Life After Manufacturing Death
Holden used to be known as the Commodore company but just because local manufacture of Commodore (and Cruze) is ending doesn’t mean that Holden is shutting up shop. Nor does it mean the end of Commodore. What it actually means is that Holden will become the Commodore, Colorado, Captiva and Cascada company, not to mention the purveyor of a whole swag of new product, including new Astra hatch, recently crowned European Car of the Year.
Holden will follow in the footsteps of Mitsubishi, Ford, Nissan and Toyota, changing from a manufacturer to become a national sales organisation. Dealerships will instead be stocked with British, European, Korean, Thai and American GM products.
While local manufacture is ending next year, with the Elizabeth plant closing and the 37ha Fisherman’s Bend site up for sale, the expertise of the 300-strong Design and Engineering divisions will continue, working on upcoming GM global product. Along with the main GM Detroit studio, the GM Australia Design group has become expert at creating fully fledged concept cars, with GM divisions globally knocking at it door. The facility is the most mature design centre in the Asia Pacific region, with over 50 years of experience. “We build concept cars as well as anyone” said GM Australia’s Design chief, Richard Ferlazzo. As an example, at the recent Geneva Motor Show, Opel presented its GT Concept car, designed in Europe but built in Australia. Powered by a three-cylinder turbocharged engine sited aft of the front axle line, the little rear-drive sportster concept was a functioning drivable vehicle with a semi-functional interior.
Prior to that the design team had designed and built two concepts that were shown at the 2015 Detroit show, the Bolt EV, and the gorgeous Buick Avenir concept which scooped the Best Design Concept car at the show. The team also took out the prize for the most innovative use of colour, graphics and materials.
The design studio in Melbourne is one of nine such GM facilities globally, and is the third biggest after the Detroit and Russelsheim studios, employing around 140 experts. Established in 1964, only 16 years after the first Holden was launched, initial design work was done entirely by hand, but since 2001 the Melbourne facility has had a virtual reality studio and is about to purchase 3D rendering software so designers can “walk around” inside the cars they develop, in a virtual world. Roughly 20 designers are employed for this work, half doing exterior and the other half interior work. The overall design team has myriad functions, including clay and digital modelling, fabrication, digital imaging, and colour, trim and quality appearance.
While being scaled back, the Engineering division at Fisherman’s Bend and Lang Lang Proving Ground also have a global role to play into the future. The proving ground has just been given the go-ahead for a $15million refurbishment. Much of that will go into resurfacing the 4.7km highspeed oval track. For some time the 877ha facility, which was opened in 1957, has been responsible for fine-tuning suspension systems of the overseas products that are entering the Australasian markets.
Chairman and MD of GM Holden, Mark Bernhard, outlined the company’s short- and medium-term priorities. The new chief, a GM employee of 30 years, took over midway through 2015.
Holden has had a difficult past few years, Bernhard admitted, but has plans to replace the products it has been making locally, Commodore and Cruze, with a new Commodore and European Astra. He remained tight-lipped about the former, as was Holden NZ MD, Kristian Aquilina, saying only that it will be “significantly different” from the outgoing vehicle but will “seamlessly” continue the Commodore brand name. Bernhard sees product as being key to Holden’s future prosperity. “It has always been important to have the right product in the right sector” and the company will witness a major transformation in the next four years, with 24 new models due between now and 2020. Naturally, because of the continuing strength of the sector, some of these will be SUVs, beginning with Captiva facelift and a larger offering thereafter. New Captiva has a freshened fascia, with new lights, grille and the like, and a much improved interior. The year kicks off with city car Spark, however, due soon, followed by a major Colorado facelift in Q3, and then the introduction of the award-toting Astra hatch range. About one-third of the new vehicles will be sourced from Europe, and all newcomers will feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as part of the upgraded MyLink system. In 2017 Commodore production ends locally, its replacement confirmed but details scant. NZ police officials evidently know what’s coming because of the forward tendering process for government vehicles.
On the excitement front, expect a new sportscar at some point to compete with Mustang, powered probably by a twinturbo V6, and looking like the Buick Avista concept shown at the Detroit show. On the electric front, Volt’s not returning, but the smaller Bolt EV has not yet been ruled out.
Bernhard emphasised that it’s not just about product, and insisted that “customer experience and satisfaction will be critical” in helping Holden transition to a purely sales role. Dealerships will undergo an overhaul, with a new look inside and out, and free servicing of all new Holdens until 2020 has already been announced. Professional Care is being set up which is to include lifetime cut-price servicing, seen as being critical for customer retention.
So while it may be the end of an era next year for local manufacture, Holden sees its expanding portfolio of globally sourced products, including an all-new Commodore, as the gateway to a more prosperous and brighter future.