I’D BEEN an engineer at Holden for 24 years when I was appointed manager of the Proving Ground at Lang Lang. It proved to be one of the best jobs I ever had in my 43-year career with Holden!
Every new Holden since the 48/215 model was subjected to a rigorous and extensive testing program before its release to the public. In the early 1950s, General Motors - Holden recognised that using public roads to test vehicles under controlled conditions was unsustainable in the long term, and that a purpose built test facility was essential for the development of its future models.
His experience there produced a long-term vision to create a dedicated Holden proving ground, based on the features of the Milford PG but one that replicated Australian driving road conditions which were much more severe than those in the USA or Europe. He convinced Holden management that this was less expensive and much safer than using public roads in Australia or transporting future model prototypes to the USA for durability testing. He was far-thinking and more to the point – he was right.
CAP was my first boss at Holden. He’d hired me in 1954 when I applied for a job at Holden. I learned much from him in my early career and over time he became a great mentor and a very good friend.
Holden’s 877 hectare Proving Ground facility commenced operation in 1957 with the first Holden under test being prototypes of the new 1958 FC model. It was widely accepted that Australia had some of the toughest driving conditions in the world and the roads constructed on the Holden Proving Ground were designed to replicate the worst of them – but under controlled and repeatable conditions.
By 1978, test vehicles on the Proving Ground had accumulated nearly 45 million kilometres in 8-hour shifts, 3 shifts/day over 6-days/week of continual accelerated testing. This was equivalent to about 180 million kilometres of normal driving on Australian roads. On average, a typical durability test car covered 40,000 kilometres in 13 weeks, the equivalent of about 160,000 kilometres on normal roads.
My first experience with the Proving Ground occurred not long after Holden purchased the property in 1956. As a young engineer-in-training in the experimental engineering section, I spent a very pleasant although strenuous week-end with a small group of other young engineers surveying the south boundary to determine the fence-line for what eventually became a section of a 3-metre high cyclone wire security fence 18 kilometres in length around the entire perimeter of the property.
We also surveyed the line of a hill close to the south boundary line. It featured a measured slope of 1:17 which later became one of the sections of the durability test route – the 5.8% hill approximately 800 metres in length over which the test cars accelerated at full throttle as part of their durability schedule. Much of this area was dense bush and fairly hard going on steep gradients in which we saw numerous grey kangaroos, wallabies and prolific bird-life – mostly parrots, honey eaters and kookaburras and others that I was unable to identify at the time. Soon after, I bought a book on Australian birds so I could.
In the summer of 1957, while some of the first roads at the proving ground were being laid out and graded, I was one of about 100 Holden employees from Fishermans Bend who volunteered for a ‘kangaroo drive’ in an attempt to drive as many of the resident kangaroos and wallabies from the property as we could before construction of the security fence was completed. We saw dozens of them that day including a large number hopping back the other way because there were too few ‘beaters’ and too many ‘roos’!
Years later, as proving ground manager, I would at times accompany one of the security guards in a four-wheel drive vehicle during one of their surveillance patrols as they drove around the entire perimeter inside the fence. Their job was to check the fence daily once per shift for any sign of intruders or injured wildlife caught up in the fence.
Because of its remoteness, the proving ground had always been the target of photographers – mostly employed by the car magazines, who attempted to photograph Holden prototypes undergoing testing and so obtain ‘scoops’ before the car was released to the public. This became somewhat of a game – sometimes the photographer got his ‘scoop’, at other times they were apprehended and the film in the camera ‘accidentally’ ruined by exposure to light. By this stage, it was very evident that the people who worked at the proving ground had learned to co-exist with photographers!
The year 1979 provided me an experience at the Proving Ground I shall always fondly remember. This was the year in which legendary Australian racing driver Peter Brock, together with co-driver Matt Philip and navigator Noel Richards, drove 20,000 kilometres in two weeks, sometimes for up to two days at a stretch on some of the most inhospitable Australian roads, taking first place in the Repco Round Australia Reliability Trial that started and finished in Melbourne. Second and third placed cars were also Commodores - all prepared by the Holden Dealer Team, which gave Commodores a 1-2-3 finish in that most gruelling trial.
A day after the event, Holden Corporate Affairs were approached by television Channel 9, who were interested in filming the winning car driven by Peter Brock on typical Australian outback roads for viewing on the next evening’s news telecast. A television crew had followed the trial cars from start to finish but their film (35mm) was still being processed for showing as a documentary later that year. Channel 9 sought assistance from Corporate Affairs who called me to suggest that the proving ground may provide just the road conditions that replicated what the trial cars had experienced. There was one caveat – the TV crew wanted footage taken from inside the car, with Peter Brock driving at speed! The Director of Engineering had given his blessing so it was game on.
The next day, Peter Brock and the crew arrived and so did his winning Commodore – in the same condition in which it had finished the trial. The car was refuelled, the Channel 9 photographer fitted a video camera mounted on a frame bolted to the outside of the left-hand front door, and sat in the front passenger seat with his remote control. Peter Brock in his racing gear climbed into the driver’s seat and I settled into the rear seat of the car. We buckled up our safety harnesses, put on our driving helmets and away we went.
It turned out to be an exciting ride. Peter Brock was in great form, throwing the car around corners at speeds I would never had attempted, sliding through the tight corners and creating lots of dust. He was in his element, while the photographer and I just hung on. The fun came to an abrupt halt when we heard a sharp crack and the TV camera just disappeared off its mounting!
For a split second Peter had forgotten there was a camera fitted to the outside of the car and had driven just a fraction too close to one of the white posts that marked the edge of the road. These 1.5 metre high posts featured red reflectors for night driving and were placed at intervals on both sides of the track. They were never designed to be hit by a TV camera at over 100km/h. After a loud ‘oops!’ and apologies from Peter, the three of us walked back down the road and eventually found the mangled remains of the camera.
Fortunately, the photographer had brought a spare camera with him so the whole exercise was repeated – this time without a hitch. I don’t know how the photographer ever explained to his boss how he came to destroy the $9000 camera but the footage he recorded on the second camera was terrific!
As a matter of interest, the winning Commodore is now held in the National Motor Racing Museum at Mount Panorama in Bathurst as part of a unique Peter Brock display.
It is now over 40 years since I moved on from my job at the Proving Ground, and 23 years since I retired from Holden, but I still remember with fondness the 130 wonderful people who worked there at that time – engineers, technicians, mechanics, administrative assistants, test drivers (including a married couple), grader operators, stores people, the canteen staff – a highly skilled team dedicated to the Proving Ground and proud of the end product they helped create. I thoroughly enjoyed my two years at Lang Lang and the good fellowship of the wonderful people who worked there at the time.
I am immensely relieved that the Holden Proving Ground (in my view, the jewel in the crown of the Holden Lion in Australia, and regarded by many as one of the best vehicle test centres in the world), will continue to be operated as an on-going automotive test facility by its new owners VinFast.
Additionally, I understand the sale document lists VinFast’s obligations at Lang Lang to include the maintenance and protection of the local environment, vegetation and natural landscapes, and the support of community land-care activities. A big tick to Holden, VinFast and the local community of Bass Coast Shire.