Opinion: How Holden could have been saved

How Holden could have been saved

Yesterday saw the passing of a totem of Australian car culture. After a century of making cars, and 160 years of industrial activity in Australia and New Zealand, Holden is shutting up shop. The lion will be put to rest in 2021.

While this is sad news, it doesn’t come as a surprise. The marque’s declining sales have been no secret, and many of the Holden faithful were outspoken about their disinterest in the latest, Vauxhall Insignia-based, ZB Commodore.

This followed the VF Commodore, the last Australian-made Holden. It swapped rear-wheel drive, V8 engine options and muscular looks for a smoothed-over, more European style.

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Last year, the Commodore was axed, along with the re-badged Astra, following poor sales. At that point, the writing was on the wall. So what, if anything, could have been done to save Holden?

Killing off the halo effect

How Holden could have been saved

As a Holden owner and enthusiast, it’s difficult to detach myself emotionally from this discussion. Still, the book is closed on Holden for now, so here’s my two cents on how the lion could have been kept roaring.

Like many others who weren’t spending money on new rear-driven V8 Commodores, I think that the car should have remained a rear-driven V8. However, there was a ready-and-waiting saloon car platform in the Vauxhall/Opel Insignia – and it was much cheaper to add a Holden badge than engineer a new car. Plus, the Commodore wasn’t selling in sufficient numbers to justify it.

How Holden could have been savedThe last Aussie-built Commo’ ran on the same Zeta platform used since the introduction of the VE in 2006. ‘VE’ in UK-speak is the original VXR8. It was also the first platform not to have, at its heart, a Vauxhall or Opel.

Indeed, the Monaro and VX, VY and VZ Commodores of the late 1990s and early 2000s all trace back to the Vauxhall Omega. Overall, the basics of the GM V rear-drive platform had been in service for decades, first appearing in 1966. 

In short, developmentally, Commodores used to be cheaper (for Holden), when they had rear-driven European cars on which to be based. In fact, the only reason Zeta worked was because the formula was flipped. The Aussie-developed platform went overseas to the USA and UK, underpinning the Pontiac G8, Vauxhall VXR8, Chevrolet Camaro and, eventually, the Chevrolet SS.

Would a ‘proper’ Commodore have saved Holden?

How Holden could have been saved

Here’s my theory. Like the Audi R8, Toyota Supra, Honda NSX, Ford Mustang and many other cool cars from volume manufacturers, the Commodore became a halo model.

It was the car that got people into dealerships, even if they wound up buying something else. In this respect, it no longer mattered how many Commodores were sold, it mattered what they were and whether people wanted them.

Imagine a HSV GTS-R W1, sat next to an Astra in a Holden dealer, and tell me I’m wrong. Like the above examples, the Commodore was also the basis for the marque’s only racer, and has a loyal following and motorsport success in equal measure. Holden and GM either disagreed on this halo effect, or didn’t realise. 

Fast-forward to 2017 and the death of the Aussie-made Commo’. We ended up with a company trying to sell cars made – and styled – by others, to people that were once very proud of what their homegrown company did.

Realistically, at some time or another, the sales phenomenon that is the halo effect has saved almost every car you’ve ever lusted after. Do you think Porsche would sell as many Cayennes and Macans if there wasn’t a 911 in the dealership to dream about? 

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Insignia, as an Insignia. But it’s a different car to what a Commodore has always been. Especially given what people associate with that name. The Insignia is a soap salesman missing a motorway exit, not Peter Brock hitting an apex. Australian buyers just didn’t want one.

So what about the cost?

How Holden could have been saved

I don’t think a rear-driven Commodore would have been expensive to muster up. GM’s Alpha platform, which underpins the current Camaro, last Cadillac CTS and current Cadillac CT4 and CT5, would do the job. In rear- or all-wheel-drive formats, it’s been in service since 2012. 

Was it ever on the table when it came to a new Commodore? It should have been. Especially given the complication created by Vauxhall and Opel leaving General Motors for pastures French.

A last-generation CTS-V with Holden (HSV) styling and that 650hp supercharged V8 would have been just the ticket. GM isn’t about to kill off the small-block V8, either. It’s just debuted the new 6.2-litre LT2 in the Corvette C8, pushing out almost 500hp without a blower to be seen.

How Holden could have been saved

The parts bin was there to be plundered, then. With a bit of Holden-exclusive styling and development, it could have been the tent pole every Holden dealer now wishes it had. Don’t believe me? May I refer you to the Alpha-based Chevrolet Camaro that HSV currently sells in Australia in right-hand drive.

Now, of course, my theory is exactly that: a theory. And Holden could have gone down that same plughole even with a Commodore that could hold its head up high. But it would have gone down roaring and, I think, it would have lasted longer than it eventually did.

GMSV: the future

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It’s not like moneyed Australian car enthusiasts won’t have anything to buy. Look at the success of the globalised Ford Mustang down under, in place of the long-deceased FPV Australian Ford performance brand.

With the announcement of Holden’s demise came the debut of GMSV. General Motors Special Vehicles will replace Holden Special Vehicles, as the proprietor of right-hook Camaros and Corvettes in Australia.

How Holden could have been saved

It’s not the same, though. Plus, I can’t help but wonder about the viability of performance cars on their own, made expensive by significant engineering work to make them right-driven. And that’s without other ‘everyman’ products for them to drive customers towards. Never mind that the C8 is reported to lose GM money without even leaving its homeland.

I just wish they went for a compromise: one that splits the difference between cost-cutting and saving Aussie pride (and jobs). Then again, what do I know? I’m just a Holden fan who hasn’t the heart to tell his Monaro that it’s now an orphan.