A complete guide to the history of Australian car manufacturing

General Motors-Holden's at Fishermen's Bend, Melbourne, Victoria - National Library of Australia

The history of Australian car manufacturing dates back to the late 19th century, when horse-drawn carriages and steam trains were the norm for getting from A to B. The industry has endured a rollercoaster journey, and despite its recent setbacks, can still be revered as a defining point in Australian history.

Australia's relationship with cars predates our federation, and represents an important chapter of our manufacturing past, not only by the progression of these amazing machines, but how this effective mode of transport changed the livelihoods of many Aussies.

We've taken a look back at the automotive industry's lifespan in terms of local production, and how it helped shape our nation. Come and explore Australia's car manufacturing history with this 'exhaustive' compilation of everything four-wheels — including brands, export locations, facts, makes and models.

Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, looking north from Flinders Street, circa 1900

source: State Library Victoria

The birth of Australian car manufacturing

Australia's first car was a steamer built in 1896, named the 'Thomson Motor Phaeton'.

source: Steam Car - Herbert Thomson, Armadale, Victoria, 1898 Copyright Museums Victoria

In 1896, Herbert Thomson and Edward Holmes of Melbourne introduced Australia's first steam car nicknamed 'The Phaeton'. This newly developed vehicle managed to drive a distance of approximately 790 kilometres, at an average speed of 14 kilometres an hour. It took over 56 hours to complete the journey — a feat which stimulated further motor-vehicle development across the country.

As the demand grew for automobiles in Australia, Harley Tarrant developed the country's first petrol-driven car in 1901.

It was Tarrant's prototype that is widely considered our nation's first car, due to its petrol powered engine, which had a Benz imported motor.

The journey from Bathurst to Melbourne took 56 hours to travel just over 790km, a trip that takes roughly eight hours to complete today.

The early days of Australian car manufacturing

1900s to 1940

In 1906, Tarrant played a significant role in the local automotive industry, lobbying on behalf of the Motor Importer's Association for better traffic regulations, among present on the governing committee of the Automobile Club of Victoria. With the outbreak of the First World War, Harley Tarrant was ranked in charge of Commonwealth military motor transport. The wartime period saw a spike in production, but errors during Tarrant's tenure riddled the industry's developmental reputation. As a result, a royal commission was conducted in 1918 to investigate Tarrant Motors.

During the final years of World War One, Australian car manufacturing grinded to a near standstill. At Holden, trade restrictions in 1917 threatened their production output. However, instead of building completely operational cars, they continued designing vehicle bodies and shells from the resources at hand.

It was during the 1920s when production began to recover despite the global implications of the Great Depression.

The first major company to establish itself within our shores was Ford Motors Australia in 1925, but it was Holden Motors — in conjunction with General Motors — who would go on to become the country's leading car manufacturer.

In 1926 General Motors Australia was officially formed, importing American chassis to their Holden designs and parts. By 1931 Holden Motors was bought out by General Motors to form General Motors Holden Limited.

In 1936, Holden opened a new assembly plant at Fishermans Bend in Port Melbourne, with another opening in Pagewood in Sydney three years later.

Production suffered another major blow in 1939, when Australia entered the Second World War, as the military was given priority to build goods for the war effort. At Holden, war production helped improve the company's skills and depth, positioning them in line for a productive and innovative finish to the decade.

At Holden, war production helped improve the company's skills and depth, positioning them in line for a productive and innovative finish to the decade.

Holden Pressroom

Post-war boom creates government support

1940s to 1960

Despite the impact that World War Two had on Australia, the post-war period formed the first government support for the car industry. Many parliamentarians at the time were heavily in favour of providing the automotive industry government support because cars were seen as symbols of modernity and progression.

In 1948, Holden's first ever badge was designed to fit the FX model, and three years later, the first Holden Ute was released on the market. The price of the Holden FX was AUD$733, equivalent to roughly $23,600 in today's currency.

By 1953, many new models of Holden were uncovered; including the FJ which was exported to 17 countries worldwide. With Holden already a reputable name, they opened the Elizabeth production facility (Holden Vehicle Operations) in South Australia in 1958.

By the 1950s, one in 10 households had a car. Countries such as the United States, Germany and Great Britain started shipping many cars including the Ford Prefect, Triumph Mayflower, Austin A40, Morris Minor and the Volkswagen Beetle.

Within this era, Australians were introduced to more expensive six-cylinder cars including the Ford Zephyr, Jaguar, Rolls Royce and Rover. Post-war migrants from Europe led to the shipping of many different European makes and models. As a result of their popularity, European car manufacturers including Volkswagen, Renault, Peugeot, and Citroen all set up assembly plants across Australia.

In 1952, Holden's FX sales peaked at 32,000, with roughly $11 million invested in expansions and further development. As a result, 1,700 new jobs were created by the mid-1950s, and Holden rapidly expanded into the New Zealand market. By 1955, one in three cars on Aussie roads were Holden!

In 1956, Holden began shipping to Malaysia and Thailand, while also building Utes in Indonesia. At the end of the 1950s, new technology led to cars quickly becoming faster and modernised with devices such as transmitter radios.

In 1956, Holden began shipping to Malaysia and Thailand, while also building Utes in Indonesia. At the end of the 1950s, new technology led to cars quickly becoming faster and modernised with devices such as transmitter radios.

Night view of Queen Street, Brisbane, ca. 1959. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

The highs and lows of the 1960s and '70s

1960 to 1980

The 1960s witnessed the surge in popularity of muscle cars, manufactured predominately by Ford and Holden. In 1960, the Ford Falcon was released to counter Holden's popularity in the country, but it failed to impact the market as Holden led Australian car sales almost three to one over Ford.

By 1962, one million Holden vehicles had been sold in Australia. The 1960s saw numbers at Holden peak to 23,914 employees across seven manufacturing plants in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

In 1966, Holden made history by fitting every model they built with seat belts — a trend the industry followed.

The Holden Kingswood was introduced in 1968 as an ideal family-sized car, fitted with a Chevrolet V8 engine. During the same year, Holden's most iconic model, the Monaro, hit the road as virtually a sportier two-door version of the Kingswood. A year later, Holden unveiled their first ever V8 engine produced on Australian soil — something many Aussies can appreciate today!

Due to the affordability and popularity of Holden, Ford's attempts to entice Aussies with the American Falcon model ultimately failed. The rural roads of Australia proved a heavy setback for the iconic Ford Falcon, as they struggled to compete with the Holden counterpart. It wasn't until the end of the decade when Ford decided to build a manufacturing plant in Australia, and introduced a utility edition of the Falcon.

Japan's Toyota commenced making cars in Australia in 1963, and would go on to become the country's largest vehicle exporter. To put figures into perspective, Toyota exported more cars in a 16 year span than Holden did in 63 years. Toyota's massive output demonstrated just how much of an impact it was having on the local market, with competition quickly strangling the industry.

During the 1970s, the industry endured further economic hurdles such as the oil shocks of 1973, which led to fuel shortages worldwide and exorbitant prices throughout much of the decade. Furthermore, these factors led Australian car manufacturing into troubled territory, and it made the industry increasingly uncompetitive.

In addition to these woes, the car industry's exposure to cheaper and more accessible Asian imports saw more hardships with local car manufacturing. Employment levels between 1973 and 1980 dropped by 80,000, which was a trend that unfortunately never recovered.

In 1978, the iconic Holden Commodore replaced the larger Kingswood, and quickly became a popular option for families due to their availability, size and price.

Australia was the first country after Japan to manufacture Corollas. The Corolla went on to become the biggest selling small car in Australia.

Ford Australia, Broadmeadows plant, 1979 — FORD AUSTRALIA

A rapidly evolving industry

1980s to 2000

By the 1980s, automotive giant, Holden, along with other local car producers, faced massive challenges. During this period, the Ford Falcon ended the Holden Commodore's six-year run as the country's best selling car.

At the start of the 1980s, the country's three largest car manufacturers, Holden, Ford, and Chrysler were still building vehicles. In 1981, Chrysler was sold to Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd.

It was during the 80s where the country experienced the introduction of new laws surrounding fuel efficiency, in a bid to curb vehicle-related pollution made by an expanding car industry. For much of the 1980s, Ford and Holden battled for market supremacy, while Toyota and Mitsubishi made their mark.

At the turn of the decade, the automobile industry saw the beginning of luxury vehicles entering the market. The earlier years of the 1990s saw Asian car companies capitalise on a falling Aussie dollar, where companies such as Daewoo, Hyundai, Kia, Suzuki, and Proton, all set up for sale.

In 1991, Japanese-made Toyota claimed market leader for the first time in Australia, outselling both Holden and Ford. It was around this time when Aussie car manufacturing witnessed a declining trend with the emergence of cheaper, more competitive Asian companies.

Technological developments in this era set the foundations for the new millennium, most notably safety features and computers systems in cars. Airbags, and anti-lock braking systems (ABS) were fitted as standards.

Holden Manufacturing Facility, Holden Pressroom

The end of the road for Aussie production

2000s to present

At the beginning of the new millennium, car production wasn't all bad, and with the onset of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Holden was a big contributor to the Games' success. Ford also celebrated in 2000, with its 75th anniversary of Australian production.

In the early 2000s, Holden experienced record car sales, as the Commodore remained the country's number one selling car for the seventh year running.

By 2003, Toyota made its dent in the industry by selling over 186,000 cars. A year later, Toyota had manufactured its two millionth locally-built vehicle.

In 2003, Holden invested approximately $400 million into a new engine plant in Port Melbourne, and exported to China, Korea, and Mexico. By 2006, Holden's market share fell 15.2%, signalling the company's bleak future in production.

Despite a healthy $119 million injection from the Australian Government in 2017, the car manufacturing industry has witnessed a drop of 5,071 employees since 2013-14, and is likely to increase. The Federal Government announced the ‘Advanced Manufacturing Fund' would be deployed to aid the industry's closures, and support the thousands of people impacted by unemployment.

According to a 2014 Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, an estimated 40,000 people have been (or will be) impacted by the closure of assembly plants. The Australian Automotive Manufacturing Industry Report found that the plant closures of Ford, Holden, and Toyota, affected 6,600 Aussie employees.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) highlighted a 10.4% decrease in the total number of people employed in the manufacturing industry from 2005 to 2015. The ABS data revealed that the reasons for the decline of employment were due to technological advances (robotics and automation of manufacturing processes), changes in consumer preferences, and government policies.

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Sources

Joe Rich, ‘Tarrant, Harley (1860-1949)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, (1990)

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 1301.0 Year Book of Australia, Development of Manufacturing Industries in Australia, (2012)

Toby Hagon, Drive, Holden: Timeline of Local Manufacturing, (2013)

Feann Torr, Motoring, Holden Shuts Melbourne Engine Plant, (2016)

Ron Hammerton & Justin Hilliard, CarsGuide, Holden’s Manufacturing History: 1856-2017, (2017)

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Timeline: Holden’s History in Australia, (2014)

History of Cars, Australian Automobiles in 1950-60s, 1960-70, 1970-80, 1980-90, 1990-2000, Modern Era, (2018)

Australian Government, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Automotive, (2017)

Australian Government Productivity Commission, Australia’s Automotive Manufacturing Industry, Inquiry Report, (2014)

Circelli, M, Lu, T & Stanwick, J, The End of Car Manufacturing in Australia: What is the Role of Training?, National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Australian Government, Department of Education and Training, (2015)