INTO THE SUNSET
A bittersweet parade of 1200 classics salutes seven decades of Holdens
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.