End of an Era

With Holden’s Australian production ceasing, we look back at Queensland’s connection with ‘Australia’s own’ motor car.

Story Barry Green

Images Stu Riley, Ian Hamilton

The collector

Ian Hamilton has owned, by his recollection, more than 30 Holdens and HSVs – and has rarely strayed from the brands. Even his company’s work vehicles were Holden one-tonner utes and Rodeos.

Why? “They’re a very good product,” the Monto resident said.

“My old man had Holdens, from FJs to an HR Premier.

“I took over from there.”

The long-time RACQ member has owned 14 HSVs and, currently, his garage holds no fewer than 11 cars. Among the highly-collectible classics is a four-door SLR 5000 A9X and a Torana LJ GTR XU-1, the latter attracting an avalanche of public interest when displayed in the foyer of RACQ House in the Brisbane CBD recently.

The most recent arrival is a new HSV GTSR W1, one of just 260 built and the most powerful and driver-focused road car ever built in Australia. It’s a far cry from Ian’s early days driving Holdens.

“I liked tinkering with them; making them go faster,” he said.

“One of my favourites was an EH, which I lowered and fitted with wide wheels.”

Like all Red Army (Holden supporter) faithful, Ian admired the late, great Peter Brock, but also is in awe of another HRT (Holden Racing Team) legend, Mark Skaife.

“We (HSV owners) had a drive day at Norwell (formerly the Holden Performance Driving Centre) and he was there,” Ian recalled.

“Man, could he drive – so much natural ability.”

Holden’s decision to cease production of ‘Australia’s Own’ has confounded Ian Hamilton as much as it has hurt.

“I can’t understand them shutting the doors, can’t understand it at all,” he said.

“I thought they would go on forever.

“It’s not just the loss of jobs at Holden, but the flow-on effect to the dozens of suppliers and their suppliers.”

Regardless, Ian is adamant his cars will always be those bearing the famous Lion badge.

“I’ve had a great run with Holden,” he said.

“Always have; it’s a bloody shame they’re closing down.”

The Worker

If anyone knows how Holden workers are feeling as Australian production grinds to a halt, it would be Noel Fletcher. In his working life, ‘lightning’ has struck not once, not twice, but three times.

Noel started out as an apprentice in a Brisbane shoe factory, which closed back in 1950s due the influx of cheaper imports. Then, like his father before him, he worked on the local Holden production line for more than 25 years, until the Acacia Ridge plant shut down. He moved on to building Western Star trucks before – you guessed it – the doors closed there too.

After losing his job in the shoe factory, Noel completed compulsory national service in the military with one eye firmly on joining his father, Maurice, at Holden Motor Body Builders in Fortitude Valley.

“I couldn’t get a start until I turned 21, but that didn’t stop me from making myself known,” he recalled.

His first job there was working on the 1957 model Holden, riveting three-piece bumper bars and fitting tail and number plate lights.

After the Acacia Ridge plant opened, Noel and his wife Yvonne moved from Brighton to the same suburb, bought a house and reared a young family. He became a leading hand, working on the main line, bleeding the brakes, fitting wheels and getting each Holden Gemini ready to roll.

Then, in 1984, the crunch came and Holden shut the plant down.

“It came as a shock for a lot of people – Acacia Ridge was (Holden’s) only profitable plant,” Noel said.

“I was there for more than 27 years and loved working there; I didn’t expect to be out of work.”

Today, the RACQ member has plenty of memorabilia to look back on. There’s a black-and-white shot of him and brother Maurice as smiling youngsters at the work social club Christmas tree in 1940; a clipping of him showing (soon-to-be Prime Minister) Malcolm Fraser along the Gemini assembly line in 1974; and his certificate for 25 years’ meritorious service to Holden.

To see these and other old photos, newspaper clippings and keep-sakes laid out on his kitchen table is to see that assembling cars for Holden was more than a job for Noel Fletcher – it was his life.

Holden In Queensland Timeline:

1922 – One of the earliest motor dealers in Queensland, EG Eagers & Son, installed the first motor vehicle assembly plant in the state.

1923 – Holden Motor Body Builders opened a plant in Brisbane.

1927 – New assembly plant of General Motors (Australia) opened in Wickham Street, Fortitude Valley, assembling Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Oakland, Buick, Vauxhall and Cadillac cars and trucks and CMG trucks. Workforce numbered 275.

1931 – The Courier-Mail reported chassis production would be moved to Melbourne where operations were being centralised. Sales, service and spare parts continued locally.

1934 – The Courier-Mail reported the reopening of the assembly plant in Wickham St by Eagers, in conjunction with General Motors Holden Ltd. The first production would be Chevrolet trucks, followed by Vauxhall cars and Bedford trucks and then other models.

1955 – Plans were announced for a £2,851,000 body and vehicle assembly plant on the company’s newly-acquired 152-acre site adjoining Strathpine railway station (these plans were never realised – the facility was restricted as a storage/distribution centre).

1964 – Property purchased at Acacia Ridge for an assembly plant to replace the Wickham St facility.

1966 – Holden bodies were built in Queensland for the first time at the Acacia Ridge plant.

1979 – HZ model production wound up at Acacia Ridge in July. The plant remained the sole facility building the Gemini range.

1984 – Acacia Ridge plant closed.