Holden body plate
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.
Ben Chifley and the first Holden
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"
Holden & Frost,Adelaide
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.
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.
Holden 'production line' Adelaide
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'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,
1940 Chevrolet Sloper
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.

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.
Chevrolet Blitz with Holden body
After the end of hostilities car production resumed,
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,
The 1967 HB Torana
perhaps the 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.
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.

Holden/Isuzu Piazza

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.

Patrick Hemphill


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