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
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.”
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.
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.
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...