FOR NEARLY FOUR DECADES COMMODORE HAS BEEN THE BADGE ON THE BUM OF ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR AND VERSATILE CARS EVER CREATED. GLENN TORRENS TRACES HOW IT HAPPENED O n October 26, 1978, Holden launched its new-for-the- 1980s model, the Commodore. No-one knew it then, but that spring Thursday was the first day of one of the longest-running nameplates in automotive history. Over near-as dammit 39 years and four distinct generations Commodore was to be an Australian family favourite – and for more than half of Holden’s local car-making history it showed off the talents and innovation of Australian engineers.
At first, the new model shared Holden showrooms (and behind its aerodynamic flush-fit headlights, its major mechanical parts) with the HZ-series Kingswood/Premier, the family-sized, six-seater capable model that could directly trace its heritage back to the original 48-215 Holden of 1948.
Commodore also sat beside the mid-sized UC Torana (sedan and hatch) and the smaller four-cylinder Gemini. All were locally built; the Kingswood and Torana were both as Aussie as cold beers, meat pies and Sund’y at the beach.
It’s no secret that Commodore was originally sketched-out in Germany. Holden was involved with the car’s design almost from the ground-up with Aussie engineers and stylists involved as early as late-1974, and later German and Aussie engineers worked side-by-side on prototypes. The car was designed in response to the world fuel crises of the early 1970s in which sales of large cars suffered against smaller, lighter Japanese models: The resulting Opel Rekord was to be a little larger than Torana but smaller than Kingswood.
For Europe, the four-cylinder Opel Rekord was available as a two-and four-door sedan and wagon; the up-market Senator sedan – with the same centre body – had a longer nose (bonnet and guards) over its six-cylinder engine, extra windows in the C pillars and a more formal boot and tail-lights. There was also a good-looking V-car hatchback, badged Monza. To specify the version for Australia – and accept Holden’s in-line six-cylinder and V8 engines – Holden chose the Senator nose on the Rekord body. Several years of development and testing (in areas like the Flinders Ranges) made sure Commodore could survive the rougher-than- Europe conditions of Australia, in an era when there was less bitumen on our roads and fewer affordable 4WD vehicles.
Tech-wise, there was a new-to-Holden strut-type front suspension (with rack and pinion steering) and fully integrated Harrison air-conditioning. All these systems took time and bucks to develop to cope with Aussie conditions.
Some were never resolved: The performance of the cabin ventilation and air-con systems – important in Aussie summer heat – was restricted by the size of the bonnet and plenum chamber air intakes and its controls (and the handbrake) remained on the passenger’s side. The body was metric and the engine and driveline was imperial which meant two sets of spanners/tools were required. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, unless you’ve tried to restore one!
For the propeller-heads among us, the first Commodore introduced some new production techniques with more reliance on outside suppliers (rather than in-house Holden manufacture) for components such as the dash shells and instrument binnacles. There was some clever manufacturing technology: the interior plastics were low volatility that didn’t result in a foggy, translucent film build-up on the interior glass… a problem in Australia’s summer heat and with the increasing use of plastics during the 1970s. Betcha didn’t know that!
THE ORIGINAL Commodore offered a sedan in three levels of trim: Commodore, Commodore SL and Commodore SL/E. It was joined eight months later by base and SL wagon. The engines were 2.85 and 3.3-litre sixes, with 4.2 and 5.0-litre V8s (both available with single or dual exhausts) and a mix of four-speed manual or three-speed auto (Trimatic or Turbo Hydramatic) transmissions. Yes, there were quality problems from the factories where Commodore was made – Pagewood, NSW; Dandenong, Vic; Elizabeth, SA; and later Acacia Ridge, Qld – such as the front doors often sitting too far forward on the bodyshell; poor rust-proofing; patchy and lacklustre paint and interior trim pieces such as door handle surrounds that fell off. But as most road tests of the day concluded, few cars could match the dynamic package of Commodore’s handling, grip and road-holding even against stuff such as BMW and Volvo.
THE VC COMMODORE arrived in February 1980. It had minor styling freshen-ups such as a gridded grille, the Commodore side badges relocated to the new stick-on (rather than clip-type) side-strips on the front doors, and black-framed tail lights. The big news was under the bonnet: the new Blue motors offered better power, efficiency and driveability. The 4.2- and 5.0-litre V8s were revised too, but not as extensively: the 4.2-litre (available in Commodore and the WB ute and commercials) received a four-barrel carby but was dropped from the Commodore SL/E’s standard equipment list. Later, a 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine (yuk!) was introduced to fill the gap left by the now-discontinued UC Sunbird.
In November 1980, the limited edition SL/E-based HDT Commodore – developed with race driver Peter Brock – re-launched Holden as a premium muscle car manufacturer.
A LOWER BONNET line plus sharper-styled headlights and tail lights distinguished the VH series – SL, SL/X and the distinctive SL/E, available with an optional (and now highly collectible) burgundy, light or dark blue, or greenover- silver Shadowtone paint. Four-cylinder and 2.85-litre sixes were available with the option of a Borg Warner five-speed manual gearbox, as well as the four-speed manual and Trimatic. In early 1982, the SS badge returned to Holden dealers (there had been an HQ Holden SS sedan and LX Torana SS sedan and hatch) in a red – and later white – simple no-nonsense performance sedan with standard 4.2-litre V8, M21 performance four-speed gearbox, silver-hued alloy wheels and lower, tighter suspension.
Many SSs were built to Group One, Two and Three specs by Peter Brock’s officially endorsed (and increasingly successful) Melbourne-based HDT Special Vehicles. The VH was to be the last chrome-bumper Holden.
LARGE WRAP-AROUND moulded plastic bumpers, a three-slat plastic grille and extra side windows behind the rear doors’ window frames were the controversial styling updates for the VK Commodore in February 1984. There were also new badges: Executive, Berlina, SS and Calais were the steps up the range from the base SL. Australian-made six-cylinder power remained but was 3.3-litres only (except outside Australia where the four-cylinder was still available) with option of five-speed but had extra tech of Electronic Spark Timing (EST) and now-black paint. Bosch electronic multi-point fuel injection, badged Ei, was standard on Calais and optional on others. Calais had oh-so-1980s video-game electronic instruments, too. The optional V8 is now 5.0-litre only… and news of the V8’s planned demise kick-started the now famous “V8s ’til ’98” campaign by Street Machine and Wheels magazines. HDT had a bigger role in assembling the SS models as well as the Formula Blue-hued SS Group A.
HOLDEN HAD TO kill-off the Aussie-made sixes (by then a 20-year-old design) and buy-in a Japanese-made engine from Nissan for the VL in 1986. It was doom and gloom until everyone realised what a honey of a donk the 114kW overhead cam, fuel-injected, alloy-head 3.0-litre RB30E Nissan six was. Mated to a four-speed auto or five-speed manual, Commodore went even harder with the optional 150kW turbocharged six. Outside, the Commodore had a lower, smoother snout, shallower but wider headlights (with integrated inboard driving lights) and a higher boot-line. With the across-the-range optional Turbo 3.0-litre being the pinnacle of Australianmade performance, the modified-for-unleaded 122kW 5-litre V8 was marketed as the choice for no-nonsense van and boat towing.
THE SIX-CYLINDER engine in the VB-VK Commodores was designed in the 1960s and debuted in the EH Holden in 1963 (yeah, yeah, we know there might have been some in EJs…) so by the early 1980s, the all-iron, over-head valve engine was regarded as hoary old-tech. Holden’s update for the VC Commodore provided more efficient six-cylinder engines – officially XT5 but colloquially known as the Blue motors thanks to their colour – featuring hardware such as a counterweighted crank, better-breathing 12-port cylinder heads, two-barrel carburettor and two-branch exhaust systems.
But even with the tweaks, the engine couldn’t operate on unleaded petrol (lead helps lubricate engine valves) so Holden – unable to afford to design its own new engine and with nothing available from other GM brands – had to find an unleaded-capable engine from another manufacturer. In early 1983 it signed a deal with Nissan in Japan for its forthcoming RB30E, an alloy-headed, overhead cam fuel injected 3.0-litre six with a turbo version, too. An RB20 2-litre was also available outside Australia. Despite being used in just one series for little more than two years, the VL Commodore and Calais became well-regarded, rather than considered parts-bin orphans.
By early 1983, over four years after the launch of the Commodore and three years after the Kingswood had been killed, Holden was in a bit of strife… and it knew it. A big fuel crisis had, a decade before, spurred Holden into building a smaller family car for Australia… But larger cars were now cool again, leaving Holden’s family car in the shadow of the Ford Falcon with which it competed for the Aussie fleet and family car buyers’ bucks.
As it had done for the VB Commodore, Holden could have co-developed the Opel Senator that was under development for a 1987 launch but it wanted to return to a bigger, Kingswood (and Ford Falcon) sized family car by the late 1980s. So Holden went alone with the development of the VN, taking just the side-body architecture of the Opel (the doors and flush-fitting window frames) and splicing it to a widened version of the VL floor and suspension to create a uniquely Australian car.
This provided the required interior size – three bums across the back seat. This virtually new body also allowed Holden to vastly improve the performance of the ventilation and airconditioning systems for VN. The higher aero-styled body line also allowed a bigger boot.
Essential for the success of the VN was an improvement in quality. Three decades later, it’s easy to laugh but it really was a step forward at the time. The VN was intended to be built in just one assembly plant, rather than the four Aussie factories that the first-gen VB-VL Commodores were variously assembled in (with kit-packs to NZ) – enabling Holden to work on the assembly techniques and quality of VN. Inspired by Opel, Holden developed a new modular dashboard assembly: the firewall, dash, steering column, pedals, fuse box and wiring harness were pre-assembled outside the car before being dropped-in and glued into place. Then the flush-fitting windscreen was glued in – the VN used far more polymer adhesives for its construction.
At first, the VN was to have been powered by the Nissan 3.0 in-line six carried-over from the VL Commodore and much of the VN’s development was performed using Nissan-powered prototypes. But since the Nissan/Holden supply deal had been signed in 1983, the cost of the Nissan engine had stacked-up due to the increase in the value of the Japanese currency. Holden’s US affiliate Buick had recently launched a new fuel-injected 3.8-litre V6 motor so it was decided this would power the VN. Despite being all-iron and pushrodoperated (rather than alloy-headed and overhead cam like the Nissan) the Buick’s torque and power output provided terrific performance at ‘real world’ speeds (it had more power than the VL’s carburettor-fed V8) and was surprisingly fuel efficient. The three-cylinder length of the Buick V-motor meant it was also reasonably light and sat back in the engine bay.
Working with an almost all-new design – and the factory to build it in – allowed Holden to develop a new long wheelbase Statesman and Caprice, bringing Holden back into the luxury market it had handed to Ford’s Fairlane and LTD with the end of WB Statesman/Caprice production. The same production flexibility meant a new proper Holden ute, too.
AT LAUNCH IN early 1988, the VN was available as SL (fleet buyers only) Executive, S, Berlina and Calais; the Calais and S were sedan only. There was also a Toyota Lexcen version – but that’s a story for another day. All were powered by the torquey 125kW V6 with either five-speed manual or four-speed auto trans. The fuel-injected 5.0-litre V8 option – and the SS model – arrived in 1989. Due to the wider body being built on the VL’s front track, VNs had a knock-kneed appearance especially on the base-spec 14-inch wheels. The VN was where the fledgling Holden Special Vehicles really got into gear, beginning with the SV3800 before SV89, the 200kW-powered SV5000, the Club Sport and the Ute-based Maloo arrived with Holden’s freshly fuel-injected 5.0-litre V8.
The number of VNs built – more than 215,000 – is testament to its broad appeal to the family and fleet markets. It received ‘Car of the Year’ gongs from most motoring media organisations including our sister title Wheels.
DURING THE second-half of the 1980s the made-in-Japan Isuzu-sourced Rodeo had been Holden’s offering to the farmer or tradie, but the Australian development of the VN Commodore’s long-wheelbase wagon and luxury Statesman/Caprice versions gave Holden the chance to once again offer a traditional passenger-car based ute, complete with the option of three-seat bench and a column-shift auto. The Holden Ute (it wasn’t actually badged Commodore) was powered by the same engines as the Commodore range; 3.8-litre V6 or 5.0-litre V8.
Unlike every previous Holden ute that had used leaf springs under the tail, the 1990 VG had coil sprung rear suspension shared with the wagon but, with its carrying capacity increased with helper springs.
HOLDEN DEVELOPED its HQ Statesman on the longer wagon wheelbase for a big back seat. It and its Caprice brother lasted until 1985 with the (HQ-based) WB. The development of the wider, longer VN series cars allowed Holden to once again produce a set of luxury big twins: The VQ series Statesman and Caprice. The VQ was noted for being the first volume-selling Aussie sedan to feature independent rear suspension (although VW and Austin/ Morris enthusiasts might disagree!). Powered at first only by the freshly fuel-injected Holden 5.0-litre V8, the VQ also featured automatic set-and-forget climate control and speed-sensitive power steering, two techs that (as well as the IRS) would trickle down to Commodore models in the VP series.
THE VP WAS powered by a more refined version of the 3.8-litre V6 that was placed into later VNs. The 5.0-litre V8 was optional across the range. Independent suspension was standard under Calais and SS and optional on other sedans. Holden’s model range remained Executive, S, Berlina, Calais and SS and base and S versions of the Ute. Australian-calibrated Bosch ABS brakes also made an appearance later in the VP’s model cycle, as did bigger front brakes on most models – 15-inch wheels became standard. The ever-more-popular HSV was now developing more models such as the VP Calais based Senator and GTS, and an independent rear suspension Clubsport – using special-build core-cars from Holden.
THE VR WAS one of the most thorough updates of an Australian car model ever. Outside, there was tightly-gapped new sheet-metal and lights front and rear, including body-colour flush-fit front and rear bumpers. Under the skin, the front suspension was almost totally redesigned, with new front strut towers and struts (with camber adjustment) to alter the alignment for better handling, steering feel and tyre wear. The track was wider, too, ridding the Commodore of the VN/VP’s tippy-toe look. As with VP, sedans had beam or independent rear ends; wagons and utes were beam-only.
The auto gearbox was now an electronically controlled unit with a ‘Power’ mode. Inside was a new smoothly sculpted dash, made from fewer parts for fewer squeaks and rattles.
A driver’s airbag was fitted to Calais and the new familyfocussed model, Acclaim, and all sedans now had a lap/ sash centre rear seatbelt. All kind-of boring stuff now, but high-tech back in the day.
THE VS CARRIED-ON the smooth appearance of the well-received VR with a few tweaks such as oval side indicator repeaters. It was powered by a new version of the 3.8-litre V6, the Ecotec that shared little but the V-formation with the earlier VN-VR motors. It had better breathing heads and smarter fuel injection, increasing power from 130 to 147kW while being quieter and feeling smoother and punchier. It used around 10 per cent less fuel and later was to be offered as a 165kW Supercharged option in Calais and the Statesman/Caprice. A new paint process at the factory improved colour and quality for later VRs; of course this helped VS models, too. Over at HSV, the 215kW 5.7-litre stroker V8 had been launched in HSV’s top-line GTS in 1994 and it gained extra notoriety in the VS GTS-R, a bold, winged, banana yellow, carbon-fibre-highlighted car considered a legend by some and a joke by others, especially as it was regularly hosed-off by the new breed of turbo four-doors from Japan, such as the Subaru WRX.
NOT QUITE a year after the VN Commodore’s launch, Holden reintroduced its V8, this time with electronic multi-point fuel injection. Based on the block of the 308 V8 that was launched in 1969 – that provided Holden with dozens of Australian race wins over two decades in Torana and Commodore – the new engine had better-breathing symmetrical-port heads and a smart GM/Delco management system. Lifting the bonnet of a VN V8 showed-off the bunch-of-bananas, cast-alloy tuned-length intake manifold, too, devised by the same crew who tweaked the VL Commodore SS Group A’s twin-throttle design. Its 165kW and 380Nm was streets ahead of the 122kW and 323Nm of the carby VL and according to Wheels magazine April 1989, made it the ‘fastest family car in the world’. In 180kW and 200kW (VN-VP), 185kW (VR-VS) 195kW (VT) and 5.7-litre 215kW (VR-VS) and 220kW (in VT) versions, it was the basis for just about everything HSV did for the next decade, too.
Sometime around 1992, there was mention in the news pages of one of the new-car magazines – was it Motor Manual? – of a Holden Calais spotted at Melbourne Airport. No big deal, but this particular Holden Calais was inside the security fence being readied for air-freight… And it was left-hand drive.
Five years later, at the mid-1997 long-lead preview of the all-new VT Commodore at Holden’s Fishermans Bend head office, there were styling sketches of Buick and Toyota Lexcen versions of the VT Commodore pinned to the walls of the styling studio. The joint-venture between Toyota and Holden – where Toyota Corollas and Camrys had been sold as Holden Novas and Apollos, and Commodores as Toyota Lexcens – had been dissolved in 1996 so the VT Lexcen didn’t make it into Toyota showrooms. But there remained an air of anticipation about the all-Aussie Holden Commodore being exported to the USA… Holden – for so long tucked down the bottom of the world, building cars only for Aussies, Kiwis and a few rich coconut farmers in South-East Asia – seemed to be now well and truly ‘in the loop’ with General Motors’ international model plans.
Car manufacturers are always looking ahead but it’s reasonable to say the VT Commodore program began when Holden styling bloke Michael Simcoe arrived home in 1992 from playing with pencils with GM in the USA. Melbourne-born and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology trained, Simcoe’s new job was to lead the styling team for VT.
As it had with VN, Holden had the option of unpacking an Opel design but what the Germans were working on with its late-1990s Opel Omega was too short and narrow for Australia and probably wouldn’t have swallowed a V8 – or a big airconditioning system – too easily. The VT quickly became an all-Aussie effort: By 1993 full-sized VT styling models existed and with a few tweaks to make things a little less radical (for instance, pics from the era show the later-model VX’s distinctive headlights were originally penned for VT) the design was locked-in.
From the ground-up, the VT Commodore was always going to be made in right- and left-hand drive. More correctly, the VT-based WH Statesman/Caprice was always going to be made in right- and left-hand drive as Holden – with its expertise in building durable rear-drive cars for use in stinking hot climates – was tasked with creating the new-century Chevrolet Caprice (to replace GM’s last big, simple, US-designed rear-drive Caprice) for Middle East markets.
Designer Simcoe was to gain legend status during 1998, the year after the VT was launched, when the Commodore Coupe concept car had the sheets pulled from it at the 1998 Sydney Motor Show, creating front-page news around the country.
Simcoe and a team of trusted colleagues built the show car in secret, after-hours, without the knowledge of Holden management, using a discarded prototype VTII LS1 sedan.
The response to the concept car was incredible and Holden had little choice but to build the ‘modern Monaro’. Simcoe was quoted at the time: “It’s a totally deliverable design,” revealing it was more than a one-off – it could actually be built on Holden’s production lines. Backing up the business case for the development of the Monaro was the very handy fact that GM in the USA was willing to import the car; it ended up being sold as a Pontiac GTO in the US and a Chevrolet Lumina SS in the Middle East.
The Monaro was just one example of the flexibility of the VT generation Commodore. As well as left- and right-hand drive short- and long-wheelbase sedans, a wagon and a traditional Aussie ute, over the next nine years the VT architecture was morphed into two and four-door cab/chassis commercial vehicles with rear-and all-wheel-drive, an AWD wagon and a HSV’s limited-build Monaro-based Coupe4.
FOR VT, an all-new body was wrapped around the VS drivelines: Ecotec 3.8-litre V6, V6 Supercharged and a surprising final fling for the fuel-injected Aussie 5.0-litre V8: We all expected the ex-Corvette LS1 V8 but that came later.
When new, VT received some criticism for being heavy but the extra safety and integrity of the bigger body – plus standard features such as driver’s airbag and electric seat, and independent rear suspension on all sedans and wagons – made the weight worthwhile. But the independent suspension – not quite right on early-build VTs – chewed-out rear tyres.
The VT was a great looking car, with every model, from the base Executive up, styled by true car enthusiasts to be ‘premium’ and ‘aspirational’. The SS took on a new mantle as an upmarket performance car; more like an HSV than ever.
VTII in mid-1999 saw the introduction of the imported GM LS1 all-alloy 5.7-litre V8 including, a little later, a special 300kW version for HSV’s GTS.
AS WITH most model updates, the VX Commodore from August 2000 had styling tweaks to the lights, bumpers and interior trims. There was greater differentiation between models, with the base Executive having a slabby great body-colour garnish on the bootlid that reminded some wiser owners of 1960s Belmonts. Berlina and Calais (and HSV) had extra inset lights at the rear and different grille and headlight styling. Most people didn’t notice but the VXII update gave the series – plus the new Monaro and the LWB luxury twins of Statesman and Caprice – far better driveline smoothness with a rubber-bushed driveshaft and an extra toe-link in the rear suspension for a little more mid-corner sharpness without the need for harder bushes. Surprisingly, it was fitted to the wagons, too.
AFTER A three-year wait, the Holden Monaro arrived in late 2001. The car was previewed at the V8 Supercars event at Bathurst and officially revealed at the Sydney Motor Show, three years after the Concept Coupe’s reveal in 1998. The production Monaro didn’t stray too far from Simcoe’s original concept and had a great palette of fun, bright colours such as Devil (yellow), Hothouse (green) and Flame (an orangey-red). The CV6 had the Supercharged V6 (auto only) and the CV8 was a 5.7-litre, auto or manual, with extra standard kit such as Calais-spec dual-zone climate control. Launched in summer, the bright, happy, grunty Monaro summarised how awesome Australia was in the early 2000s: Everyone had a job, everyone was still on a high after the Sydney 2000 Olympics and Holden and Toyota were exporting more cars than they were selling here. Oh how things have changed…
ANOTHER UPDATE, more fresh new shapes stamped into the tin: The VY’s headlights and tail lights were angular where the previous two series had been curvy. It’s subjective, but the luxo Statesman and Caprice seemed to benefit more from the sharp styling updates than the family-spec Commodore range. There was a new dash, too. But it was the plethora of new models that was the real news for VY: A dual-cab Crewman ute with six-or eight-cylinder power, the off-roadish Holden Adventra all-wheel-drive wagon, the Crewman Cross-8 (also with AWD) and later, two-and four-wheel-drive single-cab/chassis. HSV also had versions of the Adventra wagon (Avalanche) and Crewman Cross-8 (Avalanche XUV) and a very low-volume low-riding on-road Coupe4 with an AWD system tucked underneath, all in addition to the established range of XU-6, Clubsport, Maloo, Senator, GTS and Grange, plus specials such as GTS300 and SV300 with the C4B 300kW Callaway engine.
HOLDEN’S PORT Melbourne engine plant – which had been building Holden engines since the FX series – received a huge make-over in the early 2000s to produce GM’s new all-alloy, double over-head cam and four-valve ‘High Feature’ HFV6 range of engines for Holden and for export to brands as diverse as Daewoo, Pontiac and SAAB. The HF V6 was the engine under the bonnet of the VZ Commodore and for the first time since VK, Commodore had different power outputs for its sixes depending on the trim spec: The base Executive and Berlina had a 175kW version of the new engine, with SV6 and Calais having variable timing on both cams for 190kW from its 3565cc. The rest of the car was a revised version of the VY.
WITH A ROLLER cam, increased compression, sequential injection and a twin-cat exhaust, the 5.0-litre V8 used in the VT was a lovely last blast for the then two-decade old all-iron design. However, even before the VT had been launched, Holden was working on its replacement, GM’s LS-series V8 announced in 1996 for the C5 Corvette. Developed by GM in the USA with iron and alloy blocks and several capacities, for Australia (and Middle East export) Holden chose the alloy 5.7-litre version closely related to that used in the Corvette. In Holdens it had 220kW; HSV had an internally identical version with 250kW thanks to breathing and PCM tweaks. Shock, horror, the engine has only two valves per cylinder and used pushrods in an era of multi-valve over-head cam screamers but its real-world output, economy and durability has endeared it to fast car fans as one of the world’s great engines.
All of which leads us to the VE Commodore, Holden’s billion dollar baby; the last and the best. Once again conceived – as was VT – as a left- and right-handdrive car, Holden had even more freedom with the design as it was tasked with creating a car that would be at home anywhere on the planet. From the bitter cold of the US north-west and Canada to the stinking heat of Australia and the Middle East – where by early 2001, when VE mules began circulating Holden’s Lang Lang proving grounds, Chev-badged Holdens had been sold for several years – the VE was engineered as a large car for international markets – later the foundation for the Chevrolet Camaro.
So Holden’s aims for VE had to be higher than for the previous series: in fact, with an obvious view to future US market sporting sedans, Holden bench-marked the VE against acknowledged European premiums such as BMW’s 5-series.
Australia has always had reasonably high safety standards but VE had to be ready for every market on earth including the notorious US market. Systems such as stability control had to be designed-in as world-class from the outset. With North America’s and China’s cold winter climate in mind, the car’s heating system needed to be created to be far better than that expected and accepted by the average Aussie buyer… And of course the air-con’s hot-weather performance – for so long a source of pride for Holden – needed to be up to scratch too.
It was all wrapped in a new bodyshell that approached international best-practice for safety and body integrity/ durability. The wheelbase was longer and the engine moved rearward in relation to the front axle line. The front chassis rails were a larger cross-section than the VT-VZ to better absorb front crash forces. The front cross-member was installed on break-away mounts for the same reason. The VE’s characteristically large A-pillar was also designed to resist deformation in head-on crashes. The car’s B-pillar was now a sandwich with a tough high-boron steel centre laminate and the front seats mounted on box-section cross-car rails – not simply the floor – for better T-bone safety. The rear chassis rails were designed to be deformable too, and the fuel tank was shifted forward to within the wheelbase – to allow the VE and its WM derivatives to meet stringent crash regulations.
Under it, VE was laid-out with a sophisticated multi-link rear end and a double ball-joint strut front end for terrific handling. The suspension was crafted from large, durable components (right down to large wheel studs) that all pointed to GM/Holden planning big power for the design.
Holden also paid special attention to ease of manufacturing and crash repair with VE, with ideas such as a bolt-on nose section that was installed at the factory as a module, pre-assembled with the radiators and cooling fans. In service, it’s able to be easily removed and replaced after the common urban nose-to-tail shunts. The doors’ wiring harnesses could be easily unplugged with trim panels in place.
Proudly, VE made it to the USA first as a Pontiac G8 and later as the VF-based Chevrolet SS and a bitch-black government-only Statesman/Caprice-based PPV – police patrol vehicle. But there was to have been so much more… The planned-and-prototyped high-riding all-wheel drive Adventra – this time with a proper SUV-type body – died. The Holden styling team also penned a Monaro-type coupe and an El Camino type ute, the two cars sharing a pair of doors that were longer than the sedan’s. Few people realise that GM/Holden’s Elizabeth factory was mirrored in China and for a few years the plant produced the Caprice-based Buick Park Avenue.
THE VE Commodore arrived in mid-2006 with, like the VZ before it, two versions of GM’s 3.6-litre HFV6 (175 and 190kW) and a 6.0-litre V8. As had happened with the VT, the SS was promoted as the hero car of the range and in fact, a red SS was the first production VE to roll off the production line. Thanks to the popularity of the SS and its surprising frugality, the V8 was a strong seller. Pontiac G8 was marketed as a premium performance sedan in the USA. VE ute (with the same independent suspension prioritising good handling over ultimate load-carrying) arrived in 2007 and the great-looking Sportwagon – surprisingly – didn’t arrive until 2009, pointing to the possibility that Holden had prioritised developing the aborted new-gen Adventra SUV for international markets before the traditional Aussie wagon. Engines were updated later in VE – and a smaller 3.0-litre unit introduced – and a Series II update arrived in 2010.
THE LAST blast. The end of the line. Introduced in 2013, the VF was a substantial update on VE, with (as had become customary for mid-life updates) significant styling tweaks to the nose, tail and dashboard. VF carried an alloy bonnet and bootlid and substituted alloy for steel in some suspension components to help keep the weight down. Numerous special editions have been launched, including the International, the Storm, the Collingwood and the Craig Lowndes. Buyers of the very late production cars could also opt for the Motorsport and the Director. Holden also offered the option of selecting build numbers. Will the VF become a collector car? Only time will tell, but plenty of enthusiasts have bought them to be tucked away in garages or driven only on special occasions and interest in all earlier model Commodores – especially V8 models – is on the rise.