Home » Let’s Explore The Fiercest Muscle Cars And Wildest Wedges Of GM’s Australian Division

Let’s Explore The Fiercest Muscle Cars And Wildest Wedges Of GM’s Australian Division

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My old hometown of Adelaide has a few charms, like the former Grand Prix track and the set of giant metal balls downtown. Head a little further afield, though, up into the hills, and you’ll find the real gems. For car enthusiasts, chief among them is the National Motor Museum in Birdwood. What lies within is one of the greatest automotive collections in all of Australia, and it preserves some incredibly valuable local history. On a recent trip back home, I was lucky enough to spend a morning wandering its halls and taking in the crown jewels of Australia’s own automaker, Holden.

The museum doesn’t limit itself to any one make or period of time, instead focusing on the broad topic of Australian motoring history. It features cars from a huge variety of manufacturers, both local and international, along with motorbikes, movie cars, and a particularly nice Bugatti Veyron. But what I was really there to see was altogether more special. I’ve toured the junkyards and seen the rusty side of the brand’s history, now I wanted to see it gleaming, bright and clean.

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For context, the Birdwood museum lies just 25 miles from the former Holden factory in Elizabeth. When that factory shut down in 2017, it put Australian automotive manufacturing to bed, with Toyota and Ford having abandoned their own factories shortly beforehand. Australian automotive culture, all its inventions and creativity and rivalries, was dealt a death blow. In the wake of that closure, the National Motor Museum took it upon itself to remember the company’s glory days. The Holden Heroes collection—sadly a retrospective—features Holden’s greatest-ever concept cars, and that’s what I’d come here to see.
20240229 111223This is not a Holden, but it is one of the cool exhibits at the museum as you walk in. No, you can’t drive it.

Local History

The National Motor Museum was well-placed to move when GM made the decision to shut Holden down. The museum was able to secure actual fixtures and fittings from the Elizabeth factory. Chief among them are the multiple partially-completed bodies of Holden Commodores, which ride on a small section of track from the factory’s production line. There’s a small diorama-like setup, too, with a real set of lockers taken from the factory floor, along with a workbench and a control booth. As someone who visited the factory back when it actually ran, it’s an authentic touch. It reminds you that there was this glorious sprawling operation churning out thousands of cars a year, courtesy of the hard work and sweat of thousands of busy workers.

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I’m pretty sure I walked past this exact locker on a factory tour something like 20 years ago.

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They actually took a chunk of the Elizabeth plant’s production line and recreated it in the museum.

As you walk into the Holden Heroes section, you’re immediately greeted with a smorgasbord of amazing cars. There’s a VB Commodore in great condition, an example of the very first Australian version of the Opel Rekord. The VB marked Holden’s shift away from the archaic Kingswood line and established what would become the company’s most popular model.

Indeed, right behind it is the ill-fated WB Kingswood prototype. As a rehashed version of the Holden HZ, it was intended as a bargain-basement refresh to Holden’s large car that would reuse as much original tooling as possible. The passenger versions of the WB were ultimately abandoned as the fallout of the fuel crisis pushed Holden to downsize and focus on the Commodore instead. But it only gets better from there.

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These used to be everywhere on Australian roads.
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The prototype WB Kingswood tried to update the HZ design, but was considered surplus to requirements when the Commodore found its foothold in the marketplace.

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Maroon velour, will we ever see it again?

Fans of the Pontiac GTO will be familiar with the Holden Monaro that it was based on. Indeed, that car was basically a reworking of the design language used on the VT Commodore of the late 1990s. Little known, however, is the cabriolet concept known as the Marilyn. Think “LS-powered rival to the drop-top Mustang,” and you’re in the right ballpark.

The Monaro sold okay when it landed in 2001, but only well enough to stick around until 2006. The sales figures didn’t justify developing a whole new body style for production. It’s a pity because it would have been a heck of a thing with the LS1 under the hood and the wind in your hair.

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As the Commodore moved on, the Monaro should have been updated with it. To that end, Holden’s designers put together the Holden Coupe 60. Revealed in 2008, it hewed to the VE Commodore’s squared-off styling and looked like a high-performance brick of solid tungsten. In person, it sits super low, with massively pumped guards and a carbon lip spoiler sticking way out in front. It has this heft about it that probably would have been toned down in a production model. Nonetheless, the proportions are very race car, much of which is down to the track width and the massive rubber.

Alas, the Coupe 60 was never to be. The Monaro wasn’t selling enough to justify building a new version, especially with no exports on the table. In the US, GM already had the Camaro on the way, which was actually based on the same Zeta platform as the contemporary Commodore, too. Seeing it in the flesh, it’s definitely one of those concepts that would have translated well to production, even if the real thing ended up looking a touch less extreme.

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Meaner than any AMG I’ve ever seen.
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Just look at that front splitter.

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Similarly related to the VE Commodore is the Torana TT36 concept. In 2004, Australians were still enjoying the reborn Monaro, and thus dared to dream that Holden might bring back its other famous name from the 1970s.

The idea was promising too—a 3.6-liter twin turbo driving the rear wheels in a compact four-door body. As a concept, it was tamer than you might think, despite its transparent roof and lurid color. This one, though, wasn’t so seriously considered for production. Instead, it was used as a way to preview the styling of the upcoming VE Commodore due in 2006. It was a useful way for Holden to gauge the reaction without giving away its hand early.

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Despite being touted as having a twin-turbo V6 good for over 370 horsepower, the Torana concept looked fairly restrained for a concept. That’s because it was really a way for Holden to test the waters for the VE Commodore’s design language.

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The gems aren’t just limited to the modern era, either. Going back in time, an altogether more special Torana was also in attendance—the legendary Torana GTR-X. Developed in the early 1970s, Holden put together a fiberglass coupe with striking looks that were easily equal to what the best designers were putting out at the time. It wanted to build the thing, too, developing brochures and promotional films in support of the rakish wedge. It packed a straight-six under the bonnet, a Holden Red motor sourced from the LC Torana XU-1. Good for 159 horsepower, it sent its power to the rear wheels, as was the style at the time. It didn’t have crazy power on tap, but paired with a curb weight of just over 2200 pounds, it would have been almighty fun for the time. On show at Birdwood is the second example ever built. The first was destroyed, and the third was never finished, having been privately owned all these years, and never restored.

And yet, we didn’t get to enjoy it. Only one example was completed before Holden decided that the business case didn’t quite stack up. The delicate, sharp-nosed GTR-X was one of the most striking designs to ever come out of Australia, and we almost had it. Indeed, the concept has returned to the collective consciousness of late, with the final unfinished example currently up for sale. Of all the cars here, I think the GTR-X would be the one I’d most like to drive, if only for that old-school drivetrain and its cutting-edge—for the 70s—style.

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The Pie In The Sky Is Probably Delicious

You’re probably getting the idea by now. As a small offshoot of GM, Holden’s dreams were often bigger than it could realistically achieve. Over the years, though, it didn’t let that stop it from shooting for the stars. Perhaps the best example of that is the Holden Hurricane. Built in 1969, it looked like nothing Holden had ever done before or since. Referred to as a “research vehicle,” it was intended to allow Holden to explore new technologies and concepts.

It featured a high-compression 4.2-liter Holden V8. Good for 259 horsepower, it was mid-mounted and drove the rear wheels in a configuration that was just coming into vogue with supercar manufacturers. The concept lacked any doors; instead, entry was achieved by lifting the hydraulically-actuated canopy. Future-forward features included a rear-view camera which displayed on a small CRT screen on the dash. Holden also touted the potential of “Pathfinder”, a system of navigation that was intended to use magnetic markers in the road to guide drivers to their destinations.

Tap Hatch Holden Hurricane 2

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Note how the pedals are individually labelled.

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It’s wild to see the Hurricane up close. After it was found in a Holden training center in 1988, it was professionally restored and looks stunning for the effort. The paint, in particular, is something else. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an automaker go quite so hard with the sparkles, but somehow it’s fitting on the Hurricane. It’s all the more exciting for its bold design decisions, too—the canopy, the faired-in rear wheels, and the differential hanging out the back of the rear grille. I doubt anyone at Holden ever entertained the idea of building this thing in numbers, but it stands as an amazing achievement of what the brand’s designers were capable of way back when.

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Just look at that paint.

We’ve already covered an embarrassment of riches, but Holden’s 69-year history of local production simply delivered a ton of high-end metal. The collection also includes the imposing Efijy, a low-slung hot rod that stunned on its debut at the Australian International Motor Show in 2005. Despite its lead-sled good looks, it was actually based on a Corvette floor pan. Meanwhile, it featured a 6.0-liter LS2 V8 under the hood, good for 644 horsepower. It drove the rear wheels via a rear-mounted 4L60E gearbox.

Highlights of the Efijy design include the massive dishy wheels and the cavernous rear exhausts that are so elegantly integrated into the rear haunches of the design. The Efijy is one of those concepts that served no purpose other than showing off, and it did that well.

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The hits don’t stop, either. You can check out the HSV W427, which put the 7.0-liter Chevy Big Block under the hood of the Monaro. The Mambo Sandman is also neat, as is the UTEster from 2001.  You can also step through the million-milestone vehicles, along with the first and last Holden ever built. The lineup shows you just how broadly the company’s designs changed over the decades. It also indicates how sales started to drop off over the years. Just seven years separated the six millionth and seventh millionth Holdens, but a further 9 years would pass with Holden failing to reach the eight million mark before the Elizabeth factory closed in 2017.

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The first and last Holdens ever built.

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The UTEster added a removable roof to the Commodore ute.
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A partnership with Mambo brought about this modern Sandman.
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One suspects the designers went for more of a couch design in the back rather than a bed, to avoid direct comparisons to the “Shaggin’ Wagons” of old.
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Clearly, though, they couldn’t resist an Australian take on the usual lurid artwork on the side.

More To See

You might get the idea from my proselytizing that the Birdwood museum is just about Holdens, but that’s anything but the case. There are hundreds more cars on site from brands all over the world. There are regular cars, vans, and trucks, along with race cars and oddball movie vehicles like the “Bigfoot 4×4” from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. There’s a whole gaming section, including a free-play Daytona USA machine that still has functional force feedback. Oh, and an entire pavilion of motorbikes for fans of getting around on two wheels.

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There’s rad stuff everywhere you look.

Ultimately, this article can only hint at the gems lying within the National Motor Museum. It’s truly worthy of that title; you know it’s a good museum when you want to drive everything there. The fact that it has the entire catalog of hot Holden concepts only makes it more compelling. If you can get down there, and stump up the hilariously-cheap $22.50 entry fee, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth. Have fun.

Image credits: Lewin Day

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Loudsx .
Loudsx .
1 month ago

I remember seeing the Torana TT36 at the melb motor show back in the day, was such a looker at the time.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
1 month ago

I was just curious if there are any more auto manufacturers there? (there’s gotta be some small ones, right? Even if it’s a tiny company- or are there just none?) Also, since the big ones are gone, is there still a potential for a big auto manufacturer to be created in the future? Or are there just too many cars imported there? Just curious
Also, I really want a Holden Ute!

El Barto
El Barto
1 month ago

Wait. Is that a Leyland P76 Force 7 coupe I see? I’ve only ever seen drawings or the car in the background, so thanks for posting a decent picture of it – looks cool.

It’s a shame the Poms pulled the plug on the P76 before the wagon and coupes were launched, but I guess it would have only had a run of 8-10 years in the market anyway.

Jb996
Jb996
1 month ago

I love the long and detailed articles of Autopian. So much interesting stuff.
Thanks!

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
1 month ago

The HRT427 is peak Monaro. I spent ages staring at it at the Sydney Motor Show. I still remember seeing the original VT Monaro concept with the blue interior too.

Sledgehammer
Sledgehammer
1 month ago

We might need an Aussie panel van special pitting the sandman, sundowner and drifter before finishing with that mambo themed commodore.

Some even used to get the mad max treatment.

Sledgehammer
Sledgehammer
1 month ago

Love the random Mitsubishi L300. Used to see them everywhere. Great color too and zero rust. They used to rust hard.

Miss_jay
Miss_jay
1 month ago
Reply to  Sledgehammer

I always found it delightfully ironic that right about the time that Mitsubishi Motors Australia sorted out the issues they had with rust, they developed issues with paint.

Never quite nailed that before they stopped making cars completely.

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
1 month ago

This all just makes me sad about the demise of Holden.

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
1 month ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

I’m in disagreement there.

PajeroPilot
PajeroPilot
1 month ago

I’ve visited Birdwood a couple of times over the years and feel the need to go back again to see the Efijy in person, now I know they have it on display. Thankfully, I have three budding car nuts and a petrol-head wife that will be happy for an outing there too!

Brau Beaton
Brau Beaton
1 month ago

It’s a crime that GTR-X was never produced. Stunningly beautiful.

Ron888
Ron888
1 month ago

To this day i’m still disappointed the Efijy didnt make it to production.Exactly as it is please- no changes!

StLOrca
StLOrca
1 month ago

Not sure if the Hurricane is the Mach 5 or Racer X’s Shooting Star. I kept looking around for the Car Acrobatic Team.

Myk El
Myk El
1 month ago

That Coupe 60 concept is totally my jam, says the 2005 GTO owner.

OttosPhotos
OttosPhotos
1 month ago

No real Toranas?

And what’s going on with the steering column of the Hurricane, why does it telescope, so you can use it as a grab handle? Or can you drive the car standing up? The pedals look massive.

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
1 month ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

The column does tilt up to ease entry, but the seats also lift up and tilt forward to ease access, which would be helpful for someone with wrecked knee joints like me! You forgot to mention the ‘automatic temperature control air conditioning’ system it had, which Holden called ‘Comfortron’!

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago

Man this is an awesome review of a car brand I was aware of but knew nothing of. But it raises a question. The traditional car manufacturers continue to relaunch new cars with marquee names. Why do the new car companies launch new withno name or brand recognition instead of picking up a margue like Holden build in Australia where so much talent has no job opportunities and relaunch the brand and industry at the same time? Figure the benefits from the federal government, territory government, loyalty to the brand and country. Why wouldn’t it be a win?

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

Maybe different now?

Silent But Deadly
Silent But Deadly
1 month ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

There’s no political will at a state or federal level to offer the subsidies and tax breaks that an established
auto maker would expect to get to establish a new production line.

Bear in mind that there are already two auto manufacturing facilities converting US market trucks to RHD for GM, Ford and Stellantis with Toyota to come. Plus there’s a specialist industry in car makers like Spartan and Tomcar not to mention a couple of EV companies like Fellton. Auto making is not dead in Oz…it’s just different.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago

Not enough to get them but if they already plan on building why not see what is available.

Martin English
Martin English
1 month ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

In Holden’s case, in the final years, the ‘profit’ being repatriated to Detroit was almost identical to the Federal government subsidy of that year. I think the clumsiness being so obvious was one of the final straws.

Also, despite what people think, while Oz is large, the populated areas are quite densely populated which does make for good roads, suitable for smaller (I.e. cheaper cars); Mrs and I drove aprox 350 kilometres (220mile) return to a birthday party yesterday, in her Toyota CHR, all but aprox 20 km on 4 and 6 lane roads.

However, cars (not just ‘large’ cars like Commodore and Falcon) had grown so much over the years that in the final year of Holden’s manufacture, the Mazda 323 was roughly the same size as the original VB Commodore; they just weren’t building the right cars.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin English
StillNotATony
StillNotATony
1 month ago

Somebody from the production team for Furiosa, the next Mad Maz movie, needs to get in there with a laser scanner and get a good full body scan of the Efijy and the Hurricane. How cool would each of those mounted on duality agricultural tires and bristling with spikes be?

Wally_World_JB
Wally_World_JB
1 month ago

GTR-X rear looks like the design inspiration for the Audi A7 rear…and I’d swear I had a Holden Hurricane HotWheels back in 1970something…

Cerberus
Cerberus
1 month ago
Reply to  Wally_World_JB

I was thinking that, too. It was either a Hot Wheels or a larger pullback car. Somehow I ended up with a small collection of ~1/25 pullback cars that were all largely forgotten wedge show cars. I thought some of the designs were great, but being the early ’80s, I didn’t know anything about them nor where to find out (library didn’t pan out) and that was frustrating. No idea what happened to them.

SBMtbiker
SBMtbiker
1 month ago

Wonderful article! Wish they would have built GTR-X. What a beautiful car! Looks a little like a Chevy Monza hatchback only better!

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 month ago

That Hurricane makes me wonder if the ’70s Bremen Sebring kit car somehow drew some design DNA from it. Esp. that awesome canopy top.

I’m old enough to remember the Sebring. There was even one in my little town, and I remember seeing it driving around in summer with the canopy cracked open so there could be some actual airflow to offset what must have been a complete sauna inside.

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
1 month ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

It could well be – the Sebring actually derived from the ADD Nova built in the UK in the early 70s, so chances are the Hurricane would have made it into magazine articles around the world just before the Nova designer put pen to paper, so may well have inspired the design.
It became the Sterling, then the Sebring when they were made in the USA (obviously the Nova name couldn’t be used). They also were built in South Africa as an Eagle, and in Australia as the Purvis Eureka. Under a later owner, Purvis produced a version called the ‘Freedom Machine’ which was a Eureka with the rear body cut down to engine cover height to make a roadster version. And about a decade ago, there was an Indian company supposedly building EV versions of the Nova called Supernova-EV, but I haven’t been able to find out if many (or any) were ever built. Presumably this was the Indian company (Aerotec Nova) that bought the original company in 1996.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 month ago
Reply to  Morgan Thomas

Utterly fascinating – I knew bits and pieces, but not the whole story, esp the production in other markets. It’s a fairly striking design, even now, so would love to see it return for an EV.

I really appreciate all the things I learn from the more knowledgeable here…thank you!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 month ago

So where is the last of the V8 interceptors?

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 month ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Toecutter knows!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 month ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

He ain’t tellin’ though 🙁

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago

That GTR-X is something else: I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anything like that red stripe turning up and being continued in the taillights.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
1 month ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Interesting car. The front end has big Pantera vibes to me, and the rear bodyside view looks a lot like the Chevy Monza hatchback, but more exaggerated. Wondering if anyone else see this?

Thanks Lewin.

Last edited 1 month ago by Col Lingus
TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

I definitely got the Monza vibe—I dig it 🙂

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 month ago

Great article and pics! That GTR-X is such a stunner.

Chronometric
Chronometric
1 month ago

If I make it to Adelaide someday I will definitely check it out. As a car museum junky, one theme that seems to resonate across them all is “What if”. Engineers created some amazing things that either didn’t succeed in the market, were sabotaged by cost-cutting or labor strife, or were never produced at all. Thanks for sharing.

Last edited 1 month ago by Chronometric
Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago
Reply to  Chronometric

GM always went with out spend or buy and ruin instead of out playing the competition.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

This is all fascinating, but no HSV Maloo? In fact, no utes at all! I’m crushed. At least the Mambo Sandman got a token mention. I still enjoyed reading this.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

Thank you!

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