Marketed in the 1950s as 'Australia's Own Car', Holden is as big an Aussie icon as meat pies and football. With many Australians claiming a Holden as their first car, pride in the brand remains as strong now as it was over 60 years ago when the classic FX Holden was released. Surprisingly, cars were not always the focus for Holden. Established in 1858 by James Alexander Holden, the business started out as a leather and saddlery manufacturer. It wasn’t until his son Henry James Holden became partner in 1883 that it expanded into motor-body trimming.
The extension of this journey – motor body building and ultimately car manufacturing - did not begin until 1905, when Henry’s son Edward joined the business. A graduate of the University of Adelaide, Sir Edward Holden was an innovative young man, with an interest in automobiles. He developed a strong, futuristic vision – one that would transform Holden into the pioneering automobile company it is today.
When Sir Edward Holden graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Science he was certain the motorcar was the vehicle of the future. Excited by the possibilities, Sir Edward convinced his father that this was the industry to be in. It was his influence that led the expansion into motor body building and the use of highly automated mass production technology. He also used the skills that he learned in his degree, along with American methods witnessed on his travels, to introduce new business standards of scientific management, cost accounting and production control. This achieved a rapid improvement in labour productivity.
By 1923 Holden employed over a thousand men and produced 240 car-bodies per week - more than half the national output. Under Sir Edward's leadership, their new Woodville plant incorporated the latest technology, including automated production lines, and became the largest plant of its type outside North America.
Holden worked closely with US company General Motors Export Co. and the two businesses maintained an interdependent relationship over many years. This partnership was crucial in leading to Holden’s dominant market position and kept them solvent during the difficult period of the Great Depression, when their competitors ceased business.
The relationship progressed further, when in 1931, General Motors offered £1,111,600 for Holden's. The offer was accepted, giving General Motors complete control, while maintaining an Australian character in name, ownership and management. Sir Edward Holden became chairman of General Motors-Holden's Ltd, and was appointed joint managing director in August 1931 and later sole managing director.
Over the years, Sir Edward was active in other business activities and parliamentary service. He became honorary Controller-General of Army Canteens in 1939-45 and visited troops in the Middle East. He was also prominent in various South Australian enterprises holding many directorships. Passionate about industry, he advocated for technical education and strongly supported initiatives to attract business to South Australia. He was knighted for his contributions in 1945.
At the University of Adelaide Sir Edward is remembered for his commitment and generosity. Returning to the University as a member of Council, he helped to finance a 1927 University expedition to Central Australia to study Indigenous culture, and even accompanied the group. He also donated £5000, towards the establishment of a chair of electrical and mechanical engineering.
Due to health problems, Sir Edward retired in 1947 and subsequently died later that year. Sadly, this was just 12 months before the release of the company’s first mass-produced car, the Holden 48-215, which was named in his honour. The car, marketed as ‘Australia’s Own’, was seen as proof that Australia had entered the modern industrial era - it represented freedom and independence.
Seen as the father of the automotive industry, Sir Edward Holden made a significant contribution to the development of Australian manufacturing and to the shaping of the South Australian economy. Without his early visions, the Holden family business may have taken a very different road.
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