Clas­sic Wheels

Peter ‘Han­dling’-berger

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

WE CALLED HIM MIS­TER RTS IN THE TI­TLE FOR THE PETER HANENBERGER PRO­FILE, BUT IN RE­AL­ITY, THE MAN WHEELS NOM­I­NATED AS MOST IN­FLU­EN­TIAL OF ALL ACROSS HOLDEN’S 69-YEARS OF LO­CAL MAN­U­FAC­TUR­ING, WAS KNOWN TO ALL AS “HAN­DLING-BERGER”.

In the early 1970s Aus­tralian car buy­ers look­ing for re­spon­sive dy­nam­ics bought Euro­pean. Hold­ens, en­gi­neered un­der Amer­i­can Ge­orge Roberts, for­merly of Cadil­lac, rode softly and un­der­steered ex­ces­sively. To fix the prob­lem new manag­ing direc­tor Chuck Chap­man and chief en­gi­neer Joe White­sell en­ticed 34-year-old Opel chas­sis guru Hanenberger to Holden with a brief to force change through the pre­vi­ously in­ert sys­tem and to fix Holden’s han­dling prob­lems. The re­sult was far more than sim­ply firm­ing up the springs and dampers. Led by the in­spi­ra­tional Hanenberger, Holden’s pre­vi­ously frus­trated chas­sis en­gi­neers moved the po­si­tion of the front sus­pen­sion pick-up points and geometry for a far more fun­da­men­tal change. Thus the Han­dling-berger leg­end was born.

Bill Tuckey’s bril­liant pro­file cap­tures the pas­sion­ate char­ac­ter and in­tense drive of the hard-charg­ing, sharp­minded and an­a­lyt­i­cal Hanenberger.

The story is Tuckey at his bril­liant best: “Peter Hanenberger’s ex­tra value is prob­a­bly that he is a very fast, very com­pe­tent driver – one of the two or three best I’ve rid­den with. Around the ride and han­dling track and the hill cir­cuit at Lang Lang, he bent the white GTS through cor­ners at im­pos­si­ble speeds: you could feel the Goodyear Steels bit­ing right to the last outer edge sipe as he used up all the sus­pen­sions and then all the tyre de­sign, ev­ery last cen­time­tre. He works a lot at the wheel, sling­ing the car into at­ti­tudes, work­ing it very hard, and you are al­ways very much aware that he’s do­ing it with the dis­pas­sion­ate in­ter­est of the en­gi­neer.”

The six months Hanenberger ex­pected to spend in Aus­tralia be­came six years. By the time he left he was in the GM fast lane. In the late 1990s in­ter­nal pol­i­tics in Ger­many and Detroit slowed his ca­reer un­til he was of­fered the chance to re­turn to Aus­tralia as CEO in 1999. The op­por­tu­nity to res­ur­rect his stalled ca­reer saw Holden push the VT Com­modore architecture into niches it had never pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered. He then over­saw the de­vel­op­ment of the all-new VE architecture, Fish­er­mans Bend be­com­ing the ‘home­room’ for rear-drive cars within Gen­eral Mo­tors. Too independent for his mas­ters, Hanenberger took early re­tire­ment at the end of 2003.

We didn’t know it then, but for Holden, it was the be­gin­ning of the end for lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing; of cars de­signed and en­gi­neered here. Un­der Hanenberger, Holden was the num­ber one seller in Aus­tralia in 2002, claim­ing a 22.2 per­cent share of the mar­ket. In 2018 that share sits at a mere 5.3 per­cent and YTD (end of June) Holden is only in sixth place.

How does the out­spo­ken Hanenberger feel about Holden’s fail­ure? “It’s not my Gen­eral Mo­tors any­more,” He told jour­nal­ist Bruce New­ton in late 2017.

“It’s [now] a very short-sighted com­pany. Gen­eral Mo­tors was a global player. To­day Gen­eral Mo­tors is shrink­ing to an Amer­i­can com­pany with no fore­sight.

“PETER HANENBERGER’S EX­TRA VALUE IS THAT HE IS A VERY FAST, VERY COM­PE­TENT DRIVER – ONE OF THE TWO OR THREE BEST I’VE RID­DEN WITH.”

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