Holden Built its Last Car Friday and Now We Don't Make Cars
Flowers outside the factory gates. All images by the author
end of manufacturing

Holden Built its Last Car Friday and Now We Don't Make Cars

Here's what it was like watching Adelaide's factory close forever.
October 23, 2017, 6:07am

It's Monday now and the reporters who parachuted in to cover the Adelaide factory closure have gone, the news cameras have packed up, and the nation switched off. Holden's Adelaide factory closed Friday. Design operations will continue in Melbourne but the actual production work is gone. With Toyota closing a few weeks back Australia no longer makes cars. End of story.

Today, Monday, about 60 members of the former workforce are heading back to the site. They will do so to without their uniforms, helping instead to dismantle the machines and pack up what is left. Having them come back to the site in Holden work shirts after they were laid off last Friday would be, as they say in the public relations business, "a bad look".

Friday was the day of the funeral. From seven in the morning people began to gather outside the factory. There was the media who had set up in front of the administration building, the rev heads who brought their cars, the former workers who had asked for the day off just to be there, and the locals who swung by to sit in. As Jon Brooks, a local documentary maker, described it to me at the time: "It's an Irish wake. It's a funeral, but everybody's happy for some reason."

By midday Philip Highway in front of the plant had swollen. The company had held its press conference and the unions had addressed a crowd of mostly Labor people on the grass and the streets would been lined with Holdens of every make and model. The vibe felt like a school fete and the rev-heads took over a parking lot across the road for their own impromptu car show.

Inside, the company were holding a private ceremony for its workers, but outside gathered those who had travelled from as far west as Perth and as far east as Melbourne on a working class pilgrimage to salute the workforce after 60 years of production and to see the last car to be made on Australian soil.

They wouldn't get their chance though. The company for the last few months, and years, has operated with a siege mentality and towards the end, the union had asked Holden not to let the workers leave from the front door to be harassed by media. Instead, they were to sneak them out the back in buses with dark-tinted windows to drive away the last 950 workers to a private party at Adelaide Oval where Jimmy Barnes would play a show just for them.

It was only at the last minute the company saw the size of the crowds out on the Philip Highway and decided to run the buses through the streets lined with Holdens where people clapped and applauded. It may have been a makeshift honour guard, but it did the trick.

The last car was a different story. It roared to life for the first time on the floor of the factory while the company ran its private ceremony for the workforce, but its rubber would never meet Elizabeth's bitumen. Instead, it rolled off the end of the production line and straight into a museum.

I was standing among a group of locals outside who had come just to see it. One had a baby, the other had brothers and cousins who had worked at the factory. When a contingent of soldiers from the nearby barracks turned up to serve as an honour guard, they thought their moment had come. Problem was, the workforce had already left and there were no workers to drive that last car. The soldiers had wasted their time and so had the locals who turned up. I showed them a photo of the last car on my phone as a consolation prize and watched them swallow their disappointed in the way all working class people do when life throws them another gut punch. Then they went home.

On the grass out front, I met a guy I went to high school with. I asked him what he was doing with himself these days and he said he was in between jobs after he "had a blue" with his boss. I asked what the job was and he explained it was managing a hydroponics operation for an illicit weed crop. He told me it was a shame the factory was going. His mother had worked at Holden from 1990 through to '95.

"Everyone's got someone," I said and told him how my grandfather worked there when he migrated to here. Then we shook hands and I told him to take care of himself.

In the wall-to-wall coverage that defined last week, it's his story and the others like it which people missed. That is a story about 200,000 people across the region of northern Adelaide and all those in Victoria living with industrial decline. The only question is what happens to them now? What happens to the people who have to go on without it? And will anyone care without the brand to attract the attention of East Coast audiences in an increasingly concentrated media environment?

Words by Royce Kurmelovs. He's the author of The Death of Holden. You can also follow him on Twitter