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No longer Holden on...

Published 17 February 2020

Back in 2012, I worked for General Motors at the time it was selling Vauxhall and Chevrolet cars in the UK. My role was as head of PR for Chevrolet UK, a job that was a whole lot more interesting than you’d expect for a brand that was effectively selling warmed-over obsolete Daewoos. 

Then I got a phone call out of the blue. Would I like to do a maternity cover placement in Australia as Director of External Communications for GM Holden? My role, I was told, would be to launch the new VF Commodore, the most technologically advanced car ever made in Australia, as well as help introduce six new imported cars and a facelifted domestically made Cruze, which was identical to the Chevrolet model other than the fact it was made in Adelaide - a move put in place by Holden’s British former boss, Alan Batey, to keep the plant on life support for a few more years. 

But they were shaky times. Instead of focusing on launching new cars, which was my previous forte, I was thrown in at the deep end into a sea of government lobbying and political posturing. Australia was in the middle of a General Election campaign and the domestic car industry had become a political football.

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In amongst that, GM had asked the Australian government for $250 million AUD of support (at the time, that was about £180 million) and the country’s Murdoch-dominated press had labelled it as a ‘bailout’, a copycat of the car industry support package offered by the US Government after the 2009 financial crash. It wasn’t, of course. That little episode cost the USA US$38 billion. Holden’s ‘demand’ was for co-investment to help develop the antiquated factory in Elizabeth, South Australia, to bring it up to the standards of a modern car plant. By contrast, it was less than a third of the money that BMW had received from the US government to build a factory in South Carolina, but Australia is a small country trapped in a large land mass, and to its citizens and its media, the concept of global companies using government cash to bring manufacturing to their shores was difficult for them to comprehend. 

Here in the UK, without such co-investment, we wouldn’t have Nissan or Toyota making cars. Meanwhile, Australia’s ‘big three’, Holden, Ford and Toyota, were battling against huge manufacturing costs led by a strong currency. Australia’s mineral reserves were making the nation itself very wealthy, but also a very difficult place for foreign companies to do business. 

I recall very clearly the moment that Australia’s car industry suffered its first fatal blow. It was May 4th, 2013, and we were on day one of the Holden VF Commodore launch in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Earlier that morning, my oppo at Ford had called me to say they had a ‘major announcement’ at 11.00am. We hastily revised our programme so that all of the top tier Australian motoring media were assembled at the coffee stop in time for the press conference. 

Holden’s charismatic Canadian MD, Mike Devereux, pulled into the car park at the wheel of his Cherry Red VF Calais just as the press conference kicked off, and the media assembled around his car to listen to Ford’s news. The company announced it was to close its factory operations at Geelong and Broadmeadows, and the VF Commodore’s core rival, the Ford Falcon, would die with it. It was a seminal moment in the story of Australian car manufacturing, the first nail in the coffin.

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What followed was an announcement from Toyota that it, too, would cease manufacturing at its Altona plant in Melbourne, leaving Holden as the sole Australian manufacturer, building the Cruze and Commodore at Elizabeth on the outskirts of Adelaide, and V6 engines for global and domestic use at Fisherman’s Bend in Victoria. 

But it was unsustainable. Julia Gillard - the then Prime Minister - was ousted from parliament and with it and her Labour government went Holden’s last hope. By 2016, the production line at Elizabeth had ground to a halt. 

Holden, though, was still there as an importer, trading off a name that had been part of Australian culture for 70 years, after GM took over the Melbourne-based saddle maker and steered it towards car manufacturing. 

Holden was Australia’s national car company. It was bigger in terms of its social positioning than BMC or British Leyland ever was in the UK, and for years its cars were the best-selling models in a country that was fiercely patriotic. But as patriotism diluted and import tariffs were dropped, Japanese cars in particular became popular. 

When I left Australia, the top two sellers were the Mazda 3 and the Toyota Corolla. The new VF, which was a genuinely brilliant car, could only muster fourth place in the sales charts, and 80,000 cars a year was not enough to keep a factory in business, or indeed a brand. In recent years, Holden has been tarnished by its lack of Australian identity. In 2019, it only had one model in the top 10, and that was a Thai-built SUV. There was, sadly, no coming back and a once-great brand has been left to graze. 

But had the Australian media and government not pushed back so hard against co-investment back in 2013, it could all have been very, very different.

 

 

Comments

oldroverboy.    on 18 February 2020

Just blame everyone but GM, when GM don't invest themselves, don't do good cars, use antiquated (relatively) platforms and engines gearboxes and deny problems exist when staring them in the face. I for one am glad to see the back of them in Europe and the UK.
GM motto?
Shareholders dividends rule ok!!!!

Peter McGuire    on 23 February 2020

Big Holdens were popular as taxis in the early '80's in Trinidad. Presumably the US big three were not interested in making RHD versions of their cars, so Holden fiilled that demand nicely. Big Japanese RHD cars were also popular there like the Toyota / Super Saloon / Crown and the Datsun 280c.

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