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Holden: An Obituary

Thanks to Mum and Dad for reading over this before I posted. Your thoughts and opinions on everything I touched on are appreciated!

General Motors announcing that they were axing the Holden brand on Monday made me feel like I was a vampire being staked. We touched on it a little bit in class that evening, but no-one would have realised that they had someone with a fairly close connection to Holden sitting in their classroom.

My original plan was to write about what Holden‘s loss means to Australian marketing. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you too much about the branding. I don’t even care that much for cars. But Holden still means a lot to me, and people like me.

I grew up in Salisbury, South Australia. It’s right next door to Elizabeth, where the Holden factory was located. My dad worked in the paint shop and on final assembly. My mum worked at one point for Cooper Standard Automotive making car parts for Holden. Both my dad and one of my uncles own vintage Holdens (HR Standard Sedan and HR Premium Sedan). At my house, the V8s would be on the TV every race weekend. It was (jokingly) considered high treason to own a Ford, and there was disappointment when my mother bought one when my parents decided they needed a second car.

An Holden HR Standard Sedan is parked in front of a house. The car’s roof is white, and the car’s body is powder blue.
My dad’s Holden HR Standard Sedan.
An Holden HR Premier Sedan is parked in front of the Holden offices at Elizabeth, South Australia. The car’s roof is white with some rust, and the car’s body is blue, with some discolouration on the base of the front and back doors.
My uncle’s HR Premier Sedan parked in front of the Holden offices at Elizabeth, South Australia.

Getting a job at Holden, even as a subcontractor, meant being set up for life, or at least for a very long time. Manufacturing is hard work, in between the physical labour, the pace that comes with needing to get one car off the line every 60-90 seconds and the monotony that tends to come with the job, but Holden had the reputation for paying well and looking after their employees and families. Even now, I fondly remember one of the Christmas parties we went to one year at a mini golf course where Father Christmas visited us and gave us a present early.

Holden was something that those of us that grew up or lived in the Northern Suburbs of Adelaide could feel proud of, especially on those days where media or others with their own biases made us feel like there wasn’t much to be proud of. It didn’t matter to us (or Australia as a whole) that Holden technically hadn’t been Australian since 1931 when GM purchased what was Holden’s Motor Body Builders to become General Motors-Holden. It was enough that J.A. Holden & Co. had started in Adelaide, and was therefore South Australian, and ours.

For people like myself, Holden was a promise. It was a promise that, if you worked hard at your job and were proud of the work that you put in, you would be able to look after yourself and your family. It was a promise that your job, no matter how small it may seem to people who don’t know better, was important and needed. It was a promise that you could worry less about the world around you, because you had a stable job. In short, Holden has always been about two way loyalty.

By the time General Motors had made the announcement on December 11 2013 that Holden were going to stop manufacturing in Australia, both of my parents had been out of the automotive industry for quite some time. My dad got injured at work, and eventually made the decision not to return. My mum got sick of the instability that came with working in manufacturing, and managed to get a job working as a FIFO cleaner out at a mine.

I don’t always name drop, but when I do, it’s usually because I’m spruiking the work of a childhood friend of mine, Royce Kurmelovs. He’s an independent journalist that has also written several books. His first book, The Death of Holden, chronicles the stories of people impacted by the loss of (car) manufacturing, and what happens when manufacturing jobs go. For those of you that prefer their reading not to be book length, this is Royce’s take in The Guardian on losing Holden completely, and a piece in Kill Your Darlings that became the basis of The Death of Holden.

As I reread The Death of Holden, I’m reminded of all the things I was told by the adults around me growing up, and how those messages changed from when I was a child, to when I was finishing school. Royce describes this perfectly in the preface:

As an adult you look back and you can see it in the little things. The hardware store that closed down. The liquor store that didn’t. The high-school teachers who broke lesson plans with impromptu speeches about education and good jobs. The ones who didn’t. There were the friends who went off to university to make something of themselves and those who didn’t. Those who learned trades, and those who didn’t. Those who got out by joining the army. Those who stayed because they had kids early. That one friend who left school to chase a dollar, who ended up working so hard as a waitress that four years later she collapsed on the bathroom floor of the restaurant and still went to work the next day.

From The Death of Holden – Preface: Turning it off, page x

I can’t speak for my friends that I went to school with, or for friends of mine that also grew up north. But I can tell you that I worked my darned hardest over the years to study and get a good paying job in a field that I enjoyed, and failed repeatedly. I can also tell you that I rewrote that last sentence three or four times to avoid my gut instinct of writing like I was talking to my friends, family and my event colleagues when we’re doing grunt work… the sense of ‘I need to be someone else to secure good work’ never entirely leaves you, even when you do manage to secure semi-regular work that you love.

Holden’s final death isn’t just about the loss of an iconic brand, an important part of South Australian history, one half of Australian motor sport’s biggest rivalry. It’s also about the lost pride of an entire region, about hurt feelings that hard work and loyalty ultimately means nothing and that you’re struggling to change your work ethic to fit in a business ethos that no longer seems to exist in large corporations. Ignoring the people right at the bottom that helped to build the cars – Holden workers, workers at parts manufacturers and other workers supporting the wider supply chain – that ultimately made the Holden brand does Holden a disservice.

Unfortunately, this girl from Salisbury didn’t realise what you meant to her until it was too late, old lion. I’m sorry your death was so long and painful. You will be missed.

2 replies on “Holden: An Obituary”

It’s great Sarah, but it was not just Holden workers that lost out. It was also all the component companies like Cooper Stanard Automotive that supplied Holdens, we don’t hear how they all fared…

Good point, Mum. I’ve gone back and explicitly made sure to spell out that it wasn’t just Holden workers that lost out.

Let me know if you’re up for some reading and I’ll mail you my copy of Royce’s first book. He did a wonderful job interviewing and telling the stories of workers in the wider supply chain, and didn’t just focus on those working at Holden.

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