Australian cars: all in the past. Manufacture of cars Down Under has come to an end with the closure of Holden. Words Craig Cheetham. Images GM Media Archives.
The demise of the Australian motor industry
On 20 October the last ever car to be fully assembled in Australia rolled off the GM Holden production line in Elizabeth, a suburb of Adelaide where cars had been made since 1963. It was a red V8-engined Commodore SS-V Redline sedan, a car that epitomised the brawn and muscle for which Aussie V8s were once proudly famous.
It was the final nail in the coffin for car manufacture in Australia, a coffin that had its lid hoisted into place more than four years ago. On 23 May 2013, Holden’s arch-rival Ford announced it was pulling the plug on building cars in Australia. That was also the day when the Holden VF Commodore – which would become Australia’s last homegrown car – was launched to the media.
As communications director at Holden during 2012-2013, I remember it like it was yesterday. The Aussie media had assembled in Canberra to put the new Commodore through its paces. It was a day of pride for Holden, the culmination of a seven-year programme during which the company designed, engineered and created the most sophisticated and technologically advanced Australian car ever.
To understand what this meant to Australia, you needed to be there. Holden is a national institution and the launch of an all-new Australian-designed, Australian-built car was headline material.
But it didn’t take long for the day to take a dramatic turn. As the media left the launch hotel and headed off into the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, my phone rang. It was my oppo from Ford with bad news: the Blue Oval was announcing the imminent closure of its factories in Geelong and Broadmeadows, the company’s two bases in Victoria.
At 10 o’clock that morning, a purple Holden VF Commodore Calais, driven by the company’s then-managing-director Mike Devereux, pulled up in a car park and at least 30 of the nation’s most prominent automotive and business journalists gathered around and listened as the Ford press conference was broadcast on the radio. It was the first sounding of the death knell for the country’s carmakers.
Car manufacturing had been a political football for several months. 2013 was a General Election year and, while Labour Prime Minister Julia Gillard had backed Government investment of AU$275 million into the industry, her main rival, the Liberal party’s Tony Abbott, was less keen. The press were harsh, too, suggesting that Government investment into global companies to retain Australian manufacture was unnecessary.
Ford was the first to turn the screws but, by the end of 2013, Holden had also said its future in Australian manufacturing was unviable. It was quickly followed by Toyota, which had a plant in Altona, Victoria, where it produced a domestic version of the Camry. But in reality, the damage was done much sooner than 2013. An insistence on sticking with large cars in an evolving market, the removal of import tariffs and an unfavourable exchange rate made Australian car manufacturing impossible to sustain without Government co-investment. The decision to end car manufacturing in Australia was, ultimately, the country’s own.
A ute and other beauts
‘Ute’ is short for Utility, a pick-up vehicle based on a car, and is an Australian way of life. Ford Australia designer Lew Bandt commercialised it in the early 1930s.
FORD XY FALCON GTHO PHASE III
Arguably the best-ever Aussie muscle car, the 1971 Phase III had a hi-po 351ci Cleveland V8 and four-speed manual ’box. They sell for up to AUS$1 million today.
Built for four years from 1970 as coupé or convertible, the Ford V8-powered Nagari was devised by brothers Campbell and Graham Bolwell. It’s an Aussie legend.
Just 10ft long and 345kg in weight, the glassfibre-bodied Dart was made by Bill Buckle during 1959-61 and propelled by the German marque’s 300 or 400cc two-stroke.
A model name first used in 1968 to take the performance fight to Ford, the hot Monaro was revived for the 21st Century – and came to the UK as the supercharged VXR 500.