GM to retire Australia's Holden brand

by James Attwood, Autocar UK 17 Feb 2020

The Holden brand will be retired by parent company General Motors (GM) by the end of 2021, ending the Australian brand’s 164-year history. The company, founded in Melbourne in 1856, has been owned by GM since 1931. It dominated the Australian and New Zealand car markets for decades, but its market share slipped dramaticlly in recent years and began to post heavy losses.

In 2017, GM shut down Holden's manufacturing operations in Australia, leaving the firm selling a mix of imported and rebadged Opel and GM machines.

Julian Blissett, GM International Operations’ senior vice president, said that Holden would be “retired” because GM felt the investment required to make it competitive in the Australian and New Zealand markets outweighed the likely return. The American car-making giant said the decision was part of its efforts to "transform its international operations".

“Through its proud 160-year history, Holden has not only made cars, it has been a powerful driver of the industrialisation and advancement of Australia and New Zealand,” said Blissett. “Over recent years, as the industry underwent significant change globally and locally, we implemented a number of alternative strategies to try to sustain and improve the business, together with the local team.

“After comprehensive assessment, we regret that we could not prioritise the investment required for Holden to be successful for the long term in Australia and New Zealand, over all other considerations we have globally. This decision is based on global priorities and does not reflect the hard work, talent and professionalism of the Holden team.”

Blissett said GM would focus its future growth strategy in Australia and New Zealand on speciality vehicles, working with a number of partners.

GM boss Mary Berra added: “I’ve often said that we will do the right thing, even when it’s hard, and this is one of those times. We are restructuring our international operations, focusing on markets where we have the right strategies to drive robust returns, and prioritising global investments that will drive growth in the future of mobility, especially in the areas of EVs and AVs."

In response, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said that he was "disappointed but not surprised. But I am angry, like I think many Australians would be." He added: "Australian taxpayers put millions into this multinational company. They let the brand just wither away on their watch. Now they are leaving it behind."

GM Holden’s managing director, Kristian Aquilina, pledged to give the brand a "dignified and respectful wind-down" before operations cease in 2021. He added: ““Holden will always have a special place in the development of our countries. As Australia and New Zealand grew, Holden was a part of the engine room fuelling that development.

GM is aiming to refocus its international business around its "core markets" of South America, the Middle East and South Korea, with Blissett adding: “In markets where we don’t have significant scale, such as Japan, Russia and Europe, we are pursuing a niche presence by selling profitable, high-end imported vehicles – supported by a lean GM structure."

GM has also announced that it will sell its manufacturing plant in Thailand to Chinese firm Great Wall Motors and withdraw the Chevrolet brand from that country.

A brief history of Holden
James Alexander Holden, who emigrated to Australia from Walsall, England in 1852, founded his eponymous company as a saddlery in 1856. His grandson, Edward Holden, joined the firm in 1905 and, due to his interest in cars, it expanded into automobile repair work in 1908. That progressed to more extensive coachbuild work, and Holden expanded after the war to produce car bodies for the Australian market for both Ford and GM.

In 1931, GM bought Holden and merged the firm with its Australian arm. That quickly led to Holden opening a second factory in Port Melbourne. After the Second World War, the Australian government pushed an initiative to develop an Australian-designed and built car, with the resulting vehicle – simply called the Holden – launched in 1948.

Holden soon dominated the Australian market – accounting for around half of all sales in the country in the late 1950s – helped by a range that included the V8-powered Monaro, a range of Utes and the Commodore, its most popular model that launched in 1978.

But Holden's market lead in Australia slipped as Japanese and Korean rivals began to enter the market. In 2013 GM announced Holden would cease production in Australia in 2017, due to the high costs of manufacturing in the country. 

In 2019 Holden sold 60,751 cars in Australia, a fall of 32% year-on-year that put it in sixth plance on the sales charts. Market leader Toyota sold 217,061 models.