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The First Holdens

How good were they?

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This article was first published in 2010.

Did the first Holdens sell up a storm because they were satisfying the post-World War II pent-up demand for new cars, or were they also widely seen as good machines? We go back in time to find out.

It’s a long time back to 1948, the year that the first Holden – and the first car to be manufactured wholly in Australia – was born.

In fact it was on the 29th of November, 1948, that 1200 men and women, including Prime Minister Ben Chifley, gathered around a modest-looking motor car. The ivory-coloured car, which had been waiting behind silver curtains, was revealed to the sound of a 10-piece orchestra.

The 48-215 was a four-door, six-seat vehicle. It was built almost entirely in Australia, was durable, well sealed against dust and stood up to the job on rough, unsealed Australian roads.

After launch, the waiting list for the 48-215 rapidly increased and Holden reacted by expanding production from modest numbers in the closing months of 1948 to 100 units a day by 1951. In total, 120,402 of the 48-215 were built – an incredible number for a company new to manufacturing complete cars. (Holden had long experience of building bodies but not of the whole machine - from engine to suspension to interior.)

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The 48-215 was replaced in 1953 by a facelifted model – the FJ. Holden distinguished the FJ with more features, more chrome and a greater range of options. It replaced the vertical grille with an elaborate horizontal chrome design, and fitted new hubcaps, bumpers and bright metal body decorations, including small chrome fins on the rear guards.

The accessory list expanded with the FJ and the colour range lifted to twelve choices. The new Special model featured armrests and a cigarette lighter and was available with a two-tone exterior paint finish. By 1956 just under 170,000 FJ Holdens had been built.

The above story is well-known but one aspect of these first Holdens that has been obscured by the passing of time is how they were regarded by contemporary commentators. Yes, the Holdens sold-up a storm but was it more a case of Holden satisfying the pent-up post-WWII new car shortage, or were the first Holdens also widely seen as good cars?

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One way to find out is to look back at the road tests carried out on the 48-215 and the FJ – tests conducted not only in Australia but also internationally. The first Holdens attracted interest not just in Australia, but also overseas. In fact, some suggested that – like Volvo did at around the same time – the Holden could become a long-term, world-wide export success.

”An Interesting Example of American Ideas”

In the UK, Motor magazine said, under the headline “An Australian Car of American Design...The HOLDEN”:

There has for a long while been immense curiosity concerning the sort of car which American designers would produce, were they to turn their attention to something of European proportions. The small model which Chevrolet were reported to have developed has never yet been put into production, but the Central Engineering Department of the General Motors Corporation has recently produced a brand-new design, the Holden, for manufacture in Australia.

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An engine of slightly over two litres cylinder-swept volume developing 60 b.h.p., and a car whose wheel­base is 8 ft. 7 ins., reveal the Holden as something very comparable in size with various popular British post­war designs. It is a handsome yet practical car, showing styling features which may perhaps be traced to the influence of recent Buick models, and the use of a pressed-steel body to serve also as frame confirms that it is a car designed for production in quantity—a car which may sell in many countries other than its native Australia.

The Holden engine is a straight­forward six-cylinder unit, with almost equal bore and stroke. Gear ratios are high enough to ensure that piston speed in top gear can never exceed safe limits, and vertical overhead-valves of modest size are timed with only 10 degrees of overlap to give good low-speed torque. Maximum power is available at 72 m.p.h. in top gear, with a piston speed of below 2,000 ft. per minute.

The car’s body, said the magazine, “is an interesting example of American ideas freed from any restriction of [using] existing jigs and tools”. The “American influence has obviously been strong in the Holden, which is nonetheless compact and offers good ground clearance and turning circle figures”.

”Two Outstanding Features”

Another UK magazine, The Autocar, said:

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There are two outstanding features about the Holden. The first is its seating capacity. Many of these cars are now to be seen on Australian roads and from the exterior appearance one would be justi­fied in classing them as small family cars, but open one of the four doors and it will at once be seen that six not-too-large people can be seated in comfort. The Holden's compact appearance belies its considerable body space.

The other surprising feature about the Holden is the excellent fuel consumption. During the test run a figure of just over 32 m.p.g. was obtained. The kerb weight of the car is 19 cwt 3 qr, and the engine is rated at 21.6 h.p. Power-to­weight ratio of 1.08 rated horse-power per cwt (or 1.03 lb per c.c.) is largely respon­sible for the quality of liveliness notice­able in the car and for its remarkable fuel consumption.

Under test the Holden demonstrated its smart pick-up and tractability. On good roads or rough corrugated surfaces, up hill and down dale, the performance was striking. Although driver and pas­sengers are seated well down within the car all-round vision is good, and the ride, both in the front and in the back, is comfortable.

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One of the most impressive qualities of the car is the ease with which high speed is reached and maintained. The engine ran smoothly and quietly during the acceleration tests. Through the gears from rest an indicated 40 m.p.h. was reached in 10 sec, and 50 m.p.h. in 14 sec. The engine remained steady on top gear down to 6 m.p.h. and showed no sign of distress at a speedometer reading of 80. The Holden cornered well, could be accurately placed on bends, and held the road at speed. On one hill which formed part of the test course it made light of the gradient, and went over rough, pot-holed sections without lifting.

The Autocar test of the Holden, conducted in Britain, said:

The General Motors assessment of the Australian market called for a car which would be reliable, economical, roomy and comfortable, and the requirements were to be met by having a six-seater car of low weight, powered by a 2.2-litre engine pulling a high gear. Weight reduction was pursued with great vigour throughout the design. Not only were surplus ounces taken off the structure and power unit, but also every accessory was examined with care, and those which came even a few ounces over the target weight were rejected. The result is a car with fine acceleration and a maximum of 80 m.p.h., which, without petrol, weighs just under a ton. It is, in fact, within a very few pounds of the target weight established when the project began and represents an achievement which only a short time ago was considered impossible without extensive use of light alloys.

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The Holden thus offers a remarkable combination of body space, performance and fuel economy. It even turns out to have a slightly better acceleration and maximum speed than were obtained from the best seller of all General Motors range, the Powerglide Chevrolet tested recently by The Autocar, and it does this with an engine of 2.2 litres against 3.9 litres.

However, the magazine added:

As its immediate destiny was for it to be sold purely on the Australian continent, some short cuts were adopted which, while acceptable there, would not fit it for other markets. There are no direction indicators and there is no provision for heating or demisting. There are no separate side lamps and only a single central tail lamp appears at the rear. Advantage was taken of the Australian climate to save weight and cost by using a 6-volt 11-plate 60-ampere-hour battery of smaller size than would nor­mally be found on such a car.

The Autocar also found that the brakes snatched at low speed and the body shape made manoeuvring difficult when parking.

Conclusion

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The Autocar concluded: “To sum up, one felt that here was a car admirably suited to Australian con­ditions, and that one would welcome a closer acquaintance and the opportunity of putting it through its paces in the outback country.”

Furthermore, the magazine added in another test, the Holden is “an outstanding example of the results which can be achieved by single-minded concentration on the production of a simple utility car without mechanical complications or eye-catching gadgets.”

It is certainly fascinating to read that the Holdens had better performance than a 3.9 litre Powerglide Chevrolet, were seen as supremely effective at performing their intended task, and the performance and fuel economy were achieved by advanced weight-conscious design!

Their success was well deserved...

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