HOLDENS BEFORE THE HOLDEN
Most Holden club members and Holden enthusiasts are aware of the legacy of great,
and sometimes not so great Holdens which have led to the current series of economy,
luxury and muscle cars. We also read of the exported variations of home-grown models;
the recent Monaro being a good example.
It was only in November 1948 that Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley unveiled
the first "Holden" to an enraptured public.
Holden body plate
In fact, the car had been built on the
back of vast experience gained in tailoring cars for a small, niche market -
one demanding tough vehicles for a large country with a sparse population.
How could what would now be called in marketing parlance a "global player",
i.e. General Motors justify the costs and likely low returns of developing
individual cars for such a specific market which would generate only hundreds,
or thousands of sales as against millions in the U.S.A., U.K. or worldwide?
Ever since James Alexander Holden emigrated from Britain to Adelaide in 1854
to set up a saddlery business the company succeeded in focussing on the
individual requirements of customers. According to Norm Darwin's definitive
book on "The History of the Holden Since 1917"
Ben Chifley and the first Holden
Holden and Frost (as it had become)
was approached during 1917, at the height of the First World War to build bodies
locally for imported Dodge and Buick chassis in order to overcome the import
embargo then imposed. The company, in order to fulfil the order promised to be
5000 over the next five years, bought out coachbuilders F. T. Hack Ltd., also
in Adelaide and thus began car production.
Holden & Frost,Adelaide
It was not long before "Holden's Motor Body Builders Ltd." (by now an offshoot
of the original saddlery company) produced locally styled coachwork for a large
range of American, British and even European cars - Lancia, Fiat, Morris, Austin,
Hillman and Ford being just a few makes nowadays considered unlikely - although
at this stage Holden's was yet to become part of the mighty General Motors.
However GM saw the potential of this company by 1923, appointing Holden's as
their principal body supplier for all the cars in their Australian range, of
which there were many.
Holden 'production line' Adelaide
Holden's (for the grammatically punctilious the apostrophe, as in the possessive
always appeared in the business title, and on advertising literature) cleverly
designed its coachwork almost as a "one size fits all" approach to reduce costs;
thus a body for a Dodge might well have been easily adapted to fit an Overland
although the cars were quite unrelated. Even after 1931 when General Motors
acquired Holden's the company still produced bodies for non-GM vehicles until
after World War Two,
although it is better known for its invention of styles
on various General Motors' chassis, such as the "coupe utility" of 1934 and the
"sloper" coupe a year later which not only had now enclosed what used to be the
rear, external dickie seat, but this covered back seat also folded to extend the
luggage area for businessmen's wares.
1940 Chevrolet Sloper
Holden's thrived on producing domestic and commercial vehicles until the Second
World War when, as with most car plants worldwide it turned production to military
equipment, army vehicles and munitions, as always satisfying local needs.
the end of hostilities car production resumed,
Chevrolet Blitz with Holden body
but by now plans were afoot to
develop the true "Holden" which materialised in November 1948. Meanwhile,
alongside Holden production the "home brew" versions of imported cars continued,
although the non-GM models were dropped altogether.
By the 1960s locally built
cars more greatly resembled their American or English counterparts,
last incarnation of a local body on an imported car was the 1967 Holden Torana
which sold in Britain as the Vauxhall Viva, albeit the Holden version had not
adopted the Vauxhall's new rectangular headlamps.
The 1967 HB Torana
By now the Japanese invasion of cheap, reliable cars had gripped Australia and
many makes were dropped in their favour. The 1970s onwards saw Holden's
assembling some Toyotas and Isuzus as a consequence of alliances with General
Motors, and Holden-badged cars were becoming based on European or Japanese GM
models in line with global production plants.
The legacy that Holden's Body Builders has left the Australian economy,
not to mention car enthusiasts is enormous. It is also extraordinary to
consider that, had the Australian government not imposed import tariffs
and restrictions on fully built-up imported cars, Holden's would have had
little incentive to develop local models on imported chassis.
Thanks must go to the late Ian Saxton for supplying some of the information.
I also wish to thank Norm Darwin without whose book "The History of Holden Since 1917"
we Holden enthusiasts would all be the poorer.
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