In 1852, James Alexander Holden emigrated to South Australia from Walsall, England, and in 1856 established J.A. Holden & Co., a saddlery business in Adelaide. In 1879 J A Holden's eldest son Henry James (HJ) Holden, became a partner and effectively managed the company. In 1885, German-born H. A. Frost joined the business as a junior partner and J.A. Holden & Co became Holden & Frost Ltd. Edward Holden, James' grandson, joined the firm in 1905 with an interest in automobiles. From there, the firm evolved through various partnerships, and in 1908, Holden & Frost moved into the business of minor repairs to car upholstery. The company began to re-body older chassis using motor bodies produced by F T Hack and Co from 1914. Holden & Frost mounted the body, and painted and trimmed it. The company began to produce complete motorcycle sidecar bodies after 1913. After 1917, wartime trade restrictions led the company to start full-scale production of vehicle body shells. H.J. Holden founded a new company in late 1917, and registered Holden's Motor Body Builders Ltd (HMBB) on 25 February 1919, specialising in car bodies and using the former F T Hack & Co facility at 400 King William Street in Adelaide before erecting a large four-story factory on the site.

By 1923, HMBB were producing 12,000 units per year. During this time, HMBB assembled bodies for Ford Motor Company of Australia until its Geelong plant was completed. From 1924, HMBB became the exclusive supplier of car bodies for GM in Australia, with manufacturing taking place at the new Woodville plant. These bodies were made to suit a number of chassis imported from manufacturers including Austin, Buick, Chevrolet, Cleveland, Dodge, Essex, Fiat, Hudson, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Overland, Reo, Studebaker, and Willys-Knight.

In 1926, General Motors (Australia) Limited was established with assembly plants at Newstead, Queensland; Marrickville, New South Wales; City Road, Melbourne, Victoria; Birkenhead, South Australia; and Cottesloe, Western Australia using bodies produced by HMBB and imported complete knock down chassis. In 1930 alone, the still independent Woodville plant built bodies for Austin, Chrysler, DeSoto, Morris, Hillman, Humber, Hupmobile, and Willys-Overland, as well GM cars. The last of this line of business was the assembly of Hillman Minx sedans in 1948. The Great Depression led to a substantial downturn in production by Holden, from 34,000 units annually in 1930 to just 1,651 units one year later. In 1931, GM purchased HMBB and merged it with General Motors (Australia) Pty Ltd to form General Motors-Holden's Ltd (GM-H). Its acquisition of Holden allowed General Motors to inherit an Australian identity, which it used to cultivate nationalist appeal for the firm, largely through the use of public relations, a then novel form of business communication which was imported to Australia through the formation of General Motors (Australia) Limited. Throughout the 1920s, Holden also supplied 60 W-class tramcar bodies to the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, of which several examples have been preserved in both Australia and New Zealand.