The three blokes – blue work pants, sturdy boots, flouro tops - slowly circled the low-slung, bright red Camaro, parked in the main street of a small South Australian town gently warming in the spring sunshine.
“Mate, now this is a Holden,” drawled one, casting an appreciative eye over the $160,000 ZL1. “I love it, but I won’t be able to afford it ever. Nice to dream, though.”
“Look in there,” said his mate, pointing to the Camaro’s entertainment system. “You can see the Commodore in there.”
Another tells me the story of how he – a Holden man through and through – met legendary Supercars racer Greg Murphy at Bathurst. “I love my VE,” he tells me, but like his mates, he can’t keep his eyes off the ZL1.
There are still plenty of Aussie-made Commodores in this part of the world, less than 80km from the former stronghold of Holden car-making in Elizabeth, but tellingly, copies of the new German-sourced version are thin on the ground.
Equally, there are plenty of locally-produced Cruze sedans in evidence, but the unloved Equinox and the underrated Astra are rare sights.
The brand is taking a battering in the sales race, but the glass-eyed reaction of the three tradies to the Camaro got me thinking; though it’s late in the piece, it may not be too late to turn the brand around.
Despite the battering the brand has taken in the harsh spotlight of social media since the end of local manufacturing – not helped, many would argue, by the company not reading the room correctly at the time and persisting with the Commodore nameplate – rolled-cuff marketing types would argue that the brand still carries equity with a wide swath of customers who, brought up with the brand over generations, are loath to switch.
That buyer set arguably isn’t part of the baying masses flooding Holden’s social streams, and are happy enough to stay loyal to the Lion.
Key to this strategy playing out over the longer term, however, is the simple fact that Holden needs product. Now.
New, exciting, current, advanced… pick a couple of adjectives, and that’s what the brand needs to stem the defection of once-loyal buyers to brands like Kia and Hyundai.
“There’s just nothing in a Holden showroom that excites me,” one of the tradies tells me, his eyes never straying from the Camaro. “Except for this.”
He has a point. Halo heroes like the Camaro are all well and good, and the incoming Corvette C8 (above) will also play its part in bolstering the flagging morale of its local troops, but this glorious cavalry charge of sexy metal needs to be swiftly followed by a rear-guard action of good-looking, appealing, affordable real-world cars.
Of its current offerings – including Trax, Astra, Commodore, Equinox, Acadia and Colorado – the greatest potential arguably lies with the last two. Large SUVs are building sales momentum off the back of the success of cars like Mazda’s CX-9, and the Acadia, despite its love-it-or-hate-it bold styling, should be able to lead from the front in the three-row stakes.
Likewise, the Colorado ute has had more localisation performed on it than virtually any other car on sale here today. Did you know it uses the same steering rack as the last locally-developed Commodore? Or that even the metal used in the rear leaf springs is a custom specification just for Holden?
The Colorado is in many ways a great example of the dogged persistence and pure passion that still lives within the Holden ranks locally.
Though the ranks have thinned over the years, there is still a small nucleus of hard-won local auto industry experience within the ranks, experience that serves General Motors well out at Lang Lang, long a globally recognised centre of engineering for the brand.
But Holden has some hefty millstones around its neck, not least in the form of the poorly performing Equinox. In October alone, the category-leading Toyota RAV4 outsold the Equinox by almost eight to one, while the much more expensive Mercedes-Benz GLC will trounce it in annual sales come the end of the year.
Its Astra hatch, too, should be doing far better. Last October it sold 1103 cars. This October? Just 105.
The Commodore… what to do about the Commodore? By all accounts, it’s not a bad car, and if you take away the dominant Toyota Camry, it would be the second best-selling sedan in Australia behind the long-popular Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Holden knew the bottom would drop out of Commodore sales after it closed Elizabeth – and don’t forget, the car – reportedly under review to slim down its model range - wasn’t selling that well when the plant closed. Sales have inched upwards since its launch, too – but it’s a matter of critical mass.
Holden is a company that once sold 175,000 cars a year at its zenith, and despite shedding facilities, dealers and staff, its current sales volumes are closer to that of smaller players like Honda or Subaru. After an awful 2018, the Lion of 2019 is leaner, but it really needs cars in key segments – like the Equinox, for example – to work harder.
But the three tradies staring in awe at the Camaro paints a more vivid picture than poring over stats on monthly sales charts could ever do. Holden needs desirable cars to draw people back to the brand, and it doesn’t have to be a two-door muscle coupe.
SUVs like the Chevrolet Blazer(below), for example, would give Holden a stylistic edge in the ultra-competitive space, while the GMC Sierra – think ute version of the Acadia – could also be a hit here.
But with its parent company fighting numerous fires on the domestic front with its own striking workforce while simultaneously streamlining its operations at home and around the world – including the sale of Commodore and Opel supplier Opel to Peugeot – it seems that a viable, executable product plan for its far-flung property is not front of mind.
Holden will keep plugging away, but the unfortunate departure of much-loved CEO Dave Buttner - to reportedly look after multiple issues on the family front, we understand - will dent the company's impetus a little.
His interim replacement, sales director and former head of the New Zealand operation Kristian Aquilina, knows the company inside and out, though, and no doubt he and Dave have had long chats around the water cooler about which direction to take the company.
Only time will tell if our three tradie mates will choose to buy something with a Lion on the nose again, though.
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