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Holden marks another Australian icon's demise

SYDNEY--When the axe fell on Australian carmaker Holden, it was another blow to a nation which has lost a string of iconic brands, from Vegemite to Foster's.

Back in the 1970s, Holden commercials sang that “football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars” were the stuff the country was made of, along with cricket, sun-drenched beaches and a carefree lifestyle.

Yet the subsidiary of U.S. automaker General Motors said Wednesday it had battled a “perfect storm” of high costs, a high Australian dollar and a small market for too long, and would cease manufacturing in Australia by 2017.

It is a familiar scenario for Australians, who have seen other iconic brands move into foreign hands or send manufacturing offshore over the years.

Foster's beer has been taken over by Britain-based SABMiller, Bonds underwear is made in Asia and bush bootmaker RM Williams is 49.9-percent owned by luxury brand Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH).

Surfwear firm Billabong has come close to a wipeout, global food giant Kraft has long owned the much-loved savory spread Vegemite, and even national airline Qantas may soon lose its majority Australian-owned status.

John Roberts, professor of marketing at the University of New South Wales, said the end of Australia's first mass-produced car, the Holden, would have a cultural impact.

“If a lot of these proud Australian icons either get taken over, or like Holden collapse, then in some sense our sense of self-identity neither belongs to us nor is as successful or proud,” he said.

“We don't have a lot of strong culturally significant brands left and I think this will obviously have a direct marketing affect, but it will also have an effect on the national psyche to some extent.

“One has to ask what does it mean to be Australian?”

Dean Wilkie, a lecturer in marketing at the University of New South Wales, said those Australian brands which attracted the most sentimental attachment, such as Qantas and Billabong, were often under the most pressure.

“It is amazing that our most valuable brands in Australia today ... are the banks. The banks — the consumers hate them,” he said.

“So it's almost like we are in a situation where there's no real iconic, strong well-loved Australian brands any more.”

Despite being a subsidiary of GM, the Holden was marketed as “Australia's Own Car” and became an icon of post-war prosperity Down Under.

“It was a symbol of Australia being a mature industrial economy,” Sydney University cultural historian Richard White said of the automaker, whose models included the FJ Holden, the Kingswood and the Commodore.

Holden was central to the idea that Australia could produce everything that it needed and could stand on its own feet in the post-war world, thereby determining its own future, he said.

“Whereas without that, and becoming more dependent on imports ... the possibility of Australia and Australians making the decisions that are going to determine their future is becoming reduced and that has an influence on national identity,” he said.

But Katrina Schlunke, associate professor in Australian cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, said the country had moved so far away from the Australian way of life of the 50s that the Holden decision would not be a crushing blow to cultural identity.

“The Australian way of life got you your house on a quarter-acre block, a homogenous family unit, a car — a Holden — and some sort of security of life that was based on ideas of space and home ownership,” she said.

“Now we have shifted so far from that in terms of the emphasis on city living, even the whole idea of the car itself is to some extent under a certain order of erasure.”

White said national consciousness was continually adapting and the survival of a national brand always precarious.

“Our notion of what Australia is will change,” he said.

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Cars sit at a Holden car dealership in Sydney on Wednesday, Dec. 11. Holden will cease manufacturing in Australia by 2017.


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