THE shortest trips can often be the most significant. A few years back, Allan George was driving through roadworks beyond Loch. Conversation with his wife, Margaret, ceased suddenly as an oncoming car rounded a bend and possessed their side of the narrowed road.
Allan steered straight for the front of the other car. Number plates kissed, air bags exploded and the two cars wedded into a concertina of folded metal. As the silence grew, Allan opened the driver’s door and stepped around the shattered plastic and glass to assess the situation.
The ambulance was summoned. Margaret had to be pulled out of the wreckage. Her arm had been burnt. During a long night in Leongatha's emergency department, Allan was able to contemplate his life-saving handiwork.
Holden bought a large property at Lang Lang, reportedly for more than double the original asking price. The deal was sealed by the local agent in the Palace Hotel and the locals helped to drink the free beer that was on offer that night.
More beer flowed on a Sunday afternoon in early 1957. Construction of the three-metre perimeter fence had locked in the wildlife so a wallaby and kangaroo drive started at the Bass Highway. Participants battled through thick scrub toward a nine-gallon (34 litres) keg and barbecue that awaited at the top of Peacocks Rd where the fence had been re-opened. Legend has it that more animals wandered in than were driven out.
The serious business of constructing the first GM Proving Ground outside America had commenced and durability testing across three shifts started in August 1957.
Grantville's Allan George began as a night shift driver in June 1959. He vividly recalls driving prototypes around the mostly unsealed roads. “We often got bogged but I enjoyed every minute. Our garage and performance measuring equipment was basic – a world away from the high-tech gear in use today”
“Back then heaters and demisters were optional – we wore overcoats, scarves and hats to handle the cold. We drove 240 miles every shift, worked six days a week and were paid £21 after tax.”
Allan spent five years rugged up on night shift before he became a dayshift mechanic. He was appointed a leading hand and his responsibilities increased until he was senior group leader of durability. In 1994 the General Motors chairman presented him with a very rare lifetime achievement award. Allan humbly accepted on behalf of the Lang Lang team.
By the time he retired at Christmas 2002, he was the longest-serving employee at Lang Lang. During that 43-year span Allan was involved in every new Holden model as well as all the overseas cars imported by GM-H.
“I was privileged to drive all those cars, and there were some very fast ones ...” Allan smiles and the obvious question needs to be answered. “A whisker under 300 km/h. That was as fast as I ever went, and that was in complete safety on the speed loop.”
Lang Lang also ran competitors’ cars through the rigorous testing regime to set benchmarks. “It’s not that any particular make was bad in comparison; they all had their own strengths.”
The names Holden and Peter Brock were synonymous for two decades and Allan George spent countless hours across those years working with Brock to develop the HDT and racing cars. The legacy of both men is entwined in the corporate DNA.
Although every new model was an improvement on its predecessor, Allan has a fondness for the EH. “It had style, the red motor delivered good performance and it handled well. The later models were larger and the biggest leap forward was the VT Commodore – body engineering, performance and safety features made it world class.”
The demise of local car manufacturing can be traced back to the `80s when the stipulation for local content – then 58 per cent – was reduced and badge engineering spread across the industry under the Button Plan. Toyota badges blossomed on Commodores and even the Falcon Ute wore Nissan decals.
As the final Australian-built family car rolled off the line last month, Allan George reflected on the importance of the industry to Australia in terms of employment, pride, training and opportunities for generations of workers.
At its peak, the Lang Lang proving ground employed 250 people, mostly locals. Although the plants at Fishermans Bend and Elizabeth have fallen silent, the proving ground remains in operation so the Holden DNA can continue in cars built overseas.
Australia was one of many countries that had the capability to design, test and build cars. Retention of that capability was in the national interest. Now there are fewer countries that manufacture and we are importers.
Looking back, Allan can recall only positives about working at Holden. “We had a ‘can do’ attitude and it was like a family. There was never anyone I couldn’t talk to.
“Whenever I go back, the greeting is always ‘A.G. Glad to have you back’.”
That’s why Allan drove straight at that oncoming car: he knew his car was engineered to absorb the impact. Sometimes the shortest trips can be the most important.
Geoff Ellis is collecting stories and photos for a history of the Holden testing ground at Lang Lang. If you worked there, or know of someone who did, please contact him at email@example.com or 0403 917 746.