General Motors' Australian unit Holden will this month mark 50 years of exports of over 600,000 vehicles and almost four million engines shipped to all continents except Antarctica.

Australia's largest and longest-running vehicle export programme has grown from a handful of FJ sedans sent to New Zealand in November 1954, just six years after Holden produced Australia's first locally built car.

Holden now ships vehicles to the United States, Middle East, United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil and the Asia-Pacific region Most exports are now sold under the Chevrolet, Pontiac and Vauxhall brands.

Vehicles based upon the locally-designed Commodore, Statesman, Caprice sedan and Monaro coupe and Holden Ute (pickup) models are sent to various markets in both left- and right-hand-drive forms.

In addition, four-cylinder engines produced at Port Melbourne have been exported since 1981.

Holden chairman and managing director, Denny Mooney on Wednesday said 50 years was a major milestone.

"This is a proud achievement and recognition of the valuable role in design, engineering and flexible manufacturing which Holden fills for GM," Mooney said.

"We have built exports into a billion dollar business each year which means we can make the size of investment required to stay viable in Australia." Most importantly, Holden has spent 50 years

A total of 613,126 vehicles and about 3.9 million engines were exported from 1954 to the end of last year. Holden has exported 148,753 vehicles and 838,821 engines in the past five years, contributing almost $A5.8 billion to Australia's balance of trade.

A shipment of left-hand drive HD-series Holdens is readied for export in the mid-1960s

Holden last year exported 36,069 vehicles and 137,078 engines and earned a total of $1.24 billion including vehicles, engines and components. The company expects to exceed 50,000 vehicle exports in a single year for the first time in 2004.

Holden's first export program of FJ sedans to New Zealand in late November 1954 was quickly followed by exports of the first completely knocked down (CKD) Holden packs for offshore assembly.

Left-hand drive exports to Hawaii began in 1960 and, by 1966, Holden vehicles and CKD packs were being shipped to more than 60 markets.

The HQ model range released in 1971 proved a hugely successful export, despite the fact that, to Holden's subsequent regret, it was not designed for left-hand drive.

The biggest single year for Holden exports was in 1973, when built-up and CKD shipments reached a record 41,181 units, representing 25% of Holden's total annual production. The 1970s remains the most successful decade with 197,288 vehicles exported.

In the 1980s, while exports of (largely Opel-designed) Commodore and long-wheelbase derivatives continued, the emphasis changed from vehicles to engines. The first shipments of Holden 'Family II' four-cylinder engines, manufactured in Port Melbourne, were sent to Vauxhall in the United Kingdom in 1981.

One million engines had been exported to markets by 1988 and three million by 1999, by which time Holden engine and component exports had generated more than $3 billion in export revenue.

Holden's current four-cylinder engine export markets include South Korea, China, Thailand, South Africa and South America. Holden last year started exporting GM's US-designed 'Global' V6 engines from its new $400 million engine facility at Port Melbourne, capable of producing 240,000 engines a year.

Holden returned to volume vehicle exports in 1998 with the commencement of a major programme involving shipments of left hand drive versions of its then-new VT Commodore to the Middle East and Brazil.

Holdens currently shipped to the Middle East are sold under the Chevrolet brand

In 2004, Holden's largest vehicle export market is the Middle East, where the Chevrolet Lumina (Commodore) sedans and long wheelbase V8-powered Chevrolet Caprice sedans (based on the Statesman/Caprice) are the region's top selling General Motors large passenger vehicles. The Chevrolet Caprice Royale was recently named Saudi Arabia's 2004 Car Of The Year.

The Commodore is also exported to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Syria, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, South Africa, New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Brunei and Brazil.

The Caprice and Statesman are exported to Middle East regions and New Zealand. Shipments to South Korea will begin early in 2005 under the Daewoo brand.

A vehicle based upon the Monaro coupe is exported to the United States as the Pontiac GTO. The Monaro is also exported to the Middle East regions, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The Holden Ute light pickup truck is exported to South Africa and to New Zealand, where the Holden Adventra, Crewman, Cross8 and One Tonner are also sold.

In 2004, Holden Special Vehicles, in conjunction with Holden, commenced its first export vehicle programme to the United Kingdom (with the HSV GTO), and the full HSV range is also exported to New Zealand.