My PhD, which be­came the book Spe­cial: the­un­told

story of Aus­tralia’s Holden, un­packs the ge­neal­ogy of the Holden car. It was a stor y pre­vi­ously un­told, de­spite the many ac­counts that have been writ­ten. Ar­guably, no other car in his­tor y has been so care­fully con­ceived for a unique set of cir­cum­stances as the Holden 48-215 was. First, it had to suit the very de­mand­ing – es­sen­tially pi­o­neer­ing – con­di­tions im­posed by Aus­tralia. Sec­ond, it had to show­case Gen­eral Mo­tors’ in­ter­na­tional knowhow to the watch­ing post­war world.

Three ma­jor wars – the Boer War (1899-1902), World War One (1914-18) and World War Two (1939-45) shaped the Aus­tralian au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try. In the Boer War, the part­ner­ship of (James Alexan­der) Holden & (Henry Adolph) Frost sup­plied mil­i­tary equip­ment such as har­nesses to the gov­ern­ment. By the end of the Boer War, Holden & Frost was the gov­ern­ment’s big­gest sup­plier of har­nesses and sad­dlery.

The Great War pro­vided the cat­a­lyst which turned the mo­tor body-build­ing busi­ness from a side­line in to a ma­jor sec­ondary in­dus­try. In 1917, with Ger­man U-boat ac­tiv­ity mak­ing ocean trans­port treach­er­ous and cargo space at a pre­mium, the gov­ern­ment banned the im­port of beer, furs and car bod­ies un­der the cu­ri­ously named ‘Lux­ury Re­stric­tions’ tax. Car bod­ies would have to be made here for all im­ported chas­sis. Holden & Frost had built its first cus­tom body in 1916 for a Hotchkiss mo­tor car owned by an Ade­laide pub­li­can. Other or­ders fol­lowed. But un­der the new im­per­a­tive, Holden Mo­tor Body Builders (HMBB) was formed in 1919. By May 1923 HMBB was pro­duc­ing 340 bod­ies per week.

Holden’s main client was Gen­eral Mo­tors Ex­port Com­pany (GMEC), anx­ious to se­cure a guar­an­teed sup­ply of high qual­ity bod­ies. By then the com­pany was ex­port­ing 9500 chas­sis per year to Aus­tralia, about 17 per cent of the mar­ket. Two GMEC ex­ec­u­tives vis­ited Aus­tralia in 1923 and rec­om­mended set­ting up a joint ven­ture with HMBB.

GMEC would fund a new plant in Woodville ex­clu­sively to pro­duce bod­ies for GM cars, while HMBB could con­tinue mak­ing bod­ies for other makes in its ex­ist­ing plant in King Wil­liam Street. With Woodville at ca­pac­ity, GM’s share of the Aus­tralian mar­ket climbed from 16.9 per cent in 1923 to 31.4 per cent by 1925.

Then the Great De­pres­sion ar­rived with full force in 1930. On 14 Fe­bru­ary the direc­tors of HMBB agreed to a GM takeover. Jan­uary 1931 saw just 762 bod­ies be­ing built but in March 1928 HMBB had pro­duced 5897.

English­man Lau­rence J. (‘Larry’) Hart­nett took over as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the new com­pany, Gen­eral Mo­torsHolden’s in 1934. From early on, Hart­nett was keen to build the en­tire car in Aus­tralia. His bosses at GM, un­der the en­tre­pre­neur­ial ge­nius Al­fred P. Sloan, Jr, were on the same page, even though Sloan took quite a dis­like to the cocky English­man.

World War Two then changes the equa­tion. From 1940 GM-H man­u­fac­tured the ma­chin­ery of war, which in­cluded in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines. This was a ma­jor step to­wards be­ing able to man­u­fac­ture the com­plete car.

Ex­traor­di­nar­ily, the other huge el­e­ment came out of Gen­eral Mo­tors’ ex­pe­ri­ence in Nazi Ger­many. Hitler came to power on 30 Jan­uary 1933, largely on a prom­ise to re­store Ger­many as a


great power. But there was lit­tle chance of him achiev­ing his ul­ti­mate goal of world dom­i­nance with­out first re­viv­ing the do­mes­tic econ­omy.

Less than a fort­night later, Hitler’s first im­por­tant pub­lic role was to open the Ber­lin Mo­tor Show. His speech fo­cused on the need for a bril­liant roads net­work, a Peo­ple’s Car and the demon­stra­tion of Ger­man tech­no­log­i­cal dom­i­nance through in­ter­na­tional mo­tor­sport.

Gen­eral Mo­tors’ Ger­man sub­sidiary Opel headed the Ger­man car sales charts. When Hitler an­nounced the re­moval of sales ta x on all new cars, Opel was the great­est ben­e­fi­ciar y. Un­prece­dented economies of scale driven by a dra­matic in­crease in sales al­lowed Opel to de­velop rad­i­cal new tech­nolog y. Amer­i­can en­gi­neer Rus­sell S Begg, an in­dus­try vet­eran and ex­pert on all-steel bod­ies, was sent to Ger­many in 1934.

Begg in­tro­duced mono­coque con­struc­tion to Opel. First came the Olympia, dis­played at the Ber­lin show in 1936 and named for Hitler’s Olympic Games of that year. Here was the world’s first mass-pro­duc­tion mono­coque, a car both lighter and stronger than its ri­vals. The Olympia was im­me­di­ately suc­cess­ful in Ger­many and other Euro­pean mar­kets.

Equally sig­nif­i­cant for the stor y of the Holden is the lux­u­ri­ous 1938 Opel Kapitän, the first GM car to com­bine a six-cylin­der en­gine with mono­coque con­struc­tion.

These two Opels set the tem­plate for mass-pro­duced small and medium cars in the post­war era, ren­der­ing body-on-frame con­struc­tion no longer vi­able, ex­cept for larger ve­hi­cles.

The Kapitän may be seen as the true pre­de­ces­sor of the Holden 48-215. But an­other car needs to be men­tioned, Project 195-Y-15. This un­charis­mat­i­cally named ex­per­i­men­tal ve­hi­cle was one of a pair, the other be­ing 195-Y-13. The ex­per­i­ment was con­ducted un­der Begg’s charge in Ger­many when the Kapitän pro­gram was in its fi­nal stages, the idea be­ing to de­ter­mine whether a four-cylin­der or six-cylin­der en­gine worked bet­ter in a car of around 2000 pounds weight (908 kg). The six, which brought the car to a to­tal of 945 kg, won de­ci­sively; it cost lit­tle more to build, used barely more fuel and im­posed less strain on its three-speed gear­box.


Both ve­hi­cles were shipped to the US im­me­di­ately be­fore the out­break of war; GM’s Ger­man in­vest­ment looked to be im­per­illed. In 1942 Opel be­came a one-off tax loss.

In Oc­to­ber 1944 the GM Board agreed to the man­u­fac­ture of an Aus­tralian car but re­quired GM-H to fund it. Prime Min­is­ter Ben Chif ley per­suaded the banks to sup­ply the funds at com­mer­cial rates of in­ter­est, the loans to be re­paid by GM-H.

Russ Begg was ap­pointed chief en­gi­neer of the just ap­proved Aus­tralian Car Pro­gram (195Y25, no hy­phens), re­port­ing to Wal­ter Ap­pel, chief en­gi­neer of Gen­eral Mo­tors Over­seas Op­er­a­tions (GMOO). He took 195-Y-15 as the start­ing point, while doubt­less con­scious of his Kapitän, which was very suc­cess­ful.

Begg and Ap­pel had dif­fer­ences about the suit­abil­ity of 195-Y-15 as the ba­sis for the new Aus­tralian car, but Begg al­ways pre­vailed. Ap­pel thought 195Y25 should be heav­ier, while Begg was de­ter­mined to keep the weight down. Nev­er­the­less, he was caught be­tween Ap­pel’s scep­ti­cism at higher ex­ec­u­tive level and the pres­sures from within his own engi­neer­ing team to in­cor­po­rate this or that weight-adding fea­ture. And Russ Begg had yet to meet GM-H man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, Larry Hart­nett, who would con­tinue to try to inf lu­ence the de­sign di­rec­tion of 195Y25 – mostly to lit­tle ef­fect.

On 7 Au­gust 1945, the boss of GMOO, Ed­ward C Ri­ley, wrote to Har­nett:

I am not will­ing… to plonk down our blue chips on the pro­duc­tion of this, our first car, on the ba­sis of such de­sign… I just can­not put our money on your crowd for this first job.

While Begg knew the pro­to­type would re­quire great fi­ness­ing, he was de­vel­op­ing his own unique phi­los­o­phy about the in­ter­re­la­tion­ship be­tween per­for­mance, econ­omy, dura­bil­ity and weight. His think­ing is made clear in a fas­ci­nat­ing let­ter from GM-H’s tech­ni­cal li­ai­son of­fi­cer in Detroit, Ge­orge Quarry, to Hart­nett:

Russ, Kuip [G.C.R. Kuiper, chief ex­per­i­men­tal en­gi­neer un­der Begg] and I were out in the Kapitän sedan which, while weigh­ing 2676lb [1214kg] curb, with a 150.9 cu­bic mo­tor on a 106.1” [2695mm] wheel­base, has very sim­i­lar in­ter­nal space and per­for­mance fac­tor as our job (ac­tu­ally

90.3 com­pared with our 90.1). I told Russ that I felt that Aus­tralia would have ac­cepted a some­what re­duced per­for­mance fac­tor, espe­cially if it had a ben­e­fi­cial ef­fect on weight and cost; his re­ply was that such a move is quite in the other di­rec­tion, as any sub­stan­tially lower per­for­mance fac­tor means a dif­fer­ent and heav­ier trans­mis­sion to handle the greatly in­creased sec­ond gear work.

By Oc­to­ber 1946 any thoughts of a less pow­er­ful en­gine had van­ished. Begg had set max­i­mum of 60 horse­power which would de­liver a top speed iden­ti­cal to that of the Au­to­bahn-storm­ing Kapitän – 80 miles per hour (128 km/h). The Holden 48-215 was emerg­ing from a very long tun­nel!

Un­der Begg, there was never any prospect of the Holden’s hav­ing a four-cylin­der en­gine. But in­ter­est­ingly, GM’s Bri­tish sub­sidiar y Vaux­hall of­fered its Holden-size E-Class as a four-cylin­der Wyvern and six-cylin­der Velox, while Ford of Bri­tain did the same with its Con­sul and Ze­phyr – truly, 195-Y-13 and 195-Y-15 had reached Europe!

The mer­its of the 48-215 have been writ­ten about seem­ingly end­lessly. But with its com­bi­na­tion of great torque for easy over­tak­ing, fuel econ­omy of 30 miles per gal­lon, sim­plic­ity of de­sign, ease of re­pair, ubiq­uity of spare parts, room for five adults and their lug­gage, top speed of 80 miles per hour, low pur­chase price, great dura­bil­ity and high ground clear­ance, ‘Aus­tralia’s Own Car’ out of GMOO was unique in the late 1940s.

As for the im­per­a­tive for an Aus­tralian car, the mood changed be­tween late 1944 and 29 Novem­ber 1948 when the Holden was launched. The Cold War was es­ca­lat­ing; dur­ing his speech, Chif ley spoke much more about the im­mi­nent war than he did about the car – ‘a beauty’, he called it.

BELOW The six-cylin­der Opel Kap­i­tan proves mono­coque is also a win­ner for larger, Holden-size, cars.

ABOVE Rus­sell Begg’s four­cylin­der Opel Olympia pi­o­neers the mono­coque ap­proach.

ABOVE Prime Min­is­ter Ben Chi­fley sees ‘Job #1’ 48-215 of­fi­cially off-line in 1948.

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