Though turbos are now widely accepted as part of the automotive landscape, that wasn’t always the case. Even as late as the eighties a factory turbo was still something of a novelty for a lot of people, while aftermarket installations had mixed and sometimes ugly results.
Combine the turbo with the new-gen overhead cam alloy sixes and suddenly you have a very formidable combination – a true performance engine that can easily rival the abilities of a V8. And they can be reliable, as the two ground-breaking models we’re covering here have proven.
Back in the eighties, the move by Holden to adopt a Japanese engine – from Nissan – as a mainstream powerplant was incredibly brave. Even foolhardy. How on earth will the local market accept something that’s not a home-grown product?
However time has proved that any niggling doubts or mechanical jingoism were largely overcome by the fact that the inline Nissan six, with its overhead cam, really was a major generational step forward. It proved to be as tough as the engines it displaced, with a whole lot more performance potential.
Add in the turbo and we’re talking impressive figures, with power at 150kW at 5600rpm and peak torque of 296Nm at 3200rpm. That meant 32 per cent more power and 20 per cent more torque than the normally-aspirated unit.
It was clear from day one that the reviewers were on-side. Wheels mag in its August 1986 issue said: “The engine is silky smooth and flexible. Accelerating with wide-open throttle (WOT in engineer-speak) the turbo’s up to maximum boost pressure and into full stride as it clears the 2400rpm mark. Equally importantly, it willingly works right down to 1500rpm or less. It may lack the raw bottom-end punch of the bigger engines (read bent-eights) when accelerated from lowly speeds, but there’s no real suggestion of turbo lag either. What you get is immediate response which gathers strength very quickly as the revs rise to two-five.”
“The turbo challenges the bent block alternative for performance leadership. Measured against the VK Commodore’s leaded petrol five-litre V8, the VL’s turbo six has lower maximum torque level and higher maximum power, which translates simplistically to less performance down low and more up top. The turbo may, however, prove to have more performance everywhere when ranged against the coming VL unleaded 4.9-litre V8…”
AMONG THE regrettable consequences of launching the VN Commodore was the need for Holden to kill off the VL. Four model changes down the track from the original VB, the VL brought a savvy revamp, done with minimal money but centred on a modern (Nissan) engine with the option of a pretty impressive turbo ‘six’. The Calais isn’t all that different from a stock VL yet actually looks like a luxury car. Pitted against later, more powerful versions of the Calais, VLs win the desirability test despite costing a lot more than VN-VEs. A little thing called ‘style’ perhaps? The VL Calais Turbo’s endearing attributes include availability of a five-speed manual gearbox. Even more endearing is the proportion of manual cars still available and the performance they offer. With cars like these there is always a temptation to modify and a lot of VLs have undergone change that isn’t always for the better. Build costs can exceed $50,000 and owners rarely recover what they have spent. Buyers also need to be convinced they can live with someone else’s vision of the ‘perfect’ Calais. Most vendors in the current market seem happy to disclose when their car is a ‘replica’ but it pays to be wary and carry out basic checks of authenticity. The Body Code for a Calais is 8VX19 and correct 3.0T engines are designated LW5. Nothing however will stop a robber from acquiring plates from a wreck and riveting them to a standard VL or Berlina so look at several cars before buying and note any differences in trim or mechanical specification.
Those thoughts on how it would compare with the upcoming V8 were spot on. In the end, Wheels in February 1987 compared a VL Turbo Calais not with a stock V8 but an HDT SS Group A. And guess what? Even in this guise, the V8 trailed just a little in the horsepower stakes. Actually, the numbers were interesting: For the V8 they were 137kW at 4400rpm and 345Nm at 3200, versus 150kW at 5600 and 296Nm at 3200.
Not surprisingly, the V8 was more convincing off the line, but found itself being rounded up once the turbo got on song.
However it was the SS which won the comparo. While the turbo won the tech race in the engine department, the HDT at not a lot more money ($29,600 versus $28,400) was better fitted-out in the cabin and a far tidier handling package. Still, we reckon it says a lot about the turbo car that it was lined up against such lofty company.
George Alesios is the second generation and third member of his family to own this example. It was bought new by his dad back in 1986 and at the time it represented a big financial decision for a growing family. Unusually, it’s a manual. Back then autos were regarded as the default transmission on the Calais, so a five-speed manual had to be ordered and involved a six to eight week wait.
“I got it for my 21st as a gift,” says George, “and have had it ever since. I garage and lock it up and look after it as best I can.
“It’s been in the family a long time – 32 years – it got passed down. My older brother got it before me, and on to me. I don’t know where it’s going to be passed next!
Surely he considered selling it once it was time to replace it with something newer? George emphatically shakes his head. “Not at all. The best thing was it was passed down as a gift. If it had been something I bought it would have been different and there might have been more pressure to get rid of it.
“It was the old man’s first new car and he got it at 36 – he’s now 68 – he was a young fella. The condition (when it was offered to me) was the turbo had to come off. He said if you want to get it,we’ll take the turbo off because it’s got too much power. I said just take it off, I want the car. You know what, it never happened. It was a test to see if I really wanted the car.
“He loves that we still have the car. We do a few things with it together, like changing an inhibitor on it the other day, we’ve done a few little bits and pieces. He’s mechanically minded, so we work on it together. It’s something to remember down the track – we did a lot of jobs.”
And on the road? “It’s really nice to drive. Newer cars drive smoother, but it’s great on the road,and handles well.” The VL has been lowered a touch with adjustable Konis, but is otherwise stock.
With some 180,000km on board, they’ve had a surprisingly good run. No mechanical troubles – just standard servicing. As George observes: “Since then the RB30 has gone on through the generations – it’s proven itself as a good engine.”
What would he advise if we were in the market for one? “They’re a great car but picking up in price. Finding one that hasn’t been tampered with is hard. As for mine, it’s not going anywhere.”
VL CALAIS TURBO
EXCELLENT $35,000 (auto)
(Note: exceptional cars will demand more)
Given their age and chances of being crashed at some point, any Calais you consider might be harbouring rust or poor-quality repairs. Check the front rails from above and below for kinks, twisting or non-original paint. Big inconsistencies in door, bonnet and boot gaps can indicate a car that’s been in a big crash. Look for rust or repairs to front mudguards, lower doors, boot floors, the area between the rear window and boot aperture and windscreen surround. Replacement floors, guards and outer sills are available, so too the Calais headlamp support panel and light covers. Replacement plastic bumpers cost more than a chrome bumper for earlier Holdens. A full kit of body rubbers costs $1000-1200 depending where you buy.
VLs with untouched engines or turbochargers will be now be extremely rare so when buying insist on seeing receipts for renovation work. A professional mechanical inspection is essential to ensure the warp-prone cylinder head is holding compression and the turbocharger is working to capacity. White smoke from the exhaust indicates turbo or head-gasket failure, blue smoke rings or internal engine wear. Overheating is especially threatening to turbo engines so the cooling system must be tested. Clutch shudder, bearing noise and synchromesh failure are common in manual cars but replacing the original five-speed with a later, stronger Nissan gearbox is common and relatively cheap.
NUMBER BUILT: N/A BODY: all-steel integrated body/chassis four-door sedan and station wagon
ENGINE: 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder with overhead camshaft, fuel-injection and turbocharger POWER & TORQUE: 150kW @ 5600rpm, 296Nm @ 3200rpm PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h 7.8 sec, 0-400 metres 15.5 sec TRANSMISSION: five-speed manual or four-speed automatic SUSPENSION: Independent with struts, gas inserts, coil springs & anti-roll bar (f) Live axle with trailing arms; coil springs, gas shock absorbers, anti-roll bar (r)
BRAKES: disc (f), disc (r) with power assistance TYRES: 205/65HR15 radial
Huge wheels and chopped coils are signs of a Calais to be avoided or at least treated with caution. Extreme lowering allied to ultra lowprofile tyres will deliver shock loadings that can affect suspension components. Look for uneven tyre wear and rubbed innermudguard areas. Float over bumps indicates the gas shock absorbers are past their prime. Disc/disc brakes were standard on the Calais (and will be found on the vast majority of Turbos). Plenty of upmarket rotor and caliper conversions are available and will cost $1000-2500, Mushy pedal suggests hydraulic leaks, hard pedal a failed booster.
Cars with sundamaged plastics are best avoided as replacements for disintegrating components can be hard to find. The cloth trim used in these cars wasn’t especially durable and can split due to age. Front seats sag as the foam crumbles into oblivion so unless the interior is already restored, check costs with a motor trimmer before buying. Hood-lining sag is a chronic Commodore problem so look for loose cloth above the rear seat. Ensure that the electric windows all work without binding or shuddering and that the cruise control does as well. Air-conditioning in 1980s cars needs to have been overhauled and adapted to accept CFC-free refrigerant
For many, the Australian inline six really came of age with the release of Ford’s Barra 182 (aka Barracuda) engine in the BA series, from late 2002. Finally, we had a twin overhead cam alloy unit, with four valves per cylinder, and variable cam timing. It represented a huge technological leap for the firm’s ‘bread and butter’ powerplants that at the time gave it a significant head start over rival Holden.
Add a turbo to the recipe and you get the Barra 240, which turned out to be a serious performance player that arguably picked up where Holden’s VL Turbo left off and advanced the game several steps further.
In line with the ‘great leap forward’ in basic spec, a lot of the ancillaries were shifted up a gear, such as the inline ignition coil packs. It comfortably rated as the most sophisticated engine to come out of Australia. To get the extra mumbo, the engine copped a Garret GT40 turbo, running at a reasonably conservative 0.4 bar boost. As is typical for a turbo motor, the compression was dropped, but not to ridiculous levels: from 9.7:1 to 8.7:1.
Performance? Power and torque numbers in the stock Barra were boosted from 182kW/380Nm to 240kW/450Nm. It was flexible, too, with peak torque chiming in as early as 2000rpm. Testers at the time reported no turbo lag
It’s justifiable to label the Barra 240 as the most sophisiticated engine produced in Australia to that point, with inline coil packs, fly-by-wire throttle, a DOHC four valver with variable valve timing.
We went digging into the test archives of sister mag Wheels to see what the road tests of the time had to say. In August 2002, the mag enthused: “As soon as the engine lights up,you’re aware it’s like no other Falcon six you ever sat behind. At idle, the turbo twin-cam is so discreetly quiet and silky smooth that there’ll be times you’re glad the Smartstart system prevents you re-keying the starter.
FALCON IS gone forever but which models will maintain its legacy is still open for discussion. Among the most unresolved of issues is whether any models from the 21st Century be regarded by future generations as ‘classic’ Aussie Fords? Mass-produced performance models like the XR6 Turbo remain common and liable to be treated as consumable. There is a real risk as evidenced by the near extinction of early XR6 models, that high-end apathy might see Turbos also gone within 20 years. With so many cars available there will be many you absolutely do not want to own. Patience, a clear idea of what you want in your Falcon and professional mechanical advise close to hand are indispensable. Even cars with the proverbial ‘full service history’ will be suffering inherent design flaws and some may display owner abuse. Impending mechanical catastrophe is a frequent reason for apparently excellent cars being thrust into the used market so don’t rely on appearance. BA Turbos in usable but not brilliant condition begin below $5000 and people have snapped up decent cars at auction or via private sales for even less. You do need to have confidence in your ability to spot and avoid a dud though. Shopping in the $10-12,000 price range delivers plenty of very good BF manuals or autos and potentially collectible BAs with very low kilometres. Add $5000 for a BF II in equivalent condition.
“Next you’ll notice the stark absence of any drivetrain wheezes and whines that always identified the previous Falcon sixes when accelerating through the gears. And believe me, no previous Falcon six, indeed no other Aussie six and precious few V8s, can match the BA turbo for getting through the gears.”
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the mag also recommended opting for the four-speed auto rather than the five-speed manual. Why? “Because the four-speeder delivers a more enjoyable driving experience. Sure the manual has an extra ratio, but the surge of torque from the best-sounding Falcon six ever built is easily able to cover the wider gaps between the gears. What’s more, the auto’s tipshift mode is a pleasure to use. Much nicer than the manual, in fact.” The tester also noted there were no ‘dopey’ mode switches, simply a sport mode that enabled driver shifting and five software maps that could adjust the transmission’s response.
While the mechanical package impressed, the handling also scored highly. “The handling is the real deal, too, with a crispness that’s pretty remarkable for a thing this size and weight. Confidently poised yet light on its feet.”
Owner and Unique Cars mag senior staffer Angelo Loupetis bought his example, an auto, back in 2010.
“It’s a good family car that we could fit everything in, with a bit of punch, and it met the budget at the time,” he says, explaining the choice of an XR6. “At the time, I was also considering an SS Commodore, like a VX or VY SS or a couple of Sportswagons.
“I always liked VL turbos and wanted the equivalent, but newer. I looked for a BF initially, but ended up buying a BA because of the Citric Acid colour, which struck me.
“I’ve had it eight years now. A the time it was a one-owner with 70,000km, immaculate, except for a couple of kerbed wheels which I soon had fixed up.
As the car has aged, Angelo has experienced a raft of issues with ancillaries, but the engine itself has been impressive. At 160,000km, “I never had to put oil in it once, apart from servicing, which I think is fantastic.”
As for the dramas, the list includes a string of brake woes, including shudder that has taken time to sort, electrics such as the body control module for central locking, ignition barrel (which seems to be common on BA/BF it collapses internally), door actuators, plus the coil packs twice over. The latest addition to the list is the roof lining is starting to come away from its fixings.
Glitches aside, what’s it like to drive? “It’s really nice to drive. My dad had an EA S-pak and it has that same initial sluggish feel to it, but when you get onto it and it gets a bit of boost it’s still quite exciting to drive day today.
EXCELLENT $13,500 (BF manual)
(Note: exceptional cars will demand more)
“Handling is good for what it is, and what you’re using it for – it’s fantastic.
“Part of the thinking when I bought it was that one day it might (Unique Cars) did a story years ago about Australia’s greatest car and the XR6 turbo was in the ranks.
“I felt it would have a bit of a fan club, but didn’t realise the Barracuda motor would get such a massive following. There will be a market for it in the long term. Most of them have been modified, so it’s hard to find a clean standard example in a hero colour.”
Does that mean it will eventually get parked beside his T-bird when I’s relieved of daily driver duties? Angelo laughs. “I don’t know, that’s what has been going through my head. We’ll see what happens…”
Cars that have been around for less than 10 years should not be suffering serious rust or body plastic deterioration but crash damage is an issue. Look at panel gaps front and rear, bumper attachment points for broken clips and stone-damaged or loose headlights. More serious after a major front end hit are kinked front rails and inner wheel-arches. Check the boot channels and panel below the rear window for rust then lift the boot carpet looking for water that has slipped past the seal.
The 4.0-litre Falcon engine dominated the local cab market for 15 years and is inherently reliable. Some early engines did suffer premature camshaft wear, with replacements under warranty required. Cylinder heads can leak oil but the source can be difficult to spot. Avoid Turbos that blow exhaust smoke of any kind and insist on seeing records of servicing to ensure oil-change intervals have been observed. T5 manual transmissions are noisy and rough even when in good condition so try for a BA II or BF with the six-speed manual. Early autos can have major issues with their heat exchanger, as did the later ZF six-speed. Avoid any car that displays transmission shudders under acceleration or won’t shift quickly from a forward ratio to reverse.
NUMBER MADE: N/A BODY: all-steel combined body/chassis four-door sedan ENGINE: 4.0-litre inline six-cylinder with overhead camshafts, fuel injection and turbocharger
POWER & TORQUE: 240kW @ 5250rpm 450Nm @ 2000rpm (BA)
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h 6.0 seconds, 0-400 metres 14.3 seconds (BA manual)
TRANSMISSION: five or six-speed manual, four or six-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with struts and coil springs, upper and lower wishbones and anti-roll bar (f) Independent with multi-link location, coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: disc (f) disc (r) with power assistance and ABS
TYRES: 235/40ZR17, 245/40ZR18 radial
Check for warped rotors which are a common Falcon fault and be prepared to fit some uprated discs. Perhaps if the car is excellent in other respects spend $2500 on a complete brake system upgrade. Rear suspension bushes collapse and leave tyres running on their inner edges. Shock absorber bushes wear quickly as well and create knocking noises over bumps. Creaks and groans from the front when turning at low speeds are typical Ford and signify that ball joints and bushings are past their use-by dates. Look for power steering fluid leaks as the cost of a rebuilt rack can add 25 per cent to the price of a cheap car.
The bugbear of centrally-locked Falcons continued even into the improved BA-BF series. UC’s Chief Designer Angelo has owned a BA Turbo for years and twice replaced faulty door actuators. Add to that a Body Control Module that takes out the entire locking system and you understand the frustration of owners and service personnel with Ford’s inability to get a simple system to work. Make sure the headlights aren’t fogged and that the battery doesn’t show signs of overheating. Ensure that the display screen (where fitted) performs all of its functions, that the air-conditioning delivers proper cold air and all power windows move without sticking or shuddering.
These cars are distanced from the chrome-bumper era by their power, flexibility and reliability, oh, and their collectability. Where an early seventies local car has guaranteed ‘classic’ interest, what about the plastic bumper era?
For cars like the high-end VLs, that question is already being answered with prices for good examples already firming up and starting to climb. That phenomenon hasn’t yet hit models like the XR6, but we suspect it will.
Nevertheless, for the time being there’s still some good buying out there and you don’t necessarily need a lottery win to score a good car. Let’s take a closer look…