So, that’s it. Today – December 31, 2020 – marks not only the end of the most challenging year of the 21st century, but also the end of a truly iconic name in the motoring industry. Holden, the iconically Australian company founded in Adelaide as a saddlery maker 154 years ago, has finally met its demise, as today marks the final day of operations for the lion brand.
It’s perhaps ironic, isn’t it, that the company able to adapt to the switch from horses and carts to motorcars struggled so badly not with another switch in the means of propulsion – although, inevitably, electric vehicles would have posed a challenge for Holden sooner or later – but simply with the switch from Australian production to a range of cars sourced from overseas.
October 2017 marked the end of automotive manufacturing in Australia when the line stopped at Holden’s factory in Elizabeth, South Australia – a decision arguably spurred on by then-Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey daring Holden to pull out of Australia, which it announced its intentions to shortly after, and the Abbot government’s refusal to increase its subsidy to the car manufacturing industry – and since that point, the brand simply could not get its footing right with its lineup of General Motors world cars.
Look back 100 years ago, however, and it was locally assembling General Motors vehicles bearing their original American badges that really put Holden on the map in the automotive world. Then called Holden Motor Body Builders, it was acquired wholly by General Motors’ five-year-old Australian arm in 1931 to form the company that existed up until today.
Since the first officially-badged Holden vehicle rolled off the production line in 1948, government support was crucial to its success. Over the years, everything from import tariffs to the the more recent and controversial luxury car tax have been introduced to try and protect this crown jewel of the Australian automotive industry. And, for a while, it seemed it was working. At one point in the 1960s, every second car sold in Australia was a Holden. And then, the following decade, along came the Commodore.
Of all its iconic nameplates, the Commodore was unequivocally its most successful. Well over seven million Commodores were produced in Australia since the nameplate’s introduction in 1978, and the model’s immense success as a car built to suit Australian conditions to a tee – despite most being cobbled together from Opel’s leftovers – saw Holden sell as many as 94,692 units in 1998 alone.
Unfortunately, that success didn’t last as long as perhaps Holden had hoped, however. When Holden’s billion-dollar baby, the VE Commodore – which was entirely developed in Australia on the all-new Zeta platform – was first introduced in 2006, it might have been a critical success, but the sales slump began to set in.
By the time Australian manufacturing ended in 2017 – the same time Holden was building what is objectively the best, most sophisticated car it ever produced, the VF Series II Commodore – sales were down to just 23,676 units.
To fill the Aussie sedan-shaped void, along came the ZB Commodore – a car that was neither Australian, as it was a rebadged Opel Insignia made in Germany, or a sedan, given its liftback design – and I’m not sure if the word failure truly describes it when it comes to just how much sales slumped. Within a year, sales were more than halved to 9040 units, and 2019 saw that cut by a third to just 5915, at which point Holden pulled the pin on the model that was always destined to fail.
It’s not that it was a bad car – quite the opposite, actually, as it handled great and went like the clappers in V6 all-wheel drive guise – but it was a crap Commodore. Too firm, too small, too front-wheel drive (in base guise), and too German.
Ultimately, though, like with the rest of Holden’s post-Aussie-made lineup, I feel mismarketing was a big error. Rather than billing its range of imported models that included the Acadia, Astra, Colorado, Equinox, Trailblazer, and Trax as what they were – reasonable cars for a reasonable price, and from a familiar brand name – the company’s advertising department went a bit mental.
Gone were the catchy jingles and clear-cut messaging – and, indeed, any factual information at all – and instead, Holden opted to pitch itself as being some sort of hip lifestyle brand for those with “nothing to prove”. A total load of bollocks, then.
It was back in February – just before the coronavirus pandemic brought the world’s economy to a screeching halt – that General Motors announced its plans to retire the Holden brand by this very day, and since then, the process of winding down operations has gone as smoothly as a fall down a staircase. Coming from someone who’s clumsy enough to have done that before and cut their shins to shreds in the process, that is to say, not very.
With lawsuits from dealerships accusing the company of not offering enough compensation after encouraging them to upgrade their showrooms and signage as the company looked to win back some of the market share it once had, scathing critiques from politicians accusing General Motors of taking the money of Aussie taxpayers and running with it, and of course the many question marks surrounding the company’s future plans for models like the C8 Corvette – which have been availed due to the formation of General Motors Speciality Vehicles (GMSV) – it’s been a whirlwind year that’s come to, quite frankly, an underwhelming end.
This funeral was never going to be a ‘celebration of life’, but rather, an awkward wake for someone we can’t even remember whether we liked or not. A sour taste has clearly been left in the mouths of many – petrolheads or not – and rather than looking back through rose-tinted spectacles, we’re all either metaphorically throwing up a couple of fingers and shouting “up yours,” or sitting here wondering, “so that’s it?”
And that sucks. The first car I ever drove was a Holden Commodore – a burgundy 1992 VP Executive with the iconic faded taillight on one side – and although I can’t really call myself a true Holden fan since I don’t wear speed-dealer sunglasses or have a Southern Cross tattoo, I’ve always held a certain fondness in my heart for the brand. Except, at this point, it’s all meaningless.
Even my memories of working with Holden as a journalist were challenging during the final two years of operation, as like many other motoring journalists no doubt experienced, trying to source press cars was like pulling teeth. As such, the last new Holden I’ll ever drive will be a grey 2018 Equinox LT 2WD with the worst interior plastics I’ve ever encountered. Gee, what a way to go out.
I think the whole thing is summed up best by Jeremy Clarkson’s sign-off to each episode of The Grand Tour – “and on that terrible disappointment, it’s time to end.” I hate to say it, Holden, but while the glory days will be, the later ones won’t be missed. It’s hard to pinpoint just what exactly caused it to get to this stage – a great number of issues, I would suggest – and it didn’t deserve to end this way, but we’ll forever have to look back on the fact that it has ended in, quite frankly, a total shambles.