Holden red engines (EH)

By: Joe Kenwright

Holden red engines Holden red engines Holden red engines
Holden red engines Holden red engines Holden red engines
Holden red engines Holden red engines Holden red engines

Engine advances have often been the saviour of the Australian car industry, says Joe Kenwright

Holden red engines (EH)
Holden red engines


Holden red engines (EH)


I once owned a late-'63 EH Holden 149 manual. It was a 25,000km minter I found for my sister as her first car. She loved it, but after a second gang of thieves were caught stealing it from those who stole it a week earlier, I bought it back before it could be stolen again!

The EH had belonged to a farmer who bought a new EH ute and sedan together, wore out the ute and left the sedan in the garage.

On its original cross-plies, guiding a cork in rough seas would have been easier than driving the EH. I decided to fit new tyres before my sister discovered the delights of revving it out in second. A set of the latest Uniroyal Steel Cats then made it feel like a kid's balloon with a fishing weight attached, all floppy and loose up top but at least glued to the road.

The EH could sit proudly beside the Porsche 911E also in my garage at the time because its 2.4-litre six was the same size and just as sweet. It's often argued that 2.4 litres is the optimum size for a six and these two cars, along with the Datsun 240Z and Dino Ferrari 246, proved a point.

Just as the EH arrived in a golden era for Australians, so had my EH. My girlfriend had an equally tidy and cherished XW Falcon and with my car loaded with mates and hers with her friends, we would travel huge distances in convoy. The only difference was that my passengers would emerge stiff and aching from the seats!

Apart from the gearbox which imploded one day without warning, the EH just kept singing along. It was one of my all time favourites for a long time, thanks to that smooth six, despite its primitive underpinnings.

Since the first Holden, the archetypal rear drive Australian work and family car has always been based on a six-cylinder engine despite several attempts to define it as a V8 or a four cylinder.

When the EH arrived in 1963 with its new 'red' engines, it was seen as a revival of the Australian car but the hidden shift in the culture that produced it was far more significant.

It was the first Holden to offer real choice: two engines, two transmissions, four body styles, and three levels. It was also typical of so many Australian advances - it arrived when many Aussies were starting to doubt the industry's ability to reinvent itself. At these critical points in our local automotive history, it's usually required an engine breakthrough to bring the focus back to the Aussie family car.


The first, overhead valve, Holden 'grey' engine was virtually unrivalled on its arrival in 1948. Its 132.5ci (2160cc) generated a healthy 60bhp (45kW), but Holden did very little to it over the next 14 years apart from upping the compression ratio to exploit better quality fuel and boosting capacity to 138ci (2262cc) and a pathetic 75bhp (56kW).

Although the EH engines were a dramatic improvement over what came before them, the 'red' motor faced intense competition the moment it was released.

By 1960, the Zephyr six had grown to 156ci (2553cc) and 85bhp (63kW) while Vauxhall in 1960 went to 161ci (2651cc).

Although Holden enjoyed a handy price advantage over both of these models, the first Falcon destroyed that cosy arrangement when it arrived with 144ci (2360cc) and 90bhp (67kW) later in 1960. Within a year, the 170 Pursuit joined it with 2786cc and 101bhp (75kW).

Then there was the unique Australian six derived from the old British A40 engine, which boasted 149ci (2433cc) and 80bhp (60kW) for 1962. Named the Blue Streak after the joint missile program at Woomera, it couldn't stop the new Austin Freeway from being immediately trumped by a ballistic new Chrysler Valiant. Its 225ci (3688cc) slant six delivered a V8-like 145bhp (108kW)!

The Holden 149 and 179 sixes start to make sense in this context. The 149 with its 2442cc and 100bhp (75kW) and the 179ci (2934cc) with its 115bhp (86kW) were both healthy enough to be taken seriously.

Unlike their US counterparts, most Australian drivers still rated fuel costs as important with longer distances to travel and memories of fuel rationing fresh. It's significant that Holden offered a low compression 90bhp (67kW) version of the 149 for cheaper, low grade fuel.

The new engines enhanced the virtues of the 'grey' one they replaced, improving third gear flexibility, boosting longevity and fuel economy while reducing maintenance. Features like a seven bearing crankshaft, hydraulic valve lifters, external oil pump with filter, new gasket and fastening systems that almost eliminated oil leaks - not to mention its sweet, smooth nature -- very quickly distracted Aussie buyers from any on-paper shortfalls. Although the extra grunt quickly showed up weaknesses in the EJ's old manual gearbox!

The EH and its red engines were then perfectly timed to exploit an economy recovering from the credit squeeze, with record sales up to that point. Yet by 1965, Holden was forced to add another carburettor to create the 179 X2 to match Ford's new Super Pursuit 200ci (3.3-litre) and the Valiant.

Even if the X2 had the grunt to take the battle to both, the tuning and synchronisation of two crude carburettors and their thirst didn't really fit the Holden demographic. By 1965, it was already obvious that Holden's new engines needed a major rework except Holden was about to pin its hopes on a small, efficient V8 engineered along the same principles.


The short story is that the failure of Holden's 253ci (4.2-litre) V8 to take the battle to Ford's and Chrysler's new big sixes from 1970 almost killed Holden, and sixes were left to soldier on until 1986 without significant engineering changes. As they couldn't be easily adapted to new 1986 unleaded emissions standards, it was absurd that Holden would have to shut up shop because it didn't have an engine. Yet that was exactly the scenario.

And like all good local industry stories, there were two engines that saved Holden and Ford as we know them today.

If Ford hadn't refined its cross-flow alloy head sixes with a Weber carburettor and other tweaks for the XE Falcon in 1982 to beat the 2.0-litre fours at their own game, it was curtains for the Aussie family car and Ford Australia.

And if Holden had failed to source Nissan's smooth 3.0-litre six for the 1986 VL Commodore, Detroit would never have bailed out Holden and funded the VN. Following the announcement (2011) of two new but different engine directions for the Commodore and Falcon, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.   


Until the announcement, it seemed unthinkable that the Australian arm of the Blue Oval would produce a 2.0-litre Falcon four, especially after it buried its 1980s four-cylinder Falcon response to the Starfire Commodore in disgust.

Yet this is no ordinary four. Its EcoBoost technology produces a diesel-like torque curve that flat lines from 1500rpm with minimum grunt of 170kW and 324Nm. Those impressive figures are likely to match a small V8 by the time it reaches production in 2011.

Ford claims it will deliver 20 percent better fuel economy than a large six of similar output albeit on 95RON.

Short-sighted commentators dismiss it but by 2011, soaring post-recession fuel prices might make it one of the few ways of staying in a large family car.

Backed by the Falcon's liquid-sequential LPG system in 2010 and the Territory diesel in 2011, the prospect of the first four-cylinder Falcon highlights the most treacherous waters ever facing the local industry.

Over at Holden, the new direct-injection engines that went on sale this month are being described as the most important petrol engine development in Holden's history.

Coupled with a six-speed automatic, from base level up, the new locally built engines reflect the pace of change and their export potential.

The base 3.0-litre SIDI V6 boosts power to 190kW at 6700rpm with a torque figure of 290Nm @ 2900rpm compared to 175kW/325Nm of its much bigger predecessor. The 3.6-litre version lifts power to 210kW  at 6400rpm and torque to 350Nm at 2900rpm, all on 91RON.

Both engines cut fuel use and emissions by hefty margins with little or no price increase, depending on model. According to Holden, they're just the start of fuel-saving advances that will be applied to Commodores as soon as they emerge.


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