Holden On: Can Adelaide Shift Gears After The Loss Of Its Car Industry?

Tegan Gromball squints uncertainly at the muscle cars roaring around the bend. It used to be that when the gleaming crimson and white Holden VF Commodore blasted over the finish line, she felt like she had played some small part in its victory.

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“Even before I started working at Holden, I was a Holden supporter,” she says, standing behind the formidable barricades that shield Supercars Championship fans from flying debris. “It’s weird knowing that the cars aren’t what we’ve made, but are coming from other places. That’s a bit sad, obviously. When they’re not Australian-built, winning races won’t have some [sense of] achievement that we were part of it.”

For four days every March a familiar droning sound, like a swarm of hornets, descends on the capital of South Australia: the Adelaide 500 Supercars road race. The noise infuriates inner-city residents but is a siren song to the petrolheads from the working-class northern fringes, who undertake the hour-long journey into town for the big race.

Like many other outer suburbs residents making the pilgrimage this year, Gromball found the trip tinged with melancholy. It is the first Adelaide 500 to be held since Australia lost its automotive manufacturing industry – and the north of Adelaide was its beating heart. Six months on, the city is still coming to terms with the news.

Like a swarm of hornets … the Adelaide 500 > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
Like a swarm of hornets … the Adelaide 500.

It is no coincidence that of Australia’s two motorsport tribes, the fans at the Adelaide 500 are mostly wearing Holden red rather than Ford blue. Since the company was founded here in 1856 as a horse saddlery, the Holden brand has been synonymous with South Australia.

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We used to provide a food hamper. Since the Holden factory closed, it’s hamper plus help with rent, help with bills …

David Wark, local volunteer

The company shifted with the times, from saddles to car parts, before being bought out by the US giant General Motors, which built a Holden factory in 1960 in the shining new satellite town of Elizabeth, 24km north of Adelaide. The planned community was a utopian vision for how modern life was then conceived: steady jobs and orderly streets.

Holden’s Australian workforce peaked at 23,914 in 1964, across seven facilities. Car production continued to climb, but as the process became more automated, jobs dropped off, until Holden closed all facilities other than Elizabeth’s in 1988.

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By that point, Elizabeth was well on its way to being a down-on-its-luck suburb rather than a gleaming community of the future, gradually consumed by Adelaide’s creeping city limits and a despair brought on by Australia’s shift from manufacturing to service industries. The most devastating blow came in 2013, when the federal government withdrew subsidies for the car manufacturing industry, prompting General Motors to initiate a four-year plan to cease production in this far-flung, high-wage outpost.

Tegan Gromball and her children Dylan, 8, and Terleah, 10, trackside at the Adelaide 500 > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
Tegan Gromball and her children Dylan, 8, and Terleah, 10, trackside at the Adelaide 500.

Gromball was there when the last locally made car trundled along the production line and out the door. Now working in pest control, she doesn’t get a weekday off for the Adelaide 500 anymore, but she still made it for the Sunday.

Gromball worked on the production line for seven years, as did her husband. She’s at the race with her brother-in-law, who did 10 years there. She’s also brought along her daughter, Terleah, 10, and son, Dylan, eight. Both wanted to work at the plant when they grew up.

Terleah hopes the factory will be turned into a museum, and wrote to the state’s former premier, Jay Weatherill, suggesting as much. She got a “very nice” letter back, but no promises. Adelaide, like the rest of South Australia, is focused on looking forwards.

The city increasingly defines itself by its arts scene, and hosts Australia’s largest arts festival, the Adelaide Fringe, which in 2016 accounted for 39% of all ticket sales to multi-category events across the country. The month-long event coincides with the Adelaide 500, with the droning of the cars clearly audible during dramatic pauses and between arias. It infuriates festivalgoers and residents of the leafy middle-class suburbs, who dismiss the Adelaide 500 as the annual migration of the bogans from up north.

Infuriating the middle-class suburbs … spectators at the race > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
Infuriating the middle-class suburbs … spectators at the race.

This kind of snobbishness represents an extra hurdle to those in Elizabeth and Adelaide’s other northern communities, where the intergenerational impact of the loss of manufacturing is a serious concern. At the time closure plans were announced, there were 1,600 manufacturing jobs at the Holden plant, but the factory drew on networks of local suppliers who employed thousands more. While the Australian unemployment rate is 5.8%, Elizabeth has 31.1% out of work, while the northern suburbs of Adelaide sit at 7.7%.

David Wark, head of the St Vincent de Paul Society for South Australia,, says he and his colleagues had put on extra meal services in preparation for the closure of the plant, but the number of additional people seeking assistance still surprised them. “Vinnies” has experienced a 20% rise in the number of people needing help and a 40% rise in demand in the northern suburbs.

“The need is deeper,” Wark says. “We used to provide a food hamper until their next bit of income, but now it’s food hamper plus assistance with rent, assistance with bills. It’s not only the staff of Holden, but also suppliers – even the deli down the road. We’re finding people are hurting and businesses closing down.”

Homelessness worker Tracy Ingram stands in front of a car industry mural on an Elizabeth shopping centre > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
Homelessness worker Tracy Ingram, who says Holden apprenticeships used to help get young people back on track.

Tracy Ingram, the manager of Centacare’s Outer Youth North homeless service, used to get young people in difficult circumstances back on track via apprenticeships with Holden. “Now,” she says, “that opportunity is no longer there.”

Between July and December 2017 , 56 people came to Ingram’s Elizabeth branch because of family breakdowns or relationship issues, compared with just six people over the same period a year earlier.

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Families get frustrated, turn to drugs and alcohol, lash out at their young people, they lash back

Tracy Ingram

“Families get frustrated through the lack of opportunity, turn to drugs and alcohol, lash out at their young people, they lash back, get kicked out and come to us,” she says. “When finances dry out from whatever payout you were on, those things erupt. If they don’t see a future for a job, that’s when frustrations happen.”

Back at the Adelaide 500, amid the noise and chaos of the racetrack and motorsport crowds, oil and gas worker Jim Smith has taken refuge in a quiet tent filled with old Holdens. Smith worked on the production line straight out of high school in the 70s, but “went bush” a few years later to enter Australia’s now-lucrative resources industry.

“In hindsight it was a good move,” he says, as he inspects a handsome 1959 model. “I had mates from school who were Holdens from day one through to its close – 40 years’ worth of service. It’s disappointing for South Australia and the manufacturing industry. There’s virtually nothing left now.”

Former plant worker Jim Smith in the Holden classics showroom at the Adelaide 500 > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
Former plant worker Jim Smith in the Holden classics showroom at the Adelaide 500.

Smith gazes over at the cars he left behind. “Still, they’re always going to be Holdens,” he says. “You can’t take the badge off what’s already been produced.”

The Ford fans at the Adelaide 500 know how their old rivals are feeling. Darren White made the trip over from Melbourne, where the last Ford plant closed down in 2016. “They’re both gone now, no more local manufacturing,” he says. “It’s a bit sad for both sides, but it is what is.”

Data from the most recent Australian census reveals the number of manufacturing workers in the country has fallen 24% over the five years to 2016, and a 2014 University of Adelaide report predicted the end of the car industry would put up to 200,000 jobs at risk across the country.

The report’s co-author Professor John Spoehr says that the transitional measures put in place since means he is optimistic that not all is not lost for former manufacturing hubs like Elizabeth. For proof, he just needs to look out his office window.

Spoehr works in the far south of Adelaide at Tonsley Park, an innovation hub built inside the shell of the Mitsubishi car factory that closed down in 2008. “Now this place employs more than it ever did as a car factory,” he says.

‘Like a phoenix from the ashes, the car industry will rise again’ … a wide shot of the closed Holden plant > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
‘Like a phoenix from the ashes, the car industry will rise again’ … a wide shot of the closed Holden plant.

South Australia has turned to the manufacture of renewable generation and associated battery storage products as the new bedrock of its economy, with a solar panel and home battery producer among the tenants at Tonsley Park. The old Holden factory is on a four-site shortlist to host a home battery factory set to supply the entire Asia-Pacific region, and Spoehr predicts another green technology is about to get going in the northern suburbs.

“Like a phoenix out of the ashes, the car industry will rise again,” he says – in the form of electric, autonomous vehicles.

“We’ve got the skills and the capabilities; it is relatively affordable; there’s a range of international players looking at doing assembly here,” he says. “It’s not fanciful to think within the next five years we’ll have an electrical autonomous vehicle industry.”

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One such international player is the British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta, who is seeking to use the Holden factory assets to produce electric cars. Gupta has already intervened to save the local steel industry and chose South Australia as the site for his plan to build the biggest battery storage project in the world. But General Motors is resisting Gupta’s overtures, as it did in 2016 when a Belgian entrepreneur wanted to continue producing cars at the factory.

Gromball, like many former automotive manufacturing workers, has become jaded by all the false starts. “There are so many stories – you don’t want to get excited for something that isn’t going to happen,” she says.

She would be thrilled to work in an electric vehicle plant, although she’s not sure about the push to bring Formula E electric car racing to Adelaide.

“It’d be interesting to watch a few,” she says politely. “But watching an electric wouldn’t be the same. It’s missing the grunt of the V8. The noise, the power, the excitement a V8 gives off. Oh, and the smell. Oh yeah, that smell.”

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Source : https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/apr/11/adelaide-elizabeth-holden-500-car-industry-manufacturing-loss

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