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Holden Prototype Car No. 1

Holden prototype car No. 1, 1946.
Holden prototype car No. 1, 1946. Photo: Dragi Markovic, 2004, National Museum of Australia

Australia's own car

Prototype No. 1 is the only survivor of three test Holden sedans built by hand in 1946 by American and Australian engineers at the General Motors workshop in Detroit. Earlier that year, General Motors-Holden's chief Laurence Hartnett had submitted to his American bosses an experimental car design with integrated fenders and straight side panels. Reluctant about the Australian venture from the beginning, General Motors executives unceremoniously rejected Hartnett's proposal in favour of a more conservative and curvaceous design with a striking chrome grille. Known as the 'Australian Car', prototype no. 1 became the definitive model for millions of Holden vehicles.

After months of durability and performance tests at the General Motors Milford proving ground, prototype no. 1 was shipped to Australia along with two other prototypes. Legend has it that the three cars were then driven under cover of darkness to the Fishermen's Bend factory in Melbourne.

Registered as JP-480, prototype no.1 underwent further testing on a circuit east of Melbourne, specifically designed to replicate Australian driving conditions. Technicians continued to make minor technical modifications to the car, while General Motors-Holden's executives searched for a name for the new car. After much deliberation, they finally decided upon the 'Holden', in honour of Sir Edward Holden, the company's first chairman. Other names considered were GeM, Austral, Melba, Woomerah, Boomerang, and Emu. The car narrowly avoided the name 'Canbra', a phonetic spelling of Canberra.

The first Holden rolled off the assembly line at Fishermen's Bend on 29 November 1948. Many saw the event as evidence of national maturity, proof that Australia had escaped its pastoral beginnings and embraced the modern industrial age.

The Holden 48-215 (commonly known as the FX) was a robust and economical family sedan, designed for the Australian environment. Combining local production with American styling and technical simplicity, the car captivated many Australians. Public reaction to the prospect of an Australian-built car had been extraordinary, with around 18,000 people signing up for a Holden without knowing a single detail about the car. Holdens soon dominated the roads. By 1958 sales accounted for over 40 per cent of total car sales in Australia. A million had been sold by 1960 and, despite market competition from the Ford Falcon, another million were sold over the next six years.

Following the public release of the sedans, General Motors-Holden's fitted prototype no. 1 with a new engine before selling it to Holden foreman Arthur Ling. The car was later traded to a Holden dealership in Morwell, Victoria, where it remained for 40 years, falling steadily into disrepair. In 1999, Melbourne-based Holden enthusiasts Gavin and Graham Strongman purchased the car. They spent 12 months meticulously restoring the vehicle to its final pre-production form, which incorporated many of the progressive changes implemented by General Motors-Holden's during the testing phase. Once restored, the prototype was purchased by Ian Metherall, who sold the car to the National Museum of Australia in 2004.

The Holden was a vivid manifestation of Australian dreams of prosperity, made more intense by years of wartime austerity. More than just a car, the early Holdens were complex symbols of freedom and independence, as well as suburban conformity. They are among the most recognisable cultural artefacts of 1950s' Australia.

Daniel Oakman

More information

Collection highlight on the Holden prototype car No. 1

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