Shortly after midday today, a red Commodore marked the end of 69 years of Holden manufacture in Australia – and to countless enthusiasts, it was an occasion as sad as it was once virtually unthinkable.
There is a select group of cars that transformed their respective nations’ concept of mass motoring and the original 48-215 ‘FX’ certainly ranks alongside the Mini, 2CV or Fiat 600 in this regard. This was mass-market transport made in Australia, for Australia.
Holden’s first involvement with the motor industry was as a coachbuilder and in 1924, it became the exclusive supplier of car bodies to General Motors. Seven years later it became a part of the GM empire and as early as 1936 the division’s MD Laurence Hartnett was planning a ‘wholly Australian car’ in place of the locally-built Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Vauxhalls. Towards the end of the Second World War, the government was keen to promote a locally-designed car and General Motors already had the basis of a suitable model in the form of a Chevrolet project that had been rejected as too compact for US motorists.
A small group of prototypes were extensively tested and on the 29th November 1948 Ben Chifley, the then Prime Minister, unveiled the new 48-215. It was not a vehicle that represented a major technological advance and its list of standard fittings was low even by the standards of the day; no sidelights, carpet, door armrest, heater or even direction indicators of any form, one sun visor and a solitary tail lamp.
Motoring picture of the day
And perhaps the major reason for the impact of the FX on the post-war motorist was that it offered the ideal combination of advantages in a car that was launched at precisely the right moment. The brochures promised an engine designed for local conditions the 2.1-litre six-cylinder unit was capable of “80 miles per hour and 30 miles per gallon” with a smoothness not found in such rivals as the four-cylinder Austin A70 Hampshire. It was also flexible enough to propel the Holden from a crawl to cruising speed with the steering column-mounted lever in third gear.
Holden intended that the FX would appeal to rural motorists and urban drivers alike, with suspension that could cope with the country’s many unsurfaced roads, and for the Sydney or Melbourne suburbanite, the ‘Aerobilt’ body was smart and offered room for a quintet of adult passengers: ‘you don’t climb in or scrabble out – you step in with ease and dignity. A great boon for elderly people and women.”
There was also a sense of robustness that was lacking in some of its competitors. Clive James once observed of the Standard Vanguard that it was a toss-up whether the ‘chromium trim would rust through before the exhaust pipe fell onto the road’.
Above all, this was ‘Australia’s Own Car’, which automatically set it apart from any other car that bore an American or British marque and ten years later, the Lion and Stone badge adorned 40 percent of new models. The name of Holden had now entered the lexicon of a nation’s popular culture and the idea that in 2013 the company’s chief would state that ‘building cars in this country is just not sustainable’ would have been inconceivable.
The moment when that last Commodore leaves the production line is not only the closing of a chapter in GM’s history – in many respects it is the end of a country’s automotive dream, one that began nearly 70 years ago.
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