FIRST PUBLISHED OCTOBER 1978
WE CALLED HIM MISTER RTS IN THE TITLE FOR THE PETER HANENBERGER PROFILE, BUT IN REALITY, THE MAN WHEELS NOMINATED AS MOST INFLUENTIAL OF ALL ACROSS HOLDEN’S 69-YEARS OF LOCAL MANUFACTURING, WAS KNOWN TO ALL AS “HANDLING-BERGER”.
In the early 1970s Australian car buyers looking for responsive dynamics bought European. Holdens, engineered under American George Roberts, formerly of Cadillac, rode softly and understeered excessively. To fix the problem new managing director Chuck Chapman and chief engineer Joe Whitesell enticed 34-year-old Opel chassis guru Hanenberger to Holden with a brief to force change through the previously inert system and to fix Holden’s handling problems. The result was far more than simply firming up the springs and dampers. Led by the inspirational Hanenberger, Holden’s previously frustrated chassis engineers moved the position of the front suspension pick-up points and geometry for a far more fundamental change. Thus the Handling-berger legend was born.
Bill Tuckey’s brilliant profile captures the passionate character and intense drive of the hard-charging, sharpminded and analytical Hanenberger.
The story is Tuckey at his brilliant best: “Peter Hanenberger’s extra value is probably that he is a very fast, very competent driver – one of the two or three best I’ve ridden with. Around the ride and handling track and the hill circuit at Lang Lang, he bent the white GTS through corners at impossible speeds: you could feel the Goodyear Steels biting right to the last outer edge sipe as he used up all the suspensions and then all the tyre design, every last centimetre. He works a lot at the wheel, slinging the car into attitudes, working it very hard, and you are always very much aware that he’s doing it with the dispassionate interest of the engineer.”
The six months Hanenberger expected to spend in Australia became six years. By the time he left he was in the GM fast lane. In the late 1990s internal politics in Germany and Detroit slowed his career until he was offered the chance to return to Australia as CEO in 1999. The opportunity to resurrect his stalled career saw Holden push the VT Commodore architecture into niches it had never previously considered. He then oversaw the development of the all-new VE architecture, Fishermans Bend becoming the ‘homeroom’ for rear-drive cars within General Motors. Too independent for his masters, Hanenberger took early retirement at the end of 2003.
We didn’t know it then, but for Holden, it was the beginning of the end for local manufacturing; of cars designed and engineered here. Under Hanenberger, Holden was the number one seller in Australia in 2002, claiming a 22.2 percent share of the market. In 2018 that share sits at a mere 5.3 percent and YTD (end of June) Holden is only in sixth place.
How does the outspoken Hanenberger feel about Holden’s failure? “It’s not my General Motors anymore,” He told journalist Bruce Newton in late 2017.
“It’s [now] a very short-sighted company. General Motors was a global player. Today General Motors is shrinking to an American company with no foresight.
“PETER HANENBERGER’ EXTRA VALUE IS THAT HE IS A VERY FAST, VERY COMPETENT DRIVER–ONE OF THE TWO OR THREE BEST I’ VE RIDDEN WITH.”
Hanenberger, a brilliant driver, once lost his licence for speeding on the way to Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground. He admitted to slowing to 150km/h before being caught by police. At the Phillip Island press launch of the RTS HZ, he was cautioned to slow down to prevent blowing the 5.0-litre V8, because the surging oil in the nonbaffled sump couldn’t keep up a reliable supply. Today, living in Wiesbaden, Germany, he drives a Porsche 911 Carrera, while his wife Ingrid wheels a Porsche Macan GTS – “very sad for an ex-GM executive”.
Elder son Frank runs two Subaru dealerships in Boston, USA, while Patrick, who was born in Australia, is a production designer for animated films, currently working on the Lego Movie sequel.
Ford’s Falcon came of age in late ’78 so we drove examples of all three generations. Robbo enthused over the VB Commodore-previewing Opel Senator flagship in Germany, while Holden’s TD Gemini, the Honda Accord sedan and the dullest Mazda 929 ever were also tested.
READ THIS STORY AND HEAPS MORE CLASSICS AT wheelsmag.com.au/classic