Obviously, it isn’t just about the Commodore. We pay tribute to five Holdens worthy of their own worship
ON SALE 1948-56 ENGINE 2171CC I6, OHV, 12 valve 45kW 135Nm @ 3800rpm @ 4200rpm 0-97 TIME SECONDS (CLAIMED) 18.7
1010kg $1466 PRICE NEW
Local manufacturing’s genesis sets a high bar NO, THIS isn’t a misprint. Nor have you opened a history book. One of the greatest performance Holdens ever built without a Commodore badge was the first. And the 48-215, or Humpy as it’s become better known, isn’t here only because of that fact. It sparked a nation-wide appetite for fast, affordable, and reliable cars. And that has moulded our industry from its beginning right up to its end.
Holden wasn’t conjuring a Le Mans contender here.
A lot of the country was unpaved, rugged, and dusty.
And without Jetstar or Richard Branson around, it was huge. But we had huge manufacturing potential. So when GM Holden promised Ben Chifley’s government a people’s car that would drive post-war prosperity, it needed to handle these conditions well.
If Ford’s Model T Ute was a step in this direction in the 20s, the Holden 48-215 was a radical jump forward. Unveiled in 1948 at Fisherman’s Bend, as Jon Wright explains in The Untold story of Australia’s Holden, it was the only sedan in the world that could hit 128km/h, average 7.84 litres per 100km, and carry five adults while being able to easily dispatch urban potholes or Aussie cow-grids.
Key things like a one-tonne kerb mass, sophisticated (for its time) big six, and nine-inches of ground clearance underpinned this ability. And it’s hard to think GM could have gathered these ingredients at any other time. A key project engineer, American Russ Begg worked at Opel when Hitler was dreaming up his rematch with the world and oversaw the huge technical investment allowed by pre-war tax cuts at the time.
He applied unitary body construction to the 48-215 project in Detroit, where GM developed the car’s mechanicals, doing away with a ladder chassis and a great deal of weight. He also fought for a bigger engine in the Holden, opting for the 2.1-litre six from the Opel Kapitan donor car, which meant it could use a lighter transmission.
Aussie engineer Jack Rawnsley was also in Detroit overlooking the car’s development, and insisted on the ground clearance. This Aussie influence was a common theme in its conception. Laurance Hartnett, GM-H’s boss in the 40s, incepted the car, pitched it to Detroit, and fought hard for Australian engineering and design throughout the project.
Even though Hartnett fell out with the company over its design, his Humpy had the intended result. It sold in the hundreds of thousands, and was updated in 1953 to the FJ with small changes that unabated its success. No one could knock it off until Ford launched the locally built Falcon.
The car also enjoyed small success in motorsport, notching up a category win in the ATCC’s 1963 2.0- litre to 2.6-litre division. Drive one today, and you might find it a tad underwhelming. That overhead valve Grey motor promises smooth, torquey cruising, however, the reality is that the handling would feel as historic as the car’s importance.
Yet, everything we’ve come to love about the current Commodore SS – its honest rear-drive dynamics, effortless engine performance, space for four adults and all for less than the national average wage – is arguably the Humpy’s doing. By demanding countryspecific engineering, both cars have offered something no one else in the world has quite perfected yet.
Why else did GM turn to Holden for a 5 Series rival?
And you can be sure its influence will be felt in the market well past the Commodore’s last day of service.
Surprisingly, in the gap that it and the Falcon leave, more than 100 people have slammed down a deposit for the hyped Kia Stinger – sight unseen. That’s not a misprint either.
Mighty two-door coupe a winner on and off track FORD MAY have given Australia the Falcon XR GT in 1967. But you could argue Australia’s first true muscle car didn’t sprout until a year later.
Before you burn your MOTOR collection, Ford fans, we’re not rallying the eviction of the ’67 Bathurst trophy. But if you lined up the XR against everything considered ‘muscly’ over in the States during the 60s, it’d look like a cougar trying to blend in with lions.
Ford’s Mustang, Pontiac’s GTO, Dodge’s Challenger, AMC’s Machine were the pin-ups and while these car’s weren’t defined by specifics, things like a big American V8, sloping roof, and two doors were the main markers. The latter criteria’s lost on the XR.
Australia’s first two-door coupe wrapped around an American V8 instead was the HK Monaro GTS 327, the second legendary non-Commodore in this lineup.
“The new range of Holden coupes announced with typical GM-H flourish on July 22,” we said in September, 1968, “ends forever Australia’s age of motoring innocence”.
Holden’s answer to the Falcon XR GT wasn’t something ‘Mustang-bred’. It was a thoroughbred, applying the muscle maxim to its looks, performance, and spirit. Its pillar-less body was just as stiff as the sedan’s, a littler broader too, while its lines were softer and timeless compared to American counterparts.
The fact it was revealed months before the race that stops a nation was not at all a coincidence. Both Ford and Holden were very well established in Australia by then and while they knew building Aussie cars, in Australia, for Aussie people, was good for business, they also realised winning races was, too.
So the Monaro’s engineers went after the good stuff when fitting out the top model. A 327 cube Chevrolet small-block, that earned its extra capacity with bigger bores, was fitted. If anything it hinted at the fact that this was a racing special – you couldn’t have the 5.4- litre with air-conditioning.
That didn’t matter because sucking through a Rorchester covered four-barrel carbie, and blowing out a freer exhaust, it made a still-respectable-today 184kW at 4800rpm and 443Nm at 3200rpm. Holden could have dropped in the 327 and dusted its hands on a job well done, but Bathurst beckoned.
So a standard Opel-sourced four-speed was ditched for a Corvette unit, complete with close-ratio gears and short-shift throw. The floating rear-end was pinched from Camaro-Chevelle, which housed an LSD which could be specified with a wide-range of final drives. All the way from 3.08 to 4.88.
Upping grunt solved only one problem. Fatter roll-bars, stiffer rates, and torsion rods beefed up its sidestep. While the front-discs copped power assist and the fuel tank rose to 94 litres.
In all the frivolity a rev-tacho was added at the bottom of the centre console and in our hands the coupe could blast to 97km/h in 7.6sec and went on to a 184km/h V-max. Priced $3790 in ’68, it would cost circa $50K in today’s money after inflation.
Unleashed at Mount Panorama, it caught Ford with its pants down, taking first, second, third, and fifth outright. At one point it bettered the XR GT’s best laptime from the year before by 5.7 seconds – and at the race’s end left the highest-placed Ford Falcon in seventh place. It was a crushing defeat and a defiant way to step into the ring.
Australia had its first ‘muscle’ car.
And Holden had its first Bathurst victory. As we’ll see with our next three legends, these milestones would change the brand and local motorsport forever.
O N SA L E 1968-69 E N G I N E 5359CC V8, OHV, 16 valve 184kW 443Nm @ 4800rpm @ 3200rpm 0-97 TIME SECONDS (CLAIMED) 7.6
1676kg $3790 PRICE NEW
Last of the road racers puts ‘Peter Perfect’ on top MOUNT PANORAMA and its enduro played the frontline to Holden and Ford’s rivalry in the 1960s.
Production-spec rules that allowed any showroom car to reach the podium gifted the winner an advertisement better than any billboard.
With this in mind Holden didn’t give Australians a roomier LC-series Torana in 1969 like expected, but a couple more pots instead. The coupe now had a six.
As a result the Torana would end the Ford Falcon GT-HO’s dominating grip on The Mountain and pour Peter Brock his first glass of winner’s champagne.
The Toranas found a natural foe in Ford’s Capri GT, but its destiny meant inevitable comparisons to Holden’s HT Monaro GTS 350, Bathurst’s 1969 winner.
Holden’s Monaro was still competitive around this time. Its V8 had grown to 350 cubes in the HT, and could trounce a Torana GTR to 97km/h by 3.9 seconds. However, one key stat could not be ignored.
The 2.6-litre GTR weighed one tonne, or 500kg lighter than the Monaro and Falcons. This inspired Harry Firth, the Holden Dealer Team’s boss, to put the GTR into development early on and try to extract something special in time for 1970’s race.
So Holden dropped in a 3.1-litre straight six, the Monaro 350’s brake discs, stiffer suspension, and a larger 64-litre fuel tank. A new front-dam aided cooling and a tiny rear spoiler helped aerodynamics.
Revealed as the XU-1 performance and handling package, the newcomer debuted with 118kW and 258Nm. Nowhere near the Monaro’s grunt, but its weight meant faster corner exits than the Monaro.
While all this effort might seem a bit short changed by ‘close enough’ straight-line performance, the lighter, more frugal XU-1 allowed fewer pit stops.
Plonking a rabid V8 in the Monaro may have also looked contradictory to GM’s no-racing policy, which Holden sidestepped by funding HDT via dealers.
Vindication for Holden’s decision to swap out the Monaro at Bathurst came at Warwick Farm in September, 1970, when Colin Bond, in an XU-1 dusted off Bob Jane’s Monaro 350 at the Gold Star series production race. If HDT had made the wrong decision for Mount Panorama, it planned to dodge embarrassment by publicly gunning for a class win.
Come October, though, an all Torana XU-1 line-up with star drivers Norm Beech, Colin Bond, and an emerging Peter Brock, said otherwise. The Torana proved itself to take their class victory. Yet while it circulated Bathurst at great pace, the Falcon GT-HOs slaughtered them for outright speed.
Updating the Torana for 1971 with an Aussie closeratio gearbox and more power couldn’t stop Ford repeating a dominant performance. Fed up, engineers cracked their knuckles on the restyled LJ-series XU-1 in 1972 and found the Torana a 3.3-litre six, new spring rates, and a quicker steering rack.
More capacity, bigger carbies, higher compression, and new cam timing netted an extra 22kW and 13Nm. Permitted blueprinting may have yielded more power in race spec.
Qualifying for 1972’s race revealed the Torana 3.3-litre still lacked the Falcon’s dry pace, despite 212km/h on Conrod Straight, but rainy conditions rewarded its nimbler package and Peter Brock’s wizardry in the wet. He finished first by eight minutes to steal the winner’s ribbon from Ford’s hands and cement the Torana into this hall of fame. Oh, and it managed to put a couple of Australian Rally Championship wins under its belt, too.
A small run of XU-1s were honed for 1973 with revised cylinder heads, manifolds, flywheels and rear axles.
After Holden’s V8-powered Torana was axed by the infamous Supercar Scare, government pressure on CAMS saw rule changes that allowed modification to racecars, laying the ‘Strictly Stock’ rules to rest. Holden used this to close the speed difference to Ford, however, its racecars and road cars were now a separate species.
Leaving the LJ Torana GTR XU-1 as the last racewinning Holden you could buy new.
O N SA L E 1971-73 E N G I N E 5735C C V8, OHV, 16 valve 488Nm 202kW @ 4800rpm @ 3200rpm 0-97 TIME SECONDS (TESTED) 8.0
1451kg $4630 PRICE NEW
LONG before Volkswagen’s Golf underpinned seemingly everything from a pram to the Bugatti Chiron, Australia had its own modular vehicle platform in 1971. This was the HQ Holden.
Its scale was truly epic. It spawned seven bodystyles, even more variants, and almost half a million units over its lifespan. Better yet, it was entirely Australian.
To complete the feat, Holden approached the HQ with the same methods it did the 48-215 by sandwiching a front-subframe with a monocoque bodyshell. Among the combinations, the Monaro lingers as a standout pick.
The Monaro entered its third phase on the HQ platform, and in two-door GTS spec, received a 5.0- litre V8, four-speed Muncie manual, and four-link rear suspension. Options included variable power steering, ventilated disc brakes, and bucket seats.
Impressive, but the press didn’t think so.
More powerful rivals exposed some lost mongrel.
During a three-car MOTOR comparison between the then new Holden, Ford’s XA Hardtop GT, and Charger’s SE 770, the Monaro crossed the quarter mile last. Nothing a bit of grunt couldn’t fix, though.
The Chevrolet 350 V8 made its last appearance in the HQ, and took the 308’s meek 176kW and 427Nm to a more appropriate 488Nm and 202kW. That’s less than the HG 350’s outputs, but there’s a reason.
Exported from Canada, the engine catered to American emissions controls being introduced in 1973. Reports reckoned the difference in acceleration was marginal and could only be felt at more than Chevy 350 power bows out in an Australian beauty 160km/h. As a result the 350 160km/h. As a result the 350 tore up the quarter mile in 15.7 seconds, despite wheelspinning to 50km/h.
Dynamically the Monaro’s rear axle could grip like a barnacle, however, combined with the overall softness in its handling setup, the car defaulted to serial understeer.
It was a harsh reality of an engineering program that prioritised ride and touring ability over track performance.
Making leaps forward in other areas, the HQ Monaro was a better road car. The bodyshell was solidly built, with the four-door GTS being based on the coupe rather than the other way around. There was travel in the suspension, great forward vision, and a well isolated interior. Drive was effortless and smooth. And its pretty design will endure for decades more.
Holden may have turned down 350’s burble, but the Chevy-powered HQ GTS mixed Aussie engineering with Yank stonk for a truly rounded muscle car.
Australia’s first ‘supercar’ left a lasting mark AMONG locally-made road cars, the Holden Torana SS A9X makes a HSV GTSR W1 look cute as a kitten.
Its guards bulged like bodybuilder’s calves, its driveline featured Holden’s best bits, and its racebred suspension was unprecedented. In Peter Brock’s hands at Bathurst, it thumped the competition by a margin that makes Ford fans shiver to this day.
It was a monster born to meet radical demands.
Shoving a big, dirty V8 into a Torana was a move that should’ve matched Carrol Shelby’s Cobra. But in 1974, with the just released LH-series Torana, the resulting SL/R 5000 wasn’t the ‘supercar’ the public feared so much during the XU1 years.
Holden’s small car, some 180kg lighter than a Monaro, had swallowed its 308 V8. It extracted 15.9sec quarters from its 178kW/427Nm, but relied on a spindly Banjo diff, while its handling inspired testers to label the SL/R V8 as ‘the great pretender’.
The L34 upgrade released before Bathurst that year did nothing to improve the road car as race teams could modify suspension, engine, wheels and tyres.
So the road car’s power flatlined even with an F5000 block and trick oily bits. The flawed suspension was carried over. And a lacklustre driveline endured.
In race trim the L34 was potent enough to reclaim Mount Panorama, but durability flaws saw the ’76 overall Touring Car Championship go to Ford and left the door open for a counter offensive.
Desperate to shut Ford down when Holden ushered in the LX Torana in 1976, HDT was already at work on a racing special. Boss man Harry Firth built the new two-door hatchback in the exact specification needed to fix the L34’s durability issues and dominate under Group C regulations. He then tasked expert engineers with homologating this pilot into an option pack that would become the A9X.
Timing was tight. Production for a four-door and two-door began in September 1977, a month before the big race. The modification to the road car was extensive. The steering rack was now welded to the front sub-frame, while a modified rear floorplan allowed new suspension points, beefier driveline parts, and rear brake discs – a Holden first.
Power was down. Even though it was greenlighted for racing, Firth’s boys couldn’t comply the old L34 engine to ADRs so an L31 5.0-litre V8 was subbed in with 161kW and 400Nm. Durability was boosted by a rear 10-bolt diff, HZ Monaro GTS rear axles, and new radiator system up front.
It looked tougher than ever, thanks to the L34 pack’s front flares and spoiler. But new rear guards and reverse bonnet scoop were added, the latter helping feed down-draught carbies.
Besides higher mounted bucket seats that offered more vision, the inside was normal Torana, or low-rent for $11,000 in 1977 (about $65,000 today after inflation).
However the A9X option righted the L34’s wrongs on the road. Big time. Understeer had reportedly been traded for precise, neutral handling and throttle steer. It rode comfortably, even if a little firm, and was tractable despite a 2.6 final drive (first gear was good for 97km/h!). With a four-speed synchro-equipped M21 it dispatched quarter miles in 16sec.
There was a four-speed Borgwarner gearbox listed as an option, but in reality it was a race-only application.
Shoved into the SS hatchback, it created a dominating handler with durability and power to match. As a result HDT would bully Ford into quitting motorsport and force Holden to rethink its own involvement, making the A9X one of the greatest Holdens ever. M
O N SA L E 1977-79 E N G I N E 5044CC V8, OHV, 16 valve 161kW 400Nm @ 4800rpm @ 3100rpm 0-90 TIME SECONDS (TESTED) 7.0
1242kg 1242kg $11K PRICE NEW