Looking back on the last Aussie-built Holdens

By: Glenn Torrens

Presented by

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One year on, Glenn Torrens remembers an emotional road trip to see the last Aussie Holdens built

It was the opportunity of a lifetime: An invitation from Holden in September last year to visit its now-closed factory just north of Adelaide to witness some of the last Aussie-built Holdens – and the last Aussie-built cars in history – being built before production ended forever a month later. I pleaded with boss-man Guy to be the bloke to represent Unique Cars magazine at this special last-ever event and he agreed.

Plus, I could deliver my then just-sold VW Beetle hill-climb car to its new Adelaide owner.

A road trip! A very special road trip!

| Read next: Holden Dream Cruise, 2017

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It’s a long way from my home town of Newcastle to Adelaide; I leave one Saturday afternoon and choose the quicker trek via Wagga (not Broken Hill) with the aim of being in the Adelaide Hills on Monday morning. That’s where Garry, the new owner of my VW race car lives. It’s a depressingly damp morning when I arrive; Garry and I both get more-or-less soaked as we unload my now- engineless bright yellow Bug (I retained the engine and gearbox) from my trailer for the very last time.

| Read next: Inside the Holden factory

I’ve owned, developed and thrashed that little dak-dak for a decade and in dozens of motorsport events from Leyburn in Qld, to Grafton, Gunnedah, Tamworth, Kempsey, Dapto, Bathurst, Sydney, Canberra, Cooma in NSW and ACT, as well as Geelong and Moe in Victoria. That little yellow giant-killer has won me trophies and made me (in)famous! I’ve just run my hands over its punchy yellow paint and smiled at it for the last time. Plus, I’m in South Oz to see the dying days of Holden’s local production so I’m feeling quite melancholy on this grey morning as I wish Garry success with his new track Vee-Dub and drive away in search of coffee.

The day does get better. My mate Brad – another Holden nut who I’m staying with that evening – has suggested I visit the National Motor Museum in Birdwood. Great idea! This place has been on my ‘to-do’ list for eons.

holden-fx.jpgGT shows respect for ‘Old Number One’

When I arrive, Birdwood holds a special surprise. Two, in fact: Firstly, the ‘Old Number One’ Holden is on display there. On loan from Holden – the car usually resides at Holden head office in Victoria – this sensational Holden 48-215 is a BIG deal. It’s the actual car that was paraded to Australia’s media and cameras and of course an expectant post-war Aussie public in November, 1948. Our then Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, spoke the famous words "She’s a beauty!" Showing ‘Chassis No 6’ on its alloy body plate – apparently it’s the first Fishermans Bend-built car after five prototypes, two of which survive – it’s an incredibly significant car for me, and I’d like to think for any Aussie car enthusiast. I’m gobsmacked to be able to stand with it, gaze at its modestly-hued paint and – by leaning over the rope – to see inside its almost perfectly preserved interior.

holden-wb-kingswood-prototype.jpgBirdwood Museum’s WB Kingswood prototype

Secondly, thanks to a compassionate Birdwood staffer who lets me (and a couple of other car nuts) through a safety fence, I’m able to see behind the scenes of Birdwood’s impressive new display representing how our last-ever Holdens were built. Hung in the air for eternity at Birdwood are seven (six hoisted, one on the ground) Holdens lifted from the production line at various stages of their final assembly. One of them is covered in the signatures of the people who proudly created it. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated by car museums, motor shows and big, ‘real’ car displays such as this (do any Sydney-based readers remember the cut-away Ford XP Falcon at the old Science & Technology – now Powerhouse – museum?) and this one captivates grown-up Glenn as much as similar ones did for me as a kid.

holden-tour-25.jpgThe countdown was on at Elizabeth – the ‘last days’ scenario

But there is one horrible, tragic difference… This display doesn’t proudly show people what Australia The Clever Country and her industries can do, but what it once did. Standing next to Holden Number One and staring up at these last-of-the-line VFIIs separated by not-quite 70 years, it’s difficult to comprehend that with a toxic cocktail of market forces, cheap overseas labour (the ultimate form of racism, if you ask me…) GFCs and poor government policy we’ve now lost the ability to do this. Bugger!

My mate Brad has offered to drop me at the Holden factory the next morning in his restored HQ Holden Premier. Awesome! Brad also has another couple of cool collector Holdens and I’d love to be able to sneak him into the factory for a look, too. Cruising with Brad to Holden’s front gate rams home the fact that factories like Elizabeth, with all its workers – and behind the scenes teams of production planners and engineers – have been a part of the foundation of our Aussie way of life for generations: Operating a retail business (4WD/touring equipment supplier ARB Elizabeth) Brad relies on people having a bit of spare money to spend on their toys and the shrinking industry means people have fewer toys. Brad expects leaner times ahead.

holden-tour-27.jpgAuthentic part-built Holdens and production-equipment on display at Birdwood

The four-hour tour of the Holden Vehicle Assembly Plant is fantastic. Being as interested as I am in ‘how things work’ – and of course being a life-long Holden fan – I’m fascinated by everything I see. From the fiery sparks of the first spot-welds that affix the front chassis rails to the engine-bay side panels, through to the completed body being prepared for paint, to the those freshly painted shells being fitted with their interiors and dropped over their engines and drivelines, to the completed cars being driven from the production line, it’s a fascinating display of technology and people at work. It might sound silly, but it’s a similar feeling to when I visit Mount Panorama: I get a special buzz knowing my own VN Calais and just-bought VXII Berlina wagon travelled down this production line, and like millions of others, passed through this very point and were driven away for delivery to their original owners. As a motoring journo, too, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with the stylists and engineers who designed and tested these Holdens, so seeing the cars being built sort-of completes the big picture for me… and rams home what we’ve lost.

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It also reminds me that my dream of buying a brand-new V8 Holden wagon will now never be fulfilled. I’m lucky enough to own and enjoy a few classic Holdens, but I’ll sadly admit my life, career and financial choices in the past few years have not been lucrative enough to allow me to plonk down the cash on a brand-new one.

After photographer Thomas snaps the last few pics at the factory and Brad collects me in his awesome Premier, I begin the long trip home. It’s been an experience that I will never forget… but something inside my soul has faded.

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