Trying to run a car company in the 1980s must have been one of the most bewildering jobs in the world. The Oil Crisis that everyone said would destroy the industry had disappeared without trace but now there were 299 different authorities making rules about how to make motor vehicles and anyone who wasn’t smitten by the rumble of a V8 was demanding a turbocharger.
Where that left Holden was in a mess. Its ancient overhead-valve six-cylinder engine couldn’t be effectively modified to handle Unleaded Petrol (ULP) and a V6 replacement was three years away. The only option left was to buy someone else’s engine and Holden stumbled upon a beauty.
Nissan’s 3.0-litre RB30 was simple, rugged and begging to be given the chance to produce some more power. As a stock engine it made 118kW but with a turbocharger and very modest application of boost that climbed to 150kW. More was available if you didn’t mind the effects that increased boost had on engine longevity.
Most VLs fitted with the Turbo motor were SL or Executive models and came with four-speed automatic transmission.
Some carried big signs down both sides as well – reading ‘POLICE’.
Adding turbo power to the VL Calais produced a sports sedan that was competent and very well-equipped. On the list of factory-installed goodies were distinctive 15-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, cruise control and power windows. Leather trim was optional but most buyers couldn’t see the value in it and stayed with the velour.
In conjunction with its new powertrain, Holden had done plenty of work on noise abatement. More extensive use of sound deadening made the VL a noticeably quieter car than the VK and that was helped by reworked suspension. Modifications included softer springs to improve ride comfort and faster-ratio power steering for better feel but they didn’t spoil the Commodore’s cornering balance at all.
Performance was of course the reason people bought Commodore Turbos and the magazine road test data panels told an encouraging story. Top speed extracted from a five-speed manual Berlina was 223km/h, with 0-100km/h taking 7.6 seconds.
Ten years ago it was possible to find high-kilometre VL Turbo Executives at less than $10,000. Today those cars if they indeed still exist can reach $25,000. Because Turbo Commodores remained relatively cheap for so long and insurance rates were relatively high they often weren’t fully covered against accidental damage or theft.
Thefts and crashes saw cars scrapped for parts which diminished numbers and helped push values even higher. That is good news for people who have treated their cars with care and protected them against criminal attention.
Some survivors do come with fancy paint, huge wheels and seriously potent engines, yet it is the preserved, documented and minimally modified cars that bring big prices.
Top of the tree is the turbo VL Calais. These with genuine low kilometres can sell for more than $40,000 and will climb further even in a market where buyers are being cautious.
Crash damage is the major risk when buying these cars because a lot were poorly repaired. Check the front rails from above and below for kinks, twisting or non-original repainting. Inconsistent door and bonnet gaps can indicate a car that’s been twisted and may not handle properly. Rust attacks in several areas including front mudguards, lower doors, boot floors and the window surrounds. Metallic finishes are prone to fading, so look for areas of mismatched paint to detect repairs. Replacement floors, guards and outer sills are inexpensive but the cost of repairing and repainting a rusty car will outweigh the cost of a good one. Standard VL headlights cost $75 but just the ‘eyelid’ covers for a Calais are over $150 each.
Overheating can generate costly problems in turbo cars so avoid cars that make rumbling noises from the radiator once the engine is warm. Cylinder heads are prone to cracks and warping so look at the coolant and oil for signs of contamination. These were the most computerised of Commodores and the various sensors will by now be feeling their age if not replaced. Lack of performance or stuttering under acceleration can be due to electronic failures or fuel-injection problems. Automatic transmissions should engage gears when stationary in less than two seconds and accelerate without surging or vibration. Clutch shudder due to high-rpm take-offs is a common issue in manual cars.
NUMBER BUILT: 151,801 (all VL)
BODY: steel, integrated body/ chassis, four-door sedan or station wagon
ENGINE: 2962cc six-cylinder overhead camshaft with fuel injection and turbocharger
POWER & TORQUE: 150kW @ 5600rpm, 296kW @ 3200rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h 7.6 seconds, 0-400 metres 15.6 seconds (manual)
TRANSMISSION: five-speed manual, four-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: independent with struts and anti-roll bar (f) live axle with coil springs, trailing arms and telescopic shock absorbers(r)
BRAKES: disc (f) disc (r) power assisted TYRES: 205/65HR15 radial
Finding a Turbo with its original components and suspension settings is difficult and changes to spring rates, ride height and wheel diameters will have varying effects on how a car drives. Extreme lowering and very low-profile tyres will make the ride harsh and can damage suspension components. Float over bumps indicates the shock absorbers are past their prime. Disc/disc brakes will be found on the vast majority of Turbos and when new they were rated as an excellent system. A mushy pedal, pulsing when the brakes are lightly applied and directional instability are symptoms of worn rotors. Quality replacements are cheap.
Cars with sundamaged plastics are best avoided as tracking down viable replacements is a challenge. Commodore seats weren’t that comfy when new and once the foam has fallen to bits and the straps break the only solution is a costly trip to the trimmer or finding some secondhand seats in better condition. The hoodlining will most likely have sagged already and been replaced. If not new lining is available along with carpet sets. Ensure that electric windows which can bind and shudder are working, as is the cruise control and air-conditioning. New switch pads for the windows are available but the door frames which fall to bits are not.