Henry James Holden: Aussie Auto Icon and Christian Philanthropist

5 November 2021

2.9 MINS

Holden is an iconic Australian brand. But many don’t know the story behind Henry James Holden. He was not only an automobile manufacturer, but a Christian and a major contributor to Australian civic life.

On the 17th of February 2020, Australians awoke to a somber headline:

Holden is no more: General Motors announces the 164-year-old Aussie auto brand will be axed by the end of the year.

The announcement caused shock waves through Australia. So many of the population had grown up with the Holden brand. It was a sad climax, considering the incredible efforts, ingenuity and hard work by Sir Henry James Holden to establish – at one stage in 1929 – the biggest automotive body builder in the British Empire.

In October 1929, the plant closed temporarily for lack of continuous work. In January 1930, Henry Holden set out for the United States to discuss amalgamation with General Motors. These discussions were finalised in 1931, after which work began on “Australia’s Own Car – Holden”.

The first “home grown” Holden model 48-215, also affectionately known as “FX”, rolled off the assembly line at Fishermen’s Bend Factory in Melbourne on the 29th of November 1948. It was unveiled by the then Prime Minister, Ben Chifley.

The FX was a robust and economical family sedan that was designed especially for the Australian environment. The price was set at $733 (including tax), which represented ninety-four weeks wages for the average worker at the time.

Despite this, the car was an immediate success, and Holden could not satisfy demand quickly enough. Already, 18,000 people had signed up and paid their deposit without even seeing the car.

The Meteoric Growth of Holden

By 1958, the Holden had captured more than 40 per cent of total car sales in Australia. By 1962, one million had been sold. Despite strong market competition from the Ford Falcon, another million had sold by 1966.

After gaining experience in his father’s leather and saddlery business, Henry went on to become a carriage-builder. His firm weathered financial crises in 1887 and 1893.

During the South African War, Henry secured several large government saddlery contracts. Mechanically ingenious, he set up rows of machinery in a rented shed, personally trained the workforce, and developed large-scale, low-cost production methods.

In 1909, Holden extended the firm’s activities to include motor-body trimming. It produced hoods, upholstery and carriage hardware, and painted bodies for steam and petrol cars. Holden enjoyed a close patriarchal relation with his workforce. He fostered generous social welfare arrangements and good labour relations.

Henry Holden’s Contributions to Civic Life

As well as being the State’s leading industrialist, Henry Holden contributed substantially to civic life. He was mayor of Kensington and Norwood for eight years, a member of the Norwood School Board. As a foundation member of the Municipal Tramways Trust, he initiated moves for electrification of the system.

As president of the Municipal Councils Association in 1903, and later vice-president, Holden acted as chief magistrate in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs, and was chairman of a committee formed to draft a bill for town planning.

Henry Holden’s commitment to the teachings of Jesus was evident throughout his lifetime. He embraced the opportunity not only to serve his own workers but those in the wider community. Holden was President of the Baptist Union for twenty-one years, a deacon for twenty-five years, and a long-time Sunday school superintendent.

Holden’s concern for the poor and elderly moved him to establish the Norwood Homes in 1904, which still operate today. His heart for young men caused him to support – and then become President of – the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), a national body concerned with the welfare of 15–25-year-old males.

But Holden’s philanthropy didn’t end there. His concern for the mentally disturbed as an official visitor to the Parkside Asylum (then known as the Parkside Lunatic Asylum) led him to accept a very important project that was offered to him. When visiting England in 1911, he was commissioned to investigate the management of hospitals for those with mental disabilities.

The End of an Era

A diabetic in his later years, Holden died on the 6th of March 1926, survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons. One of Henry’s daughters became South Australia’s first female senator in the Commonwealth Parliament. Edward, one of his sons, continued the Holden family involvement in vehicle manufacturing.

The Holden family made a significant contribution to the development of Australian manufacturing and the shaping of the South Australian economy.

Originally published at DIDUNO. Image via Rhema99.9.

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4 Comments

  1. Kym Farnik 5 November 2021 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Yes! Even the Lion logo for Holden is awesome.

  2. Phillip Hohl 6 November 2021 at 4:43 am - Reply

    Sir Henry James Holden, a 2nd generation “coach builder” was the founder of the iconic GMH Automotive Association.
    He was a Christian, a philanthropist, president of the Baptist Union (Victoria), YMCA and a Sunday school superintendent. He died in 1926. A life well lived.

  3. Leah 6 November 2021 at 9:06 pm - Reply

    We don’t know how much we owe to others because of their faith a works . May we follow his example, and that of others.

  4. Pauline Gray 6 November 2021 at 11:02 pm - Reply

    Great to hear of people such as Sir Henry James Holden who not only led in the field of manufacturing but was a leader in Christian organisations.
    Our prayer is that many more Philanthropists today will lead the way in supporting Christian organisations and declare their faith in Jesus Christ.

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