With the last Australian-manufactured Holden scheduled to make its run down the production line on 20 October, hindsight is liberated to range over nearly 69 years of history. The VT Commodore can now be seen as the new Holden that most closely delivered on its potential. It is also the model that made the Commodore’s market leadership over its rival Falcon definitive and permanent.
The VT was almost as much of a turning point in Holden history as the original Commodore. This was the car that was not only finally big enough like the (1988) VN, European enough in concept to please driving enthusiasts like the (1978) VB and engineered to meet high standards of safety and refinement like the HQ (1971) but offered high levels of comfort and equipment even at entry level.
It must have bewildered some of Ford Australia’s out-of-touch but supposed marketing gurus when buyers stayed away in their proverbial droves from the AU Falcon Forte. The base model Falcon undercut its Commodore equivalent by about $2K but by October 1998 customers were not interested in six or 10 unmatching shades of funereal grey in an interior whose ambience was cutprice.
The VT Commodore Executive had much of the appeal of a Calais. It had tasteful trim. It was quiet and refined.
It didn’t look cheap in the style of the Forte. There was independent rear suspension just like on the dearer models. While there was little wrong with the AU’s Watts Link rear end, the mere fact that up-spec models boasted a sophisticated fully independent configuration served to
underline the lower status of the Forte, Futura and XR6 (where there was even a so-called VCT variant with IRS and the variable valve timing version of the 4.0-litre six).
The previous generation VN had felt (and was, relatively) light. There was a slight skittishness to its dynamics. But the VT was engineered to be stronger and safer. The only disappointment here is that the carryover engines had to work harder, delivering less performance and worse fuel economy in the process. After the car’s introduction the engineers worked at taking some of this extra weight out of the car without compromising its integrity.
The Commodore SS reveals clearly the overall philosophy that drove the VT program.
Yes, it was a huge 183 kg heavier than its VS predecessor and the extra 11kW of power and 15Nm of torque were not enough to deliver equivalent performance. But this car felt like the real deal on its smart 17-inch wheels. At the time, the rival Falcon XR8 had 15s with the option of 16s. Chief engineer Tony Hyde had insisted on the 17-inch wheels and his efforts with the SS made it harder for HSV to achieve the necessary differentiation to justify considerably higher prices. The front track was 75 mm wider than the previous model’s and the rear 93. Like all VTs the wheelbase had been stretched by 58 mm.
It was also a very attractive car, arguably the best looking Holden since HQ. By now the EL Falcon was looking dated. When the AU arrived in October 1998 its looks were widely criticised.
From day one the VT was a hit with customers. It achieved Commodore’s highest ever market penetration with sales around 8000 per month (8297 in December 1997). In the final quarter of 1997 its sales advantage over the Falcon was 43 per cent, the highest margin enjoyed by either car in their post-1970s rivalry. In March 1998 Commodore sales of 9084 gave Holden the best result for any locally manufactured car since the HQ in 1973. Almost two VTs were being sold for every EL Falcon and the AU would not reverse this decline.
One harsh lesson Holden management learnt from the early Commodore days was not to neglect the fleet market: VT wagons were built with cargo bays of dimensions specifically
tailored to meet Telstra's needs.
The VT was the most ambitious program GMH had ever undertaken up to that time, requiring a combined project and plant investment of more than $600 million dollars.
But until some way into 1992 the intention had been to take the forthcoming Opel Omega model and transform it into a Holden in much the same way as had been done with the VN. At the same time the idea of reworking the at that stage unreleased VR had not been abandoned.
Mike Simcoe (now GM international design chief) returned from a two-year assignment at GM’s Advanced Styling Studios in Warren, Michigan, to head the VT design team and it was he who played the key role in upgrading the program from either of these compromised alternatives.
Arguably the biggest single factor in the move towards a ground-up new car was that the designers wanted to enlarge the rear door opening (a perennial Falcon problem). A second was the need to fit a bigger air-conditioning unit than Opel used and this required moving the dashboard forward.
Under Mike Simcoe’s influence the VT became all-Australian, his view having been that the new Commodore to carry Holden into the twenty-first century could not be identified as an evolutionary development of the 1993 model. Indeed, at one styling clinic a made-over VR was included. ‘They recognised it,’ said Simcoe.
The fact that the concept of a widened and Holden-powered version of the next Opel Omega was rejected as not being good enough was a measure of how far Holden’s competence had grown since the mid-1980s. At that time just such a car (VN) was sufficient to take Commodore ahead of the Falcon in sales.
BODY: Four-door steel-monocoque sedan KERB WEIGHT 1551 kg ENGINE: 3791cc (231ci) pushrod OHV V6 TRANSMISSION: 5-speed floor-shift man SUSPENSION: MacPherson strut, hydraulic shocks (f) semi-trailing arm independent, hydraulic shocks (r) BRAKES: Pwr assisted four wheel discs POWER: 147kW @ 5200rpm TORQUE: 304Nm @ 3600rpm