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Twenty one years ago, Australians were introduced to the most advanced and sophisticated passenger car ever produced in this country.
It was a Holden unlike any of the 17 new family Holdens that preceded it, a familiar and illustrious line reaching back to 1948. The launch of the dramatically different Holden Commodore on 26 October 1978 was an event that would prove almost as significant as the birth of Australia’s Own Car, thirty years before.
"There can be no argument," says veteran motoring writer Bill Tuckey in his latest book, Commodore Lion King: Celebrating 21 Years, "that the milestone cars in post-war Australian automotive manufacturing history were the 48-215 in 1948, the HQ Holden and the VB Commodore."
The VB Commodore, which combined a GM ‘world car’ German body design with Australian mechanical components, began a process of internationalisation at Holden that today sees the company playing an increasingly important role on the GM global stage, and its current top-selling VT Commodore rightly regarded as one of the best designed, best engineered, best value large cars in the world.
Altogether, ten different models have carried the Commodore nameplate. They are the VB (1978); the VC (1980); the VH (1981); the VK (1984); the VL (1986); the VN (1988); the VP (1991); the VR (1993); the VS (1995) and the current model VT, introduced in 1997 and updated to VT Series II in June 1999.
Since the introduction of the Commodore nameplate in 1978 Holden has produced over 1,650,000 Commodores. Although there will be thousands of loyal owners who firmly believe that their particular Commodore should make the cut, five of these models are here singled out for ‘classic’ status.
VB COMMODORE: (1978 - 1980)
Escalating fuel prices which followed the first big oil shock of the seventies influenced Holden’s bold and risky decision to introduce this trailblazing model. Appreciably smaller than previous Holdens like the Kingswood that sold alongside it until 1980 (although, interestingly, very similar in size to the revered EH), it followed a perceived world trend towards more compact and fuel-efficient cars.
Holden invested $110 million in the design and development of the VB Commodore, which was the first Holden to be based on a European design. Its body was an amalgamation of GM affiliate Opel’s Rekord and Senator models, but all its mechanicals - drivetrain, steering and suspension - were developed locally by Holden engineers. Such an enormous amount of work went into ‘Australianising’ the first Commodore - into preserving Holden’s reputation for rugged reliability and superior ride and handling - that it cost almost as much as a ‘clean sheet of paper’ model designed from scratch.
Described by Holden as "the first of a new wave of Australian cars specifically designed for the eighties" the first Commodore’s high levels of comfort, generous standard equipment and excellent performance and handling capabilities brought a new level of sophistication to the market. It earned top-selling status and the 1978 Wheels Car of the Year award.
In addition to the base model, there were SL and SL/E derivatives. A
Commodore wagon model, built on the same wheelbase as the sedan and
available in base model and SL versions, was introduced in July 1989.
Engine choice: 2.85 litre six cylinder, 3.3 litre six cylinder, 4.2 litre V8 and 5.0 litre V8.
Base price when new: $6,513.
Total built: 95,906.
VL COMMODORE: (1986 - 1988)
Although it did not represent a major model change, the advent of the very well received and still sought-after VL Commodore model series signified Holden’s most aggressive market entry since the introduction of the VB.
Its predecessor, the VK, had brought markedly upgraded specifications and equipment levels and a new six window styling concept that made the Commodore appear larger and helped to arrest a serious sales slump.
A sensational styling job by Holden designers - a revised, lowered front end appearance with wide, slim headlights, a raised lip on the decklid and a remodelled interior with a new, binnacle-style instrument panel - gave the VL a dynamically different new look, inside and out. The top level Calais, with semi-concealed headlights and transparent grille, was clearly set apart from SL, Executive and Berlina models.
Equally big news, in line with the new era of unleaded petrol, was the introduction of a high-tech (Nissan-sourced) 3.0 litre six-cylinder engine, teamed with electronically-controlled automatic transmission. This smooth, refined powerplant boosted power by 33 per cent while delivering 15 per cent better fuel economy. A turbocharged version, bringing "European sophistication and sports car performance" soon followed, then an unleaded petrol version of the famed Holden V8 made its return.
Reinforcing the performance image that Holden retains to this day, the VL Commodore was produced in two striking SS Group A race-homologated versions: the first (1986) a Brock HDT Group A SS, in deep red and featuring a bonnet air intake scoop, the second (1988) the fuel-injected ‘Darth Vader’ Group A supercar in silver blue, produced by the newly formed Holden Special Vehicles.
Model range: Commodore SL and Berlina sedan and wagon, Commodore SS
sedan, Calais sedan and wagon.
Engine choice: 3.0 litre EFI Six-cylinder, 3.0 litre turbocharged EFI six-cylinder, 4.9 litre V8.
Base price when new: $13,830.
Total built: 151.801.
VN COMMODORE: (1988-1991)
Launching the VN Commodore, Holden said the totally new car had been designed to achieve the dramatic market impact reserved only for the most historic and significant Holden models. And so it proved.
A major generational change, the ‘aero styled’ VN returned Holden to the full-sized family car fold. It won all three motor magazine 1988 Car of the Year awards and was also a sales winner right from the start (the Executive model confidently targeted at fleet buyers), taking Holden back to its accustomed position on top of the Australian passenger car market in 1989.
Holden designers and engineers took a wind tunnel-influenced Opel Omega design and altered it substantially and ingeniously; widening, re-styling and re-engineering to meet Australian criteria. Interior roominess, torquey performance and chassis dynamics topped the list.
Reflecting an emphasis on aerodynamics as a way of improving performance and fuel consumption, the VN offered such features as flush-fitting side glass, steeply raked windscreen and low-profile headlights.
It also introduced as standard a larger, Buick-sourced 3800 EFI V6 (delivering as much power as the previous carbureted V8), teamed with locally made five-speed manual or premium imported 4-speed Turbo Hydramatic transmission.
Standard on SS and optional across the range came a fuel-injected 5.0 litre V8 producing 165kW. For the first time, the Commodore wagon was built on a longer wheelbase, and entirely new interiors featured a one-piece dash fascia with wide centre console and binnacle-style controls.
After an absence of nearly seven years, the Holden passenger car derived ute made a comeback in 1990 with an all-new VN-based VG Utility and S Utility.
Model range: Commodore SL sedan, Commodore Executive sedan and wagon,
Commodore Berlina sedan and wagon, Commodore S sedan and wagon, Commodore SS
sedan, Calais sedan.
Engine choice: 3.8 litre EFI six-cylinder, 5.0 litre EFI V8.
Base price when new $20,014.
Total built: 215,180 (included 4 millionth Holden).
VR COMMODORE: 1993-1995
Recipient of a rapturous reception from the motoring press, the VR Commodore holds the title of ‘Australia’s most awarded car’. While not new from the ground up, the VR was remarkable for its sleek and strikingly different styling (over 80 per cent of the exterior was changed) and for the fact that the safety technology applied to it represented the leading edge of global safety design.
The technologically sophisticated VR range delivered, among other things, the first airbag fitment on a locally produced car - a world first Holden design developed specifically for Australia’s unique driving environment.
It introduced a stand-out new Executive-based model called the Acclaim, which offered safety-conscious buyers more primary and secondary safety features than any comparably priced family car: driver airbag, independent rear suspension, anti-lock brakes - and a range of features included on all VR models that included webbing clamp seat belts and centre rear lap/sash belts on sedans.
Further changes included the introduction of a distinctive (and now trademark) twin port grille with echoes of the famous FJ, rounded wheel arches, a soft-form, wrap around instrument panel, a height and reach-adjustable steering column and a state of the art electronics package controlling mechanical, upgraded comfort and excellent security features.
The major mechanical news with VR was a revised, wider track front suspension (the first basic re-design since the VB), which, along with larger 15-inch wheels, contributed to an improved on-road feel.
Model range: Commodore Executive sedan and wagon, Commodore S sedan,
Commodore SS sedan, Commodore Acclaim and wagon, Commodore Berlina sedan and
wagon, Calais sedan, Utility, ‘S’ Utility.
Engine choice: 3.8 litre EFI, 6-cylinder, 5.0 litre EFI V8, 185kW EFI V8.
Base price at introduction: $25,302.
Total built: 165,262.
VT COMMODORE: 1997
Nothing could more appropriately signify the coming of age of the Holden Commodore than the all-Australian VT.
Without question, this powerfully sculpted performer represents the greatest step forward that Holden has ever taken at a major model change, and the $600 million invested in its development has proven to be money well spent. At home - there are now almost 200,000 on our roads - the VT Commodore is far and away Australia’s most popular car; abroad, in left hand drive form, it is making a significant impact on export markets.
The largest Commodore yet, it has a substantially stronger and more rigid body structure that delivers improved crash performance, greater driving refinement, a solid on-road feel and high quality panel fit and finish.
Standard equipment levels across the range are exceptionally high (electric driver’s seat adjustment, driver airbag, trip computer, advanced security). VT safety design technology highlights Holden’s leadership in this field - initiatives include unique, crash energy absorbing body structures, computer-optimised restraint systems, pyrotechnic buckle pre-tensioners, anti-submarining ramps.
Side impact airbags, another ‘first’ for an Australian car, are now available across the VT range. Commodore’s ‘driver’s car’ attributes are enhanced by a wider track, longer wheelbase, across-the-range independent rear suspension, all-new brakes, traction control, re-tuned suspension. High tech electronics include Calais personal PowerKey system, automatic headlights on, dual zone climate control.
Model range: Commodore Executive sedan and wagon, Commodore S sedan,
Commodore SS sedan, Commodore Acclaim sedan and wagon, Commodore Berlina
sedan and wagon, Calais sedan.
Engine choice: ECOTEC 3800 V6, Supercharged V6, 5.0 litre EFI V8, 195kW V8. (VT Series II: 3800 ECOTEC V6, Supercharged V6, GEN III 5.7 litre V8.)
Base price at introduction: $29,760.
Total built at 31 August 1999: 204,330.