(first posted 6/5/2015) This lovely survivor was caught outside a record fair a while back. A lot of my records are like this example; slightly scuffed moments in time bought second-hand because most of it isn’t available new (on vinyl at least). Whoever owns this car has themselves a fine piece of Australian motoring history; a 1956-58 FE Holden Special Sedan.
The FE was a breath of modernism in a country still proudly running off the sheep’s back. We were in the midst of the Menzies Era, part serenity and part torpor. In November the 1956 Melbourne Olympics were about to take Australia to the world, but apart from that it was an overwhelmingly white Australia. Immigrants from Europe were out of general sight building our future in the massive Snowy Mountain Scheme and our indigenous population was still subject to appalling treatment or worse. Despite an umbilical cord to Mother England, Australian parochialism was a uni-dimensional construct in the cities, suburbs, towns and outback.
Australia’s Own Car, the Holden 48-215 (top), had been launched to much local acclaim. Through the diligent efforts of Laurence Hartnett, MD of GM-Holden, the Australian government had favoured the project and the car was released in 1948. Unfortunately for Hartnett, GM in Detroit didn’t take too kindly to his home-grown body design, so he was sidelined and a proposed Chevrolet shape was accordingly modified. The 48-215 – and its same-bodied followup the FJ (bottom) – comprised 91% locally manufactured content and became Australia’s most popular car.
When it came to the FJ’s replacement, it was decided to follow the lines of the Opel Kapitan, seen here in 1953 guise and 1956 update (top row). The Opel was in some ways a more modern shape than the parent’s US offerings; in 1953 a straight-through wingline was available from GM in Europe while the US 1954 Chevrolet (bottom left) still retained the separate fender look. By 1955 the Chevrolet had leapt ahead with its wraparound windscreen and lower, flatter bodylines.
The FE’s styling was by Australian Alf Paize under the direction of Glen Smith who was there to ensure the Holden conformed with GM styling themes. The influence of the Kapitan is quite clear on these scale models, particularly in the rear end-treatment. This stepped fin was not to be on the Holden, but the shoulder dip on the rear door of the 55 Chevy was included. The final shape was tested with Kapitan badging to avoid public scrutiny (bottom right).
There is the suggestion elsewhere online that Opel body dies were shipped to Australia and used for the FE. What panels were specifically shared is hard to place. The FE had a wheelbase of 105” and a track of 54.5”, and the Kapitan a wheelbase of 108.3” and track of 54” so there may have been some internal component sharing, But from the outside these are two different cars. Only the front doors appear as if they might have the same inner structure.
I’ve read somewhere that the local content for the FE was 96% percent, but I can’t confirm that. Anyway, this was the More Australian Car simply because there was more of it. It was longer and wider with more interior room than the FJ. There was more power on tap from the 132.5 cu inch I6 ‘grey’ motor (mated to a three-speed column shift manual ) with 53kW instead of the FJ’s 45; thanks to bigger valves, modified inlet manifold and increased compression. Only the wheels were smaller, going from 15” to 13” apparently for aesthetic reasons, but they were wider at 4.5”.
Australians flocked to the Holden showrooms for their New Car. Sales for the FE reached just over 155,000 cars during its 22 month lifespan, not bad for a new vehicle market which totalled around 200,000 cars per year. In 1956, Holden had 33.8% of the new car market which climbed to 42.7% in 1957. All-in-all, the FE was a great success.
This is a lowlier Business Sedan or just Sedan, hard to tell because I think the difference was interior appointments. Our feature Special Sedan had the chrome spears along the flanks for easy identification. I think this glossy black one is the same one that JohnH has in his recent comparison piece. Bryce has pointed out that some of the chrome on this one is from a Special, so itsa bitsa. But nice, all black and strippo.
In 1957, the utility and panel van were made available. These variants had been part of the FJ range, and the big news is that they were joined by…
…the Station Sedan. An extremely rare model nowadays, this was the first factory Holden wagon, although some prototypes had been prepared for the FJ. In all, you could now get one of seven FE Holdens; three sedans, two wagons, the ute and the panel van. Variants within body were simply a matter of trim upgrades; they all shared the same engine. The Special Sedan, with its chrome spear along the front fender, was the top of the four-door hierarchy.
An FE Station Sedan marked the millionth body by Holden. Holden had started as a saddlery business in 1856 and their first vehicle body was built in 1917. By 1924 they became the sole supplier of bodies to General Motors in Australia and in 1931 they were bought out by GM. By 1957, Holden were exporting to seventeen markets including Thailand, Malaya, North Borneo, Hong Kong, Sudan and East Africa, as well as to faraway New Zealand in CKD form. Volumes for export were not great, 1957 figures account for only 4500 cars.
When I was growing up, the neighbours had an FE sedan in ubiquitous green. When replaced by a Volvo 245DL, it was left to slumber in their backyard stable that – amazingly – still existed in inner suburban Melbourne in the mid 1970s. We had a treehouse in a large fig tree next to the stable; and part of our descent included jumping from the corrugated iron roof onto the protruding boot lid of the FE, which drove our friends’ parents batty. Great days.
The rear window sticker brings back more memories. Peter Brock was one of our most popular racing drivers. In the late 1970s, his race cars bore the number 05. This was one of the most brilliant strategies I can think of in what was then called social marketing but would now be called behavioural change. The number reflected the blood alcohol content, 0.05%, over which you would be considered legally too impaired to drive. This level differed state-by-state, but this number’s presence on Brocky’s racecar did more to raise awareness of this issue than possibly any other marketing ploy at the time.
And 3XY was the rockingest station on the Victorian radio dial.
In May 1958, the FE was replaced by the FC. It was really just a bunch of cosmetic upgrades; more prominent two-toning on the senior models and extra chrome trim, but that story is for another CC.
Like the 53 Opel might be to some Europeans and the 55 Chevy to Americans, the FE Holden holds that mother’s milk sort of familiarity that comes with it being a part of my childhood landscape.
There may be some dust and scratches in this FE’s grooves, but I’ll bet the owner still enjoys the analogue warmth of driving it amongst today’s digital noise.
1961-62 EK Holden Station Sedan
1962-3 EJ and 1963-65 EH Holden
1965-66 HD Holden Station Sedan
My dad had an FC borrowed from the used car lot where he worked while he waited for a new HT wagon to surface from the factory having sold our HK wagon, He took it on an overnight return trip Warkworth Tauraunga n back some 600kms without complaint reckoned it hammered along at a steady 70mph most of the way and sat on the road thru the Kaimai range like an old Chev, young me noted the missing hubcaps and straight thru coby muffler and the cackle it made on over run and liked it, Mum refused to either drive it or ride in it, Dad flogged it around for a week then suddenly there was a brand new 1970 Kingswood wagon in the drive and the FC was gone.
A couple of years later a FC was the first car I saw 100mph indicated on the speedo full throttle then maori overdrive (neutral) down the Pohuehue viaduct hill,
The loaner incidentally was identical to the two tone grey FC pictured sans whitewalls.
“Maori Overdrive?” Cute; I heard from a coworker than frugal mainland Chinese do that too, to save fuel. Considering that crude oil is priced in US$, that’s understandable, given the difference in cost of living.
“it’s got 10 forward gears and a Georgia overdrive”.
Apparently a truck driver’s term for descending hills in neutral.
Another old-fashioned frugality practice is to turn off one’s headlights (at night) when stopped at an intersection, to save wear and tear on the battery/electrical system.
Is that why some drivers refuse to turn their lights on at dusk? It’s very unsafe; only sometimes do they “get it” after I flash them?.
Or leaving their lights off in rain or snow, even though my US state (and many others) require it. I’ve heard people say, “But I can see the road just fine!,” oblivious to the fact that lights also help others see THEM.
..my uncle had a ’58 ..it was dark plum red inside and the exterior was in a light ‘pumpkin’ beige all over ..a smooth ‘big’ car that my naughty little sister helped herself to ..she released the handbrake somehow (aged about 3) ..and ‘drove’ the Holden all the way down my parents’ long steep driveway ..on the way squashing our mother against the side of the house (no real injury but v.frightened by the experience) ..and ending up stopped only by the substantial Hill’s clothesline ..much drama on a late fifties’ NZ suburban Saturday morning!
Uncle Des was not that amused by the ‘scrapes and bruises’ his Holden had suffered at the hands of my sister Caroline (the Holden had only just replaced a black Standard Vanguard ‘ugmonster’ and it was his pride and joy lent to my dad for the weekend as a special treat !
Looking at the Holden FC reminds me of the pre-1954 Chevrolet.
Re Standard and special the standard had no brightwork other than grille and bumpers even the tail light surrounds were painted and there was only one layer of foam padding on the seats and fully painted dashboard no money was wasted on chrome trim on the standard sedan, the black car pictured is not a true standard business model, passenger door locks were only on the Special
Thanks. I’ve seen a pic of a ute without front turning flashers, like the ute and panelvan on the ad but they could be early artwork. Did the FE ever get released without them?
Yes. I had a friend who owned a standard FE wagon, without indicators. FE Standards were never common, so I can’t say whether they were all like that.
Front turning flashers, or indicators as us Aussies call them, were an optional extra on the FE standard.
All FC standards had front indicators.
The FE standard utes are panelvans are also interesting in that they do not have a keylock on the outside of the drivers side door. The idea was that the driver would get out of the car, move around to the passenger side, hold the door open for his wife to get out, and then lock the car.
Dunno Hand signals were required in NZ in 73 when I got my licence indicator use want entirely accepted even then so in the 50s its unlikely they were a legal requirement, park lights however were and were fitted.
The good old Grey Six wheezed out about 50Kw of power in the FE. Depressing ain’t it.
That’s 67 horsepower…yikes.
Great article, Don! Love this stuff. Straightforward cars, and a higher production percentage of decidedly practical models compared to the States. Four-doors, utes, sedan deliveries and wagons. The kind of cars we imagined you would use to take your Matilda on a picnic by the billy bong (according to “Aussie talk” we heard on records), then flog happily across the Outback, with a herd of ‘roos cruising alongside like dolphins. These Holdens are fascinating because they are exotic yet recognizable cousins to our cars, and desirable because of their rarity here. I’ll take a ute, then dude it up to look like a 3/4 size Cameo….
+1 thanks Don for another great read.I’m sure I saw the odd one in Australian TV shows as a kid in the 60s(Skippy,The magic Boomerang).
While I can see Opel,Vauxhall and Chevy in it’s looks that grille is very Standard Vanguard.
Pretty! To my eyes the Holden has a French flavor, not German. Reminds me of how Simca reshaped Ford’s basic designs.
Even though individual design elements do seem to come from other GM cars and GM corporate “design language” (if that term even existed then), the whole is much more distinctive than the sum of the parts. If I didn’t know it was a Holden, I wouldn’t have assumed GM at first glance. Keep the Aussie stuff coming, I can never get enough!
Don, thank you for this. You helped form my addiction to Austrailian cars with the Monaro and articles like this keep feeding that addiction.
It’s easy to see why these hold a special place with those in Australia.
This has always been one of my favorite Australian cars, and perhaps the one I became aware of first as a kid, although I’m not sure now exactly from what source. But its combination of Opel and Chevrolet influences really caught my attention. But I’ve never really read a good in-depth article on them until today, so this has been a long time coming, but well worth the wait. 🙂
I think the body itself looks like it was influenced by American GM design between 1949 and 1953-54. But what I like most is how it was designed for Australian Outback driving. If only our American cars followed the same design.
The ground clearance of the car is probably a sign of the adaptation to Australian driving conditions of the time.
Which designation came first, the FC or the FE? They looked the same, it’s just the grille on the face of the car that seem to set it apart.
Jason, the FE was 56/58, the FC was 58/59. FE had little round turning signals under the headlights, the FC had rectangular units that attached to the base of the grille.
Ah! Ok. Thank you. I’ve seen pictures of the car before this awesome article, and I’ve read that the FE came first before the FC. 🙂
I took the above photo of the FC Holden “Taxi” around 1977 at Amaroo Park NSW on the bike motocross track. Somehow North Shore Sporting Car Club was allowed to run cars over those huge berns. Never again. When this FC landed it broke the front suspension – putting the struts through the suspension towers if I remember correctly. My stock one year old Mk1 VW Golf ran all day…poor thing it was my daily driver.
Hi, good to see my old mate,the taxi, as dubbed by my friends when I was racing at Catalina Park Rallycross.Glad you took the photo before it landed! Barry Cooper.
If only our American cars were designed and tested like that. We Americans may not take our cars off the road much, but it’d be nice to know that we can if need to.
Very pretty cars ! .
Thanx for the informative article , i imagine there are still many in daily use ? .
That was a fun piece! Never seen them put in an international context before, cannot disagree with anything you’ve said. I’ll file this Don A article inside the relevant Don Loffler book. Not sure of the etiquette of posting commercial links, but the books are so well written even people who have no interest in cars can enjoy them.
Nate, sadly few of these cars survive in daily use. Thanks for another fine article Don.
On the other hand, I would say I see as many of these Holdens as any other 55-60 year old cars still in ‘normal’ use (as opposed to collectors cars). The only thing that would come close would be Morris Minors.
That’s good to know John ;
Were I an Aussie (? SP ?) I’d prolly have one as my D.D. as I like older vehicles and these even have my beloved InLine 6 cylinder engines .
Before i was born , my Dad had a FE panelvan with a backseat installed.
It was a cheap way to get a station wagon apparently , something to do with less sales tax due to it being a commercial vehicle.
I have a beautiful color picture of it but, unfortunately my computer skills.dont allow me to post it here at the moment.
It has side windows unlike the blue van in the ad ,but the window behind the B pillar looks sort of home made.
It does not have the indicators on the front , but it does have the same chrome hood ornament as the feature car .
Excellent article, as always, Don. Although more a Ford man, I do have an FE Holden sedan – albeit a small-scale chromed toy!
Looking at the Holden FE/FC series of cars, I can’t help but imagine a miniature version of our Chevrolet Bel-Air pre-1954. Except Chevrolet didn’t offer a car based ute here in the USA until 1959 as the El Camino. 🙂
Don, that car looks just like the one that ‘lived’ in the garage next to ours when I was a little kid. Not enough folk in our flats owned a car, so the landlord rented the spare garage space to an older pipe-smoking gent who only drove it about once a week. I still remember the sound of that poor little cold engine roaring as he reversed the car, uphill, through the narrow chasm between our flats and the ones next door. And the smell!
You mention the rarity of the wagon nowadays. Even rarer is the original three-door FE standard wagon, which had a back door only on the passenger side and the rear-end design of the van/ute with bumpers only on the corners and a drop-down flap to access the spare. I saw one or two around as a kid (notably one in metallic chartreuse with mags – kind of sticks in your mind, that!), but it’s very hard to find information about them, and many Holden fans don’t even know they existed.
I wonder if that was a former ambulance. Some of those were 3 door conversions of panel vans (sedan deliveries) to our friends over the Pacific.
Until you mentioned it Peter, I’d never heard of a 3-door FE wagon, so you piqued my curiosity! Certainly is hard to find info on them, but I’ve spent the last hour or so down the FE 3-door van/ambulance rabbit hole – and what a great rabbit hole it was! It seems the 3-door FE wagons were all aftermarket conversion – most by Baileys Motor Body Builders in Victoria, but also Hedges Bodyworks and others.
Apparently all started as panel vans, but were fitted with station wagon rear door(s) and seat(s). They were largely built as ambulances, but were also apparently marketed to tradesmen wanting a single vehicle for work and family.
The one below is from the Bollyblog Bolwell site:
One minor thing Don the 48/215 was a prewar Buick design and the first prototypes imported to Australia were registered as Buicks
Chevrolet was not involved but the grey six is very similar to pre 54 Vauxhall sixes especially the way the head is bolted down and cubic capacity.
And the old Vauxhall six dated back to, what, the mid-thirties? Think it was 1781cc before the war; the old thirties British small six. Was there much hot-up gear for the old Vauxhall six, like we had for the old Holden six?
There’s no way that time is a linear concept.
When I was seven, and fully identifying cars, these stodgies were just 18 years old, a 2003 model now, and that’s just not possible.
These were rust-buggered old paddock-bashers, really old folks cars, or young last-gasp chancers, or oft as not, ass-raised fat-wheeled pseudo hot rods for some young lair with far more cheek than cash. Who’d ever want one when the next model, the FB – I know, FC to FB, go figure – was a sort-of ’55 Chev look with fins and wraparound screen and stuff? These looked like abandoned couches, on castors.
Thing is, I currently drive on ’02 model, a Holden too. It just does not seem as ancient as an FC did in ’75 or so, and that’s actually got to be a bit true. Fuel injection, airbags, ABS, pre-tensioners, crash structure, reliability are in many ways not as radically different in the time from ’02 to ’21, certainly not as different as an ’02 – and a ’97 design at that – is from a ’75. Still, I’m sure a youngster sees my car as pile of ancient rubbish (and ofcourse, it is, but you see the point).
Anyway, these were plentiful, smoking about in their described roles when I was young, and I carry the prejudice of their fustiness from then to now. I believe they were pretty much a re-bodied Fx (’48) model, and their considerable height might support that. Without fenders and curves, they just looked a bit slab and dull for me.
The wagon looked a good deal better, and I didn’t realise til reading Don’s old post here just how much that was the case. Probably a good $50K AUD if you can find one now. I don’t have $50K, but wouldn’t if I did, as they say.
Justy, to further mess with your speculations about the non-linearity of time, specifically as it applies to old Holdens, the FB was a partial reskin of the ‘couch on castors’ FE/FC! The boot lid is a direct carryover, and so are the rear door panels below the beltline. The ute blended the new front styling and cab to the old rear panels. Theoretically you could do a mix-and-match with sedan or wagon panels too, and create your own all-Holden odd-bod. But I don’t think there was any above-floorpan structural carryover from the ’48-56 models.
Back in the days of these old Holdens, car design in America was whooshing along at a frenetic pace. We Aussies were a laid-back lot, not so far removed from our pioneering roots and thus more practicality-minded, and less driven by advertising. A more rural-based community than today too. We were still recovering from the shortages brought on by the war; nowhere near the deprivations suffered by Old Blighty, but much more so than the US. A car was better than No car, even if it did look years out of date; at least you HAD a car. Your neighbours likely didn’t. When Dad came back from the War, he got hold a car – a ’28 Essex that he couldn’t get rid of fast enough. He replaced it with a shiny new MO Morris Oxford. His business partner was jealous – of a Morris Oxford!
Nobody bothered about emissions unless your car was visibly blowing smoke or making excess noise, and then it usually bothered you as much as the police. Safety meant you not hitting anything; people actually used to slow down for corners. Infotainment wasn’t even a word, it was radio or nothing, Most folk had nothing. Technology meant overhead valves, and the Holden had that from the start. So what was there to progress? 🙂
Ah, the malleability of time; isn’t it wonderful!
Some of us Nutters/’Enthusiasts’ _like_ the Morris Oxford….
True, but said business partner went on to purchase a Jaguar! Hard to reconcile that with having been jealous of an Oxford… 🙂
Well let’s see :
Both were English cars is decent for the times design and were crippled by almost non existent build quality control…
Great read and only reinforces my opinion of both the Fe and the FC
Had an FE wagon in AU in late sixties went like a rocket and only gave up once when cam drive sprocket shredded into a pile of shavings thank goodness it was on the servo forecourt. Fixed within couple hours and away again !
Current credence to this car is my FC Wagon Bluey.pic attached
Very nice. I love the two-tone colour combination.