Holden 48-215

Lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing’s gen­e­sis sets a high bar

Motor (Australia) - - TOP 5 PRE-1980 HOLDEN HEROES -

NO, THIS isn’t a mis­print. Nor have you opened a his­tory book. One of the great­est per­for­mance Hold­ens ever built with­out a Com­modore badge was the first. And the 48-215, or Humpy as it’s be­come bet­ter known, isn’t here only be­cause of that fact. It sparked a na­tion-wide ap­petite for fast, af­ford­able, and reli­able cars. And that has moulded our in­dus­try from its be­gin­ning right up to its end.

Holden wasn’t con­jur­ing a Le Mans con­tender here. A lot of the coun­try was un­paved, rugged, and dusty. And with­out Jet­star or Richard Bran­son around, it was huge. But we had huge man­u­fac­tur­ing po­ten­tial. So when GM Holden promised Ben Chi­fley’s gov­ern­ment a peo­ple’s car that would drive post-war pros­per­ity, it needed to han­dle these con­di­tions well.

If Ford’s Model T Ute was a step in this direc­tion in the 20s, the Holden 48-215 was a rad­i­cal jump for­ward. Un­veiled in 1948 at Fish­er­man’s Bend, as Jon Wright ex­plains in The Un­told story of Aus­tralia’s Holden, it was the only sedan in the world that could hit 128km/h, av­er­age 7.84 litres per 100km, and carry five adults while be­ing able to eas­ily dis­patch ur­ban pot­holes or Aussie cow-grids.

Key things like a one-tonne kerb mass, so­phis­ti­cated (for its time) big six, and nine-inches of ground clear­ance un­der­pinned this abil­ity. And it’s hard to think GM could have gath­ered these in­gre­di­ents at any other time. A key project en­gi­neer, Amer­i­can Russ Begg worked at Opel when Hitler was dream­ing up his re­match with the world and over­saw the huge tech­ni­cal in­vest­ment al­lowed by pre-war tax cuts at the time.

He ap­plied uni­tary body con­struc­tion to the 48-215 project in Detroit, where GM de­vel­oped the car’s me­chan­i­cals, do­ing away with a lad­der chas­sis and a great deal of weight. He also fought for a big­ger en­gine in the Holden, opt­ing for the 2.1-litre six from the Opel Kap­i­tan donor car, which meant it could use a lighter trans­mis­sion.

Aussie en­gi­neer Jack Rawns­ley was also in Detroit

Ev­ery­thing we’ve come to love about the cur­rent Com­modore SS is, some would say, ar­guably the Humpy’s do­ing

over­look­ing the car’s de­vel­op­ment, and in­sisted on the ground clear­ance. This Aussie in­flu­ence was a com­mon theme in its con­cep­tion. Lau­rance Hart­nett, GM-H’s boss in the 40s, in­cepted the car, pitched it to Detroit, and fought hard for Aus­tralian en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign through­out the project.

Even though Hart­nett fell out with the com­pany over its de­sign, his Humpy had the in­tended re­sult. It sold in the hun­dreds of thou­sands, and was up­dated in 1953 to the FJ with small changes that un­abated its suc­cess. No one could knock it off un­til Ford launched the lo­cally built Fal­con.

The car also en­joyed small suc­cess in mo­tor­sport, notch­ing up a cat­e­gory win in the ATCC’s 1963 2.0litre to 2.6-litre divi­sion. Drive one to­day, and you might find it a tad un­der­whelm­ing. That over­head valve Grey mo­tor prom­ises smooth, torquey cruis­ing, how­ever, the re­al­ity is that the han­dling would feel as his­toric as the car’s im­por­tance.

Yet, ev­ery­thing we’ve come to love about the cur­rent Com­modore SS – its hon­est rear-drive dy­nam­ics, ef­fort­less en­gine per­for­mance, space for four adults and all for less than the na­tional av­er­age wage – is ar­guably the Humpy’s do­ing. By de­mand­ing coun­tryspe­cific en­gi­neer­ing, both cars have of­fered some­thing no one else in the world has quite per­fected yet.

Why else did GM turn to Holden for a 5 Se­ries ri­val? And you can be sure its in­flu­ence will be felt in the mar­ket well past the Com­modore’s last day of ser­vice. Sur­pris­ingly, in the gap that it and the Fal­con leave, more than 100 peo­ple have slammed down a de­posit for the hyped Kia Stinger – sight un­seen. That’s not a mis­print ei­ther.

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