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 The story behind the first Holden

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Zac Posted - 11 Dec 2019 : 18:32:16
I'm posting this after realising how little information is available online about how the first Holden came into existence. My information comes from books and other printed sources which haven't made it to the internet. It also comes from what I have learnt over the years from other media. There are a just a few links on the internet partly telling the story, and I include one here.

The start of the story of the first Holden began in the 1930s. General Motors bought HMBB (Holden Motor Body Builders) in 1931 and created General Motors Holden. In 1934, Laurence Hartnett became the Managing Director of GM-H, having worked for GM in various capacities in India, Sweden and England (managing GM's Vauxhall division there). He was almost certainly the man who first proposed the idea to General Motors head office of building a complete car in Australia, although there was already a small design team operating in GM-H who may have put the idea to him. By the late 1930s, talks were underway between GM-H and GM in America, and Hartnett was lobbying the Australian Government for funding. The Australian design team had produced a proposed design for the car which Hartnett took to Detroit, but Hartnett had a knack of treading on toes and getting offside with his superiors, and the design was rejected. However, GM agreed to the idea of an Australian car built in Australia, and established a team to work on the project.

WWII put a temporary stop to this while GM-H produced vehicles and machinery for the war effort. By March 1945, with the end of the war in sight, Prime Minister Ben Chifley had agreed to the government helping fund the project, and GM's head office had agreed to a joint team of Australian and US engineers to collaborate on the design. GM-H had a team of twenty engineers, and nine of them headed by Jack Rawnsley had started in the US by June 1945. (One of these engineers was Bill Abbott, who was to later become the MD of BMC Australia, where I worked from 1965 to 1973. In 1968, I attended a series of talks where Bill Abbott spoke, and I had the chance to speak with him afterwards. At the time, I owned an HR Holden and I was the "Holden guy" amongst all my Mini owning mates. Maybe that's where my interest in this story began.)

The combined team had a starting point of the experimental Opel 195-Y-15. which was presented to the design team in 1944. This was one of three designs: 195-Y-13, 195-Y-15 and 195-Y-17. These were all developments of pre-war Opels, the Kapitan and the Olympia. They were chosen because they were monocoque designs, which were a great improvement on the 'body on chassis' cars that GM US was building at the time.

The styling of the car was almost all done by the US members of the team and looked very Buick/Chev, despite influence from Australia. Hartnett kept offering his ideas, and having seen some of his modelling, you would have to say that as a designer or engineer, he was a good Managing Director. He was used to having things his own way in Australia, but was learning that he was a very small part of GM in America. Jack Rawnsley and the other Aussies managed to keep him at bay while they worked on what they wanted for this car, such as stronger suspension, better ground clearance, better turning circle, lighter weight, etc than their US counterparts thought necessary. There had been some compromises made. Some examples: The Australians were working on a one piece windscreen, but talks with Australian manufacturers revealed that no-one was capable of mass producing them at the time. The car went into production with a regular, two-piece windscreen and the almost ineffective vacuum powered wipers because they couldn't source a suitable electric motor. The car also only had 6-volt electrical power.

The first hand-built prototype was completed in August 1946 and was taken to GM's proving ground for testing. A further two prototypes were built and further tested. These cars were code-named and known collectively as '19525', and had 'GMH' lettering on the bonnet and boot where the letters 'HOLDEN' appeared on production models. The name 'Holden' was finally decided upon in 1947. The cars were refined and developed for the next few months before Head Office settled on the final design. In December 1946, the Australian engineers, the three prototypes, parts and panels, dies, engineering plans, tonnes of production machinery, etc all left for Australia on a ship chartered by GM, the 'Wanganella'.

Over the next two years while the project was still secret, GM-H tooled up its two main plants, Fishermans Bend in Victoria and Woodville in South Australia for production. GM-H also established its own forging plant and casting factory to build blocks, cranks, etc for the new engine. Two more prototypes were built and tested during this time. In September and October, ten pilot-build cars were produced on the Fishermans Bend and Woodville production lines. In November 1948, full production started, and on November 29, Prime Minister unveiled the new car at a ceremony at Fishermans Bend, famously exclaiming "She's a beauty".

Cars were being delivered to dealers around the country before then, and after the unveiling, the cars went on sale. All of the first few months production were fulfilling orders placed by buyers who had ordered the car sight unseen. By then, car buyers had been starved of new cars and starved for choice for years, and the Holden filled a large gap between the two basic choices of small, under powered British cars or large, heavy American cars. The Holden's combination of a roomy car, lively six cylinder performance and an affordable price (this was 1948) was a great leap ahead of what was otherwise available. Over the following years through the '50s and into the '60s, Holden came to claim 40% of the new car market. In time, GM-H became complacent, and it wasn't until Ford and Chrysler produced serious competitors that Holden started to have to develop its cars from where (apart from body styling) the cars had remained almost unchanged from 1948.

That was all a long time ago. Holden's market share has now shrunk to a tiny fraction of what it once was, and it ceased production in Australia in 2017 to become an importer only. Just a day or so ago, Holden announced that the current imported Holden Commodore is to be axed within months. But that is all part of another, much longer story.

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skaifeman Posted - 17 Dec 2019 : 13:28:17
Very good read.

Kieron302 Posted - 17 Dec 2019 : 11:55:31
Good topic Zac, There's plenty of info out there, this looks fairly detailed -
Henry Posted - 14 Dec 2019 : 02:42:56
It was a good read, from memory, but a lot like anything Harry Firth ever committed to interview or print (“How I Won The War”). He introduced Nissan to australia. Holden and Nissan. We have a lot for which to blame him.
Zac Posted - 13 Dec 2019 : 20:55:00
Now, now. There wasn't even a tiny bit of Opel in the 48-215. Hartnett was an interesting character with a forceful personality who didn't endear himself to GM management, but it was he more than any one person who got Holden started as a make of car. His story is told very much from the side of Laurence Hartnett. I read it many years ago, well before I knew what I know now, but even then I didn't believe that he was as clever as he told us he was.
Henry Posted - 13 Dec 2019 : 20:38:26
I’d forgotten that somewhere, buried within the archives under my parents’ house, there should be a copy of Sir Laurence Hartnett’s autobiography, “Big Wheels & Little Wheels”, which I haven’t read in a long time. It had a lot of the to-ing and fro-ing - at least from Larry’s point of view - that saw the inception of Australia’s Own Opel (although, from memory, he was gone - or at least going - from GM-H by the time the 48-215 was introduced.

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