Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

1946, Ian Mether­all Col­lec­tion, Na­tional Mu­seum of Australia, Can­berra. On dis­play in the Land­marks: Peo­ple and Places Across Australia gallery.

IN 1946 a group of about 30 Aus­tralian and Amer­i­can engineers at the Gen­eral Mo­tors work­shop in Detroit built three pro­to­types of what would even­tu­ally be­come Australia’s first car, the Holden FX. Only one of the three survives and it is in the col­lec­tion of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Australia in Can­berra. It’s a car but it has also be­come one of this coun­try’s most im­por­tant cul­tural arte­facts be­cause it’s one of the defin­ing sym­bols of the post-war boom that we look back on with a kind of rose-coloured fond­ness.

When I visit Can­berra, I’m shown what is ef­fec­tively the lone sur­viv­ing an­ces­tor of all Hold­ens by the mu­seum’s se­nior cu­ra­tor Daniel Oak­man, who ex­plains the back­ground of how the Holden came to Australia. He says that af­ter the pro­to­types were shipped to Australia, they are be­lieved to have been driven un­der cover of dark­ness to the fac­tory at Fish­er­men’s Bend, in Melbourne. And while Pro­to­type No 1 did road tri­als, Gen­eral Mo­tors ex­ec­u­tives searched for a name for their new ve­hi­cle.

The name ‘‘ Holden’’ was fi­nally de­cided on in hon­our of Ed­ward Holden, the com­pany’s first chair­man, says Oak­man. Other names con­sid­ered were GEM, Aus­tral, Melba, Woomerah, Boomerang and Emu. The car was even nearly called Can­bra, a pho­netic spell­ing of Can­berra.

‘‘ Pro­to­type No 1 was then the tem­plate for the hun­dreds of pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cles which were launched in 1948,’’ Oak­man says. ‘‘ It cer­tainly cap­ti­vated Aus­tralians.

‘‘ So over­whelm­ing was the sup­port for the car that around 18,000 peo­ple signed up for it even be­fore they knew a sin­gle de­tail about it.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Oak­man, by 1958 sales of the Holden ac­counted for more than 40 per cent of to­tal car sales in Australia. By 1962 a mil­lion had been sold and in the face of strong com­pe­ti­tion from the Ford Fal­con, in­tro­duced in 1960 from the US, an­other mil­lion Hold­ens were sold dur­ing the next six years.

The Pro­to­type No 1 Holden sedan is one of the favourite items in the Na­tional Mu­seum and Oak­man ex­plains that it came to the in­sti­tu­tion via a cir­cuitous route.

Af­ter the FX was launched in 1948, Pro­to­type No 1 was fit­ted with a new en­gine and sold to Holden fore­man Arthur Ling. The car was then sold to a Holden deal­er­ship in Vic­to­ria where it re­mained for 40 years, but dur­ing that pe­riod it was ne­glected and its con­di­tion de­te­ri­o­rated. In 1999, car en­thu­si­asts Gavin and Graeme Strong­man bought it and be­gan a 12-month restora­tion. The pro­to­type was then bought by an­other fan, Ian Mether­all, who sold it to the Na­tional Mu­seum in 2004.

‘‘ The Holden was a car that was built spe­cially for the Aus­tralian mar­ket and was adapted for Aus­tralian con­di­tions and the first one com­pletely man­u­fac­tured in Australia, and that is why it has gen­er­ated such in­ter­est,’’ Oak­man says.

‘‘ The Holden was a vivid man­i­fes­ta­tion of Aus­tralian dreams of pros­per­ity, made more in­tense by years of wartime aus­ter­ity. More than just a car, the early Hold­ens were com­plex sym­bols of free­dom and in­de­pen­dence, as well as sub­ur­ban con­form­ity. They are among the most recog­nis­able cul­tural arte­facts of 1950s Australia.’’

The Holden also be­came a sym­bol for Ben Chi­fley’s gov­ern­ment. It en­abled him to say that Australia was man­u­fac­tur­ing its own cars and that this was the key to the coun­try’s eco­nomic sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity by re­duc­ing the de­pen­dence on pri­mary in­dus­try.

When Chi­fley un­veiled the Holden FX in 1948 he de­clared: ‘‘ She’s a beauty.’’

Oak­man has been work­ing with the Holden Pro­to­type No 1 for five years. ‘‘ I’m in­trigued by the level of pas­sion that peo­ple have for this ob­ject, given the com­plex­ity of its story,’’ he says. ‘‘ Peo­ple will come in and pho­to­graph ev­ery square me­tre of it. It is em­bed­ded in peo­ple’s child­hood mem­o­ries and it is en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced as an Aus­tralian icon.’’

Me­tal, glass, rub­ber, plas­tic and tex­tile; 434cm x 175cmx 165cm

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