INTO THE SUN­SET

A bit­ter­sweet pa­rade of 1200 clas­sics salutes seven decades of Hold­ens

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - MOTORING - JOSHUA DOWL­ING

Our jour­ney be­gins from the birth­place of Holden, the ex­act spot where Prime Min­is­ter Ben Chi­fley wel­comed the first model with “she’s a beauty”. The des­ti­na­tion: the end of the line at El­iz­a­beth, on the north­west out­skirts of Ade­laide, to take part in Holden’s “Dream Cruise”, a pro­ces­sion of 1200 clas­sic cars from around Aus­tralia the week­end be­fore the fac­tory shut­down.

We’re in one of the last Com­modore V8s, to fol­low the tyre tracks of the count­less trucks that have made this trip from Holden’s en­gine fac­tory to the pro­duc­tion line over the past 50 years. Now sur­rounded by empty fac­to­ries in the mid­dle of Holden’s Port Mel­bourne site, this small brick build­ing was the head of­fice in 1948.

As Holden grew over the next 69 years, larger of­fices were built — cul­mi­nat­ing in the shiny fa­cade that faces Salmon Street — and this his­toric build­ing be­came the staff can­teen. Nowa­days it houses a small se­lec­tion of Holden’s mu­seum pieces.

“Thurs­days were schnitzel days, there’d be a queue out the door,” says Peter Churchill, a 30year vet­eran of Holden, as he stands near a sign that says “soup, en­tree, sweets”. In­side are the first and last Cruze built in Ade­laide, the last V6 built on this site last Novem­ber and a broad se­lec­tion of pris­tine 1960s clas­sic Hold­ens, some of them do­nated by fans.

Holden started as a sad­dlery in 1856 be­fore build­ing bod­ies for horse-drawn carts and then mi­grat­ing its skills to cars in the early 1900s.

Af­ter it won a con­tract as­sem­bling GM cars from im­ported parts, Holden was even­tu­ally bought by the US car gi­ant in 1931.

The first uniquely Holden car wouldn’t roll off the Port Mel­bourne pro­duc­tion line un­til

194848 as the out­break of World War II de­layed GM’s plans. But once the first Holden hit the road, the com­pany hit top gear.

De­mand for an af­ford­able car was astro­nom­i­cal and Holden soon shot to the top of the sales charts, be­com­ing Aus­tralia’s favourite car for a record 30 years in a row.

It took 14 years to pro­duce the first mil­lion Hold­ens and the two mil­lion mark was reached in 1969 — to reach the same mile­stone, Ford took from 1925 to 1975.

To keep up with de­mand Holden also built fac­to­ries in El­iz­a­beth near Ade­laide, Aca­cia Ridge near Bris­bane, Dan­de­nong near Mel­bourne, and Page­wood in Syd­ney.

In the end only El­iz­a­beth would sur­vive, hav­ing started in body assem­bly in 1958 be­fore grad­u­at­ing to com­plete car pro­duc­tion in 1965.

Our 700km drive from Mel­bourne to Ade­laide is a stark re­minder of how Holden helped build Aus­tralia and shape our mem­o­ries.

Holden deal­er­ships in some small country towns also sell gi­ant har­vesters, while the fad­ing signs of oth­ers hint at for­mer glory.

We’re not the only ones mak­ing the pil­grim­age; we’re shar­ing the road with con­voys of clas­sic Hold­ens from around the country. Some put their his­toric cars on trail­ers, oth­ers risk stone chips — and po­ten­tial break­downs — by driv­ing all the way.

There’s a nod to the fu­ture: a 2018 Com­modore tow­ing an old To­rana. It’s one of the early pro­to­types from Ger­many, driven by a Holden engi­neer to make sure it can go the dis­tance haul­ing a de­cent load — the next model will have only V6 or four-cylin­der power.

For the first time since 1968 Holden won’t have a V8 in its show­rooms, al­though the cav­alry is com­ing in the form of a Chevro­let Ca­maro con­verted to right-hand-drive by Holden Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles, due late next year. By 2020 the next gen­er­a­tion Corvette will be fac­tory-built in right-hand drive.

Mean­while, as good as the im­ported Com­modore prom­ises to be, it won’t be any­thing like our ve­hi­cle — a lusty V8 sedan with am­ple power and acres of room.

We’ve had three years to pre­pare for the end of Holden as we know it — be­fore it be­comes solely an im­porter — yet only now does the grav­ity of the shut­down of an en­tire in­dus­try be­gin to sink in.

As well as the de­part­ing Holden fac­tory work­ers there is also the threat to the liveli­hoods of em­ploy­ees at 120 “tier one” parts sup­pli­ers across the country. Then there are the busi­nesses that ser­vice all those sup­pli­ers, whether it’s the take­away shop across the street, or the dozens of truck driv­ers who trans­ported en­gines from Port Mel­bourne to Ade­laide daily.

Aus­tralia is yet to see the rip­ple ef­fect of los­ing 50,000 jobs in such a short space of time. Ford closed its fac­to­ries last year, Toy­ota shut the Camry fac­tory ear­lier this month, and now Holden’s assem­bly line has fallen silent.

Holden will fall shy of the eight mil­lion mark but its tally of 7.6 mil­lion ve­hi­cles is still more than Ford (5.9 mil­lion) or Toy­ota (3.4 mil­lion).

Holden logged seven mil­lion in 2008, just as ex­ports to the US were ramp­ing up — only to have the deal pulled when GM axed the Pon­tiac brand in the wake of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

It was one of three se­ri­ous but vain at­tempts by Holden over the past decade at US ex­port deals that could have saved the fac­tory.

In­stead, we’re in what could be likened to Aus­tralia’s long­est au­to­mo­tive fu­neral march.

Holden dusted off 20 cars from its pri­vate col­lec­tion, some so frag­ile their min­ders were wor­ried whether they would make the 6km jour­ney in the con­voy around El­iz­a­beth.

Num­ber 7,000,000, a VE Com­modore, is with us near the front of the pa­rade as we weave through El­iz­a­beth and drive past the fac­tory.

To say Holden is part of the fab­ric of El­iz­a­beth is quite the un­der­state­ment. The body side of a real Com­modore is now em­bed­ded in the wall of the din­ing area in the lo­cal foot­ball club, a gift from Holden that’s de­signed to be a last­ing mem­ory for the footy club it has spon­sored for decades.

Thou­sands of fans from Holden — and even Ford — line the route to wave and pay their re­spects, be­fore the jour­ney ends at the lo­cal footy oval. Ri­val­ries have been set aside for this wake. Whether you’re a fan of Holden or Ford, there’s no win­ner to­day.

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