WHO REALLY DECIDED HOLDENíS FATE?

HOLDEN MADE THE FIRST CAR I EVER OWNED. IN A SHOEBOX SOMEWHERE I HAVE A FADING COLOUR PRINT OF MY MATE PAUL SITTING ON THE TWISTED BONNET OF THE RETRIEVED WRECK IN THE BACKYARD OF MY PARENTSí COUNTRY NSW HOME.

John Carey

Paulís giving a goofy thumbs up from beneath his mop of 1970s hair. He and his girlfriend had been my passengers when it happened. Fortunately, none of us were injured.

On that Friday evening four decades ago I thought I knew what I was doing, but the dirtroad loss of control, long seconds of tankslapping oversteer, and the rollover that followed said otherwise. My confidence, I came to realise during the carless months that followed, was vastly exceeded by my ignorance.

My Holden was a green EH wagon with a white roof. It had a 149 cubic-inch Red motor, columnshift manual and a radio, but no heater. Brand image had played no part in my choice. It simply seemed to be the best second-hand thing I could find in the small town where I grew up. Iíd worked after-school and weekend jobs to save the money to buy it midway through Year 12.

The Holden versus Ford argument was a dispute I never wanted to join. It seemed to me then, and it still does today, to be a product of the parochial passions of tribal boneheads. After the Holden crash I switched to Ford. But only because XP Falcons were what I happened to find in the price range available to a very junior journalist.

But there are things worth getting worked up about. After joining Wheels in 1989 I began to get acquainted with the Australian car industry.

Over time I got closer to some of the executives, designers, engineers, and others who made the key decisions, from what to build to what colours it should be painted. Here was a passion to succeed, in spite of Detroitís demands and other difficulties, that I could admire.

Beginning in the í80s, and continuing through the í90s and noughties, thick layers of tariff protection that had been in place for too long were gradually stripped away under the Button Plan. The idea was to expose the local industry to competitive pressure and at the same time make all cars more affordable for Australians.

It was a period that eventually produced Ford Australiaís excellent Territory and, two years later, the best Holden ever. Here was the VE Commodore, a range of cars better looking and better to drive than anything wearing its price-tags had any reasonable right to be. Designed, engineered, developed and manufactured by Australians.

But the notion that a nation should cherish its ability to make things, its industrial self-reliance, was becoming unfashionable. Such ideas were coming to seem as quaintly outdated as the pipe and felt hat clutched in the right hand of Prime Minister Ben Chifley in those 1948 black-and-white press photographs beside the first Holden.

So we elected leaders who told us that the Australian car industry was a foolish investment.

The complex skills and rewarding jobs that came with it didnít deserve even minimal taxpayer support, they insisted.

They were confident, yet seemingly ignorant that such a change might have big and irreversible consequences. Defter hands on the levers of policy, some smart correction to the doctrinaire direction of travel might have saved the situation.

Now all we can do is look at the wreckage of Holden and wonder, like I did all those years ago, what ifÖ

We elected leaders who told us that the Australian car industry was a foolish investment

Thank you, in passing

Iíd like to express my great gratitude to all those in the Australian automotive industry who patiently, over many years, taught me so much about the business of creating cars. It was a brilliant education, and I donít remember ever saying thanks.