Auto culture: finding Holdens in Indonesia
As our car crawled along the narrow roads between Yogyakarta and Surakarta, I stared out the front passenger window, marvelling at the everyday lives of the locals as they milled about the roadside stalls; billows of steam were coming out of the big pots of the warungs, and children, chickens and scooters were weaving around us. My husband Mr J and daughter Miss E were sitting in the back seat: bored, with headphones on. Scrolling through something on their phones. They were over the great temple complexes of Yogya: the heat and the crowds had worn them out. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a rusty old car sitting in the middle of a large yard. ‘Look- an old Holden’, I said in passing. There was a flurry of excitement in the back. ‘Stop the car! Go back!’. Poor Yusef, already bewildered and amused in equal measure by my husband’s antics, dutifully reversed the car and found the owner of above forementioned rusty wreck sitting in the middle of a yard. Conversations ensued, the car was inspected and marvelled at for around half an hour, then we were allowed to resume our drive.
Our cultural tour of East Java had already been affected by my husband’s enthusiasm for old Holden cars. We had a free afternoon a few days before and he had found a Holden Premier for sale on a Facebook page- so we had to go and have a look at it. Our driver Yusef was very happy to take us to non-tourist places- in fact, this Premier was in his old neighbourhood so he took us past his old school and where he used to live. (That particular car followed us back to Bali, was reupholstered and put on a ship and is now living with us, in a perpetual state of ‘almost’ being refurbished, back here in Australia.)
This little blog post is dedicated to my husband and his love for old Holdens, and how his love for them opened up so many doors for us when we lived in Bali. We were no longer just another bule (foreigner) family- we wanted to be part of a community of car lovers. We got to know restorers, upholsterers, mechanics and spray painters and fellow Holden drivers. We travelled as far as Sulawesi to find parts and Mr J has made many trips to Java to meet fellow enthusiasts.
1970s Holdens were not the most practical or comfortable in the congested streets of South Bali- in fact, anything bigger than a scooter was cumbersome and it was too hard to find a park! We also met many interesting people by owning and driving around on a powder blue 1974 Vespa- but that is a story for another time.
Holdens in Indonesia: a short history
Below is a summary of what I discovered about Holden culture in Jakarta, and a bit of the history of Holden in Indonesia. None of it is original research, but I have put it into my own words. The references are at the end of the post.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Jakarta was a less crowded place, late Saturday nights were dedicated to street racing down the city’s main thoroughfare, Jalan Sudirman. The race would begin at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, down Jalan Sudirman to the roundabout at Senayan and then back again.
The story goes that a Holden was the reigning champion of street racing, and one illustrious night it managed to beat a European car driven by Tommy Suharto, the spoiled and rather corrupt son of the erstwhile Indonesian president- a man used to getting his own way. Tommy – who favoured European cars – owned the importing agency for Holdens (and held the monopoly on many other state-owned assets, but that is a story for another time) and soon after, the agency was closed down. It has never been verified why this happened- it would be funny to think that Tommy’s loss was the real reason for the demise of the Holden franchise in Indonesia. We wouldn’t put it past him- after all, he was eventually gaoled for assassinating a judge.
A thriving subculture of Holden fans keep the Australian cars displayed and driving throughout the archipelago. Holden appreciation clubs have been set up in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bandung, Cirebon, Surabaya, Bali and Medan.
In 1958, the Holden export market grew to include Indonesia. The first Holden to arrive in Indonesia was the FC series. In 1959, complete knock-down assembly began in Indonesia: shipments of the FC model arrived in Jakarta in what the industry calls a “Completely Knocked Down” state — simply a box of factory new parts and pieces to be put together at a plant in the capital. From 1954 until 1959, Holden Australia held the General Motors rights to all of Australia and Indonesia.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Holdens were everywhere in Jakarta and beyond. The capital’s ubiquitous Bluebird taxis were Toranas. The success of the Kingswood, popular among taxi drivers, prompted the opening of a second assembly factory in Surabaya, East Java. Government ministers chose Holdens as their limousines. Long time Bali residents from Australia in Sanur’s backstreet bars reminisce about the 1970s, when taxis, police cars and ambulances were Holdens.
Holdens became status symbols for wealthy government officials and military top brass; some were even released for private sale to colonels and civil servants as their mileage built up. The Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono IX – revered in the country as an independence hero – was very fond of his black Statesman. Kingswoods and Premiers were favoured by the country’s upper-middle class and elites.
Sales increased considerably when the locally assembled Holden Gemini arrived in 1981. Other locally assembled Holdens were the Torana, Commodore, Statesman, Kingswood, and Premier.
But by the time the Gemini and Commodore brands were developed in the late 1980s, European and Japanese carmakers had swept the country with smaller, lighter and cheaper options than the high-powered Australian offerings. The Australian car maker’s glory years in Indonesia ended in the mid-1980s. Holden sales soon crashed to fewer than 500 a year and the Australasian export experiment was over. Jakarta’s streets are now packed with Toyotas and Hondas.
Holden closed its Australian manufacturing operations in October 2017: then in February 2020 it was announced that Holden was pulling out of Australia altogether, less than three years after closing its local factories and amid its weakest sales in more than 60 years. All this happened at about the same time the world became gripped by the coronavirus crisis.
Old Holdens never die, they just get flattened in monster truck shows…
At least a few Indonesian Holdens met their end as mangled wrecks for public entertainment when touring American-inspired monster truck shows were all the rage in the early 2000s.
If they were spared that fate, most of the surviving cars were garaged in the care of enthusiasts who still gather regularly for local branch rallies of the owners’ club, burnout exhibitions, or an annual national “jamboree”. There is an entertaining look at the Holden Club in Jakarta in this Street Machine article; one collector has so many Holdens simply because he wanted to save them from the monster trucks.
Postscript: Tak kenal tak sayang
Tak kenal tak sayang: you can’t love someone if you don’t know them. Since moving back to Australia because of COVID-19, I realise how little Indonesians and Australians really know and understand one another. The only news we get about Indonesia is about the dire COVID situation there, or it is local news from friends in Bali. There is much more to Indonesia than just Bali, and we were on the cusp of discovering new places and meeting interesting and like minded car lovers while we were there. Indonesia is one of Australia’s closest neighbours: why don’t we know each other better? My time in Bali and Indonesia has opened my eyes to a vibrant, artistic, creative and dynamic group of people. I look forward to returning as soon as we can.