IN ANY large corporation, with a diverse range of board members, and a parent company with its hands on the strings, it takes a rare combination of drive, talent, leadership and commitment for a single individual to make a significant impact on the company’s fortunes. But it does happen.
In Holden’s case, however, narrowing that down to just 10 men is hugely challenging. You’re comparing people across more than 70 years and different disciplines: product, manufacturing, management, and in different eras of Holden’s economic fortunes. There is also the fundamental question of defining ‘influential’.
Inevitably, many excellent people who contributed enormously to Holden deserve mention. In no particular order these people include: Joe Whitesell, Fred James, Jack Gow, Eddie Mathews, Peter Nankervis, Alf Payze, Tom Walkinshaw, Charlie Patterson, Rob McEniry, Jack Rawnsley, Val Stacey, John Burnell, Alf Payze, John Bagshaw, Bill Steinhagen, Reg Hall, Ray Borrett, Peter Hughes, Glenn Smith, Ross Mckenzie, Mike Devereux, Earl Daum, Bill Abbott, Ray Grigg, Peter Thomas, Roger Gibbs, Nick Baloglou, Kevin Wale, Rod Keane, and so many more we simply don’t have room to list here.
SUPREMELY TALENTED DESIGNER WITH AN EQUALLY SHARP BUSINESS ACUMEN AND WIT LEO PRUNEAU’S career at GM spanned from 1961 to 1988 and he worked in design studios in Detroit, England, Germany, Japan, and Korea.
However, it was the years he spent at Holden from 1969-1974, and later serving as its director of design from 1975-1983, that created his most significant legacy. This was the legendary era of the Monaro and Torana, of Peter Brock and HDT, and Pruneau was at its centre.
Pruneau’s father ran a Plymouth/ Dodge dealership, so he grew up knowing he wanted to work in cars. In 1961 Pruneau graduated from the Art Center College of Design in California to join GM’s advanced studio, and eventually was responsible for the beautiful 1965 Chevrolet Impala two-door hardtop. With the HQ Holden almost finished, his first job at Holden was styling the nose of the all-new model and creating the low-cost SS version.
Pruneau worked on the Gemini, a raft of Commodore models from the VB onwards, the LH Torana, and the Camira, especially the station wagon, which was a Holden creation and built by other GM subsidiaries.
Leo was one Holden executive who fought against the decision to kill the Kingswood. He believed that Kingswood and Commodore should have run side-by-side. Handicapped by the business uncertainty of the era, Pruneau made the most of his opportunities in the endless Holden versus Ford battles of the time.
A NUMBERS MAN BY PROFESSION, BUT WITH A HEART FOR THE RIGHT CAR BILL DELONG was not your typical bean counter. As Holden finance director from 1973-1981, DeLong often fought to improve the product, happy to spend the money if he could see that it made a difference.
An American, DeLong held finance-related positions at Opel (1961-1967) and Vauxhall (1967- 1973), before arriving at Holden.
DeLong is best remembered as offering wise counsel for Chuck Chapman, for supporting chief engineer Joe Whitesell and design boss Leo Pruneau in Holden product meetings, and sensibly and courageously controlling the purse strings during a deeply difficult era at Holden.
DeLong dealt with the political consequences of tariff reductions, the loss of export markets (who decided the HQ should only be built in right-hand drive?), and the need to reduce the head count as Holden’s production dropped.
DeLong returned to Vauxhall as finance director from 1981-1986 before he retired. Upon retirement he revealed his true persona: he grew a beard and his many friends swore he never wore a suit again.
Instead, he spent five and a half months a year developing his farm in Daylesford, Victoria, and the rest of the year living in his country home in England.
ESTABLISHED THE TEMPLATE FOR AUSTRALIA’S OWN CAR HOLDEN’S formula, established in the 1940s and, arguably, followed for the 69 years of local production, was laid down by American engineer Russ Begg. That blueprint centred around low weight and a six-cylinder engine, for a power-to-weight ratio that delivered excellent performance and economy. The result was a car sized to slot between the existing smaller British fours and the bigger American sixes and V8s, and, combined with a real value for money price, instantly proved successful and took Holden to market leadership in just two years.
Begg, who’d previously worked for Budd, the pioneer of allsteel bodies, Packard, Stutz and Jordan, was sent to Germany by GM to work for Opel. It was there that he developed Chevrolet Project 195-Y-15/13, four- and six-cylinder versions of the same engineering prototype. Begg believed in the advantages of monocoque construction in achieving a low weight.
When he was appointed Holden chief engineer in 1944, Begg decided to use the small Chevrolet as a starting point in developing the Holden 48-215. Begg ignored the advice of those favouring a four-cylinder, seeing the inherent advantages of an under-stressed six. The new 1010kg Holden, with a 2.2-litre ohv six, was to prove ideal for Australia. -
Peter Brock can’t possibly be left from of any list of influential Holden people. Through racing triumph and charisma, Brock rose to an exalted position among Australian racing drivers that even his later Energy Polarizer downfall could not tarnish. After winning Bathurst for the first time in the rain-soaked 1972 Hardie-Ferodo 500, Brock went on to establish himself as the King of the Mountain.
In 1979 he bought the Holden Dealer Team racing outfit and began turning out high-performance road cars under the HDT banner, with great success. In the 1980s, Peter Perfect, as he was affectionately known, took the Commodore to a string of five Bathurst wins for a total of nine for the brand. Australia’s racing hero was killed in 2006 when Brock crashed while competing in a WA tarmac rally.
VISIONARY WHO EXPANDED HOLDEN’S FOOTPRINT AND GAVE US THE MONARO MAX WILSON was Holden’s managing director for just under three years (1966-1968), but his influence on Holden continued when he left to run General Motors Overseas Operations in the Asia-Pacific Region from offices on St Kilda Road, Melbourne.
In those prosperous, optimistic days, Holden’s position seemed unassailable. It was the youthful Wilson, just 42 when he joined Holden, who insisted on expanding the range to include a two-door coupe, the odd long-booted Brougham (a quick, short-term rival for the Ford Fairlane), and the long-nosed six-cylinder Torana.
Against much opposition, Wilson demanded that Holden’s new HK coupe should go all the way as a pillarless hardtop: the classic original Monaro. Wilson understood the marketing and racing potential of the Monaro and called it the “biggest step” for the company since the first Holden in 1948.
Later, when Leo Pruneau was styling the Torana hatchback, Wilson returned from a visit to Detroit, where he saw the new Vega hatchback, and insisted Pruneau convert his three-quarter notchback design proposal into what became the LX Torana hatchback.
THE ENGINEERING GURU BEHIND HOLDEN’S MAGNUM OPUS, THE ZETA PLATFORM ONLY after Tony Hyde had spent 37 years at Holden was he able to say, “The VE Commodore is the car we always wanted to build.” As chief engineer, Hyde ran the VE program from its inception.
After rejecting the American Sigma architecture and the idea of modifying the VT platform as the basis for the new VE, Holden was able to go it alone with creation of a no-compromises Australian architecture. It was Hyde, as director of engineering and design from 1997, before becoming executive director in 2000, who ran the engineering centre that made the VE and became the engineering ‘homeroom’ for GM’s new global Zeta architecture. With no help from Opel, the originator of all previous Commodores, Holden’s relatively small team created a world-class car.
The laconic Hyde, who joined Holden in 1966 as an engineer in the chassis department – and later worked in marketing and planning, plus stints overseas in manufacturing – is most proud of the VE’s suspension. Holden completely re-thought the front strut suspension, while moving the steering rack forward, and replaced the semi-trailing arms with a sophisticated multi-link set-up.
The platform underpinned everything from Chevrolet’s fifthgen Camaro to the LWB Caprice luxury car, with the ability to be developed further for the future VF.
FATHER OF THE COMMODORE WHO LATER TURNED HOLDEN’S FORTUNES AROUND CHUCK Chapman came to Australia at the start of 1976 on a mission to make Holdens handle and to introduce Australia’s Own to GM’s world-car era, via the first Commodore. He did both successfully and stayed to shepherd Holden through an incredibly difficult period when, for a time, Holden was insolvent, and relied on GM bail-out money. A very difficult 12 years that saw Holden’s market share plunge, the biggest losses in Australia’s corporate history, the closure of plants, and a short-lived merger with Toyota.
Chapman took the blame, but the biggest mistakes were made by the company in the decade leading to his appointment. Few other leaders would have stayed the distance, let alone rejuvenated the company. During his later years, Chapman oversaw development of the VN Commodore into a full range that included a longwheelbase luxo and ute, crucial models missing from the first generation.
Those years of indecision forced Holden to adopt the Chapman engineered Opel Rekord/Commodore (he was chief engineer at Opel from 1967-1975), against the wishes of the local engineering and design teams who wanted to re-skin the HQ.
The energy crisis of the early ’80s led to an expectation that oil prices would triple, and the launch of the Commodore Four and the 1.6-litre Camira. These were consensus decisions that went against Chapman’s own gut feeling. No man better deserved his retirement.
AGAINST ALL ODDS, FIXED HOLDEN AND DELIVERED THE MOST SUCCESSFUL COMMODORE EVER IN 1986, Bill Hamel, a former Cadillac executive, was a member of a GM team sent to Holden to either fix it or shut it down. GM bailed Holden out and Hamel stayed on, as deputy managing director, before becoming CEO in 1990.
GM’s money came with strings attached: Holden was on its own, there would be no more money from head office. Under Hamel, Holden learned to do more with less. With VN sales – and Holden’s profitability – climbing quickly, Hamel (a long-time manufacturing man at Holden from 1976-1980) was able to use his authority and charismatic leadership to build the team that very cleverly created the VT Commodore range. Hamel, better than most Holden CEOs, understood exactly how to push a program through the Detroit bureaucracy. The VT started as a widened version of the Opel Omega, but in the end, using the money generated by the VN and its successors, Hamel was able to create what amounted to an all-new car, which was exactly what the market demanded.
The VT was instantly the most successful of all Commodores, achieving monthly sales of around 8000 vehicles and crushing its AU Falcon rival. Hamel retired months before the VT’s launch, but without him, chances are it would not have happened as an Australian car.
DESIGN GURU WHO PENNED HOLDEN’S GREATEST HITS; NOW GM’S DESIGN CHIEF ON MAY 1, 2016, Mike Simcoe became Vice President of GM Global Design, the first non-American appointed to the role and only the seventh since Harley Earl established GM’s Art and Colour section in 1927.
Simcoe joined Holden in 1983 as a designer and quickly rose through the ranks of the GM global design community. Before assuming the top position, Simcoe twice previously worked in the US as a senior designer in the advanced studio between 1990 and 1992, and then as the head of American exterior design from 2004-2014.
He then returned to Australia to run GM’s international studios in Port Melbourne, South Korea, and India.
What the formal CV doesn’t tell you is Simcoe’s crucial role in the creation of the all-new VT and VE Commodores, his passion for great design (read proportions), his engineering knowledge, and his love of classic cars.
It was Simcoe’s determination that reduced the VE’s front overhangs to a minimum and stretched the Commodore wheelbase by 127mm to ensure the VE created a new architecture.
Most famously, one Sunday morning Simcoe began a tape-line design of what would become the 21st-century Monaro – the coupe version of the VT – on a wall of his living room.
An inspirational leader, enormously talented designer, and a highly persuasive advocate for anything he believes in, Simcoe understands the modern automotive business like few before him.
MASTERMINDED HOLDEN’S MOVE TO MANUFACTURE AUSTRALIA’S OWN CAR AS EARLY as 1943, GM believed Australia should move from an assembler of bodies to full car manufacturer. In 1944 the Australian government, too, was convinced that production of an Australian car was crucial.
It was Brit Larry Hartnett, Holden managing director from 1934-1946 (pictured far right, in hat) who made it happen. His autobiography Big Wheels and Little Wheels leaves no doubt that Hartnett was the hero behind Holden. In truth, Hartnett made sure Holden was the first company to seriously respond to the Government’s proposal and to ensure that the Commonwealth Bank made loan funds, guaranteed by GM, available.
Hartnett pushed for an Australiandesigned model, but the styling was judged too advanced by Detroit. Still, in terms of engineering, Hartnett got his way: Project 320 was developed in Detroit by a team of Australian engineers, led by Russ Begg, who made sure it was suitable for our conditions – even to having ground clearance of 229mm.
Throughout the new car’s development, GM began to perceive that Hartnett was becoming too independent, “too Australian”, for the corporation and in 1946 he was offered a move to GM’s Overseas Operations in New York.
Refusal forced his departure, however history rightly records that Hartnett was responsible for Australia’s Own Car.
THE ENGINEER-TURNEDCEO WHO REVOLUTIONISED HOLDEN – TWICE IN 1976, new Holden MD Chuck Chapman gave Peter Hanenberger 24 hours to decide if he wanted to spend six months in Australia solving Holden’s dynamic problems.
The young, hard-charging, German engineer jumped at the chance and, working with the locals, forced through major changes to the way Holdens drove. In place of soft-riding understeer, Holdens became RTS-responsive. Six months became six years.
Hanenberger returned to Holden as CEO in 1999, in time to oversee development of the all-new VE, Fishermans Bend becoming the engineering and design ‘homeroom’ for a unique Australian rear-drive architecture.
Ambitious and determined, Hanenberger developed a fruitful and extraordinarily creative relationship with Holden design boss Mike Simcoe. Together they conceived a huge variety of niche models, pushing the VT Commodore architecture into areas Holden never previously contemplated.
Holden began exporting the Monaro coupe (as the Pontiac GTO) to the USA and the upcoming VE became a global architecture.
Like Hartnett before him, Hanenberger turned out to be too independent for General Motors.
He arrived with something to prove, and over his four and a half years in charge (before he took early retirement), Hanenberger pushed Holden autonomy to the limit and created the brilliant VE Commodore.