News fea­ture

Soon the only trace of Holden at Page­wood will be the work­ers’ old pub, as re­main­ing build­ings at GM-H’s for­mer Syd­ney assem­bly plant are com­pletely torn down. It’s a metaphor for lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing’s Oc­to­ber 20 demise, sig­ni­fy­ing more than just the end

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

Soon the only trace of Holden at Page­wood will be the work­ers’ old pub, as re­main­ing build­ings at GM-H’s for­mer Syd­ney assem­bly plant are com­pletely torn down. It’s a metaphor for lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing’s Oc­to­ber 20 demise, sig­ni­fy­ing more than just the end of the line at El­iz­a­beth and for Aussie-built Com­modores. We mark the pass­ing of Aussie Hold­ens in a left-field way.

On the eve of Holden’s El­iz­a­beth shut­down Aus­tralian Mus­cle Car is with three for­mer Lion men, gath­ered around a ta­ble in the front bar of one-time Holden watering hole, the Page­wood Ho­tel in Syd­ney’s East­ern Sub­urbs. Di­ag­o­nally across the road, at the cor­ner of bustling Bun­nerong and Hef­fron Roads, the clock tower that once stood proudly at the GM-H Page­wood ve­hi­cle assem­bly plant looks for­lorn, bereft of its clock and cov­ered in mo­bile net­work an­ten­nae. It’s soon to be razed along with the build­ings that re­main at the site, to make way for yet an­other mega apart­ment de­vel­op­ment.

Asked for his thoughts on the demise of Aus­tralian man­u­fac­tur­ing and the clo­sure of the last re­main­ing Holden plant at El­iz­a­beth in South Aus­tralia, for­mer Page­wood plant span­ner-man Ross Birnie says, “I think it’s a very, very sad day for the coun­try. We’re go­ing to lose ex­per­tise that we’ll never get back again.”

But Birnie and his for­mer col­leagues, fel­low tool-man Greg ‘Pygmy’ Lynch, and pub­lic af­fairs ex­ec­u­tive Marc McInnes know that more in­ti­mately than most – they’ve been through it be­fore.

McInnes fronted not only the clo­sure of Page­wood, but the shut­down of the Aca­cia Ridge, Queens­land plant (in 1984) and the Dan­de­nong, Vic­to­ria plant (‘91), and Lynch, who wears his Holden ‘gold watch’ with pride, ob­served great change in the busi­ness of mak­ing cars in Aus­tralia dur­ing his Holden ser­vice, which spanned 36 years, 1951-’87.

“It was for me a great place to work,” Lynch says of his time at Page­wood. “It made you feel you were work­ing in the in­dus­try, not just some­where in a busi­ness of­fice,” Birnie adds.

The Holden Page­wood plant closed in Au­gust 1980. “We stayed there for 12 months af­ter­wards un­til they could re­lo­cate the of­fice,” Birnie says. “We’d come in there into a ghost town. For 12 months it was a sad feel­ing… be­ing used to walk­ing through it and see­ing thou­sands of peo­ple there, and cars on the line and ev­ery­thing hap­pen­ing, and there it was; ev­ery­thing stopped.”

“This whole area, all these shops, the lot of them,” Lynch says, ges­tur­ing to­wards what is now a su­per­mar­ket, Chi­nese restau­rant, a take­away and chemist across the road from the pub. Birnie fin­ishes his old work­mate’s sen­tence. “It was all driven by [the Holden plant].” Fifty

years ago there was a Holden plant in ev­ery Aus­tralian cap­i­tal, with Page­wood pri­mar­ily serv­ing the largest mar­ket of New South Wales. There was also Aca­cia Ridge in Queens­land, Dan­de­nong in Vic­to­ria, El­iz­a­beth in SA and Mos­man Park in WA.

Holden’s Syd­ney con­nec­tion runs deeply, and can be traced back to an of­fice es­tab­lished in the Syd­ney CBD in 1912.

“They ran the Holden busi­ness from Syd­ney un­til 1925,” McInnes says. “The first of the plants, es­tab­lished in 1926 was in Syd­ney, on Car­ring­ton Road in Mar­rickville – it’s still there. Unless they de­mol­ished it in the last year…” Birnie chuck­les.

Opened in 1939, the Page­wood plant didn’t just pro­duce cars, turn­ing out mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles and air­craft com­po­nents dur­ing the war.

“In the post-war era it pro­vided a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties for mi­grant fam­i­lies… from Europe, South Amer­ica, Viet­nam. They were sur­pris­ingly well paid jobs,” McInnes says.

“I was born and raised five min­utes away over at Kings­ford, and I can re­mem­ber grow­ing up, [the Holden plant] was iconic. The whole district, ev­ery­body knew of Page­wood, what it did. It was a thing of pride.” Birnie says.

“It was a very showy sort of fac­tory, with the [clock] tower; the grounds were al­ways spot-on.” Lynch says. “Even the over­alls,” Birnie adds, pro­duc­ing a tat­tered over­alls pocket with an em­broi­dered Holden crest.

From the early 1950s Page­wood as­sem­bled com­plete Holden cars, from as­sem­bling and weld­ing body pan­els (pro­duced in South Aus­tralia) to paint and trim. “By the time you got to EH we were pro­duc­ing more cars than any other plant,” McInnes says.

In 1964, to­tal an­nual pro­duc­tion of the tremen­dously pop­u­lar EH was 156,000, split

be­tween Dan­de­nong, Woodville (soon to su­per­seded by El­iz­a­beth in South Aus­tralia) and Syd­ney. “That year Page­wood pumped out in ex­cess of 50,000 ve­hi­cles.”

“Mel­bourne sales and ser­vice al­ways used to get quite up­set when we’d bring up that we do the vol­ume and you [just] keep the fleet go­ing,” Lynch adds.

Across the years it turned out ev­ery­thing from FJ and FE to VB. “We ran HZ and VB Com­modore down the same line,” Birnie says.

Page­wood em­ployed a work­force ap­proach­ing 2500 at the height of its pro­duc­tion might – a com­bi­na­tion of per­ma­nent and tran­sient em­ploy­ees – and around 1200 to­wards the clo­sure in 1980. Page­wood’s

legacy lives on, from those in­volved in the Syd­ney mo­tor trade over the decades – “Most of the big Syd­ney deal­ers worked for Gen­eral Mo­tors Holden at one stage. I’m talk­ing Holden deal­ers and Toy­ota deal­ers…” Birnie says – to the cars, in­clud­ing par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant ones such as the 1968 Hardie-Ferodo 500-win­ning Bruce McPhee/Barry Mulholland HK Monaro GTS 327.

That’s right, the Holden mus­cle car story started just a stone’s throw from Mas­cot air­port, when the com­pany’s first Bathurst win­ner rolled down the Page­wood line. But it wasn’t just the car that kicked off the Lion’s bent-eight re­tal­i­a­tion at The Moun­tain, with count­less ex­am­ples of the com­pany’s glam­our coupe pro­duced here.

Just like our photo fea­ture car, Syd­ney en­thu­si­ast Vince’s match­ing-num­bers, Inca Gold GTS 307. In­deed, both the first gen­er­a­tion Monaro and the HQ-Z se­ries were pro­duced at Page­wood, as well as other plants, such as Dan­de­nong.

The 1960s and ’70s Great Race con­nec­tion ex­tends be­yond just bolt­ing to­gether some of the coun­try’s high­est pro­file mus­cle ma­chines. Page­wood was also some­thing of a back-door sup­plier to the race teams, and Lynch was the man. “He’s a leg­end,” Birnie says. “The stuff he’s been in­volved in. He was a back-door for a lot of the rac­ing teams, unof­fi­cially.”

Of­fi­cially, Lynch was the team li­ai­son be­tween the fac­tory, Mel­bourne head­quar­ters and all the Syd­ney teams. “It was all un­der-the-counter Birnie says. “[then-GM-H boss, the late John] Bagshaw knew what was go­ing on,” Lynch reck­ons. “We used to have a VIP purchase plan.”

In that era, Lynch’s so-called ‘Pygmy’s Palace’ – “two pan­techs, one was full of fire­wood and the other was full of grog and food,” ex­plains Birnie

– was the go-to hos­pi­tal­ity unit in the Mount Panorama pits.

“The sign’s still up in the garage at home,” Lynch grins.

“It was iconic at Bathurst and the sup­port that it gave to peo­ple up there,” Birnie says.

“Par­tic­u­larly be­fore the big spon­sors got in… it started to change when Marl­boro got in­volved in ’74 and they brought in a big party and hos­pi­tal­ity tent. Un­til then the hos­pi­tal­ity at Bathurst was at Pygmy’s Palace,” McInnes says.

The rea­son that our as­so­ci­a­tion stopped was that Harry Firth was real easy to work with – cranky bas­tard – but real easy to work with and very help­ful, and then (John) Shep­pard took over [the Holden Dealer Team] and things weren’t the same…” Lynch says. How­ever, this, we sus­pect, is a story in it­self…

Page­wood branded its Syd­ney stamp on the Lion’s reg­u­lar road cars too. McInnes, hav­ing come from engi­neer­ing and the man­age­ment group in Mel­bourne, was in a po­si­tion to in­ject some lo­cal fo­cus into prod­uct de­vel­op­ment when he ar­rived in Syd­ney.

“If you drive around Syd­ney, and you live here; if you drive to Palm Beach or in the in­ner Syd­ney area, you get an en­tirely dif­fer­ent set of road con­di­tions to drive a mo­tor car than you do in Mel­bourne which is com­par­a­tively flat,” he ex­plains. “Things like gear ra­tios, axle ra­tios and

en­gine torque char­ac­ter­is­tics are all much more sig­nif­i­cant in the Syd­ney mar­ket.”

So the fact that early to mid-’70s Hold­ens didn’t have the moon-shot gear­ing they might have, given Mel­bourne’s flat to­pog­ra­phy and the lo­cal flow on ef­fects of the Global Oil Cri­sis, comes down to McInnes and Page­wood.

We’ll spare you the blame-storm­ing ses­sion, suf­fice to say that Page­wood was closed for many of the same rea­sons that brought the shut­ters down on El­iz­a­beth. Pol­i­tics. Eco­nomics. Lo­gis­tics. Lynch says the lat­ter was a key fac­tor.

“It was a CKD assem­bly plant but we didn’t have a rail head com­ing in, so we ei­ther had to have ev­ery­thing de­liv­ered by road, which then was nowhere near as ef­fi­cient as it is today. Or we had to un­load [the Cooks River rail ter­mi­nal] and put the ma­te­rial on a truck and bring it from there to the Page­wood plant.

“There was a rail line run­ning to Kel­logg’s a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres away [still there on Went­worth Av­enue] and the plan was to ex­tend that rail line into the back end of the fac­tory so we could load a train in South Aus­tralia or Mel­bourne and the train could drive into the fac­tory here.”

“The Govern­ment promised to put the rail line in but when they got in, they never de­liv­ered,” McInnes says. Neville Wran copped flack for not fight­ing against the Holden Page­wood clo­sure. How­ever, it’s ac­knowl­edged that when such a de­ci­sion was made, the out­come was in­evitable.

Birnie pro­duces a dog-eared end of lease doc­u­ment ad­dressed to ‘Nifty’ Neville Wran, dated the 16th of July 1980, and signed off by Lynch. “There was tongue-in-cheek hu­mour in it, but also sor­row,” Birnie says.

ROSS BIRNIE’S open­ing com­ment that the clo­sure of Holden’s last Aus­tralian car man­u­fac­tur­ing plant is “sad” is any­thing but glib. He and his Page­wood con­tem­po­raries have been there; felt that.

They learned first­hand that when a na­tion loses its knack for mak­ing stuff, us­ing in­ge­nu­ity and its own raw ma­te­ri­als, it loses an im­por­tant strength and a key part of its iden­tity, never to be re­gained.

“I learned very early that a lot of these peo­ple were highly tal­ented peo­ple, their life achieve­ments were way be­yond just go­ing to work,” McInnes says. “One guy that re­ally stuck in my head was a bloke that spray painted wheels.

He’d been there for years, and he said to me, ‘When I’m on the street and see a Holden go by, I can say to my­self that I painted those wheels.’It was a very sim­ple job, and he got an im­mense amount of sat­is­fac­tion out of what he was con­tribut­ing to the process. And that was a huge les­son to me.”

Birnie and Lynch echo McInnes’ sen­ti­ment: “There were some peo­ple over there that were just part of the fac­tory. There was one guy that I’ve al­ways re­mem­bered; his job was at the end of the paint oven. His job was to pull [the painted bod­ies] out and move them to the next part of the line,” Birnie says. “And happy as Larry do­ing it,” Lynch says.

“A lot of guys in there were just im­mensely proud of what they were and what they did,” says Birnie. “And there was the so­cial as­pect of it – they worked as teams.”

“They were the peo­ple you re­ally felt for when they shut the plant. It was not just a job … it was a job they went to be­cause they were re­ally con­nected to it.”

When it comes to Holden fac­to­ries most folk im­me­di­ately think Fishermans Bend, Dan­de­nong and El­iz­a­beth. But there were plants in Bris­bane, WA and NSW. Sym­bol­i­cally, Page­wood in Syd­ney, where GTS Monaros were built, is about to be knocked down.

Top left: Ex-Page­wood work­ers (from left) Ross Birnie, Greg Lynch and Marc McInnes chat to AMC scribe James Whi­bourn. Left: Holden’s first Bathurst win­ner, Bruce McPhee’s GTS 327, was built at Page­wood.

Above: For more about this Page­wood-built GTS 307 see the ‘My Mus­cle Car’ sec­tion next is­sue. Right: Page­wood’s dis­tinc­tive and his­toric clock­tower is still vis­i­ble today (be­hind Greg, Ross and Marc) but will soon make way for Syd­ney’s next mega com­plex of apart­ments.

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