IT’S DIFFICULT to believe it’s come to this. Our once-proud industrial nation now no longer makes cars. We’ve been doing it, all by ourselves, for almost 70 years, since Holden dropped the sheets on what was announced as ‘Australia’s Own Car’, the 48-215 Holden sedan, in November 1948. Before that, Australia assembled kits of cars – Ford began doing that in Geelong pretty much with its Model T – and put locally built bodies on imported chassis.
For around half that time we’ve been exporting our Aussie-made cars to other countries, too. Holden and Toyota, especially, sent tens of thousands of cars overseas each year.
But on 20 October 2017, when the last bright red Holden Commodore SS-V Redline was driven from the end of Holden’s vehicle assembly plant in Elizabeth, South Australia, it all came to an end.
There are a stack of reasons why Australia has killed its manufacturing – and here is not the place to analyse it.
But many street machiners won’t be old enough to know – or have had the desire to discover – that brands as diverse as Volkswagen, Mercedes, Renault, Jeep, British Leyland, Peugeot and AMC have all assembled, built or designed cars here. Sure, some of them were little more than kit-car assembly operations in suburban warehouses, but Australia was mega-manufacturer Toyota’s first export market and also the first place it chose to create a factory outside of Japan. It’s a tragedy for our national pride that it’s also the first Toyota fullscale manufacturing facility ever to be shut down.
But back to Holden. In the past Holden had production facilities scattered across the country – Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne. It really wasn’t a smart way to do business – especially when some models were welded, painted and trimmed in one
factory then shipped by train or truck to another for the mechanicals to be installed – but those factories kept food on the table for thousands of Aussie families for decades, the company peaking with nearly 25,000 employees in the 1960s.
During the 1980s, Holden grew its presence in the GM world and rationalised its local operations.
Buoyed by government incentives that encouraged investment in Australian manufacturing and industry, in the early 1980s Holden became Australia’s top exporter of manufactured goods, sending hundreds of thousands of fourcylinder engines – worth hundreds of millions – around the world.
Except for some kits to our mates across the ditch, Commodore has come exclusively from the Elizabeth assembly plant since 1988’s VN series. This factory and its staff was also the source for the export-spec Chevrolet Lumina and Caprice (sold in the Middle East and South Africa), our Monaro rebadged as the Pontiac GTO (USA), the Pontiac G8 (also USA), those bad-arse US-spec Chevrolet Caprice PPVs (Police Pursuit Vehicles), and the Chevrolet SS that was, until this year, on sale in America too.
In September, Street Machine was invited to Elizabeth to see some of the last of our Aussie Holdens – the last cars to be designed and made in Australia – being built. This is what we saw… s
“RIGHT now, it feels like I’m on holiday,” says Andrew ‘Gumpy’ Willoughby, a former assembly line worker at Holden’s Elizabeth vehicle assembly plant. I’m talking to him on Monday, 23 October – the first day of the rest of Andrew’s life. “To be honest, I’ve got a hangover!” he admits. “It hasn’t sunk in yet that I won’t be going back to build cars with the rest of the boys.”
Andrew left school in 1993 and did his first shift at Holden on 23 May, 1995. He was hands-on with three generations of Holdens: the VS, then VT-VZ – including all the cool stuff like Monaros and US-export GTOs – and VE-VF, mainly hanging completed doors on the cars.
“I got the nickname ‘Gumpy’ from Forrest Gump,” he explains, referring to the movie where Tom Hanks’s character runs across America. “I had to run to keep up!”
Andrew treasures his memories. “I was 18 when I began,” he says. “We got a lot of training in what was known as the Pilot Room. There, they would have pre-production models more than a year before production so we could learn how to, and practice how to, put them together.
“In the VY and VZ days (from 2002) we had Peter Hanenberger as the boss. He was unbelievable. He was the bloke who set us up for all the export stuff – a great leader. Looking back now, it was unbelievable working on the line back then. We were smashin’ out all these awesome models – coupes, Caprices, the utes and the tonners, all-wheel-drive stuff.
“Apparently other car factories around the world couldn’t get over the fact that we could produce sedans, wagons, long-wheelbase and the tonner all on the same production line.
“Looking back now, I’ve worked on some awesome things. I saw the Monaro come back! To see a Holden as a GTO, the VS GTS-R, that was awesome at the time!”
Andrew admits that having an axe dangling over the operation has made things difficult in recent years, but when that knock-off bell rang in Elizabeth for the final time, he walked out with his head held high.
“For the past four or five years, and even for a couple of years before that, when no decision had been made, it was really hard to make any significant life plans,” he explains. “Now it’s like being 18 again and just starting out looking for a job.
“But I thoroughly enjoyed working here. I loved it. In 20 years’ time we’ll be talking to our kids and grandkids about what we used to do.”