Holding out for a Holden (or a Subaru)

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(Holden Premier Image Jenny Scott, www.flickr.com)

I never owned a Holden motor car but I did drive one in the late 1970s. It was a 1971 HQ Holden Premier , owned by a woman I’d just met. She displayed her political colours early on, telling me she named the car Elizabeth because Joh (Bjelke-Petersen) was Queensland’s Premier at the time.

As she said, you wouldn’t want to name your car after a man who said indefensible things like (apropos industrial relations): “The 40-hour week has given the opportunity to many to while away their time in hotels.”

I don’t remember much about Elizabeth apart from the fantastic lamb’s wool steering wheel cover. Elizabeth (at the time running on five cylinders), went to an apprentice mechanic as a fixer-upper. She was replaced by a green XB Ford Fairmont station wagon, with a two-way tailgate (like a hearse). The Fairmont had two bucket seats in the back with seatbelts, which made it a handy car for larger families.

Rising fuel prices lured us to economical cars; a Toyota Corona and a Mitsubishi Magna wagon (with an awful turning circle). Later, we opted for a 4 litre, BA Ford Falcon wagon for its storage and towing capacity. We drove the Falcon on several long trips and still got $3,000 for it in 2002, when it had 285,000 kms on the clock.

Prior to the Ford craze, She Who Also Once Owned an EK Holden Ute With A Women’s Lib Symbol On The Tailgate, bought Elizabeth in 1976.

Holden produced the Premier between 1960 and 1982, so an original model would today be 60 years old and qualify as a vintage vehicle. The Southern Downs is a good place to spot vintage cars – in particular ‘muscle’ cars with big engines and twin exhausts. I spotted a few Holden models among the vintage Ford, Vauxhall and Buick cars at the Allora Heritage Day, all lovingly restored.

I didn’t spend my formative years here, so missed out on Australia’s love affair with the Holden. US auto giant General Motors infiltrated Australia in the 1920s, but the legend proper did not start until GM purchased South Australian car body manufacturer Holden in 1931.

La Trobe University PhD candidate Jack Fahey explored the history of GM/Holden in The Conversation. He explained how the American company brought then-uncommon PR and marketing strategies to Australia. GM set about selling Australians a car made for local conditions, successfully creating the symbolic myth of the Holden as the people’s car.

Prime Minister Ben Chifley unveiled the first Holden in 1948, which became affectionately known as the “FX”. Holden had previously been manufacturing car bodies for Buick, Chevrolet, Vauxhall and other GM brands. The FX (priced at £733) was such a success Holden could not keep up with demand, with 18,000 people paying their deposit sight unseen.

Holden’s exit in 2021 is an inevitable outcome for a company whose sales had been in sharp decline. At its peak (2002- 2005), Holden sold more than 170,000 vehicles a year. By 2019, sales dwindled to fewer than 40,000, all made somewhere else.

After import tariffs were scrapped, Australians readily switched allegiance to imported 4WD and SUV vehicles and smaller, economical cars. Brands like Toyota, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Hyundai, Mazda, Honda and Kia prevailed.

Watching the last of the four major car firms disappear from the landscape ought to remind us that other manufacturers have gone down the same road. Brands no longer made in Australia include Pacific Brands Clothing, Goodyear and Bridgestone tyres, Electrolux ovens and refrigerators, Golden Circle’s canned fruit operations (sold to Heinz), other fruit and produce processing plants and a long list of car manufacturers including Mitsubishi, Toyota and Nissan.

Manufacturing in general has slumped from a peak the 1960s when it represented 25% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The figure was 5.77% in 2018.

FOMM reader Gary Shepherd took to his Facebook account this week to lament the dilution of local manufacturing, laying most of the blame on “that idiot team of Hawke and Keating – floating the dollar and removing import tariffs.” (The latter was known as The Button Plan, after former Industry and Commerce Minister John Button)

Cars were not the only victims of the level playing field theory, Gary said. Australia also once made great white goods.

“There are still countless Aussie homes with old ‘Roundy’ Westinghouse and GE Fridges being used under the house as beer fridges, despite being fifty years old,” Gary wrote.

Some of Gary’s friends reminded him of the role played by belligerent unions in the collapse of Australian industries.

Jack Fahey observed in The Conversation that production and sales of the Holden boomed in the 1950s, helped along by full employment for white men, high tariff protection, State-sponsored migration and amicable relations with trade unions. But he also reminded us that Holden’s history included large-scale industrial disputes.

In 1963, 18,500 men went on strike at Holden plants in Adelaide and Melbourne, asking for a wage increase of three pounds a week; about 12% of the average wage at the time.

Although Holden was already in trouble in the mid-1990s, that didn’t stop Prime Minister Paul Keating choosing the factory floor in South Australia to launch the ‘Working Nation’ white paper, in which he ironically argued for Holden’s place at the forefront of Australian nation building.

Economist Dennis Glover devoted a chapter of his book ‘An Economy is not a Society’ to the H.J Heinz factory in Dandenong, Victoria. Glover, who worked there during university holidays, described the idyllic life of an unskilled factory worker in the 1970s, in sharp contrast to the brutal downsizing and final shock closure in 2000, with a loss of 200 jobs.

The World today recalled the moment when Heinz/Watties announced it was centralising bean and soup canning production in New Zealand and closing the Dandenong factory after 45 years. Heinz said, from its Philadelphia headquarters, that it was cheaper to move production to another country than to re-invest in the existing plant.

Glover wrote that the Heinz subsidised cafeteria epitomised the extent to which companies would go to impress unskilled factory hands.

“We must remember that factories like these were built in an era when capitalists knew they had to be nice to working-class people if they wanted them to work for them.”

I had a few factory jobs in my youth and must admit I was hopeless at most of them. Production line work requires people who are good with their hands, quick and co-ordinated.

I feel for the 600 or so people who depended on Holden for a job, but they should have seen it coming. There will be more of this, as automation and global competition reduce opportunities for jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Manufacturing, which still employs one million Australians, obviously can no longer rely on the type of Federal Government financial support Holden was given. In 2012, $270 million was provided, in return for a promise to invest more than $1 billion into car manufacturing in Australia.

Paradoxically, the Australian government chooses to support and subsidise mining, while turning its back on our traditional manufacturers, even though most of our commodities are exported, with the value added in other countries. But I guess the government knows that.


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February 21, 2020 12:34 pm

Seems everyone has a Holden story. We bought a silver Premier in Toowoomba in 1979, second-hand. It was supposed to be some kind of Holden anniversary edition. The car salesman told me it had had one owner, the wife of the Holden dealership owner. I didn’t really believe that, but it was a great car, one of my favourites. It had an excellent 8-track cartridge player installed, but it was a pain to get hold of new cartridges so I eventually replaced it. Years later the salesman’s wife became a close teaching colleague of mine, and I got to know… Read more »