Monday, 23 October 2017

The end of real Holdens

For all those out there in car land in Australia, this week has brought to an end a much beloved company. That is car maker, Holden. Media outlets are blagging on about things like, 80 years of production, the end of aussie car building, etc, etc. What I wanted to do today was take a quick look at why I think Holden has come to an end. Warning, it's not pretty.

I should say a few things before I start. Firstly, I do like old Holdens. Secondly, I believe that at one time Holdens were probably the best cars you could buy in Australia. Thirdly, I've never personally owned a Holden. Fourthly, as a teenager I was a Ford man. Having said all that, let's try and get a feel for what happened here. I'm no expert, but even a cursory glance at changes in motoring over the last 50 years should help us understand.

1. Holden is not really an Australian company.

I know people will want to lynch me for this, but what Holden provided for Australia was the same thing Ford Australia provided until quite recently. Hence the initials GMH. General Motors Holden. Since the days of the 48-215, Holden has been at the behest of the US GM giant and it's executive. I'll talk more about that later on, but this is a pretty salient point.

2. More than half the cars Holden sold over the years were not in fact Australian.

So for my second lynching... what we knew as the FX-FJ was in fact a Canadian GM effort dolled up for the Aussie Market. Now admittedly, most of what we got in late 1950s through to the mid 1970s was Australian designed but after that almost everything came in from oversees in one way or another. The commodore and torana were german, the gemini also from opel with a Jap drivetrain. By the 1980s lots of things from suzuki swifts to toyota camrys got rebadged with Holden lions. The first V8 we got was from the US, as were automatic transmissions and the like. Aussie V8s were made but again, we're back to US and Euro engines even in the large cars. I'm not saying cars didn't get improved on or developed for Australian conditions, but much of it came from elsewhere.

3. Holden spent too much time on the "Big battle".

This is V8 supercars (which btw is the death throws of the large car in Australia). So much attention placed on large saloons with V8s. Large saloons more and more Australians were not buying. Every time I looked at the cover of 'Wheels' magazine or similar, it had a falcon or commodore. Guess what Ford and Holden, you both lost the battle.

4. Holden has made a real hash of small-medium sized cars.

I was born in 1973, the heart of the muscle car era. I don't remember a time in my life when Holden really did well with small to medium sized cars. The older I got, the worse it seemed to be. How is it, for instance, that the Torana was never available as a wagon? Or for that matter a hatch? Every other manufacturer at the time had a medium sized wagon, but not Holden. If you wanted a wagon, you had to buy a Kingswood. Let's not even discuss the Camira. Small cars were equally problematic. The Torana started small but outgrew that market. The Gemini was good, but not an Aussie car strictly. Lately, we ended up with Astras and Barinas. Some good, some not so good. The Astra was a good car, but Holden deleted the model. Opel started bringing them in themselves. Craziness. As a brand Holden never had a consistent reputation for small cars. As Australia was crippled by recessions, fuel crisies and a rubbish dollar, we bought more small to medium cars. The Japanese made the most of this. You can see where this is going.

This prototype never reached production. Why?

5. Holdens were thirsty.

For some reason I've never worked out, GMH never saw fit to try and build fuel efficient cars beyond choking them down. I personally hold the US GM executives responsible for this, but locals could have seen what the Europeans were doing with diesel and fixed it. Why in it's whole model life, has it never been possible to buy a turbo diesel Commodore. Even the X-trac AWD commodore only came with a petrol option. This beggars belief really give the size of Australia and the potential benefits for reps driving long distances on diesel. People tell me Aussies don't like diesel, but we've bought plenty of Jap 4WDs and trucks with diesel engines. Instead, Holden put their head in the sand and pretended petrol was cheap... just like the USA.

6. Much of Holden's large car business plan was modelled on the USA.

This is probably the biggest disaster of the lot. I can sort of understand why it happened, but these guys in many ways are as guilty as the bankers during the GFC. Australia is not, and has never been the US. We don't protect our local products like they do. We don't have cheap as chips fuel. Most people in the Australia don't drive trucks. The list goes on. Australians by and large are more conservative and less monied that their US counterparts. So, for two decades from 1950-70 while we sat close to the US in policy, Holden worked ok. Once our ways began to part, things began to be problematic. It's important to note that the US car industry has almost completely destroyed itself the same way Holden has in Australia. Overseas product was cheaper and better, and it suited the changing market.

7. Holden is the last of many cars made in Australia.

While we're all getting teary eyed about the roaring lion, we should look up and note that Toyota, Mitsubishi and Ford have also departed our shores recently. All for similar reasons. Australia doesn't need a multitude of large cars anymore. VW also were made here for a long time. We have to face up to a changing world with changing needs.


Summing up.

At the same time, cars have never really been cheaper. Aussies are by and large richer than they've ever been. Will there be a future for cars here in Australia? Personally, I think so. If Elon Musk can build new batteries here, electric cars are not fair behind. What we need is the absence of fat-cat auto execs from elsewhere. If cars get made here again, it will take new entrepreneurs who think outside the box and build what the local market needs. So look around, what do we need these days? You might be the answer to the question.

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