VL 1986 – 1988

THE REVITALISED LION WITH A SAMURAI HEART

NATHAN PONCHARD

WHILE the excellence of the original VB Commodore as a driver’s car and a slice of modern design was undisputed, there were indeed doubters. By the mid-1980s, Falcon was Australia’s sales king and Holden was deeply in the red – not just in financial terms but also with Commodore’s ancient ‘red’ six.

Without the funds to comprehensively re-engineer its once-proud 22-year-old engine for unleaded petrol, Holden instead turned to Japan. It adopted Nissan’s alloy-headed ohc 3.0-litre straight-six also destined for the R31 Skyline, and thereby thrust the ageing Commodore straight to modernity.

Even in base form, the RB30 six punched out 114kW and 247Nm, an easy match for the fuelinjected y injected 3.3-litre red six’s 106kW/266Nm. But the Japanese engine wasn’t just about numbers.

Mated to either a five-speed manual or Nissan’s slick electronically controlled four-speed auto, the VL’s drivetrain was likened to a cut-price BMW, thanks to its ability and willingness to rev.

The numbers spoke for themselves – 0-100km/h in 8.6sec, the standing 400m in 16.3sec and a top speed beyond 200km/h. The VL Commodore instantly became the private buyer’s car of choice, even though the fleets stuck with the larger Falcon.

Then, six months later, all hell broke loose when Holden launched a 150kW/296Nm turbocharged version. Wheels August ’86 ran a speedo shot of the VL Turbo on the cover, the needle ‘off the clock’, which is exactly what the cover lines said. At that very moment, an Aussie cult car was born.

The carby-fed unleaded V8 followed two months later, but all the attention was focused on the VL’s turbo six. For years the six-pack VL’s resale values soared far beyond the models that replaced them, and today you’ll pay alarming money for an unmolested manual VL Calais Turbo. In comparison, its successor – the fuelinjected VN Calais V8 – isn’t worth the haircut its headlining fell in on.

Of course, VL came at the end of Generation One’s life, and was far from perfect. Its brittle plastic dash and ‘techy’ instruments seemed cheap even then, its air-conditioning system never quite coped with Aussie heat, and the locally stamped heads of the 1987-88 cars reportedly lacked the precision fit of the Japanese-made examples on 1986 VL Series 1s.

But its reputation was sealed. Near-perfectly sized, elegantly styled and smoothly proficient, for nearly 30 years the VL has proudly shone as Holden’s finest end-of-line model. Until 2015’s VF Series II V8, that is.