CarsGuide Podcast: Tools in the Shed ep. 151
Episode 151 - Australia's new car battlers
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Holden's first Australian boss in 25 years, Mark Bernhard -- who helped save Holden from extinction in the grip of the Global Financial Crisis -- dismisses the 'Number One by 2020' target, as the last ever Commodore is unveiled.
The last ever homegrown Holden Commodore will be unveiled at the company's Port Melbourne headquarters today, two years before local production comes to an end.
Holden is expected to reveal its most powerful Commodore model of all time -- with a V8 engine borrowed from the US Corvette -- as it tries to reverse a sales slide and send it off on a high note.
Teaser images of the car dubbed VF Series II show the visual changes are relatively minor -- a new front bumper and vents in the bonnet -- but the big news is the 6.2-litre V8 that was until now reserved for Holden Special Vehicles and US export models.
Although Commodore sales are at record lows, V8s now account for more than one third of demand as enthusiasts rush to buy one before it's too late.
The new Commodore's bigger V8 -- with more than 300kW, almost triple the power of the original V8 Commodore in 1978 -- has in turn forced its performance car partner Holden Special Vehicles to adopt a 400kW-plus supercharged V8 across almost every model in its line-up.
The next generation Commodore -- to be imported from Germany -- is expected to come with four-cylinder and V6 power only.
When the imported 2018 model arrives, a V8 will not be available for the first time in Commodore's history.
Today's celebration of the new Commodore -- with one of every model on display -- will be at Holden's famous Port Melbourne site, which stopped building cars in 1956 but has made engines throughout the company's history.
However, the V6 plant will fall silent in late 2016 as Holden stockpiles engines ahead of the shutdown of its car assembly line in the Adelaide suburb of Elizabeth in late 2017.
There are no plans to close any earlier than what we've said at the end of 2017
Once production ends, Holden's Port Melbourne workshops will be transformed into an engineering base for global General Motors vehicles.
Holden has confirmed 150 engineers and 150 designers will stay on once the factories close; they will be working on future models for Australia as well as overseas.
While that figure is a shadow of Holden's peak when 1500 engineers, 500 designers and 300 mechanics -- and is significantly less than the 1200 engineers who will stay on at Ford -- Holden says securing those 300 jobs will cement Holden's role in General Motors' future.
In an exclusive first interview with News Corp Australia, the first Australian boss of Holden in 25 years, Mark Bernhard, repeated the company's pledge that Holden's production line will not close early.
"There are no plans to close any earlier than what we've said at the end of 2017," said Mr Bernhard. "Nothing at this point in time gives us any indication we won't make it to the end."
As with fellow manufacturers Toyota and Ford, Holden has established a special division to work with parts suppliers to ensure they can last the distance.
In a wide-ranging interview Mr Bernhard also dismissed the highly ambitious target to beat Japanese giant Toyota by 2020 -- a fanciful goal set by his predecessor Gerry Dorizas who left the company last year after barely six months in the job.
Holden -- which is on track to post its lowest sales in 22 years, the first time it has delivered fewer than 100,000 cars since 1993 -- would need to more than double its volume in the next five years to get close to overtaking Toyota.
"I get up every day to win (but) I'm not going to sit here and say that we're going to be number one by 2020," said Mr Bernhard. "I don't need that target on my back."
Indeed, Holden is likely to be overtaken by Hyundai in the 2015 sales race, after being beaten in the year-to-date tally to the end of August.
Holden was last number one in 2002; Toyota has led every year since.
But the Holden boss says he is not giving up. Instead he says he is focused on transforming the company into solely an importer of vehicles from 2017.
Holden says it plans to introduce 24 new models over the next five years, including a new-generation Astra in the second half of next year, as well as an overhaul of its SUV and ute line-ups.
While Mr Bernhard was viewed by industry insiders as an obvious choice for the top job, he in fact had to lobby for it because General Motors didn't want him to stand down from his prime posting as chief financial officer for General Motors in China, the world's biggest car market.
Mr Bernhard said Holden is "going through a very difficult time and … I want to make sure the people we've got to exit from the business are treated with dignity and respect".
"As an Australian I feel a personal responsibility and I think I can do that better than someone who's flying in who may not have the same emotional attachment to the place," said Mr Bernhard.
"That said, I also don't want my legacy to be ‘I was the guy who closed down Holden', I want my legacy to be ‘I was the guy who led us through (the transition to an importer)."
Although he was not credited with it at the time, Mr Bernhard helped save Holden from extinction when General Motors executives scrapped four of its car brands -- including Hummer, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn -- in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis.
Mr Bernhard was Holden's chief financial officer when Holden's parent company General Motors went into bankruptcy in the US, and worked with then Holden boss Mark Reuss to save the brand.
"I was in the mines digging, going through that process. It was exceptionally tough," said Mr Bernhard.
In late 2008 the world for General Motors was caving in
In 2011, the then boss of Holden Mike Devereux revealed it was a "knife-edge" decision to keep Holden alive in late 2008.
Mr Devereux said the premature closure of Holden was avoided after emergency meetings with then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, then Industry Minister Kim Carr, and then Holden managing director Mark Reuss.
"When you think about what was happening (in General Motors) around the world in late '08, the walls were crashing in. And Holden, as a small part of a huge place, it was on a knife-edge," said Mr Devereux.
"It was the worst time in our history no doubt. You have to remember that in late 2008 the world for General Motors was caving in."
General Motors also nearly sold its European division Opel during the global restructure.
Luckily for Holden that deal was aborted, as it will source more than one-third of its vehicle line-up from Opel after 2017, including the next Commodore.
The remainder of Holden's future cars will come from the US, Thailand and South Korea.
Not the Kingswood! The original Commodore replaced the Kingswood nameplate that had been Holden’s family sedan since 1968. The Commodore was a localised version of the Opel sedan sold in Germany at the time and sold for just $6513 when new. It was built in Elizabeth South Australia, Dandenong in Victoria and Pagewood in NSW. Holden decided to opt for a smaller car than the Kingswood in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis. It introduced a four-cylinder Commodore in 1980, but that was dropped after less than three years when owners found it used as much fuel as the six-cylinder because it had to work so hard.
Racing legend Peter Brock had notched up the Commodore’s first Bathurst victory in 1980, but he went on to score a hat trick of wins from 1982 to 1984. In 1985, new rules meant the race cars had stronger ties to the road cars and so the SS Group A was born. Finished in Mobil blue it was dubbed the “Blue Meanie” for its imposing presence and powerful V8. In 2007 a collector paid $250,000 for one of these 500 limited edition cars. It had travelled just 94km.
With its sleek European design, roomy interior and sure-footed road-holding the VT Commodore helped Holden regain the sales lead over its arch rival the Ford Falcon. It also helped that the Falcon at the time was seen as an ugly design, and buyers flocked to the Commodore in droves. The VT may not have a fond place in the heart of enthusiasts, but the masses loved it. This was the biggest selling Commodore model of all time, with a staggering 303,895 built over almost three years. However, that’s still not as high as the HQ Kingswood (485,650) in the 1970s.
This 2009 limited edition car by Holden Special Vehicles almost didn’t get built, but it will go down in history as having the biggest engine ever fitted to an Australian-made car. At $155,000 it is also the most expensive. The 427 is the capacity of the engine in cubic inches (or 7.0-litres in today’s money). The ‘W’ was a tribute to HSV owner Tom Walkinshaw. The donor car was made in Elizabeth South Australia and then trucked to HSV in Clayton Victoria, where the original 6.2-litre V8 was removed and the 7.0-litre V8 installed by hand. Just 137 were made, and at least 30 of them have never been registered for the road, kept as collector items.
With a supercharged 6.2-litre V8 (430kW/740Nm) the $95,000 VF Series HSV GTS is the fastest and most powerful car ever made in Australia. But it too almost didn’t happen. Engineers at General Motors in Detroit and Holden in Elizabeth were concerned that the high powered engine and all its extra hardware and cooling equipment could not be built on the production line. In the end, Holden and its performance partner HSV overcame the odds to create what was briefly the world’s fastest and most powerful sedan -- until a $250,000 Mercedes came along.
- Holden has built more than 3.13 million Commodores since 1978.
- The Holden Commodore has won Bathurst 22 times in 37 years, more than any other car.
- The Holden Commodore had a 15-year winning streak as Australia’s favourite car, from 1996 to 2011. No other vehicle in Australian automotive history had dominated sales for so many consecutive years.
- Almost 60 per cent of all Holden Commodores sold today are the sports variants, including the SV6 and SS models.
- V8-powered models now account for 36 per cent of all Commodores sold, the highest ratio in the car’s history.