Fishermans Bend Car Manufacture: General Motors Holden

The history of Holden dates back to 1856, when James Alexander Holden started as a saddlery business in Adelaide, South Australia, at Woodville. The firm evolved over the years. In 1908 it moved into the automotive field, repairing car upholstery, then the full-scale production of vehicle body shells before becoming a subsidiary of the United States-based General Motors (GM) in 1931. The company was named General Motors-Holden's Ltd, becoming Holden Ltd in 1998 the current name was adopted in 2005. Throughout the 1920s Holden also supplied tramcars for Melbourne. In 1931, the two companies merged to become General Motors-Holden's Limited (GM-H). In 1936, Holden opened a new HQ and assembly plant in Salmon Street, Fishermans Bend in Port Melbourne.

The Holden 48-215 production line in 1949

Holden's second full-scale car factory, located in Fishermans Bend (Port Melbourne), was completed in 1936, with construction beginning in 1939 on a new plant in Pagewood, New South Wales. However, World War II delayed car production with efforts shifted to the construction of vehicle bodies, field guns, aircraft and engines. Before the war ended, the Australian Government took steps to encourage an Australian automotive industry. Both GM and Ford provided studies to the Australian Government outlining the production of the first Australian-designed car. Ford's proposal was the government's first choice, but required substantial financial assistance. GM's study was ultimately chosen because of its low level of government intervention. After the war, Holden returned to producing vehicle bodies, this time for Buick, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Vauxhall. The Oldsmobile Ace was also produced from 1946 to 1948.

From here, Holden continued to pursue the goal of producing an Australian car. This involved compromise with GM, as Holden's managing director, Laurence Hartnett, favoured development of a local design, while GM preferred to see an American design as the basis for "Australia's Own Car". In the end, the design was based on a previously rejected post-war Chevrolet proposal. The Holden was launched in 1948, creating long waiting lists extending through 1949 and beyond. The name "Holden" was chosen in honour of Sir Edward Holden, the company's first chairman and grandson of J.A. Holden. Other names considered were "GeM", "Austral", "Melba", "Woomerah", "Boomerang", "Emu" and "Canbra", a phonetic spelling of Canberra. Although officially designated "48-215", the car was marketed simply as the "Holden". The unofficial usage of the name "FX" originated within Holden, referring to the updated suspension on the 48-215 of 1953.

Holdens came of age with World War II with a large increase in manufacturing capacity primarily at Fishermans Bend. Sheet metal parts were being stamped at Woodville, South Australia, using body making facilities from the Holdens Body works plant.

After the war, a large assembly area at Fishermans Bend used to assemble planes and tanks etc led to the plant being chosen as the place a future Australian car sold under the Holden brand name would be desgned and built. Their foundry and machine shop facilities, which had been used to make aircraft engines during World War II, were expanded to make what became known as the grey motor which would power the new car, the 48/215. Body panels for the 48/215 were made at Woodville and shipped over. As sales expanded in the 1950s, another assembly site was needed and so Pagewood (NSW) was established.

As the need for spare parts arose in the late 1950's, the Dandenong site was purchased. After GM took over Bedford in the UK, Bedford Trucks began to be asssembled from imported components in new facilities in Swanbourne, Perth, and at Birkenhead in Adelaide. Sales kept expanding and an upgrade of facilites at Fishermans Bend allowed the development and subsequent manufacture of the 'red' motor and the replcement of imported components by in-house manufactured ones.

In the late 1960's, a site was purchased in Brisbane and a new plant built at Acacia Ridge. The assembly of CKD Chevrolets and Bedfords commenced there followed by assembly of Toranas, later followed by Geminis. The assembly of Commodores started ay Acacia Ridge with VC. Dandenong was the main site used to build early Commodores as well as Toranas, and became the centre for design, Vehicle management and planning. The Elizabeth plant came online in 1965 (the Birkenhead plant closed at this time) and was used to manufacture seats, interiors and body frames for Isuzu trucks, as well as vehicle assembly. Insiders who worked for GMH at the time have said the whole operation had become a logistical nightmare, and attempting to build an increasingly expanding range of makes and models perhaps led to the car manufacturing giant losing its way.

No cars have been produced at Fishermans Bend since the mid 1950s when the Dandenong factory became a Vehicle Assembly Plant. The last Holden to roll off the Dandenong assembly line was a VL Commodore, in 1987. Toyota then took over the Dandenong assembly line for their cars although Holden still used Dandenong for their only spare/service parts warehouse worldwide. Toyota car production ended at Dandenong around 1999, the Vehicle Assembly Plant was knocked down and a huge new warehouse built for Holden Service Parts Organisation, the only distribution centre for Holden parts all over Australia and the world.

Holden remained the market leader until the 1990s when it was first challenged by Ford, then Toyota. In the 2000s decade, Holden's market share dropped from 27.5 percent in 2000 to 15.2 percent in 2006. From March 2003, Holden no longer held the number one sales position in Australia, losing ground to Toyota. Although Holden's involvement in exports has fluctuated since the 1950s, the declining sales of large cars in Australia has led the company to look to international markets to increase profitability. Holden announced on 11 December 2013 that local manufacturing would cease by the end of 2017 and that the company would continue to have a large and ongoing presence in Australia importing and selling cars as national sales company. It committed to retaining its design centre, but with reduced staffing.

In July 2015, Holden began selling off sections of its 38-hectare manufacturing plant. The company believed the final return from the sale of its Fishermans Bend plant would be around $200 million. Its asset includes 16 hectares of factory floor and numerous open-air car parks, on land that has increased in value as the industrial precinct approaches a now-imminent change to residential-use. Following GMH ceasing production in Australia in 2017, it is expected its vacated Fishermans Bend buildings will be restored as boutique home-office spaces. The car maker will retain office functions at the modern 191-197 Salmon Street building, where designers penned America's highly revered Buick Avenir.

The former art deco Holden headquarters at 251 and 261 Salmon Street, Port Melbourne, were sold for $28.25 million to private equity real estate group Altis Property Partners in April 2014. These historic buildings were built for General Motors Holden as its headquarters in 1936 when the company bought 20 hectares of the former swampy wasteland at Fishermans Bend to build a car factory. Holden occupied the buildings until 2005 when it moved to its current headquarters at 191-197 Salmon Street. Building materials group Boral and US bicycle manufacturer Specialized then leased oner of the former GMH headquarters buildings. The warehouse space at 261 Salmon Street was leased back to Holden.

The administrative buildings are an important example of 1930s architecture in unaltered condition (though they have been painted), and have a formal garden in front. The extensive two-storey buildings and three-storey tower were built from reinforced concrete. Each corner on the buildings features a group of five raised vertical strips - originally painted in a contrasting colour to provide highlights - with incised vertical sections between the windows. The exterior design, with its art deco styling and motifs, was the work of a talented architect, but it was unclear who was responsible. The building is classified by the National Trust, which means it has been recognised for its cultural heritage significance.

Who Built What And When?

Prime Minister Ben Chifley unveiled the first 48-215 off the production line on 29th November 1948

1946 Oldsmobiles coming off the production line

The Art Deco GM-H Headquarters at Fishermans Bend under construction

One of the Art Deco buildings today

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