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Holden's manufacturing history: 1856-2017

At its peak in the 1960s, Holden had around 24,000 employees when models like the EH were dominating the sales charts.

Tracing its history back to 1856, Holden is the second-oldest mobility company in the world, trailing France's Peugeot, which began operations in 1810 when it started out as a coffee mill manufacturer before transitioning to bicycles.

While Karl Benz was tinkering with his first vehicle in Germany during 1886, James Alexander Holden’s saddlery business had been producing leather goods in Adelaide, South Australia, for three decades.

When its founder's grandson, Edward Holden, joined Holden in 1905, the company began to shift focus towards the 'horseless' carriages that had just begun rolling around the streets of Adelaide.

The Red Lion brand even made T-Model bodies for the Ford Motor Company.

This motoring venture started with building motorcycle sidecars and then moved to car bodies in 1917 when import restrictions during World War I prompted a lack of fully built vehicles.

At this time, Holden’s Motor Body Builders was found in the heart of Adelaide, King William Street. Importing rolling chassis from carmakers like Dodge and Chevrolet, Holden placed locally built bodies on top and sent them out for sale around Australia.

The Red Lion brand even made T-Model bodies for the Ford Motor Company up until Henry Ford eventually built his first Aussie factory in Geelong, Victoria.

Soon outgrowing its Adelaide workshop, Holden moved operations to Woodville, which was on the South Australian capital's outskirts at the time. Production increased so quickly that General Motors (GM) could no longer neglect the trade Down Under, leading to Holden becoming its exclusive body builder for Australia.

During the Great Depression in the early 1930s, orders for Holden vehicles took a dive, so GM moved to buy the company, creating General Motors-Holden’s Limited in 1931.

The outlook improved as the 1930s drew to a close, despite the threat of the next war looming large, with Holden managing director Laurence Hartnett and company executives looking towards the future, fostering plans for “Australia’s own car”.

As a result, two new factories came to fruition – one in Port Melbourne, Victoria, in 1936, which featured a new national headquarters in an art-deco building that still exists today, and another in Pagewood, Sydney, in 1939.

However, history took a turn for the worse when war was declared on Germany in 1939, meaning the first Aussie family car was put on the back burner in favour of the need to manufacture armaments.

Army trucks, aircraft engines and field guns were a few of the goods produced for the war over the following six years. Rather than harming the company, war production actually improved Holden’s skills and depth, placing it well to carry on as a manufacturer in the late 1940s when Australia began to move on from World War II.

After being dormant for several years, engineering and design work on Holden’s first car went into full-swing, which – despite its “Australia’s Own Car” tagline – was based on a Chevrolet design completed in Detroit.

Holden became Australia’s number-one carmaker in the 1950s, with this title strengthened by the debut of the iconic FJ.

As such, the classic 48-215 was born in 1948, with the Port Melbourne factory responsible for producing the first example. Famously, Australian prime minister Ben Chifley was present, saying: “She’s a beauty.”

This thought clearly resonated with Australian customers, who paid deposits for 18,000 units despite not seeing the 48-215 yet.

Light, strong and efficient (in its time), the six-cylinder model was priced at $733, which was the equivalent of around two years’ wage for the average Aussie worker during that period.

Holden became Australia’s number-one carmaker in the 1950s, with this title strengthened by the debut of the iconic FJ. Affectionately dubbed 'Humpy', the FJ was a facelift of the original car, which was later named the FX.

  • Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs. Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs.
  • Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs. Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs.
  • Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs. Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs.
  • Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs. Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs.
  • Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs. Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs.

More factories eventuated, including in the post-war boom satellite cities of Elizabeth, north of Adelaide, and Dandenong, south-east of Melbourne, where migrants from war-torn Europe were offered jobs.

The 1960s at Holden were characterised by the FB sedan, which was its most Australian effort yet, despite drawing inspiration from 1950s Chevrolet designs.

In this decade, the manufacturer started exporting to other right-hand-drive markets around the world, with Holden’s workforce totalling 23,914 people in 1964, which became a mark it would never eclipse.

One justification for the employee boom during that year was the emergence of the EH, which is regarded by many Holden aficionados as the brand's trademark model.

 Local dealerships would mask their showroom windows with paper to prepare for the simultaneous reveal of new models.

Powered by a new five-bearing six-cylinder engine – named the “red motor” to distinguish it from the preceding “grey motor” – the EH played a hand in starting Holden’s storied feud with Ford’s newest model, the Falcon, in a battle that propelled large car sales to the very top and fostered an Australian legend.

Every new Holden model released during the 1960s and 1970s commanded the country's attention. Local dealerships would mask their showroom windows with paper to prepare for the simultaneous reveal of new models. Eager crowds, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, would flood footpaths outside in anticipation.

The 1968 debut of the first V8 Monaro two-door coupe, which was based on the Kingswood, was a key example of this excitement, leaving awed witnesses gasping for breath.

However, the 1978 arrival of the smaller, lighter European-based Commodore, which came as a reaction to the 1970s fuel crisis, was not met with the same warm welcome. As a result, the Ford Falcon held the sales advantage for the first time since Holden began manufacturing cars locally.

Things were even worse in the mid-1980s, with Holden effectively going bankrupt, forcing parent company GM to bail it out to for a $700 million sum, which was an astronomical amount at the time.

Over the following six-year period, Holden wrestled to regain its market position, but eventually did so in the late 1980s with the wide-body VN Commodore, which was viewed as a more appropriate Aussie large car. However, new rival Toyota soon took over the best-selling title for the first time in 1991.

Prior to this, Holden was forced into an unexpected union with Toyota due to influence from the Australian government, which pressured the local car manufacturing industry to integrate in order to increase efficiency. The United Australian Automotive Industries agreement led to Camrys and Corollas being sold as Holden Apollos and Novas, while Commodores were re-badged as Toyota Lexcens.

After a few years collaborating, the two companies were quite happy to end the arrangement.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a four-cylinder engine factory made and exported millions of 'GM Family 2' units to operations around the world, making it the most accomplished asset in the Holden business. For years, it was Australia’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods.

The four-cylinder plant was superseded in 2003 by an all-new, $300 million V6 factory in Port Melbourne. This operation was conceived to build engines for third-party customers like Saab and Alfa Romeo, as well as for GM in export markets.

Additionally, the modern, hi-tech 3.6-litre V6 unit was also set for Holden’s new VE Commodore, known as the “billion-dollar baby”, which was the most advanced model ever designed and engineered in Australia when it launched in 2006, thanks to complex features like a multi-link rear suspension.

The VE Commodore’s locally engineered Zeta platform was also employed by the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro, which was made in Canada.

Holden later launched the VF Commodore, unaware that it would become the last locally built model from the carmaker.

When the global financial crisis levelled GM in 2007, Holden nearly went under with it. Then GM Holden managing director Mark Reuss took to Canberra to request guarantees on a line of credit from the Australian government so that production lines could keep rolling.

Having been given this, Holden later launched the VF Commodore, unaware that it would become the last locally built model from the carmaker.

By late 2013, an unrestrained Australian dollar, fiercer competition from imports, a dwindling large car segment, scrambling suppliers hit by Ford’s decision to exit manufacturing and an unsympathetic federal government combined to take down Holden.

The V6 engine plant was first to go in October 2016, with 190 jobs taken. While Holden’s last car factory, in Elizabeth, will finish up this Friday alongside the remaining 945 manufacturing jobs.

Nevertheless, Holden will carry on in Australia as a full-line importer, as well as through its lauded design and engineering centre in Fishermens Bend and extensive proving ground in Lang Lang.

But things will never quite be the same.

Holden will carry on in Australia as a full-line importer, as well as through its lauded design and engineering centre in Fishermens Bend and extensive proving ground in Lang Lang. Holden will carry on in Australia as a full-line importer, as well as through its lauded design and engineering centre in Fishermens Bend and extensive proving ground in Lang Lang.

What are your fondest memories of Holden in Australia? Tell us in the comments below.

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