Curbside Classic: 1956-58 Holden FE Special Sedan – The More Australian Car


(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.

FE Holden Commercial

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.

Further Reading:

1953-56 FJ Holden Utility

1961-62 EK Holden Station Sedan

1962-3 EJ and 1963-65 EH Holden

1965-66 HD Holden Station Sedan

1966-68 HR Holden Utility

1968 HK Holden Brougham

1970 HG Holden Monaro