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  Holden History


Holden History

When James Alexander Holden opened his saddlery business in Adelaide over 140 years ago he could not have imagined the impact he was to have in the Australian Motor Industry.

A History on how
GM-H was formed

  1856 at the corner of King William and Rundle streets in Adelaide, James Alexander Holden established a saddlery and leather goods business.
Holden was a migrant who learned his trade in his home town of Walsall in Staffordshire, England. After a look at the new world of America and at the ripe old age of 20 he arrived in Adelaide.

  Competition was plentiful so he worked on quality and slowly his business started to make a reasonable income. By 1860 it was time for larger premises so he moved his business to Hindley st, then as business kept increasing moved to Gawler Place and then to Grenfell st in 1878 which is when he decided to involve his son Henry James.

  Henry Adolph Frost who had a carriage building and trimming business merged with Holden in 1885 to form a new company called Holden & Frost. Two years later tragedy struck with the death of James Holden at the age of 52 which put Henry in charge.

  The Boer war of 1899 created an opportunity for Holden & Frost and when they landed an order for 1000 sets of equestrian equipment, (10% of the required order), Henry set up a workshop dedicated to do the order as fast as possible and in the process beating the other manufacturers by a long way. This performance led to another order of 1000 sets, which led to them taking a large slice of contracts on offer.

  1905 saw another Holden enter  the business, Edward Wheewall who graduated from Adelaide University with Science and Engineering degree. He had an interest in things mechanical and was drawn to the motorcar which he was sure would overtake the horse as main transportation much to the disagreement of his family.

  Cars were not liked by the majority of the population and they were policed diligently by the constabulary.  Horse owners liked them least of all as they were noisy and often scared the horses.  Edward finally convinced father Henry to see how the motorcar industry was developing overseas so in 1908 he set sail. During his absence Edward set up a small workshop at Grenfell st where he began doing work on motorcars.

  Holdfast Trimmings was born out of requests from people wanting carriage hoods for their motor cars.

  1914 saw the first step towards full-scale motor body construction by building Goulding side chairs for Harley Davidson Motorcycles.

  WW1 saw Holden & Frost in full swing manufacturing saddlery and equipment for the Australian Light Horse.  Edward experimented with building bodies and mounting them to various chassis such as a Hotchkiss, a Maxwell and a Rover.  During the war motor cars were frowned upon as luxury items, and as German submarines were sinking the merchant shipping the Prime Minister was being pressured to totally ban motor car imports.  With an argument going both for and against a compromise was struck on the 10th August 1917, only chassis were allowed to be imported.

  A telephone call between S. A. Cheney (Cheney Motor Company ) who was the leading Dodge brothers dealer to Edward Holden the morning of the announcement created a meeting between both parties and
 they swung Henry to build a full scale body building plant.  Henry went to the Bank of Adelaide where they financed a 50,000 pound loan which they used to buy F. T. Hack Limited which Holden & Frost supplied for some years and they also new was struggling financially. Cheney, Edward and Henry arranged a meeting with Dodge Brothers dealers in Sydney where they felt if they could produce an example with a definite price they could start supplying. 57 pounds and 10 shillings won the dealers and in September 1917 the new car was unveiled to the public at the Adelaide show.

  In the first year of production they almost produced the 5000 units estimated and orders for bodies to put on Essexes, Overlands, Chevrolets, Studebakers, and Hupmobiles and so started the popularity of the Holden Motor Car.

  1919 Holden & Frost were forced by the popularity of there product to look for larger premises and to gear up for more production but when Henry Holden went to the Adelaide Bank they were reluctant to finance any further into there business. However a wealthy grazier, Charles Irwin went guarantor for the 50,000 pounds needed to purchase the land at King William Street. They formed a new division of the company and called it Holden's Motor Body Builders Limited with the leather goods staying as Holden & Frost.  Charles Irwin was appointed Financial Director with Henry being Governing Director and Edward Managing Director.

  Over the following years as sales grew they expanded and added heavy equipment so in 1922 it was time to look for a huge area that would be able to handle more expansion than was foreseeable, so Woodville was seen as the answer. In 1923 while Edward was in Britain and the U.S.A to study the latest mass production methods, General Motors was in Australia looking to expand.  Holden Motor Body Builders became the sole assembler of the General Motors Product in Australia so it was decided to develop Woodville but in the short term they bought some land nearby and expanded the factory.  By 1925 they produced 32,292 bodies for General Motors chassis and it was also decided to dispose of the leather goods side of the company, (Holden & Frost) so they could concentrate on the growth industry.

  In 1926 Henry James Holden died at the age of 67 so Edward took his fathers place as chairman and William became Managing Director.  Also in that year General Motors Australia was formed and assembly plants were opened in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. General Motors was not overly happy with the arrangement of  Holden's putting an Australian version of body on there chassis and during the twenty's there were a few spats between the two companies.  By the time 1929 came around production was at crisis levels with less than 2000 cars for the year so Edward decided anything was better than down sizing so Holden became the largest manufacturer of fruit crates in Australia.  They also became manufacturers of golf club heads and filing cabinets, by this time it was decided that Edward go to the states and talk with General Motors about a possible merger.  It was agreed that General Motors would pay 1,111,600pounds for assets and goodwill which was a bargain price for a company that had assets to the value of 1,400,00pounds but it was better than liquidation. It was agreed that GM would pay 550,000 pounds for Holden's 1 pound preference shares and issued 561,000 preference shares in the new company.

Below is the 1937 Holden made body.

  General Motors Holden Limited was formed in March 1931 and Edward was appointed Chairman and A.N. Lawrence and Holden were Joint Managing Directors.  The merger was not a happy one with both management and employees, it became clear that changes had to be made so Lawrence was sent elsewhere with most of his technical staff and Holden would give up the Managing Directorship and a new man who could understand the unique Australian situation and that man was Laurence Hartnett.

  Hartnett being British not American was more than likely a contributing factor but the fact he was involved with Vauxhall Motors and Vickers in the U.K as well as for motor companies in India and Singapore was the reason. He took his new position at the head of GM-H in March 1934 and at once overhauled the top brass which helped to put the dealers at ease.

  Hartnett made friends with the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, as he knew the long term viability of the company would benefit from this relationship. General Motors in America wanted to shut the door on the Australian body building plants and wanted to ship complete bodies but Lawrence Hartnett had other ideas. Hartnett and his team decide on a site for the future of GM-H and this was to be Fishermen's Bend, on the Southern side of the Yarra River in Melbourne much to the ridicule of some.  Victorian Premier, Albert Dunstan turned the first sod and 7 months later on 28th September 1936 Prime Minister Joseph Lyons opened the Plant.

The Government of the day wanted an all Australian built car but the Second World War put paid to any plans for this to happen in the near future and in 1940 the 'Department of Munitions' was established and among some of the leading manufacturing talent Hartnett was made in charge of ordnance (cannon, heavy artillery etc.).  Some of the items that GM-H manufactured during the war were trucks, ambulances, trailers, guns, cannons and pontoon bridges.  When the war was turning towards the allies way in 1944 Hartnett initiated a study what would be the ideal Australian car as overseas products were not designed for the unique Australian conditions which included some fairly crude roads!

GM-H made truck
Hartnett also knew that a lot of soldiers returning from the fighting had learnt how to drive and if a car could come onto the market that was affordable to the average family it would be snapped up!  The study included such things as engine size, economy, availability of steel and components and what the the post war family budget could afford! General Motors Corporation sent out a detailed questionnaire to it's non USA divisions to find out what each could see as the course of direction after the war ended.  GM-H returned a 76 page report to them but failed to mention any intentions towards a home-grown car.  The Australian Government was looking toward the future without war and with so many people learning skills during this period saw the opportunity but also saw the lack of opportunity!  An indigenous car was targeted as a prime opportunity and John Jensen who was chairman of the 'Secondary Industries Commission' saw this as well.  Jensen saw to it that Ben Chifley and Hartnett met and as the two knew each other when they worked together in the Munitions Department it helped to form a vision of the future in Australia with a car they could call there own.

   In October 1944 all companies that were assembling or importing cars, bodies or chassis were invited to show there interest in the manufacture of motorcars in Australia.  In January 1945 Hartnett gave the Government his proposal and also sent a prposal to head office in New York calling it 'Case For An Australian Car', it included 5-6 seat family saloon with suspension, seating and general style that was most suited for Australian conditions plus a price of 480-525 pounds.  At the same time, Hartnett started designing a concept car which used a Willys Overland chassis.

20th September 1944 is a date that is as important as any other in the history of the Holden as this was the day that decided whether GM-H could progress to the next stage after a meeting of top GMC staff.  The Chairman of General Motors Corporation, Alfred P Sloan, like most capitalists loathed socialism and Hartnett he thought had socialist tendancies along with the Australian Government.  He remarked about the government run railways and telephone network but Hartnett countered this saying there was not enough private finance in Australia to develope such vast networks.  Chifley jumped in boots and all with the threat that if no private enterprise would engage in motor car construction in Australia then the government would, which did not help Hartnett's case or ease Sloan.  Even so Hartnett was well liked by enough people and his plan was approved in principle.  The next hurdle was the finance committee which told Hartnett there was no finance available from the parent company so he sort Chifley who helped arrange a 2.5 million pound loan from the Commonwealth Bank and soon after 500,000 pounds was offered from the Bank of Adelaide who had Edward Holden as a director.

Even though the Americans were not financing the project they wanted to make sure they had input into the design and the rivalry between the Americans and the Australians were high. GM-H was in strife with the war over and the high volume production of war related items finished it was having trouble aquiring chassis from the USA as the domestic market there was demanding more than they could supply.  GM-H even went into producing kitchen sinks to help keep it's skilled workers until auto assembly got into full swing.

The British Rootes Group which includes Hillman, Humber and Singer decided for the first time to start assembling cars in Australia and built an assembly plant in Fisherman's Bend just down the road from GM-H.  Hartnett remembered being told of a prototype in America of a Chevrolet code named 195-Y-15 which was close to what Hartnett decided was th the Australian requirement and would reduce the launch date by about two years.  In September 1945 a full scale clay model was finished and approved and the USA designers did the final plans to what was essentially a 195-Y-15 prototype.  August 1946 saw the first fully functional model of the car and was tested before shipping to Australia for evaluation.  In Australia however Hartnett was working on there own design called 'Project 2000' which vaguely resembled a Humber/Hillman/Singer but were forced to accept the American design. Late in 1946 Hartnett was ordered to a position in head office in New York and Harold Bettle took over the reins, the reason, although not confirmed was the closeness of Hartnett with what was seen as a socialist government and the American capitalist giant did not want to be associated with socialists.

Note the name G M H, this was one of  two prototypes
sent to Australia which were registered as Chevrolets as
they had not decided on a name for these all Australians

Hartnett resigned instead of taking up the post much to the shock of many who were astonished that such a thing like this could happen so close to the launch of what had would become a momentous occasion.  He lost a lot of money when looking at manufacturing his own car with government backing, the Americans had there design and set a date for release in late 1948!