Now you see it, now you don't: Holden's history in the Nambucca Valley

Now you see it, now you don't: Holden's history in the Nambucca Valley

Tuesday marked three years since Australia stopped manufacturing Holdens. The founding company behind the brand started as a saddlery in 1856 and produced its first Australian-designed car in 1948.

It's now been nine months since General Motors pulled the pin completely on Holden in Australia. The heated battle for fair compensation for the 185 Australian Holden dealers has now almost come to a close, and the last new Holden is expected to be sold well before the end of the year.

Now you see it, now you don't: In February, and then last week.

Now you see it, now you don't: In February, and then last week.

And it's been nearly three weeks since the word 'Holden' was removed from the roof of the Geoff King Eastland dealership on Cooper St, Macksville.

The Holden has had a long history in the Nambucca Valley. The original GM Holden Dealership was at Morrison's Garage - where Automotive Spare Parts Macksville now is, on Wallace St.

The enterprising Lane Brothers took over that franchise in 1950, selling Ferguson tractors, Howard machinery and Holdens out of their garage on Matilda St - where the art gallery now lives.

Doug Lane said that garage saw "the run out of the FJ Holden", the first model Holden exported overseas - to New Zealand in 1954.

In the 1960s the brothers opened their shiny new dealership on Cooper St, Macksville, to coincide with the Pacific Highway's diversion from Wallace/Bent Sts to Cooper St via the newly built bridge over Warrell Creek.

The Lane Bros garage

The Lane Bros garage

Doug remembers that back then when the dealership needed to order a new car, someone would have to travel down to Pagewood in Sydney and drive it all the way back up.

"When you were a young fella it was quite good - when you reached Sydney it'd be late so you'd need to stay overnight. You'd get a free trip to Sydney," he said.

In the heyday we were going down to Sydney once or twice a week to pick up a new Holden.

Doug said they were to inform GM no later than 12 hours after each new car was sold in Macksville, so the company could keep meticulous records on sales of Holdens worldwide.

He remembers that HRs were quite the seller back in the day, as were Monaros when they cruised in.

"One chap walked in one day and placed an order with us for a Holden ute. As he turned around to walk out he spotted a new Holden Monaro on the showroom floor and said 'cancel that! I'll take that one'," Doug recalls.

Nigel Lane with the NRMA road assistance ute, 1975.

Nigel Lane with the NRMA road assistance ute, 1975.

Back then the dealership also offered roadside assistance in conjunction with servicing, warranties and financing.

"I remember selling a GT Torana at 9am one morning, and then picking it up again at 11am as a total write-off. He'd driven it into a telephone post - the bloke was alright, but his car wasn't," Doug said.

And then there was the miserly Scotsman who once brought his car in for an oil change.

"We rang him up half an hour later to let him know the job was done and he ranted and raved at us - 'You can't be, it's impossible to do an oil change in such a short amount of time'. It turns out he'd been doing them himself, but filling the oil through the dipstick hole," Doug chuckles.

Ken and Elwyn Ainsworth took over the management of the Holden dealership in 1984, and the ownership shortly after.

Ken Ainsworth in his first year at the Eastland Holden dealership

Ken Ainsworth in his first year at the Eastland Holden dealership

"I respect the Lane brothers because they made a real thing of the franchise. They were real entrepreneurs and they were innovative. They were a force to be reckoned with," Ken said.

Under the new ownership, the dealership was rebadged as Eastland Holden, after Ken's successful Eastland Brakes and Exhaust business where Macksville Hair Care is now.

"It was a good franchise, because it was a fairly popular motorcar. In the '80s, Ford, Holden and Toyota shared approximately 60 per cent of the market in Australia," Ken said.

"Originally Holden had manufacturing plants in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

"The engines that were built in Melbourne were shipped worldwide. And the bodies were built in Adelaide."

Ken said even as early as the '80s the ordering system was automated and manufacturing was done with precision timing - as the body of your blue sedan was rolling along one conveyor belt, your red upholstered interior would be rolling along another, with both meeting exactly in the middle - not one minute earlier or later than was intended.

I think it was in 1987 in Melbourne, that we saw for the last time a car get put together by hand - it was a tremendous process to watch.

Ken and Elwyn Ainsworth

In the '80s trade was still quite good, even though sales were already starting to decline.

Ken said that in 1985 they sold 108 new cars, and they regularly "sold around 200 cars a year (new and used)".

"We were the top seller in the Nambucca Valley for quite a few years in a row. And we employed 31 people at the peak - it was a very, very active garage."

Plus the location of the garage was ingenious; Macksville being an infamous bottleneck meant cars were often putt-putting along the highway in bumper-to-bumper traffic from the Allgomera Rd turn-off - especially during the summer holidays. By the time they'd reach Macksville, many cars would be overheating and requiring some TLC.

Ken warning about the perils of overheating cars during the Summer holidays, published 1987.

Ken warning about the perils of overheating cars during the Summer holidays, published 1987.

And the culture at Holden back then was good - "We went to meetings with other Holden dealers from around the country once or twice a year and the camaraderie was excellent," Ken said.

Elwyn, too, enjoyed her time at the garage: "It was a home away from home - you enjoyed seeing the place thrive."

"Most people were friends as well as customers, and I enjoyed every day of my working life - it was fabulous," Ken said.

"But the truth is the industry was changing in a way that wasn't beneficial to these smaller regional areas."

Ken said in its heyday Macksville had half a dozen dealerships.

"All the garages had franchises," he said.

The Ford dealer was where the hardware shop is. A few doors up where the tractor shop is was the Austin dealership. The Morris franchise was where George Salloum's motors used to be near the river (on Princess St). Where D&B Autos was and George now is was the International Truck franchise. Morrison's had the Holden dealership, and the Lane brothers had Standard Motors.

"And there were quite a few in Nambucca. Even Bowraville had dealerships back in the day."

But the '90s saw the Australian car market heavily infiltrated by Asian car brands - where once Austin, Holden, Ford and Valiant reigned supreme, soon Toyota, Mazda and Nissan took their thrones.

"The Morris franchise became a Datsun, and the Austin franchise became Mitsubishi," he said.

"We were horrified when Hyundai snuck in and eclipsed Ford's share of the market."

On top of the 'Asian motor invasion' the '90s ushered in 'the recession we had to have'.

Locally, too, there were cataclysmic changes to our economic fortune.

"Midco closing was hard - it employed 500 or so people, a lot of whom were our customers," Ken said.

1984-2004: 20 years of Eastland Holden

1984-2004: 20 years of Eastland Holden

But Ken and Elwyn weathered the storm, eventually selling a decade later, after 23 years in business.

Ken is sad, but not surprised, to see Holden go.

"It's devastating for Australia, really. But unfortunately we're not in a position to make things here," he said. "We're too well-paid to manufacture motorcars - we can't compete with the Asian labour market.

"I think we saw the inevitability of Holden's withdrawal because we saw the other car brands pulling out previously.

But I still don't forgive General Motors for being so heavy-handed, or for taking the name with them. Holden was an Australian name - it was never American. But they've taken it with them.

At a Senate Inquiry in August, Holden boss Kristian Aquilina said GM would formally decline Queensland Senator James McGrath's request to offer the Holden badge to Australia for $1 to preserve its future.

"General Motors may think the rich history of the Holden brand is worthless, but I think it's priceless. If General Motors (thinks) the brand is worth nothing then hand the brand back to Australia ... Indeed, I'm happy to purchase the Holden brand off General Motors for a dollar," Senator McGrath said in a speech to Federal Parliament in May this year.

Ken said what Holden really needs is a white knight.

"I wish there was some philanthropist that could reinvigorate the brand," he said.

Still he's grateful for one thing, at least.

"It was fair that Holden won the very last Bathurst," he said, with Holden's Shane von Ginsberg and Garth Tander claiming the 161-lap enduro at Holden's final Supercars dance last weekend.

Geoff King Eastland is the last new car dealership standing in the Nambucca Valley, except for MidCoast Trucks.

So when the Holden sign came down on Wednesday two weeks ago, it truly was the end of an era.

But Geoff's son, Paul, said the Lion's not going anywhere.

"The Holden sign on the highway will remain because we're still an authorised service and warranty outlet," he said.

GM has committed to maintaining an Aftersales operation in Australia for the next 10 years.

"Like many others around the country we were quite shocked by GM's announcement in February. Holden's been associated with Australia for a very long time," Paul said.

"We're not selling new Holdens from that site anymore, but we're also not going anywhere.

"The Eastland brand has been a part of the Nambucca Valley for a very long time and we'll keep a presence there. We're looking forward to being a part of the future in the area."

Paul said they're not currently considering taking on another flagship car brand franchise, but they are open to the idea if the right opportunity presented itself.

There are also no current plans for the old sign.

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