EH Holden Review - Iconic Holdens #3
The EH's arrival launched a whole new era for Holden
It’s impossible to understand the EH Holden properly without locating it in the Australian automotive context. I have argued that the original 1948 Holden 48-215 was the best car in the world for Australia in the early postwar years (its first real rival being the Peugeot 203 in 1953).
The Holden offered a unique blend of economy, performance, spaciousness, durability, ruggedness and ability to handle rough roads, plus a ubiquity of spare parts. Constant improvements were made and by the time the facelifted FJ arrived in 1953 the design was sorted.
From this point right through until the advent of the EH in the spring of 1963 the mechanical design of each successive model was essentially as per the FJ. Sure the FE/FC looked absolutely fresh and modern and had better steering, while the EJ offered improved handling thanks to a wider track and lower centre of gravity, but the 1962 Holden was essentially a modernised edition of the 1948 model.
The highlight of the EJ range was the Premier variant with gorgeous Howe leather interior. There were front bucket seats, centre console and Mercedes-like white steering wheel. It looked as much at home in Toorak or Vaucluse as a Mercedes-Benz 220SE (which had high grade vinyl rather than real hide) or Jaguar Mark 2.
Meanwhile, the world had moved on. In 1948 a maximum speed of 80 miles an hour with fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon was almost unheard of. The EJ Premier could manage just 78 and maybe 23. But the four-cylinder Fiat 1500 and Peugeot 404, both with all-synchromesh four-speed gearboxes, could better 85 and travel further than 30 miles on every gallon. The Peugeot still used drum brakes but both cars stopped much better than any Holden.
In 1948 the Holden faced would-be rivals such as the Austin A40 Devon and the side-valve Morris Oxford, then the Ford Zephyr on 13-inch wheels. By 1962 the English models – Zephyr aside – were less prevalent, while at the fringes sophisticated Euromobiles were available for Premier money.
Into this brave new world drove the EH Holden. It was a minor facelift on the EH done in Detroit (as were the finishing touches to the EJ and, later, the entire HD), but the big news was the first new engine since 1948. There were two versions (actually three if you count the low compression version of the smaller unit). The standard 149 promised 100 horsepower, a whopping one third more than its predecessor, while the high flyin’ 179 raised this to 115, close to double the output of the first Holden (60 hp).
Despite giving away 30 horsepower to the heftier Chrysler Valiant, the 179 manual version of the EH was its performance equal. Although this exciting machine couldn’t quite achieve the magic ‘ton’ (100 miles per hour), here was the first Holden that could enter a 500-mile race for production cars with some prospect of winning. Had GM-H managed to give the EH front disc brakes, it might well have outsped the nimble Cortina GT.
The Premier was now available with manual transmission and there was a Premier wagon. With that clean, elegant styling and gorgeous interior, it was a machine to covet. Few cared that it didn’t handle like a Peugeot or stop like a Fiat. Power steering would be available as a (rare) option late in the EH’s model run. But disc brakes, a coil-sprung rear end and suchlike were still reserved for future models.
We revere the EH because it represented such a huge advance on the EJ. But it had to make up for a decade and a half of GM-H complacency. The Holden had been outclassed in some respects since the mid-1950s by cars such as the Peugeot 403 and Ford Zephyr Mark II, but sales of up to 50 per cent (and in 1958 a little more than 50 per cent) of the passenger car market meant senior management did only the minimum to keep the Holden seeming modern, mainly with styling, which was often fresher – FE, EH, HQ – than General Motors’ American and European efforts.
When the XK Falcon failed abjectly to handle Australian conditions, that complacency doubtless seemed justified (To understand how dated the Holden was in almost every respect, consider those images of the XK parked alongside an FB!).
With the Australian automotive manufacturing era now drawing to a close, we can divide its history into periods. Until the decision was made to turn a mid-sized Opel into the Kingswood/Premier successor, Holden looked far more to the US than to Europe. Three-speed gearboxes, bench seats and drum brakes prevailed. But when Opel’s chief engineer, Charles (‘Chuck’) Chapman was appointed managing director of GM-H, the perspective shifted. First came Radial Tuned Suspension. Then the Commodore.
During the 1948-78 era, the EH was one of the high points. It retained the simplicity and ruggedness of earlier models but added impressive new engines with forged steel crankshafts and high compression. Arguably, the EH’s hard-edged yet elegant styling from the Bill Mitchell era has dated better than Farina’s efforts for Fiat, Peugeot and BMC. And the interior ambience of a Premier rivalled a Chevrolet Impala’s.
From the first model, strong lowdown torque had always been a Holden trait. This meant that the utility and panel van variants served tradesmen well, while the sedan or station sedan was better able to tow a caravan than most European cars. Whatever they could do, the EH could do that much better, while using negligibly more fuel.
When Australian-made cars grow rare and we look back nostalgically, history will be reduced to bulletpoints. The EH will be among them.
1963 EH HOLDEN
BODY: Four-door steel-monocoque Sedan/Wagon
WEIGHT: 1154kg -Sed/Wagon
ENGINE: 2447cc/2940cc pushrod OHV inline-6
TRANSMISSION: 3-speed column-shift manual. Synchro – top and second/ Hydra-Matic auto.
SUSPENSION: Ind – coil spring, unequal length wishbones, tubular shockers (f) Live axle –semi-elliptic leaves with tubular shockers (r)
BRAKES: Drums (f/r)
POWER: 74.5kW @ 4400rpm (2447cc), 86kW @ 4000rpm (2940cc)
TORQUE: 197Nm @ 2000rpm (2447cc), 237Nm @ 1600rpm (2940cc)
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