- Holden restructures to become a ute and SUV brand

Holden: When did the lion lose its roar?

They were once the kings of the sales ring; Australia's leading car brand. Not anymore. But what went wrong for Holden?

YESTERDAY saw the death of an iconic nameplate with Holden confirming the Commodore name would be left out to pasture next year. For many, the news was less than surprising – but where did it all go wrong for brand that once ruled the Australian market?

Spare us the inevitable “Holden died when they closed the factory” and “the ZB wasn’t a real Commodore”. We’ve heard it before, and while there is an element of truth to that – it certainly doesn’t paint the whole picture.

Of course, the Commodore isn’t the only model that has been axed from Holden showrooms in the future, with Astra also gone following yesterday’s ‘bombshell’.

After the jettisoning of Barina, it means Holden is purely SUVs and the Colorado – or at least will be until the Corvette eventually lands. But we’ll get to Holden’s revised future in a moment.

First, a history lesson to understand how the marque that was once king of the market landed itself on the endangered list – and with some luck, we’ll highlight that there’s more to it than a Commodore with a German accent.

The slide from grace

Official figures from VFACTS show 2002 as last year Holden topped the annual sales, but while Toyota was the top selling brand the following year, the Commodore still remained the top selling model.

Holden accounted for 176,023 of the 909,811 sales that year – with the Commodore, Commodore ute and Caprice making up 103,764 of them. In terms of share, Holden had 21.4 per cent of the market – a 0.2 per cent hit on the year before.

That was the beginning of the gradual decline: 1.8 per cent in 2003, a further 0.7 the next year, then 0.9 and then 2.5 per cent in 2006. In 2007, it was another 1.2 per cent. It was much of the same in 2008 with another 1.1 per cent of lost ground.

However, 2008 was also the year that ended a decade-long run of the Commodore being #1 for the month, with the Toyota Corolla outselling it in March. In 2009 there was a 0.1 per cent decline, followed by a stable year in 2010 to remain at 12.1 per cent share.

The downward spiral resumed in 2011 to lose another 0.3 per cent. By 2012, Holden had just 10.3 per cent, having lost another 2.2 per cent. In a single decade, Holden’s share had halved – all the while, Toyota boasted a steady increase over the 10 years.

Come 2013, less than one in 10 new cars came from the Holden lot, after another 0.4 per cent deficit – the same year the Corolla de-throned the Commodore as the top selling car for the year.

Toyota sold 43,498 Corolla units, to a combined 34,820 for Commodore-based lines, following a consolidated 16.6 per cent dip for the three models.

Clearly, the trend that led to the closure, and yesterday’s news wouldn’t have come as a huge shock with hindsight, but at the time Holden retained its #2 position – even if 2014 was more negative sales to lose another 0.4 per cent.

Then a further 0.6 per cent in 2015 to demote the brand to third – narrowly holding out Hyundai by 947 units. Ironically, in numbers alone it was the ill-fated Malibu’s sluggish 1,027 that was enough to prevent losing two spots in a calendar year.

Another 0.9 per cent gone in 2016 cost Holden another spot, before a rapid descent to sixth by the end of last year – overtaken by traditional sparring partner Ford as the slice of the pie shrunk to just 5.3 per cent.

Another tough year in 2019 – and Holden has a mere 4.1 per cent of the market. In the 17 years where Holden’s share has diminished, our market has become much more fragmented.

Numerous new brands all took a swipe – and tough market conditions this year and last year certainly haven’t helped, with only a few brands recording growth.

Innocently on death row

There is some merit to the notion that ZB ‘isn’t a Commodore’, because it isn’t rear wheel drive, or available in a V8. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a decent car.

Both Commodore and Astra are wrongly convicted – tainted by association and misguided decisions by those at Fishermen’s Bend.

Exhaust Notes Australia has driven the Commodore – both the VXR, and the 2.0-litre RS variant, and liked what we experienced. The same goes for the Astra R+ and the Astra LTZ. It even won the European Car of the Year in 2016.

The Astra had the accolades and a lot going for it – but as we highlighted in our review: the value for money didn’t stack up in what is one of the tightest segments of the market.

A battle ground Holden had neglected with the Cruze – and then tried to make up lost ground in with a more expensive Astra, against the Japanese and South Korean leaders: the Corolla, Mazda3 and i30.

As for the Commodore, it would be foolish to believe that even under another moniker, its fate would have been different. While the ZB has the goods – Holden damaged its own brand in the years before, losing its own identity.

Re-branding and reinventing no less than three times in five years did nothing to help its cause. There’s also the Colorado question. While Hilux, Ranger and even Triton frequent near the top of the charts, the Holden ute’s figures are humble.

Again, it’s a car that we’ve driven and find competitive in its space – but misses the mark on pricing and positioning.

French affairs

Then, of course comes the complexity of the sale of Vauxhall – aka the makers of the Astra and ZB Commodore – from General Motors to French conglomerate, Groupe PSA.

There is more to this story than Holden’s lack of sales over the past four years. The 2017 sale put Holden in an awkward position – an Australian based brand, owned by America, attempting to sell cars they were forced to buy from the French.

There is a touch of speculation to yesterday’s move. Holden isn’t moving to an all SUV and ute line up by choice. It is our belief here at Exhaust Notes Australia, that the brand’s hands were tied – and product couldn’t be secured beyond next year.

Holden insiders have also hinted towards Cadillacs being seen at the proving ground at Lang Lang, which could spell a new direction for GM’s local line up.

Our other crystal-ball gazing speculation also leaves us to wonder if Vauxhall as a brand could make a return to Australia to complement the existing PSA offerings of Peugeot and Citroen.

Where did it all go wrong? At what point do you think Holden lost its way?

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Comments (17)

  • I'm hoping we will get the Cadillacs under a Holden Badge in Australia. As much as the market would disagree, I would love to see a big sedan in Australia again not unlike the Statesman/Caprice.

      1 year ago
  • Okay try this- Holden should never have started. I know I know, I’m a nut-bag...but bear with me.. the then Labor Prime Minister wanted to kickstart a home car industry, except he didn’t- not really-it was GM, and they started with a pre-war design cast-off. Imagine this- what if a truly local car company had started up- unique Aussie designs, and geared to export as well. No toes of other GM manufacturing to tread on? True Aussie innovation and inventiveness encouraged to go big and take on the whole world as well. Might not we have grown our own real car industry? Designing and building local, but exporting everywhere they could. Our robust local product would surely have suited S Africa, Africa, Spain, South America even behind the iron curtain? Why not? We could still have a powerhouse car manufacturer geared to niche product and markets world wide. And wouldn’t that be great?

      1 year ago
  • The betrayed the Australian consumer when they took our tax dollars in a grant and sent it to Detroit. Then stoped manufacturing and no longer offer a true Ozzie ute. (Not these dual cab 4*4 things)

      1 year ago
  • It's not a moment in time that can be easily pinpointed, I think. I remember attending a function years ago, perhaps early 2000s, and it was an SA politician in front of a group of people outlining why the Government should support Holden and their thousands of jobs.

    Prior to that, Holden were putting on more shifts, and the market had cracked a million sales in a year - a benchmark in those days.

    Again, I may be wrong and the timing of the downward trend with Holden could be because of other reasons, but it has been my observation that the moment Government started to pitch in that Holden lost its mojo - for want of a better term.

    Whether through "co-investment" (gag), tariffs, or Gov policy to "support local", it served to perhaps obfuscate or muddy the waters, which in turn shrouded the true actual demand from consumers for Holden's products. Estimates I vaguely remember reading somewhere indicated that one-in-five Commodore sales were to Government fleets (don't quote me on that, because it's something I just vaguely remember from the dusty corners of my mind). So if Holden were selling cars, why would they change their product for the purposes of innovation? All the while, Hyundai, Mazda, et al. bring in desirable cars at similar price points with more features and better warranties, and Holden churn out the same product, thinking that their sales are "fine".

    Then eventually the support drops off, and - surprise - the Emporer has no clothes.

    Perhaps, it could be argued, that it was when the hand went out that Holden lost its way. Yes, perhaps it's true that other Governments support their local industries - and I have no response to that - but it's simply my observation that from the moment I saw Governments supporting Holden that their product line up tailed off.

    Just my observation, is all.

      1 year ago
    • Holden had no reason to innovate when it had Govt contracts out the wazoo. That's definitely been a contributing factor. Detroit dipping in to Govt subsidies to save themselves certainly played a part too, for sure.

      In the end, we stopped...

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        1 year ago
    • A lack of innovation and a removal for the need to compete only creates stagnation. Perhaps it was a bit of hubris as well. Truth be told, in the face of aggressive competition, they just didn’t move appropriately.

      20-20 hindsight of...

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        1 year ago
  • 2016: The year they redesigned the commodore.

      1 year ago