Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Footballs, Meat Pies, Kangaroos and Nationalism

I know there'll be a couple more years of Ford vs Holden yet, but now both have announced the end of manufacturing, I don't think it's too soon to declare a winner. It's Holden. By a landslide.

I don't just mean in statistical terms, although those do overwhelmingly favour the General. Ford drivers might have taken more Australian Touring Car/V8 Supercar crowns (23 to 18), but over a third of those came from imported cars – Mustangs and Sierras, plus a lonely Pommy Cortina. Boil it down to the all-Aussie Falcons and it's a much less friendly 15 to 18. In the only race that actually matters, it's even more lopsided: Holden have earned 29 Great Race laurels to Ford's 19.

But it's more subtle than that. How many famous names pop into your head when you hear the phrase “Holden driver”? I bet with most of them I don't even need to give their first name: Brocky, Skaifey, Lowndsey, Gricey, maybe Tander and even Ingall (even the Enforcer, who won his only title in a Falcon, is still mostly considered a Holden driver). Against that, how many genuine Ford drivers are there? Allan Moffat, Dick Johnson, Marcos Ambrose... and that's about it. Whincup won his first title in a Falcon, but he's not so much a Ford or a Holden man as a freak of nature. Today only Frosty stands defiant as a Ford driver as opposed to professional V8 driver, and he, like his team, is a frustrating underperformer.

This points to something I have to give Holden credit for: they've done a much better job of creating a culture of loyalty to their products. Part of this is taking a long-term view of racing and ensuring your fans (read: customers) have a Holden team to cheer for year in, year out, regardless of whether they're winning. There's been a Holden factory team out on track, without fail, since 1969 (indeed, thanks to a semi-independent Holden Special Vehicles, for a few years we had two factory Holden teams – HRT and the HSV Dealer Team). And remarkably, despite effectively being the Establishment, they managed to create an image of being the underdog, battling valiantly against the might of the Ford factory teams.

That's quite a con. Other manufacturers should take notes on Holden's handling of the old Dealer Team. Officially it wasn't Holden's own team, entered by a group of dealership owners in Sydney and Melbourne, so it bypassed General Motors' pesky “no racing” directive. For a team with no official backing, HDT got an impressive amount of official backing, but here's the thing – so did all the independent Holden drivers. Although running their own team, Holden weren't especially fussed who did the winning, as long as they were driving a Holden. How brilliant is that? Supply two-thirds of the grid, make it look like your cars are better than your team, and still claim underdog status when Ford come back with another monolithic overfunded factory team.

But it's more than that (and this is where it starts to make us look bad) – it's also because Holden has always been distinctively true-blue Aussie, where Ford takes a slightly more international approach. It's a fault line that divides Australia to this day: Blue-collar vs white-collar. Beer or latte. Labor or Liberals. Yob or wanker.

Of the two, Ford's been the more wankerish, the company more likely to rely on foreign talent like a Canadian star driver or a eurotrash hatchback (while we're on the subject, how much of the Sierra's success here was down to the hard work guts and slog of DJR? Let's not imagine what Ford's final score would look like if not for Dick Johnson). Holden, by contrast, has always taken the yob option, and although it did give them a reputation as the brand of choice for knuckle-draggers, it also made them look patriotic. A Holden owner is a living racial stereotype - a white, blond, rough, six-foot, unsophisticated wildlife expert and obsessive beer drinker. He wears a khaki shirt and shorts and his most priceless possession is a large knife. If not cheering for Skaifey or trying to catch crocodiles he will be surfing or barbecuing snags. Only Holden is Australia's Own ®.

All of which is just a long-winded way of saying, it's very hard to give Holden the credit they're due, because it amounts to giving a big thumbs-up to the ugly side of Australian nationalism – Bondi riots, flags across everything, and bumper stickers reading “Fuck Off, We're Full”. Holden represents the Australia Johnny Howard believed in, an Australia that's dying a day at a time. Ford leans slightly more toward the multicultural, latte art-snob country we want to be... which makes it painful that the final performance Falcon, the GT R-spec, is as limp as boiled asparagus next to the red-hot Commodore GTS 430 it's up against.

And that's the irony of the final round of the Long War: Ford is the international brand, but it was HSV who finally delivered a vehicle capable of taking on ze Germans. But that's something we'll be looking into next week.

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