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Holden's Australian era ends with last locally-made car
Royce Kurmelovs is a journalist and the author of "The Death of Holden: The End of an Australian Dream."
Rock music plays on the radio in Romano Puntin's workshop which is littered with tools and cars in various states of repair. "Welcome to the dream factory," he says, standing in the doorway, his black work shirt dusty from the fine paint particles that are made from sanding old cars.
Puntin is the owner of All Car Restorations, a father-son operation on the edge of Elizabeth, South Australia, a satellite city of Adelaide where the last Holden car will drive off the line this week.
The 63-year-old restorer was in his workshop when news came over the radio in December 2013 that General Motors was ending Australian production, triggering the end of the Australian car industry.
"I don't know who made that decision [to close it down], or why, but it was wrong," Puntin says. Showing off the old Holden's he's working on, he can tell me the story behind each one. Of the lot, his favorite is the 1972 Holden HQ Belmont ute, a workhorse pick-up truck he's stripped back to the bones and is in the process of restoring to original condition.
In the opening to his workshop is an orange 1976 Holden Torana that belongs to a client. It's a family heirloom that's been passed down from father to son, and from son to grandson who damaged the front bumper in a car accident. Over to one side is a Chevy Stylemaster high up on a rack that was assembled by Holden in 1947 and in the other shed there's a 1963 EJ Holden Premiere by the door with "tru luv" written on the license plates.
The end of an era
Ground broke on Elizabeth's Holden plant in 1958 during a time when the company, and the country, were looking to expand. The factory was officially opened in 1963 by Queen Elizabeth when she visited the town that bore her name and now, 60 years on, it's closing.
As a company, Holden started out as a saddle maker in 1856 before it moved into making automobiles in 1908. Eventually it was taken over by General Motors in 1931 who would go on to make the Holden brand a cornerstone of Australian national identity in 1948 when it produced the first mass-market, Australian built car.
Instantly, the machine became a symbol for everything a self-reliant, modern Australia wanted to be, the end product of an industry that could take an idea on paper and some raw materials and turn it into a car that came to life at the end of a production line. Among young people -- young men in particular -- who romanticized American muscle cars and for whom a car represented freedom of movement in often isolated Australian towns and cities, the Holden quickly came to be seen as an extension of the self.
And the faster and louder the Holden grew, the stronger its driver felt.
As Holden and Ford competed for market dominance in the 50s and early 60s, driving one or the other put a person on either side of a growing rivalry which pitted the American-made Fords against the Australian-made Holdens, eventually leading to the Holden-Ford racing rivalry. All of this fed into a car culture that was so distinct, and so aggressive, that the accidents it resulted in inspired the original Mad Max movie franchise.
As the film's Australian director George Miller told Cinema Papers in 1979: "The USA has its gun culture, we have our car culture."
Puntin came of age in the middle of it. His family had migrated out from Trieste, Italy when he was two to escape the wreckage of WWII and had found a home in Adelaide's working class western suburbs, beneath the shadow of the Woodville Holden car plant.
That plant's gone now, with a big-box hardware store now standing in its place, but there as a teenager, Puntin watched the company do test runs in the local streets late at night. "We'd be down the fish and chip shop and watch them go by. We used to go, 'woah! what are these things?'," Puntin remembers. "We knew they were Holdens and we knew then these are the new ones coming out."
Ever since his blood has roared to the sound of a V8 engine. And like many Australians, the Holden car played a role in nearly every chapter of his life. His first car was a 1954 FJ Holden which he modified to make it louder. His second was an FB Holden station wagon. When Puntin started his working life as a panel beater 40 years ago, his job was knocking Holdens back into shape after car accidents. This last 15 years, he's been giving them a second life as a restorer.
Such is the strength of devotion to the car, he knows that while production is ending, like thousands of car factory workers, he won't be out of a job.
How the dream soured
While the existence of the car industry in Australia has always been the focus of tense discussion, the end began with a perfect storm. The company was locked out of key export markets and faced fierce competition from China which produced 18 million vehicles the same year GM announced it was pulling out. Australia, combined, made 170,808.
Frank Gelber, the chief economist and Director of BIS Oxford Economics says that aside from the issue of subsidization, the decision to close the factory was made as a direct result of the Australian mining boom. "The mining boom wasn't costless," says Gelber. "The rise in the Australian dollar during the mining boom made a lot of other industries uncompetitive.
On Sunday, a parade of 1,000 Holdens drove through the streets of Elizabeth in tribute and this Friday there is a private party being held for the 900 workers still at the factory. With that, the next chapter will begin for the people of the region where the Elizabeth Holden factory operated, and those who drove the cars they made.
Once the factory goes, the design work will still be done in Australia, but manufacturing will shift offshore to Germany and the Holden will be brought in on the back of a ship.
In many ways it's the end of an era, Puntin says. It's already hard to find parts for the early cars, which means they have to make them from scratch. Now some of the newer models are becoming rare and prized. Eventually they too will become collector's items, available only to those who can afford them.
Which is a shame, Puntin thinks.
"It's wrong," he says. "Holden was an icon. Made here. It wasn't an import. It was ours."