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Musings on the Motoring World

Who killed Holden?

We may be a few days away from a brand new decade and despite remarkable advancements in technology, the automotive world is still reluctant to let go of its titles. No sooner would brands see a familiar name fade into obscurity than it would stick it to the back of an unrelated SUV model or rewrite its history to add some whiff of legitimacy.

If that is to be taken as the industry norm, then conditions must be truly desperate for Holden to finally bring the curtain down on a name as beloved as the Commodore. Especially in an era where every automotive name is either preserved, revived, or whored out to another SUV.

There should be wailing on the streets at the news of such a national tragedy if enough of the public gave a damn about it in the first place. Sadly not. Commodore sales plummeted from 51,000 in 2008 to 9000 a decade later, tracing a largely similar downward trajectory as the rest of Holden’s overall sales fortunes. The once-proud roaring Lion of Australia is now a terminally ill cat.  

Just as there will be industry veterinarians gathering around to prod and poke in hopes of finding a remedy, so too will there be a throng of outside commentators circle above like a kettle of vultures, with yours truly being the most insignificant but smelliest of the lot. Just how did the pride of Australia come to this, a sales company outpost peddling SUVs and pick-up trucks? 

Let the record be set that it wasn’t for lack of talent. The seats of authority within Holden were often filled by remarkable individuals who knew what they were doing, and many of which would find themselves elevated to prominent positions in Holden’s parent company, General Motors. 

Accusations of being rigid traditionalist to Australia’s love for the traditional large sedan might hold some weight, considering the company’s failure to heed the winds of change and introduce an SUV model or turn the smaller Torana TT36 concept into a production model to broaden its audience. That isn’t to say that the Ford Territory did much to prop up the fortunes of Ford Australia or delay what many saw as the inevitable demise of its Australian manufacturing operations. 

Ultimately, the Commodore was never going to escape its fate by being part of General Motors. Once the world’s largest carmaker that ruled from the silvery towers of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, General Motors was both the epitome of the power of the American automotive industry as well as its hubris. 

For decades the company ran its global operations as Rome or London did to the rest of its respective empires. Everything was seen from the imperial throne, every emperor isolated by the chain of command. In an ever-changing and ruthless industry, this exclusion severely clouded its judgement and blunted its ability to respond to the challenges.

Photo by Elishia Jayye

Peter Hanenberger, arguably Holden’s greatest head honcho who took the reins of the company in 1999, was well aware of how vulnerable the Australian company was in the grand scheme of things. He knew that the Australian company couldn’t just stick with big-hearted large sedans for Aussies, and he knew full well that the company was ultimately at the behest of its distant deities sitting atop General Motors’ Renaissance Center.

Luckily for Australia and Holden, the German had the vision, the means, and the guts to steer the brand out of the safety and docility of the domestic market. Unluckily for Hanenberger, his determination to set Holden on its own path brought him into loggerheads with General Motors’, much to the giant’s chagrin. 

Within his four and a half years stint at Holden, Hanenberger revived the iconic Monaro on the VX Commodore – and became the first Holden to be exported Stateside as the Pontiac GTO with the approval of his General Motors’ counterpart Bob Lutz. He also developed and approved what would become Holden’s magnum opus to the world, the AUD1 billion Zeta platform that first appeared in the 2006 VE Commodore. 

Originally developed to serve as the base for a multitude of General Motors models and future models for export to the world, the Zeta platform was criminally underutilised, ending up as the base for the last two generations of the Commodore and the Chevrolet Camaro. Its fate was sealed by the twin shocks of the early-2000s commodities bubble, which killed public demand for the bloated gas-guzzling big sedans, and the 2008 economic recession, which brought a bankrupt General Motors to its knees. It was these two back-to-back events that Hanenberger’s dreams for an SUV and a smaller Torana model to diversify Holden’s product portfolio came crashing down. 

Though Hanenberger wasn’t around to see the Zeta platform come to fruition, he retired in 2003, his incredibly subsequent successors ignored his ambitious plans while General Motors used the profits the company amassed under Hanenberger’s direction to bail out a bankrupt Daewoo like the vassal state it was. 

Instead of allowing Holden to respond to the changes in the market and develop models in the same extent as the Zeta platform, General Motors pretty much tried to shave cost by switching the importation of rebadged Opels from its European operations to rebadged Daewoo from its Korean base. This unfortunate decision severely tarnished the brand’s image in Australia’s more mature and developed car market, as Holden went from being the pride of the home team to playing catch up with its Japanese and even its other Korean counterparts. In the end, General Motors pretty much drove Holden in the direction Hanenberger so desperately tried to steer away from. 

Despite the many talents Holden had cultivated over the years, it was fated to run the course that has led it to the present reality. High on its own significance and wilfully ignorant on diverse needs of individual markets, General Motors was never going to see Hanenberger’s expansive vision as anything more than insubordination that needed to be curtailed. So it is with the fate of empires. 

Holden is now diminished to a shadow of its former self. An uncelebrated name of characterless SUVs and utilitarian pick-up trucks losing its footing in a dynamic world that is quickly leaving it behind. Just another faceless entry into General Motors’ ledger. How could they know any better?

Even news of the incoming mid-engine C8 Corvette and the hopes of a right-hook Silverado would do little to revive the fortunes of the one company that embedded its name in the hearts and minds of Australians as the stewards of the last V8-powered family cars. Considering how the controversially rebadged “Opel Insignia” Commodore has been poorly received, an unceremonious end might have been the more merciful option for something so beloved.  

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