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How International Titan General Motors Tried To Go Local On Three Continents

Gif: Youtube

It’s not a stretch to say that General Motors is an American icon. You don’t need an ad executive to tell you that. So when the “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, Chevrolet” ad boomed out of television sets across the country in the 1970s, the image fit. But could that same strategy work for an American company abroad? It worked better than you might think.

Down in Australia, where Holden was the General Motors brand of choice, itself an icon that had accompanied the development and growth of the country as much as Chevrolet had in America, and perhaps even more closely held, the formula was basically the same.

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The ad down there went like this: “Football, meat pies, kangaroos, and Holden Cars.” In Australia, and especially when talking about national symbols, Football doesn’t refer to the American sport, nor to Soccer, but to Australian-rules Football. My Australian friends are absolutely insane about the game, so I know it can fit in for Baseball as national pastime. As for meat pies, they’re big business in Australia. Bigger than any apple pie in the States. Kangaroos ought to be self-explanatory, and then there’s Holden. I’m sure you remember, but cars like the Kingswood, the Monaro, the Torana, and, of course, the Ute, were cars designed and built by General Motors in Australia for the unique needs of the country.

You might even say that these cars, basically conceived of for consumption only in Australia (and perhaps New Zealand) are even more Australian than the Chevys advertised above were American. While they weren’t “global design” like we are familiar with today, those cars were intended for many more markets than just America.

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So while we can make some real sense of the Holden version of the ad for Australia, we’ve got the issue of South Africa. First, the South African ad was radio-only. When this ad came out, television hadn’t even been introduced to the country yet. The country’s conservative elite worried that the technology would expose South Africans to racial integration and that it would privilege English over Afrikaans. But neither the technological setback of radio nor the specter of Apartheid held General Motors back from inserting itself into the national myth.

“Braaivleis, Rugby, Sunny Skies, Chevrolet!” is what the singers in the ad say. Braaivleis is Afrikaans for barbecue and Rugby and sunny skies should be self-explanatory in an ex-British colony where the weather is clear and warm. But what about Chevrolet? How could that American brand have enough local cache to be recognized as a national symbol in South Africa?

It’s actually quite complicated. Rather than sell American-market Chevrolets in South Africa, General Motors decided to import and assemble Holdens in South Africa but with bowties on the hood. This resulted in cars like the South African-market El Camino, which was really a Holden Ute, and referred to as a Bakkie in local parlance. So even though Chevy wasn’t a native-born brand, and the cars they sold weren’t locally engineered, General Motors felt like it could insert itself into the national myth.

Eventually, General Motors would give up on both the South African and Australian markets, leaving Africa in 2017 and Australia a few years later. Clearly these cars were capable of being seen as real national symbols of sorts, but though their local roots were deep, accounting decisions ultimately come from Detroit and unfortunately, the American CPAs have more say than cultural memory and the cars were gone. At least we’ve all sports, food, national animals, and good weather left, though, right?

Max Finkel is a Weekend Contributor at Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

Holden and GM are a bit of a dirty word down here in Oz right now. Especially if you’re a former Holden Dealer, who GM are completely fucking over now on their dealership franchise contracts (GM doesn’t want to pay up... maybe that’s another story for you guys?)