Holden FB and EK: Aussie original

By: John Wright

Presented by

Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK
Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK Holden FB and EK

Holden entered the swinging sixties with a whimper rather than a bang thanks to dated styling and even more dated features

Holden FB and EK: Aussie original
Aussie original: Holden FB and EK

 

Holden FB & EK

Even at its launch on 14 January 1960, the FB Holden did not look absolutely up to date. The styling themes dated back to the 1957 Chevrolet and in some respects to the ’55. As the model code reveals (see breakout), the car had been scheduled for a 1959 launch, but was a little late. So, unkind as it may seem, the FB really was launched in the wrong decade.

It still used essentially the same six-cylinder engine as the original 1948 48-215 (‘FX’), matched to the same three-speed gearbox with non-synchro first, but ‘Australia’s Own Car’, as GMH still liked to call it, had put on plenty of weight in the intervening 11 years. The FX weighed 997kg to the FB Special’s 1131kg, a difference of two adults.

While the overwhelming majority of 1960 cars, including most sports and luxury machines, still used drum brakes all around, few were afflicted with such dated items as vacuum-operated wipers, an external bonnet release or even the aforementioned three-speed ’box.

Hindsight makes a great tool for wisdom, but in 1960 very few prospective Holden customers were fazed by the FB’s lack of cutting-edge modernity. It was still – just as the brochure said in its opening foray – the ‘only car designed specifically for Australian conditions’:

- You could hose out the interior;

- It had 7.33 inches (18.6cm) of ground clearance when typical English and European cars had barely six inches (even though the FX had 8.5in);

- And you could buy spare parts just about anywhere.

Holden dealers were happier than ever to point out these humble virtues because they knew Ford Australia was about to launch a much more thoroughly modern Milly.

Ford Australia executives ought to have taken due notice, any notice, of GMH’s obsession with developing the Holden to cope with local conditions. When the XK Falcon arrived in September of the same year, it quickly proved too fragile. Despite claims in its advertising to the contrary, the Falcon had not been subjected to arduous local testing and the cars sold here were just like those sold in North America. They needed to do much more than just fit Fairlane ball-joints (an early change) to make ’em tough enough for Oz.

But who can forget magazine images of the FB Holden and XK Falcon shot together? It was like comparing the here and now and the US with the Falcon, versus the day before yesterday and Slim Dusty with the Holden. American sitcoms dominated Australian television (which had only arrived in time for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics), and even the host and hostess of Pick a Box were Americans Bob and Dolly Dyer. But at least Holden buyers weren’t pretending their cars were Chevrolets.

In more than just the ’57 Chevy sense, the FB revisited the mid-50s. Beneath the already unfashionable wraparound windscreen, knee-threatening A-pillars and contrasting colour encased in chrome lay an FE/FC floorpan. The wheelbase was unchanged, but the body was stretched (mainly in the rear) by 4.8 inches, widened an inch and lowered an inch.

At the time, the FB was seen as the third all-new Holden but it is more accurate to think of the FB/EK as a major facelift on the FE/FC. By this reckoning, the 1962 EJ became the third new Holden shape.

It’s difficult to see that the FB represented any real gain over the popular FC apart from a larger boot. Equally, a couple of negatives were the extra weight and the briefly fashionable wraparound screen that distorted most of the extra vision and impeded ingress and egress.

Beneath the FB’s bonnet with its external release lay the same old ‘grey’ engine, increased by 90cc to 2262cc and with a higher compression ratio (up from 7.0 to 7.25:1). This engine still carried memories of low-octane fuel. Its virtue was the arrival of peak torque at just 1400rpm, all but obviating the need for low gears except from a standing start. Peak power of 75bhp (56kW) arrived at 4200rpm.

Maximum speed was just 80mph (129km/h), making it slower than its 1948 predecessor, if perhaps a little quicker in some acceleration increments. But where 30 miles per gallon (7.8L/100km) could be managed in the FX, anything better than 25 was an achievement in the FB — and it deteriorated even further with the EK facelift and the introduction of the dreaded Hydra-Matic three-speed auto.

Certainly the FB’s five extra horsepower were insufficient to give it equivalent performance to its predecessor, which was two or three mph quicker and had superior acceleration — zero to 60mph (97km/h) taking a second more at 20sec. It seems that, when the FB was being developed a decade and more after the original Holden, key ingredients of that recipe had been forgotten: the lightest possible weight aids performance and economy.

Nevertheless, the FB proved very popular and was still competitive. What this tells us is how relatively advanced the 48-215 had been in 1948. In its 15 January 1960 Engineering Notebook, Autocar magazine gave the FB good marks: "Much of the success of this model obviously stems from its availability in Australia at a price so moderate that its only direct competitors are substantially smaller cars. But we were interested to find that, even when used on the opposite side of the world to its designed terrain, the Holden’s highly developed orthodoxy provided motoring which was in most respects excellent."

A significant improvement was introduced five months after the FB’s introduction when GMH made the change to ‘Magic Mirror Acrylic Lacquer Finish’, a new paint that was more advanced than the industry norm in 1960. More than half a century on, FBs finished in the earlier duco are the rarest and most highly sought.

Two-tone paint, which had proved so popular on the outgoing FC Holden, was even more extravagant on the FB. But the acrylic process meant the available colours changed so that, for example, Satellite Yellow replaced Fernando Yellow. Regardless of the process used, a pastel colour was often contrasted with a white flash. Mauve and grey was also popular. So was a red flash against white.

The FB was the first Holden produced for left-hand drive, and a new export destination was Hawaii; this might explain why some of the two-tone colour combinations were more like what you’d see on a Hawaiian shirt than an Aussie car. Lilac Grey (mauve) with Cathay Grey flash and Twilight Turquoise with Grecian White flash were two of numerous innovative liveries (both in Magic Mirror).

Impressively, Holden sold 174,747 FBs in less than 18 months, compared with 191,724 FCs in 21 months. In May 1961 the subtler EK was released and the undoubted major news was the arrival of the Hydra-Matic as a £119 ($238) option on Special sedans and wagons.

Other mechanical changes were confined to a new tailshaft, larger transmission hump and revisions to the carburettor and distributor. And there was an internal bonnet release.

Almost paradoxically, the EK’s plain full-length horizontal chrome strip — which was so muted compared to the FB’s brazen flash — had the effect of lowering the visual height of the car. The frontal treatment was neater and more integrated.

Some of the new paint colours had already made their debut on later examples of the FB.

My uncle bought a grey EK Hydra-Matic with red interior and I remember being especially impressed by the moving colours on the speedo instead of a needle (just like the FB), the ‘PNDLR’ configuration for the transmission and the richness of silver threads through the bright red Elascofab upholstery.

Yet even then this latest Holden did not feel modern. By the Christmas holidays of 1961-62, there were plenty of sleek new Falcons to be seen.

The EK was on the market for a shorter period than any previous Holden and, when the true third-generation EJ arrived in July 1962, a total of 150,214 had been built.

AMERICANS KNOW BEST

The lovely FE was the first Holden to be wholly designed in Australia. Glen Smith was the co-ordinator whose main job was to ensure that the local car would follow General Motors’ favoured styling themes.

Alf Payze reported to Smith and was responsible for all Holdens from the FE (above) to the EJ (although not in its final version). He was 43 when the first drawings of the FE were done in late 1951 or early 1952.

I interviewed the late Joe Schemansky for Wheels in the early to mid-1980s. He styled the Wide-Body ’59 Pontiac and became Holden’s first director of design staff in 1964. He told me that in mid-1961, when he was a senior stylist, he could spot something wrong with one of the proposed new cars hiding under covers.

"I lifted the cover and correctly guessed that the car was a Holden. ‘This is awful,’ I said to Paul [Gillan, a colleague]. ‘Bill Mitchell [GM’s US design ace] should see this’."

Consequently, Detroit took control. Long-time and now retired senior Holden stylist Peter Nankervis said: "They picked the bumpers up, put valances underneath, made a clean radiator grille with a ‘forehead’ and gave it a reverse angle grille with very fine blades."

It was a major improvement: "The early version was not a nice looking car, particularly in that revolting shade of green shown on the cover of the magazine," Nankervis said.

Having finalised the EJ, it must have seemed logical to facelift it into the EH in Detroit. Joe Schemansky was involved in the project, but Alf Payze had been sidelined.

Nankervis was in Fishermans Bend when it arrived in a box: "It had been done entirely in America," he said.

"The EJ was the last car Alf really had much of a hand in. There was a new car being done at that time, but it was not considered very satisfactory by the United States guys."

Nankervis himself thought it was "very original" while Payze told me that he had turned from the US to Opel in Europe for inspiration.

Schemansky and his successor Leo Pruneau were instrumental in shaping the HD. Nankervis reckons Payze would have had no say: "You can just imagine someone over there saying, ‘Just get on and do one [another car] and give it to them’. That’s the way they did it in those days. So they did the HD."

GMH opened its local Technical Centre at Fishermans Bend in 1964 and Holdens were again designed locally. Schemansky remained in charge until 1975, when Pruneau took over.

DECODING HOLDEN

Holden had a unique and arcane model code system that ran from the FJ through to the EH. It related numbers to letters inversely. So K stood for 1, J for 2, I was omitted because it was too close to the numeral 1, H was 3, G=4, F=5, E=6, D=7, C=8 and B=9.

The first letter in each code referred to the decade, the second to the year. So FJ stood for 1952, when the FJ had been scheduled for release. The FE duly arrived in 1956. The FB, intended for 1959, eventually arrived in 1960 and the EK was on time in 1961.

The 48-215 was named for its year and engine size. It was never officially an FX, but dealers gave it that code to distinguish it from the FJ. The X stood for unknown.

This system was dropped for the HD because there was a feeling that too many people had sussed it out. The HD was named — again with a twist — for Holden’s managing director at the time, David Hegland.

Most interesting in this decoding of Holden’s product planning is the EF, the proposed 1965 Holden. It reached fibreglass model stage at about the same time as Modern Motor put a spy shot of the proposed next-model Holden on the cover of its April 1961 edition. It seems that both the EF and the early version of what was to become the EJ met with such strong disapproval in Detroit that design authority was removed from Fishermans Bend (refer above).

 

Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for more unique car reviews and features plus see the latest unique and classic cars for sale.

Subscribe to Unique Cars magazine
- Print edition
- Digital edition