End of the Lion

The demise of Holden in Australia is a tragic case of mismanagement and neglect that Australian motorists and the public in general have every right to feel angry about, writes RACQ Motoring Editor GED BULMER.

The news that Holden will cease to exist as a brand in its country of birth from the end of 2020 sent shock waves across Australia.

From the steamy tip of Cape York to the windswept southern extremities of Tasmania, to the sparkling coastline of Western Australia and our shimmering, arid interior, people across this vast island continent reacted with a mixture of shock, disappointment, sadness, and anger. 

To an outsider looking in, it must have appeared a strange phenomenon. 

Picture of old Holden

Car companies have come and gone from the Australian market before and few people batted an eyelid.

Holden’s market share and, by extension its industry significance, has been on the slide for years and the company famously stopped manufacturing cars here in 2017, becoming a full-line importer, just like everybody else. 

Unless you live or have lived here it’s probably hard to understand how this brand that represents just a few per cent of the new car market today holds such an exalted place in our national consciousness. 

But how would a proud German feel if BMW or Mercedes-Benz suddenly shut up shop in that country? Or how would a passionate French person feel if Peugeot, Citroen or Renault did the same? 

For country’s that make cars – and there aren’t that many of them worldwide – the ability to manufacture one of the most complex consumer products on the planet brings with it a sense of national pride and achievement that you simply don’t get from knocking out fridges or tellies.

Cars somehow manage to transcend their designated role as machines for the transport of goods and people, to become something far more important. 
Pic of Holden doing burnout

Holden hasn’t manufactured cars here for several years but now the evidence of decades of car making are everywhere to be seen, on our roads, our TV shows, our movies, in our literature and often, under gum trees in our back yards where they rust in peace. The generations of Commodores, Kingswoods, Monaros, Toranas and the models that came before and after them have been woven so fundamentally into Australian society that it makes it difficult to imagine life without the Holden brand. 

And it makes GM’s announcement that the brand will be no more all the harder to stomach. 

Exactly how Holden managed to achieve this exalted status above other brands, including brands like Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan, who also once made cars here, is difficult to pin down. 

Despite its longevity in this market and that early connection to the Adelaide saddlery from which the name is derived, Holden was never really any more Australian than Ford.

Both brands served their masters in Detroit and both drew on technology and other resources from these US head offices to develop their Australian cars. 

But there just seemed to always be something uniquely Australian about the Lion brand that resonated with people, engendering a level of parochialism and pride that other brands simply could not match. 

 

Perhaps it’s because the first truly Australian car, the 48-215 was a Holden.

Perhaps it’s because of the success of Holden racing drivers like Peter Brock, Larry Perkins, Mark Skaife and Craig Lowndes, whose deeds have been etched into the record books and our minds-eye via those epic Holden versus Ford battles at The Mountain.

Or perhaps Holden just had the best-oiled marketing machine in the business, one which came up with the stripes on the Sandman panel van, and jingles like “Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars,” (even though it was actually a rewritten version of a Chevy ad in the US). 

But mostly I think it's because so many Australians grew up with Holdens, connecting with them either via direct ownership, or vicariously through a parent, friend or grandparent, creating an automotive connection that stretched right across the country. 

As kids we rode in Holdens on family holidays, reluctantly washed them on command in our parents’ driveways, sat glued to the box as they thundered around Bathurst in those epic red versus blue battles that defined touring car racing in this country, and inherited them as our first cars before taking our first faltering steps on the open road in them. 

Holden Commodore on test drive

The brand meant a lot to us, both literally and metaphorically.

Governments, both state and federal had invested billions over the years in maintaining a GM presence in Australia before the end of manufacturing in 2017.

That was our tax dollars being spent and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had every right to call out the fact that, after decades of such government support, not to mention the support of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians who loyally purchased Holden cars, GM chose to announce its exit without bothering to first consult with our elected officials. 

That was shabby, as was the way the brand was allowed to wither on the vine by its Detroit-based parent after the end of manufacturing. 

I know many people at Holden and have no doubt that Holden’s interim Chairman and Managing Director Kristian Aquilina speaks from the heart when he says people within the local operation have “put their hearts and souls it the organisation under very challenging circumstances”. 

But decisions about Holden are not made in Melbourne, or Adelaide, or even Canberra, they’re made in a glittering high-rise building known as the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit, where GM executives, including former Holden boss Mark Reuss, decided Australia, New Zealand and other right-hand drive markets were superfluous to their needs. 

Holden Commordore

We’ll move on, of course, and future generations of Australian motorists will grow up not knowing of Holden or its significance.

Some might occasionally wonder about the meaning of the lion on the bonnet of the old petrol-engined bangers they’ll occasionally pass in their silently gliding EVs. 

But unless they bother to Google it, or ask their grandparents, they’ll probably never know, because Holden’s rich automotive legacy is now destined to be a footnote in history.

Like many people I’m gutted by the decision but feel even more acutely for the thousands who will be directly impacted by the closure, through the loss of jobs and businesses. 

Surely we deserved better, GM.   

A TIMELINE OF HOLDEN'S RISE AND FALL

A DECADE IN MOTORING