff will find employment elsewhere and the dealers can expand their multi-franchising arrangements.

Much has been said and written about the effect on V8 Supercar racing: hopefully, it will mean a shift of this category into something more relevant than carbon-bodied, sedan-look-alikes, with naturally-aspirated, big-bore engines, sitting in identical chassis, with identical transmissions. After all, the only Holden bit has been the badging.

What will the end of Holden mean in the new-4WD-purchase world? Almost nothing, because every Holden-badged product has several direct competitors and buyers will simply move to other brands. Existing Holden-badged 4WD and SUV owners will probably see a drop in used-market value, but ongoing servicing and parts business is guaranteed, because there’s money in it.