For years now the Holden Commodore has been on borrowed time, though that didn’t stop a ripple of shock spreading through the Wheels office when the news finally came. “Retired” was the word Holden chose; “Dead” is what we were all thinking.
By now you’ve had some time to digest it. It’s possible you’ll still feel angry, though I’d wager that’s now given way to disappointment, or more tellingly, to acceptance. After all, the ZB wasn’t a real Commodore, was it?
Now ask yourself this: how would you feel if Holden itself pulled up stumps? If the entire brand decided to bow out with dignity and then, months later, reinvent itself as Chevrolet or simply as GM?
Angry? Disappointed? Accepting? Yeah, I reckon that’s about right.
For an issue so drowned in emotion – Holden holds a special place in my heart and in the history of this magazine – it’s difficult to look at rationally. But the facts are telling.
Just over two years into its brave new world and the Lion Brand isn’t wounded, it’s drifting, seemingly unconscious, towards an inevitable demise. Things aren’t so much dire as they are disastrous.
Dave Buttner, the well-respected car company exec lured out of retirement to transform Holden’s fortunes as its fearless leader, has left his post after 16 months due to personal reasons.
Then there are the sales. Everyone expected Holden to take a hit when manufacturing ended in late 2017, but no one predicted the hit to be so savage, or so prolonged. After a drop of 33 percent in 2018, Holden is on track to record a year-to-date slump of around 30 percent when the final numbers are tallied for 2019.
Once Australia’s most successful brand for 15 years straight (1996-2010), last month’s sales weren’t only the latest in a string of worst in the company’s history, but they saw Holden’s entire model range outsold by each of the top three (Ranger, Hilux and Triton). As for the Commodore? In the glory days, Holden could move close to 10,000 units a month. In November this year, it only sold 309.
Clearly, the current strategy isn’t working. Holden hasn’t only failed to attract new buyers, it’s eradicated any goodwill it had left with its rusted-on fans.
And as for brand values? Once such a strength, I’d now argue Holden’s rose-tinted legacy is actually a hindrance. Or, to put it another way, Holden’s legacy is killing its chances of reinventing itself in Australia.
So as much as it pains me to say it, the clearest way forward is to retire the brand. Naturally this isn’t a clear-cut course of action. Rebranding won’t be easy. The dealer network will need to be culled, and the task of establishing a new brand is notoriously difficult down under. Though for me, the potential positives outweigh the risks.
As a well-known international brand, Chevrolet already has some equity with Aussie buyers, and crucially, taking on a new name would give Holden a chance to start afresh, sans the emotional baggage currently slung around its neck like a millstone. It’ll also bring a welcome sense of coherence to the showroom floor. The Trax, Equinox and Colorado already wear Chevy badges in other markets, and Holden could campaign hard to bring the good-looking Chevrolet Blazer to our shores too. Plus, when the C8 Corvette arrives, it won’t be an expensive outlier but will fulfil its role as a flagship for the entire range. There’s also room to establish Cadillac as a premium offering above the regular Chevrolet range.
It needn’t mean the loss of jobs, either. Holden’s design studio and Proving Ground have already pivoted to work on global product, the talented crew at Lang Lang can still tune cars for Aussie conditions, and the marketing team won’t be short of work...
The big issue, of course, is the future of right-hand-drive models in GM’s product strategy. Given GM has now left Europe and South Africa, Australia is a peripheral outpost unlikely to secure top-rung product. One unlikely Hail Mary solution to retain the Holden name could be for GM to sell the Lion Brand to PSA. Established right-hand-drive models already exist (Astra, Corsa etc) and popular small SUVs like the Grandland X could be brought in. Plus, it’d give the French company an established dealer network.
Whatever Holden decides – and it must decide soon – one thing is clear: Holden as we know it is gone.