Featured: Remembering Holden's Most Significant Concept, The Hurricane

Remembering Holden’s Most Significant Concept, The Hurricane

James Gent By James Gent
February 20, 2020
1 comments

Following the announcement that Holden will disappear by 2021, tributes have understandably flooded in from across the globe for Australia’s most famous carmaker. Most, unsurprisingly, focus on the lion’s formidable record at Bathurst, its legendary rivalry with Ford, James Alexander Holden and ‘genesis’, the FX 48-215 “made in Australia for Australia” in 1948, and pretty much every derivation of the word ‘Commodore.’

Weirdly though, a name that hasn’t been bandied around that much is ‘Hurricane’, the first concept car to ever don the Holden badge and, arguably, the most significant.

Rewind to March 1969. Led Zeppelin had already paid an unorthodox tribute to the Hindenburg with its first album, Concorde had completed its first test flight, and Richard Nixon…well, let’s not dwell on that. Later that year, Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind, The Beatles staged a memorable photograph on Abbey Road, and more than half a million people descended on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, for a little-known music festival called Woodstock.

Meanwhile, several thousand kilometres away at that year’s Melbourne Motor Show, Holden was pulling the silks from the first product of the GMH Research and Development department. Hence the RD-001 code name, though the low-slung, mid-engined “futuristic research vehicle” would later be more affectionately dubbed ‘The Hurricane’.

As tends to be the norm with concept cars, RD-001’s sleek lines, pseudo fender skirts, utterly bonkers ride height and that Kamm-tail rear end dropped jaws the world over, striking a decisive blow to Holden’s ‘family friendly’ image in the process. Though that was rather the point: standing just 990mm tall – or 39in, give or take – the Hurricane undercut even Ford’s ludicrously low GT40, the American powerhouse that would win its fourth straight Le Mans later that year. Shots fired?

The strikingly low stance meant conventional doors were a no-go, and with Holden unwilling to give interested parties chronic back ache (though management never had any intention of making a production version), the Hurricane’s wind tunnel-tested fiberglass body consequently broke down into three elements. These included the engine hood, the bodyshell itself, and a one-piece, hydraulically-powered canopy complete with wrap-around windscreen that opened up and over the front wheels to allow passenger entry. In what GM calls ‘astronaut type’, even the two seats – boasting inertia-reel seatbelts – rose up and pivoted forward to make getting into the gravel pincher that much easier.

Surprise surprise, there were no side mirrors, nor even a rear window, with the driver required to use a ‘rear-vision’ monitor to see behind him. And that precursor to backup cameras really was the tip of the iceberg for a concept car, genuinely, ahead of its time.

The foam-lined fuel tank for instance was an added safety precaution, as was the integrated roll bar that somehow squeezed beneath the fiberglass bodywork. The instrument cluster in front of the driver was fully digital, at a time when analogue was the more reliable modus operandi for most carmakers. The aluminium-flaked metallic orange paintwork would become something of a staple for wedged-shaped concepts (‘wonders’, if you will…) during the ’70 and early ‘80s. Cabin temperature was fully automatic, and there was also a ‘Pathfinder’ system that registered magnets embedded at intersections along the road to establish a route for the driver to follow. You and I would call that SatNav today.

Even the bodywork could be considered radical, given that the debut of the RD-001 came a full year before Lancia dropped the Marcello Gandini-designed Stratos Zero upon us and six months before Mercedes unveiled its C111 prototype.

And then there was the 253cu in / 4,146cc V8 mounted amidships, a 193kW experimental considered the very first Australia-manufactured V8 that would later headline Holden’s HT Kingswood, among others. A tenacious little scamp it was too, existing in 4.2-litre guise until 1984 and, quite incredibly, as a 5-litre variant until the turn of the 21st century.

In 1969, the ‘253’ also boasted 262hp and 260lb ft / 353Nm (ish) of torque. An impressive enough figure, though quite what this power meant in terms of performance, nobody really knows. Only when the latest of several restoration projects got underway in the mid-2000s was it finally confirmed, with video footage and everything, that the Hurricane had been an actual rolling model, even if data from supposed ‘speed tests’ – said to be a couple of laps around Holden’s Fishermans Bend Technical Center parking lot – simply don’t exist.

An appropriate epitaph then for the car that, despite kick-starting Holden’s run of GTR-X, TT36, and EFIJY concepts among others, almost completely disappeared after its initial hype died down. Speculation suggests that, after suffering a broken windscreen during one of many dealership demo runs, the Hurricane was simply shifted into storage and left to rot before being re-discovered – i.e. tripped over – in 1985. Even then, it took until the cusp of the ‘90s before the RD-001 received minor repairs and a re-spray.

Moreover, to this day, nobody’s really sure who signed off on the design, nor of its origin. Some, like GTR-X designer Leo Pruneau, suggest that the look ‘borrowed’ [cough] liberally from other GM show models: by an extraordinary coincidence [cough cough], the 1969 Chevy Astro III concept also featured a hydraulic canopy when it was launched. Others though see the Hurricane as Holden’s answer to the Camaro show car that drew headlines in 1968, and it’s often been suggested that the RD-001 was a full-scale, realized version of a scale model sent from GM’s Detroit office directly.

Or maybe it was Ted Schroeder, who modeled the original HK Monaro. The details are pretty flimsy.

Bizarrely, or maybe ‘grievously’, a full resurrection of the Hurricane, the model that out-limboed the GT40 and potentially introduced SatNav to the world, did not begin until 2006. And only after it had been saved from demolition. Twice!

It was a project that left many a furtive brow, however. In the intervening 37 years, items like the steering wheel, the instrument cluster, the wheel trims, the ‘253’ V8 and even the hydraulic arms for the canopy had either been borrowed for other projects or just gone walkies. Suddenly those Holden engineers giving their time voluntarily to work on the restoration – don’t bother asking what the budget was – found themselves re-building from scratch. Quite where you find a replacement gear lever for a one-of-one 1969 concept car, we’ve no idea, but after myriad “favours were pulled in from suppliers”, the team, overseen by Holden’s Creative Hard Modelling manager Paul Clarke, finally unveiled the fully restored, one-of-one Hurricane to the world 42 years after its debut. Once again, to dropped jaws.

It’s almost fitting that, following recent news, Holden’s forgotten concept car has once again slipped out of the limelight in which the Commodore, Bathurst, every Ute since 1951, etc etc, now bask. Life though, as they say, begins at 40, and despite its tumultuous beginnings, Holden’s most significant concept car has found a new home at the National Motor Museum in Birdwood, Australia. No longer a footnote in a very storied history that’s now drawing to a close.

*Images courtesy of General Motors

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Should have gone to production. What style.