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