The Weekend Read: Lion Hearts

WHEN the three original Holden prototypes arrived from America on the SS Wanganella on New Year’s Day 1947, they’d spent only limited time at General Motors’ huge Milford proving ground. The Australian engineers, who had worked on the cars in Detroit, knew more testing was crucial. The three Project 320 cars, instantly recognisable as 48-215s but registered as Chevrolets – Victorian regos JP-480, JP-481 and JP-482 – quickly began their local lives as test mules.

In 1947 Melbourne’s population was a mere 1.3 million and, with just one vehicle per 7.8 people, the suburban sprawl created by the car was still in the future. The Holden engineers looked no further than a 138km public road route from Holden’s HQ in Salmon Street, Fishermans Bend, through the south-eastern suburbs along North Road to the Dandenong Ranges and the towns of Ferntree Gully, Belgrave, Kallista and Emerald, before heading back to the factory via Dandenong and the two-lane Princes Highway, then speed-limited to 70mph (113 km/h).

Holden estimated the route was tough enough to equal four times that distance in normal driving and would wear out tyres seven times more quickly. The roads included a mix of sealed and gravel surfaces with steep climbs and challenging corners. Test drivers were specially trained to push the cars ‘hard’.

This testing, often under the cover of dark, went on for 18 months, with one car completing almost 100,000km. Holden continued to use these public roads for its durability runs through the little-changed FJ to the truly new FE, until fast-expanding production – from 10 cars a day in 1948 to 300 a day by 1955 – and sales generated the profits to build a local proving ground.

In 1955, Holden bought 877 hectares at Lang Lang, 95km south-east of Melbourne, the high-security proving ground opening two years later. Now, as part of Holden halting local production in 2017, mighty Lang Lang, with its high-speed bowl, emissions laboratory and brilliant ride and handling track et al, the scene of numerous Holden new car launches and the location (every other year) for the first three days of Wheels COTY testing, is to be sold.  

How better to mourn Holden’s transformation to purely a sales operation than to retrace that original durability circuit in a 48-215 – later dubbed the FX in line with Holden’s obscure naming regime – and, for context, today’s equivalent, a VF Commodore. Especially in the company of Leo Pruneau, the legendary American-born designer who initially worked in and then ran the Holden design studios from 1969 until 1983, and Richard Ferlazzo, the current studio boss most famous for Efijy, the outrageous hot-rod inspired million-dollar custom redo of the FJ.

Our 1950-build 48-215 (so early it has lever-action rear shock absorbers), with 88,633 miles (142,699km) on the odo, came courtesy of third owners Robyn and Brenton Creasey, members of the FX/FJ Club of Australia. The Creaseys paid a bargain $10,500 for the car a year ago.

Seeing old and new together, it’s hard not to be surprised as the realisation dawns that after 66 years of evolution the Commodore still conforms to the same basic mechanical layout and family car formula of the 48-215: front six-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels. No revolution, then, though in every other way the chasm between the first and last Aussie Holdens is enormous. Not least because the original model is – height aside – virtually the same size as today’s small cars like the Mazda 3, VW Golf and Holden’s own Cruze.

Sitting alongside the VF, the 48-215 looks almost tiny in terms of length, width and wheelbase. It is, and looks, 572mm shorter and 196mm narrower, the wheelbase is 299mm shorter and its tracks are a staggering 246mm and 236mm narrower. Only in height does the original tower above the VF, the extra 104mm almost all accounted for by the 230mm of ground clearance versus today’s ground-hugging 137mm.

At 1685kg, the VF is 67 percent heavier than the 48-215’s 1012kg. Smaller car, no crash structure, minimal equipment – not even a heater or radio – and altogether simpler in its chassis and drivetrain.

In 1948, Australia was the only country outside the US in which General Motors had set up a manufacturing operation and only the third – after Vauxhall in the UK and Opel in Germany, which it had taken over rather than started – to create a unique vehicle, in the case of the Holden one whose correctness was never in doubt from the moment it went on sale.

“The first Holden hit the sweet spot,” says Ferlazzo, adding that it slotted exactly between the bigger, traditional (and still separate chassis frame, six- and eight-cylinder) American Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge models and the smaller (mostly puny 1.0-1.5-litre four-cylinder) British cars from Vauxhall, Morris and Austin. “It was an A-size car with a B-size engine.”

The combination of a relatively torquey small six and low weight gave the 48-215 a winning power-to-weight ratio that ensured terrific performance and economy, by the standards of the early post-war years. The Holden, capable of 134km/h, was considerably faster than its British rivals and, with 0-100km/h in 19.0 seconds, took half as long to reach 100km/h. The big American iron was slightly quicker, but used 50 percent more fuel and cost half as much again.

Salmon Street, Fishermans Bend is home to what was Holden’s original 1936 headquarters – Holden moved out and into new digs down the street in 2004 – and at the time was the only building in the area. Next door is the Technical Centre, opened in 1964, once the proud home to 1200 engineers, plus the design studios for the teams that created the all-new HQ Kingswood/Premier, the VT and, again self-sufficient at last, the VE Commodores.

Even before the 2017 manufacturing shutdown, Holden plans to sell the Technical Centre. The good news is that Holden’s 140-strong design and fabrication staff remain, one of GM’s 10 global studios and, with Detroit, the only one capable of building full-sized concept and show cars in-house. Design, now sadly renamed GM Australia Design, is looking for new studios in which to design new models and proposals for Chevrolet, Buick, Opel, GM China and GM India.

Photographer Wielecki captures the obvious symbolism of old and new together between the two Holden buildings before our little two-car convoy sets off for The Dandenongs. Creasey drives his Humpy through the peak hour traffic, past St Kilda’s Luna Park just as the test drivers would have done six decades ago, and down to North Road.

It’s more than four decades since I last drove an early Holden and 56 years since my family’s FJ panel van was traded on an FC Standard Station Sedan, Holden’s name for a wagon. I’m instructed that to change gears you move the column-mounted lever up out of first, p-a-u-s-e in neutral, then push the handle towards the dashboard before pushing it up again into second. And warned that first has no synchromesh. Once, I could double-declutch even the Holden’s three-on-the-tree down into first without graunching the gears. Today, I decide to rely on the low gearing – top gives 30km/h per 1000rpm, the VF a once unbelievable 57km/h – and the engine’s low-end grunt and stay in second, unless we come to a halt.

We ease out into the traffic, find second, then quickly grab top gear and, anticipating the traffic lights, try to stay off the drum brakes. The 48-215 easily maintains station, engine rumbling quietly. Now we’re cruising. I’m sitting high, perched on a bench seat – remember them? – looking down on the other cars through the split windscreen. It feels so narrow.

Holden claimed the 48-215 was a six-seater. Maybe, but changing gears with two extra adults up front required considerable dexterity and friendship. There’s plenty of room in the rear, at least for two large passengers, while the vast headroom is obviously designed to permit the wearing of a decent hat.

The dashboard could hardly be simpler. The instrument cluster contains a central speedo and small gauge for the fuel, with a matching dial for three idiot lights. There are no seat belts or indicators. To dip the headlights you push a button on the floor. The pull-out handbrake and the bonnet release are under the dash to the right of a large, fixed, two-spoke plastic steering wheel with an ultra-thin rim. The pedals sprout from the floor. You insert the key in the ignition switch to the left of the instruments, then push a button to the right to fire the engine. Another chromed, knurled knob on the dash that looks completely different to all the other controls looks after the vacuum wipers. The dash barely intrudes beyond the base of the windscreen. In 1948 there were no airbags, air conditioning unit or sound system to package between the engine’s firewall and cabin. Ventilation is by front quarter vent windows and a lift-up aperture immediately in front of the windscreen.

The steering, heavy below 10km/h – no power assistance, remember – but then light and reasonably direct with 3.5 turns lock-to-lock, requires concentration if the car is not to wander on the skinny 5.6 x 15 Dunlops. With worm and roller steering gear, you vaguely guide the Holden – precise steering was decades away – and cope with a quick increase in weighting during cornering. The steering, sloppy on centre when cruising, feels quicker in corners and, despite the heaviness, there’s a perception that too much lock could provoke the tail to step out.

The brakes are hefty, almost rock solid in feel and completely lacking any modulation, but push hard for long enough and the 48-215 stops straight.

The ride comes as a pleasant surprise. Big bumps are absorbed well enough; it’s small corrugations that catch the tail out and induce hopping. Semi-elliptic rear leaf springs survived at Holden until the HQ in 1971.

To the east of Melbourne, what is now endless suburbs was orchards and fields in the late 1940s. Today, Australia has more than 18 million vehicles, and heavy traffic density levels only begin to decrease as we climb into the beautiful Dandenong Ranges. The gravel roads between the Princes Highway and Selby have long since been sealed and staying true to the original route proves difficult. Norm Darwin’s 1983 book The History of Holden Since 1917 contains a photograph of JP-480 oversteering through a gravel corner between Selby and Dandenong, but our search for the same section of road proves fruitless.

At every stop there is Holden talk. Ferlazzo and Pruneau, pondering the 48-215’s vertical grille, muse that, though it was modern in using a monocoque body, the styling owed more to the pre-WW2 cars than newer models from the post-war era such as the ’47 Studebaker, ’49 Ford and General Motors’ all-new 1949 range with their straight-through fenders and three-box styling. By 1953 and the FJ, the Holden was looking truly antiquated alongside rivals like the Ford Zephyr. It wasn’t until the much anticipated 1956 FE that Holden adopted a contemporary look.

“We made mistakes, of course,” admits Pruneau. “I’ll never understand why the HQ wasn’t engineered for left-hand drive. By the time we realised, it was too late; it would have cost too much money for the re-engineering. These things need to be planned at the beginning.”

Export markets lost – Holdens were sold in Europe and the Middle East during the 60s – it wasn’t until the VT Commodore that the company again got serious about selling left hook models. One obvious candidate was the LH Torana (launched in 1974), one of the very few cars in the world designed from a clean sheet to be built in four-cylinder, six-cylinder and eight-cylinder forms. Pruneau remembered how in the 70s, with the future of the HQ-developed variants in doubt, “we were told (by Detroit) that the LH Torana was to be the last indigenous Holden”.

That didn’t happen, of course, as the all-Australian-designed VF Commodore proves. The modern car represents six decades of automotive development: modern electronics, computer power, fuel injection, six-speed automatic, independent rear suspension, fast-ratio rack-and-pinion steering with electric assistance via an electric motor. Today’s car is light years ahead of the 48-215 in terms of refinement, comfort, performance and handling, let alone crash protection and safety. The VF offers a range of seemingly essential gimmicks – telephone, navigation, trip computer – that were beyond the horizon of even futurists in the 1940s.

And yet the first Holden was near perfect for the Australia of those early post-war years. Nothing came close to its value or its suitability. Waiting lists grew and grew, stretching to three years before production finally caught up. At one stage Holden had a backlog of orders for 90,000 cars and 70,000 utes. It wasn’t until the early 60s, when Holden’s market share topped 50 percent, that you could expect immediately delivery.

Ferlazzo, coming to terms with the manufacturing shutdown, is sadly philosophical: “It’s down to pure economics. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost any more to design cars here than anywhere else in the world. We are in a global design competition and we think we can win often enough to justify our continuing.”

Cars badged Holden, probably sourced from Europe, Korea and the US, will continue after 2017. But they won’t be created here or made for and in Australia. Joni Mitchell said it best: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

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