CULTURAL VACUUM

PETER ROBINSON MUSES ON THE PAST AND WHAT’S TO COME

HOLDEN 1948 2017 EX–EDSTART

PETER ROBINSON MUSES ON THE PAST AND WHAT’S TO COME

IN THE cliched language of a funeral, in the pages that follow, Wheels celebrates the 69-year life of Australian Holdens. We’re left to remember the Holden story: the great cars, the visionary people, the against-the-odds creative and manufacturing efforts, the dramas and, not least, the heroic drives across this magazine’s involvement with indigenous Holden cars.

Wheels, just five years younger than Holden’s iconic 48-215, first road tested its successor, the FJ, a year after it was launched. Increasingly, especially from the 1970s, Wheels’ editors learned that a Holden cover sold magazines, just as Holden and HDT and, later, HSV appreciated that comprehensive coverage in Wheels helped sell their cars to enthusiasts. How the loss of local automotive content, specifically the performance variants, impacts car magazine sales is one of the great imponderables of the industry.

Sadly, inevitably, pragmatism rules in 2017: without massive exports, there simply is no rational business case to support the designing, engineering and building of cars in Australia. We may know that, but it doesn’t help. Canberra doesn’t care: in the end politicians of both persuasions were more interested in using Holden merely as some kind of weapon before the next election cycle.

With few exceptions, none of them understood that there is no car manufacturing country in the world that doesn’t, in some way, provide significant financial encouragement.

Too late now, of course, but this is not just business. It is personal.

I was 11 when my father first bought a Holden: an FJ panel van complete with a Bailey station wagon conversion (rear seat and sliding side windows), to replace an Austin A40 in 1955. It was, with the farm’s Land Rover, the car in which I learned to drive.

The FJ was succeeded by an FC ‘station sedan’ and from then on, for decades, every two years and 80,000km or so, the latest model (always a Standard, never the Special) arrived: FB, EJ and HR until, after Bib Stillwell’s switched from selling Holden to Ford, dad moved up to a Fairlane 500. He later returned to Holden with a fuelinjected Commodore Berlina and a Ute.

I just loved cars. I lusted after sports cars, and never owned a Holden. But I road tested them all, or so it seems now, and came to know and like the Holden people, my visits to Lang Lang, and those rare occasions when we were allowed into the top secret Fishermans Bend engineering and design centre.

I think I always knew the VE Commodore would be the last allnew Australian car. Writing Autobiography, my book that chronicled the VE story from Mike Simcoe’s first proportion-defining scribble to the 2006 press launch, I developed an appreciation of what Holden meant to those who worked there. I interviewed dozens of people; eight told me they had the best job at Holden, four claimed they had the best job in the world. It’s a tribute to Holden that 74 Australian employees now work for GM in Detroit (see p148), but it doesn’t help the generations that follow.

Enthusiasts, those who appreciate what it means to drive an Australian-developed car, understand now what we’ve lost. For the rest, well, the cultural significance of the demise of local manufacturing won’t truly become apparent for years.

I’m sad beyond words.