COMMODORE VB-VH SL/E

IF YOU WEREN'T TROUBLED BY THE COMMODORE'S COMPACT SIZE YOU WERE LIKELY TO BE DELIGHTED BY ITS BEST-HOLDEN-EVER HANDLING

People distressed by the European origins of today’s Holdens should remember that 40 years ago another Euro-Commodore was challenging traditionalists.

Shorter, lower and narrower than HZ-series cars, the Opel-based cars were designed for a three-litre engine. The VB Commodore needed extensive work on its engineering and image to deal with the weight and power of Aussie V8s.

Up front were coil springs and struts, at the rear a live axle with multi-link location and a Panhard stabilizer rod. V8-engined SL/ Es had four-wheel disc brakes and all SL/Es ran on cast alloy wheels with low-profile 60-Series tyres.

The SL/E was available only as a four-door sedan and came standard with a 3.3-litre six-cylinder engine. Keeping the Euro-spec imagery alive was sumptuous velour trim, tinted glass, an AM/FM stereo with power aerial, height-adjustable driver’s seat and remote boot release.

Option packs added 4.2 or 5.0-litre V8s with Turbo-Hydramatic or four-speed M21 transmission, a dual outlet exhaust, electric windows, rear stereo speaker and central locking.

Air-conditioning was optional too but every SL/E came with Volvo-style headlamp wiper/washers – the first use of such gimmickry by an Australian car-maker. An SL/E with ‘the lot’ cost almost $15,000 yet represented bargain buying when compared to the $30,000 BMW 528i or Saab’s new 99 Turbo.

When new, a manual 5.0-litre VB would reach 100km/h from rest in nine seconds and exit the standing 400 metres in 16.4. Mid-range performance from four-speed cars was extremely good; 80-110km/h in third gear taking 4.5 seconds or a tenth of a second faster than a 5.8-litre Falcon four-speed.

Those figures were run using a car with the 3.08:1 rear axle ratio which allowed the SL/E to actually reach its 5500rpm red-line. Optional ratios included the sky-high 2.6:1 as used in A9X Toranas – no good for traffic light sprints but fantastic for frugal cruising.

Fuel consumption with the 5.0-litre engine is likely to average 16L/100km and blow out to more than 20 litres per hundred if pushed along. Even when tuned to perfection for an economy run, a manual 5.0-litre managed only 12.1L/100km.

The VC that appeared in March 1980 brought subtle but significant changes. The 4.2 became the default V8 with the 5.0-litre available only to special order. Those with $1250 to spend could specify distinctive ‘Shadowtone’ two-tone paint. Now included at the expense of the tachometer was a vacuumactivated ‘economy’ gauge.

By 1982 when Holden began producing its VH model, the SL/E had fallen victim to GM-H’s distressed financial position. Prices were up by 50 per cent since the VB days, the characteristic SL/E wheels were gone and the suspension’s sporting edge had been dulled in the interests of improved ride.

That was the end of the line for a brave attempt to combine European style with Aussie practicality. However it would take years for the SL/E to have its significance properly recognised and by that time most cars had disappeared.

V8 automatics that have been maintained in close to showroom condition are difficult to find and worth up to $25,000. Four-speed, 5.0-litre SL/Es are extremely scarce and will likely cost 30 per cent more than an automatic..

1978 - 1983 VB-VH COMMODORE SL/E

BODY & CHASSIS

Rust can kill these lightweight Holdens very quickly. Areas to check first are windscreen surrounds – especially the rear window – sills, door skins and wheel arches. Poor quality crash repairs are characterised by inconsistent panel gaps and mismatched paint. Plastic trim items and body moulds suffer sun damage and are difficult to find, even second-hand. Complete body rubber kits are available at $1500-1650 and standard tail-light lenses which will fit the SL/E are being remanufactured. New bumpers are available but cost almost $500 each. The nifty headlight wiper/ washers need to be working for a car to justify top money.

ENGINE & TRANSMISSION

Few serious issues exist with these robust and easilyreconditioned engines. V8s leak oil from the main bearing seal, cylinder heads and timing cover. Misfiring and backfiring can be due to distributor wear or poor spark plug lead insulation. Look for rust stains on water hoses and around the water pump. Some owners fit carburettors that only function as they should at full throttle and high rpms – if the car won’t idle and doesn’t like full throttle at low speeds reduce the price. M21 manuals can be difficult when cold but crunching down-changes indicate synchromesh problems. The T350 and 400 automatics are robust, just be wary of slurred upshifts and slow engagement of reverse.

Vital stats

NUMBER BUILT: 35,000 (est.) all SL/E models

BODY: all-steel integrated body/ chassis, four-door sedan

ENGINE: 3310cc inline six cylinder, 4142cc or 5048cc V8 with overhead valves and single downdraft carburettor

POWER & TORQUE: 125kW @ 4200rpm, 344Nm @ 2200rpm (5.0-litre High Output V8)

PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h 9.0 seconds, 0-400 metres: 16.4 seconds (5.0-litre VB manual)

TRANSMISSION: four or five-speed manual, three-speed automatic

SUSPENSION: Independent with struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar (f) Live axle with multi-link location, coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers. Anti-roll bar on some (r)

BRAKES: Disc (f) disc or drum (r) with power assistance

TYRES: BR60H15 radial

SUSPENSION & BRAKES

Soft front springs and worn struts are frequently found in V8 cars. Rear suspension bushings disintegrate with age, causing noise and even visible rear axle movement. Power steering leaks or a notchy feel will eventually need rectification and a $1000 overhaul. Damage to the alloy wheels is common but so are good-quality used rims at around $100 each. ‘Soft’ brake pedals were reported even by owners of new SL/Es, however if the pedal sinks with the engine running there is a hydraulic problem. Upgraded brake rotors at $250 each and up-spec pads will significantly improve brake performance.

INTERIOR & ELECTRICS

Ensuring that all of the SL/E’s electrical gizmos work properly is essential. Most fault-prone are power windows that can crack their internal framework, jamming the mechanism and burning out motors. Air-conditioners need to have been recently serviced and running the correct refrigerant. Pre-VH seat trim is no longer available and decent seats cost $12001500 per pair. Leather was optional and likely to be ripped or rotten. Retrimming in velour makes more sense. Carpet sets are available new and most of the interior plastics can still be found second-hand.