THE Descendants

HOLDEN’S ZB COMMODORE IS DISTANTLY RELATED TO A WORLD-CLASS MID-SIZED AUSSIE REVOLUTIONARY THAT DESERVES REAPPRAISAL

WORDS BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS PHOTOS UNIQUE CARS ARCHIVES/WHEELS ARCHIVES

February will see the release of the first all-new Commodore since the VE was launched in mid 2006.

Many people accept the ZB will have a transversemounted engine and – in the mainstream versions – front-wheel drive. Oh, and unlike any past or present Australian-made Commodore, the future one is a German migrant, courtesy of Opel.

For fans of large Holdens, it represents a brave if uncertain new world.

Except GMH has been here before. Some 39 years ago to be specific. And with a model that is the direct ancestor to the Commodore – a second-generation Opel Insignia that directly replaced three iterations of the Vectra, which in turn took over from the European Ascona line that served as the basis of the JB Camira.

So the Camira is the 2018 Commodore’s great, great, great grandfather. Holden, understandably, would hate us pointing this out, but we’re just joining the dots, folks. This is what it must feel like to find out your distant ancestors were convicts.

Except, we’re here to serve what is probably the most-maligned car ever (Leyland P76 and AU Falcon aside) some justice. Besides, you’d reckon something name-checked in The Castle would command greater respect!

At the time the most advanced vehicle ever made in Australia, the 1982 JB was part of General Motors’ global J-car program created to achieve massive economies of scale perfected by Japanese brands. As a result, the bonnet, front mudguards and rear screen were the only panels unique to the local version. The ‘world car’ was all the rage back then.

It also served up several firsts. For starters, Camira was Holden’s first FWD; the first anywhere with variable-ratio steering; the first to export body panels to Europe since the Port Melbourne-developed wagon was made only here; and its Family II engine was the brand’s first to be exported, by the millions over three decades. All were huge achievements by GMH.

The Camira was also the first FWD in the then-booming local medium-sized – or 2.0-litre’ – segment, dominated by the Mitsubishi Sigma, Nissan Bluebird and Toyota Corona.

Consequently it seemed space age against such dated competitors, offering greater cabin space utilisation, lighter construction for better performance/economy balance and definitively stronger dynamics – something Holden ensured by re-engineering the Ascona for Australian conditions. Don’t forget; the Opel rivals weren’t Japanese dross but Renault, Fiat and Volkswagen.

In a move reminiscent of today’s downsizing fever, the Camira featured an advantageous power-to-weight ratio to achieve performance akin to a 2.0’s, and thus came in at more than 100kg under its RWD rivals. Result? The JB’s carburettorfed 64kW/125Nm 1.6 equalled or bettered most. At least on paper...

“YOU’D RECKON A CAR NAME-CHECKED IN THE CASTLE DESERVED SOME RESPECT”

Out in the real world, however, such bold clean-sheet engineering was bound to create issues, and the Camira delivered its fair share – sloppy workmanship, Holden’s inexperience with plastic components that undermined quality, glitchy electronics, overheating, engine woes, structural fatigue, rust… and more. Careless or ignorant servicing for what is essentially a sophisticated Europeandesign powertrain didn’t help either.

Still, all that was in the (near) future.

Sweeping all others aside with its bold modernity, the JB won Wheels’ COTY award, nabbed class leadership and swayed non-trad Holden buyers. Don’t forget, it belatedly replaced the antiquated Sunbird nee-UC Torana.

Alongside the Camira sedan and marvellously packaged wagon (featuring a bumper fixed to the tailgate for a low floor-level loading height – brilliant!), a five-door liftback as per the Ascona was also considered. A shame GMH’s cash-flow problems prevented that.

Later, Holden admitted that going 1.6 alienated consumers as it was deemed too small, adding that the decision was made at the height of the 1979 global fuel shortages.

The remedy came with the strikingly nosed JD of late ’84, gaining an injected 83kW/146Nm 1.8 option – though mandatory unleaded-petrol saw the ’86 detuned version lose 20kW! – as part of widespread refinements that also fixed many of the gremlins plaguing the JB.

However, sales slid rapidly. Even the gutsy 85kW/176Nm 2.0 that heralded the lightly revised JE the following year wasn’t enough.

Yet this was the Camira Holden should have built from the beginning. After 151,807 examples, production ceased in ’89.

Ultimately, Holden was forced in a model-sharing marriage with Toyota brokered by the government to help make the local industry more efficient, but the resulting Camry-based Apollo barely registered. The Camira’s DNA did live on with the now-largely forgotten (but oh-so very aero-elegant) Calibra coupe of the 90s, while the 1997 JR Vectra became the Australianassembled third-gen grandchild that actually sold in reasonable numbers.

How will the 2018 ZB Commodore fare?

Spare a thought for the 1980s J-car from which it descended. Camira’s place in Holden history deserves greater recognition.