As the buildings come down at Holden, the fate of its remarkable car collection remains uncertain

The Holden Torana GTR-X concept from 1970, part of the priceless Holden heritage collection.
The Holden Torana GTR-X concept from 1970, part of the priceless Holden heritage collection.

The fate of Australia's priceless Holden vehicle collection, regarded as one of the most important transport heritage sets in the country, is still uncertain with some cars certain to be exported unless the federal government intervenes.

It ceased manufacturing cars here in 2017 and multi-billion dollar US car giant General Motors is now "retiring" the Holden brand from Australia by the end of 2020, and selling off all its assets.

This had sparked a bitter dispute over compensation to be paid to dealers which was finally settled in early July.

However, the fallout from that dispute and the vitriol directed at the company from some members of federal parliament while that dispute occurred, is understood to have dramatically soured GM's view on how and where its collection should be held. GM already has a large collection of its global cars in its Detroit museum.

A federal Senate inquiry into Holden's abrupt departure from the Australian market is still ongoing, with a public hearing set down for Parliament House on August 3.

Senator Louise Pratt, who is chairing the inquiry, said the vehicles in the collection "are an important part of Australia's automotive history and should remain in Australia".

John Howard at the 50th anniversary of Holden in Port Melbourne.

John Howard at the 50th anniversary of Holden in Port Melbourne.

"Holden vehicles manufactured in Australia have a special place in the hearts of motoring and Holden enthusiasts around the country, so it is my hope the vehicles remain in Australia and be accessible for public viewing," she said.

"The Senate inquiry into GM's decision to retire the Holden brand in Australia has not looked at this issue, but people with an interest in the Holden collection could consider making a submission to the inquiry."

Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has already expressed his strong desire to retain the car collection, which includes such extraordinary one-off vehicles as the first Holden Torana, the extraordinary GTR-X, and the stillborn Holden Hurricane, in Australia and four months ago had flagged the formation of an advisory committee to see the process through.

However, the committee hasn't met due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the clock is ticking down rapidly to Holden's departure by the end of this year.

The Holden Hurricane concept car from 1969, part of the Holden collection.

The Holden Hurricane concept car from 1969, part of the Holden collection.

Meanwhile the theatrette at the "home" of Holden at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne is full of documents, plans and materials from the 1930s, when plans were first lodged to build an engine factory in Melbourne.

The bulldozers have already levelled some of the Holden manufacturing facilities in Melbourne and the car collection is being held in a secret storage facility, its fate still uncertain.

Dr Norm Darwin, the president of Australia's Automotive Historians' Association, said he fears not just for the vehicles, but the remaining few buildings still standing which were a precious reminder of our manufacturing past.

"The Fishermans Bend site is leased from the Victorian government which had intended to level all the buildings to make way for a new university campus," he said.

"However, there has been a significant public reaction to this proposal and the [Victorian Planning] minister is now waiting on a report on the buildings' heritage value, which we hope will be made public.

"The collection of cars kept by Holden is another important issue and it would be a terrible blow if it was to be split up or sold off.

"We're hopeful that commonsense and goodwill will prevail in all this and the cars will find a proper home and remain in Australian hands."

Mr Fletcher has already indicated his willingness to use his legislative powers to prevent important heritage vehicles from being exported.

Last month his department provided advice to prospective buyers prior to the public auction of the first factory Holden Dealer Team Monaro racing car and advised that export may be refused under the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act.

The Holden Sandman concept from 20 years ago.

The Holden Sandman concept from 20 years ago.

That advice dampened international interest and kept the car's sale price down to $715,000.

GM can also take advantage of the cultural gifts program, and receive a tax deduction up to the market value of any donated items.

Canberra's National Museum of Australia already holds a number of significant Holden vehicles in its collection including the Holden prototype number 1, the sole survivor of three cars built by hand in Detroit, then secretly shipped to Melbourne to provide the test bed for Australia's first Holden car, the 48-215.

This story Uncertain fate for precious Holdens of the past first appeared on The Canberra Times.