ED’S LET­TER

“HOLDEN’S LEGACY IS KILLING ITS CHANCES OF REIN­VENT­ING IT­SELF IN AUS­TRALIA. THE CLEAR­EST WAY FOR­WARD IS TO RE­TIRE THE BRAND”

Wheels (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

FOR YEARS NOW the Holden Com­modore has been on bor­rowed time, though that didn’t stop a rip­ple of shock spread­ing through the Wheels of­fice when the news fi­nally came. “Re­tired” was the word Holden chose; “Dead” is what we were all think­ing.

By now you’ve had some time to di­gest it. It’s pos­si­ble you’ll still feel an­gry, though I’d wa­ger that’s now given way to dis­ap­point­ment, or more tellingly, to ac­cep­tance. Af­ter all, the ZB wasn’t a real Com­modore, was it?

Now ask your­self this: how would you feel if Holden it­self pulled up stumps? If the en­tire brand de­cided to bow out with dig­nity and then, months later, rein­vent it­self as Chevro­let or sim­ply as GM? An­gry? Dis­ap­pointed? Ac­cept­ing? Yeah, I reckon that’s about right. For an is­sue so drowned in emo­tion – Holden holds a spe­cial place in my heart and in the his­tory of this mag­a­zine – it’s dif­fi­cult to look at ra­tio­nally. But the facts are telling.

Just over two years into its brave new world and the Lion Brand isn’t wounded, it’s drift­ing, seem­ingly un­con­scious, to­wards an in­evitable demise. Things aren’t so much dire as they are dis­as­trous.

Dave But­tner, the well-re­spected car com­pany exec lured out of re­tire­ment to trans­form Holden’s for­tunes as its fearless leader, has left his post af­ter 16 months due to per­sonal rea­sons.

Then there are the sales. Every­one ex­pected Holden to take a hit when man­u­fac­tur­ing ended in late 2017, but no one pre­dicted the hit to be so savage, or so pro­longed. Af­ter a drop of 33 per­cent in 2018, Holden is on track to record an­other year-to-date slump of around 30 per­cent when the fi­nal num­bers are tal­lied for 2019.

Once Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful brand for al­most three decades, last month’s sales weren’t only the lat­est in a string of worst in the com­pany’s his­tory, but they saw Holden’s en­tire model range out­sold by each of the top three (Ranger, Hilux and Tri­ton). As for the Com­modore? In the glory days, Holden could move close to 10,000 units a month. In Novem­ber this year, it only sold 309.

Clearly, the cur­rent strat­egy isn’t work­ing. Holden hasn’t only failed to at­tract new buy­ers, it’s erad­i­cated any good­will it had left with its rusted-on fans.

And as for brand val­ues? Once such a strength, I’d now ar­gue Holden’s rose-tinted legacy is ac­tu­ally a hin­drance. Or, to put it an­other way, Holden’s his­tory is killing its chances of rein­vent­ing it­self in Aus­tralia.

So as much as it pains me to say it, the clear­est way for­ward is to re­tire the brand. Nat­u­rally this isn’t a clear-cut course of ac­tion. Re­brand­ing won’t be easy. The dealer net­work will need to be culled, and the task of es­tab­lish­ing a new brand is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult down un­der. Though for me, the po­ten­tial pos­i­tives out­weigh the risks.

As a well-known in­ter­na­tional brand, Chevro­let al­ready has some eq­uity with Aussie buy­ers, and cru­cially, tak­ing on a new name would give Holden a chance to start afresh, sans the emo­tional bag­gage cur­rently slung around its neck like a mill­stone. It’ll also bring a wel­come sense of co­her­ence to the show­room floor. The Trax, Equinox and Colorado al­ready wear Chevy badges in other mar­kets, and Holden could cam­paign hard to bring the good­look­ing Chevro­let Blazer to our shores, too. Plus, when the C8 Corvette ar­rives, it won’t be an ex­pen­sive out­lier but will ful­fil its role as a flag­ship for the en­tire range. There’s also room to es­tab­lish Cadil­lac as a pre­mium of­fer­ing above the reg­u­lar Chevro­let range.

It needn’t mean the loss of jobs, ei­ther. Holden’s de­sign stu­dio and prov­ing ground have al­ready piv­oted to work on global prod­uct, the tal­ented crew at Lang Lang can still tune cars for Aussie con­di­tions, and the mar­ket­ing team won’t be short of work...

The big is­sue, of course, is the fu­ture of right-hand-drive mod­els in GM’s prod­uct strat­egy. Given GM has now left Europe and

South Africa, Aus­tralia is a pe­riph­eral out­post un­likely to se­cure top-rung prod­uct. One un­likely Hail Mary so­lu­tion to re­tain the Holden name could be for GM to sell the Lion Brand to PSA. Es­tab­lished right-hand-drive mod­els al­ready ex­ist (As­tra, Corsa etc) and pop­u­lar small SUVs like the Grand­land X could be brought in. Plus, it’d give the French com­pany an es­tab­lished dealer net­work.

What­ever Holden de­cides – and it must de­cide soon – one thing is clear: Holden as we knew it is gone.

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