Laying it all on the table

Wheels wines and dines the architects of Commodore’s glory days as Holden prepares for an import-only future


HOLDEN is nervous. What could possibly come out of a lunch dedicated to a bunch of ex-Holden blokes re-running all those old Commodore movies on the insides of their eyelids and telling stories that should not be told, while also exploring the future of the company post-2017, when ‘Australia’s Own’ Commodore dies? What indeed? Anxious? In Holden’s shoes, I would be too.

This lunch, months in the planning, involves five senior but now retired Holden operatives, plus current managing director Mark Bernhard and Mike Simcoe, design vice-president of GM International and father of the VE Commodore. Sean Poppitt, once a Wheels staffer and now Holden’s director of communications, is there to wave the big stick if things go communications, is there to wave the big stick if things go too far. As they inevitably will.

My task is to prevent lunch – and therefore this story – becoming merely a wake to Commodore, as if Holden was exiting Australia. Tell the disbelievers: Holden stays, with 24 new models to launch between now and 2020, including an all-new Opel Insignia-badged Commodore.

The challenge, recognised by everybody in the room, is to keep sales of the last designed-for-Australia Commodore – the best car Holden has ever built – healthy, while also transitioning to a broader range of imported models. The (initially) unsaid question: How do you move Holden from a brand imagined as the quintessential Australian car to a new positioning that takes advantage of its residual strength, strong dealer network and the ability to draw on GM’s cars from disparate sources in Europe, Asia and America? Do you position it as a rival for Mazda and Hyundai? Or something else?

To give the conversation a consistent chronology of purpose, we start at the beginning. Why Commodore?

In the turbulent mid-1970s, having rejected the WA reskin of the HQ, Holden vacillated about its next model and it was left to Alex Cunningham, the boss of GM’s international division, to make the decision: Fishermans Bend would take Opel’s V-car and engineer the new VB Commodore for Australia’s tough local conditions.

Long-time communications director John Morrison, his genial nature concealing an astute brain, explains: “Remember it was a time of great upheaval in the car industry. The energy crisis, high levels of industrial unrest

Holden: The future

WHAT did we learn of Holden’s plans for the 24 new models due by 2020?

Most important is the new Commodore, engineered in Germany and powered by either a V6 or turbocharged four. It’s been engineered from the ground up in right-hand drive for local launch in late 2017, with performance versions in twin-turbo/all-wheel-drive form.

Holden will be able to choose from sedan, hatchback and wagon body styles. However, nothing in GM’s global range provides a long-wheelbase Caprice replacement or a passenger car-derived ute.

The next-generation Cruze, an import from Korea, comes as a sedan only, leaving the hatchback segment to the new Astra that’s expected here late next year. A wagon version of either? Our money’s on the Astra providing both a wagon and a coupe.

and union power, restructuring of Holden plants, the rise of consumerism, the rise of safety as a political and emotional issue.”

Leo Pruneau, a take-no-prisoners design enthusiast and former Holden design boss: “The board was split; half wanted the HQ to continue, the others argued for something much more modern. We cliniced the VB at the Melbourne Showgrounds; city people loved it, but country people thought it was too zoomy with the downward-angled hood. So we raised the grille badge and added a heavy chrome header bar above the grille.”

Ross McKenzie, Holden’s determined marketing boss during the glory days of the VT: “We were too nimble in responding to the energy crisis. The VB sat between the Torana and HZ, and clinics clearly showed us we had a problem with size. In those days, size equalled price and the bigger HZ was the same price [as the Commodore]. Ford lucked out with the Falcon; they couldn’t afford an all-new car, so when the market shifted back to bigger cars the Falcon worked.”

Buyers wanted improved efficiency and the VB, initially a smash hit, arrived with carryover engines.

“We had no money for new engines,” admits Tony Hyde, former director of engineering. “The VB wasn’t light enough to make a difference [to economy].”

In face of the second energy crisis, Holden MD Chuck Chapman wanted a four-cylinder engine, says McKenzie. But instead of taking Opel’s four, Holden slotted the unloved Starfire engine – four cylinders of Holden’s ageing six, introduced in the UC Torana in 1978 – into the VC.

“The ‘Misfire’ absolutely reinforced the perception that the Commodore was a small car,” argues McKenzie.

“The Falcon took all the fleet business. No weight was taken out of the car, economy was terrible, performance was terrible. It was a sad thing.”

The decision to adopt the upmarket Opel Senator’s six-window styling with VK helped change the size perception. “The planning guys wanted to retain the four-window and add six windows [for the high-end models],” says McKenzie. “I said, ‘Let’s just go with the six-window look’… it made the car look bigger. We beefed it up, added equipment and things started to go better.”

Pruneau: “Opel used a different roof panel, back light [window] and bootlid for the Senator; we just changed the C-pillar for the same result. Opel was so impressed they sent a body engineer to see how we did it.”

VL and the coming of unleaded petrol controversially saw the end of the local six-cylinder engine. When Holden signed the deal to import Nissan’s new 3.0-litre overhead-cam six, the Australian dollar was worth 240 yen. Six months after production began, the dollar was down to 110 yen. The turbo version enhanced the perception that Commodore was adding performance to its image as a fine handler. So good was the turbo that senior management wanted to kill the V8. A motoring magazine campaign called V8s ’Til ’98 – led by Wheels and Street Machine – saved the bent-eight.

The all-new VN in 1988 gave Holden the opportunity it craved: turning Commodore into a full-sized car.

With 1520mm shoulder room across the back seat,

“We clearly had a problem with size” – Ross McKenzie

The guests

Mark Bernhard

Current title: Chairman and managing director, GM Holden Years of service: 30 (1986 to current) Favourite Commodore: VL (“Launched the year I joined Holden”) What makes you most proud about Commodore?

“The nameplate is part of our history; everyone has a Commodore story. Although I spent 15 of the last 20 years overseas, I always felt I was home when I sat behind the wheel of a Commodore.”

Tony Hyde

Last title: Executive director, engineering (and HSV director) Years of service: 39 (1968 to retirement in 2007) Favourite Commodore: “VE/WM because it was a 100 percent Australian design, which we were allegedly not capable of doing.”

What makes you most proud about Commodore?

“This nameplate gave job opportunities to so many young engineers and allowed them (and the older ones) to display their talents on the GM world stage.”

Drives: VF Commodore SS-V Redline manual

John Morrison

Last title: Director of public relations Years of service: 41 (1967 to retirement in 2008) Favourite Commodore model: “The VB that started it all.”

What makes you most proud about Commodore?

“Again VB. It was a time of great energy and excitement, with an unmatched feeling of being a part of a close-knit team. I put it down to Chuck Chapman; his leadership style, sense of humour and faith in the team around him.”

Drives: Holden Frontera (farm car)

Ross McKenzie

Last title: Executive director, sales, marketing and aftersales Years of service: 33 (1973 to retirment in 2006) Favourite Commodore: VT (“A perfect car at the time. Right design, right size, right power, right models, right price. A real winner.”)

What makes you most proud about Commodore?

“Achieving 10 straight years as Australia’s top-selling car from 1996 to 2005.”

Drives: VF Calais V V8

Leo Pruneau

Last title: Director of design Years of service: 27 (GM, 1961-69; Holden, 1969 to retirement in 1988) Favourite Commodore: VK Calais What makes you most proud about Commodore?

“That we made a better product of it than Opel did.”

Drives: JE Camira SL/E manual wagon

Colin Sichlau

Last title: Engineering Group manager, vehicle dynamics Years of service: 33 (1975 to retirement in 2008) Favourite Commodore: VR SS What makes you most proud about Commodore?

“The vehicle dynamics.”

Drives: VE II Commodore SS V8 manual

Michael Simcoe

Title: Vice-president of design, GM International Years of service: 32 (1983 to current) Favourite Commodore: VE (“The only high-volume car conceived, designed and manufactured in Australia by Australians.”)

What makes you most proud about Commodore?

“Commodores led the market for so long, allowed some very talented people to demonstrate their creativity, and got GM to notice Holden.”

“The GTO should have been a Chevy” – Michael Simcoe

Commodore finally matched the Falcon. But not everybody was happy.

“VN was the ugliest car we ever did,” Simcoe interrupts. “We compromised everything to make that car. The only consideration was the package and price.

It was overbodied because of the manic desire to create a big car… I can say that because I was involved.”

“We couldn’t change the front suspension,” explains chassis guru Colin Sichlau.

“We were told, ‘You can’t change this and you can’t change that’,” adds Hyde. “That bloody steering wheel with a 10-foot diameter…” “But Tony, you didn’t have to put the wheels a foot inside the body,” an exasperated Simcoe responds.

“We were stuck with the track issue,” replies Hyde.

“For all that, it worked,” says the pragmatic McKenzie. “VN turned us around.”

Sichlau remembers: “The first VN prototypes were built with Nissan engines, but 18 months from production Chuck Chapman asked if we could use the Buick V6, purely on the basis of cost. With the dollar now at 110 yen, it was half the price of the Nissan.”

With profits flowing, Holden extended the range to include a long-wheelbase Statesman and developed a VN ute in just nine months.

Progressively through VP, VR and VT, the Commodore became more sophisticated and safer, with an increasing emphasis on the performance models (aided by the 5.7-litre V8), both internally and from HSV, the Tom Walkinshaw performance arm of Holden.

Fast-climbing sales brought huge profits – “We knew through UAAI [United Australian Automotive Industries, the unsuccessful joint-venture with Toyota] that the Camry cost $1000 more to make than VR,” says Hyde – and prepared Holden for the VT, launched in 1997 and the most successful of all Commodores (peaking at 94,642 Australian sales in 1998).

The all-new VT was an instant hit, helped by the failure of Ford’s AU Falcon. Holden could do no wrong, expanding the Commodore range to include the Cross8, a four-door, all-wheel-drive ute, and Adventra, an all-wheel-drive version of the Commodore wagon.

Buick wanted a slice of Commodore and sent an engineering team to Australia to investigate. But the fuel tank located behind the rear axle ruled it out for America. Instead, Simcoe says, the planned Buick version became the Calais.

They solved the problem for the Pontiac GTO version of the Monaro coupe by moving the fuel tank into the boot behind the rear seat. “The GTO should have been a Chevy,” says Simcoe now. “The boot was compromised by the tank location and it had that horrible nose.”

With Opel and the Americans now producing only front-drive cars, by default Holden became the centre of GM’s rear-wheel-drive expertise. After rejecting Cadillac’s new Sigma architecture as too small and expensive for Holden, the VE, designed and engineered in Australia, was conceived at a time “when Holden was on top and at our peak”, according to McKenzie.

2018 mystery solved

AS THE market for traditional large family cars in Australia tumbled, Holden looked at alternatives to building the Commodore. On 22 March 2012, Holden CEO Mike Devereux announced that Holden would “build two all-new cars in Australia in the second half of this decade”.

The announcement stopped short of revealing the identity of the two models, only that “they will be underpinned by global architectures from within General Motors”. Until now, conventional wisdom suggested one was the second-generation Cruze, while the second remained a mystery.

Mike Simcoe confirmed the first was to be Cruze, and at lunch told Wheels the second model was to be the next Equinox/Captiva, GM’s mid-size SUV crossover, and not a Commodore replacement.

“Country people thought the VB was too zoomy” – Leo Pruneau

How Malcolm Turnbull kept Robbo out of jail

…and it’s still too painful to discuss 31 years later JUST weeks before he retired after more than a decade running Holden, Chuck Chapman probed me: “You can tell me now, who gave you the information?”

“I was prepared to go to jail rather than tell anybody,” I said.

“And we were prepared to send you,” Chapman replied laughing, though we both knew he was serious. “We had a contractual arrangement with Nissan. I felt we had to stop the leak to uphold our side of the deal.”

Four years after Holden successfully prevented Wheels from publishing detailed information on the performance and specifications of the still-secret Nissan-powered Commodore, the subject was too sensitive to pursue.

It still is. We deftly skirted around the topic over lunch a further 27 years later.

I still have the Supreme Court of NSW documents, dated 27 June 1984. General Motors Holden Limited is the first plaintiff, Nissan Motor Company Limited the second.

The defendant is named as Peter Robinson. For various legal and personal reasons there are still elements of the story, which eventually gagged all Australia’s newspapers, which I’m not prepared to discuss.

In 1983 Holden, facing a financial crisis and without the funds to develop a new engine to meet the 1986 lead-free fuel requirement, scoured the world looking for a replacement for the ageing red motor that dated back to 1963. Through an intermediary, I developed a contact inside the Lang Lang

“With VE were able to fix every problem we had; we got rid of the semi-trailing arm IRS and got a proper independent rear suspension,” says Hyde.

“VE was a flexible architecture, a ground-up program,” says Simcoe, reaching across the table for his briefcase, “but it was expensive and Holden didn’t have the money to do all the models [we planned]. I’ve brought some photographs.”

Casually, as if he’s unaware of the impact on the audience, Simcoe hands around photographs of a proposed new-generation Monaro coupe and a ute proposal that borrowed the coupe’s longer doors. But we can’t show you the Chevrolet and Pontiac versions, or the Buick Statesman. Or the architecture-flexibility chart that includes various ‘high-cowl’ models.

Finally, after deciding that the car you would now store in a barn is an SS-V Redline ute – “There’s nothing like it anywhere else,” chorus the group – we turn our focus on Holden’s future.

McKenzie, the master marketer, begins: “To fit the brand, the next Commodore needs to be the appropriate size, with genuine performance, great handling and the sophistication that traditional Holden buyers aspire to. The challenge is to decide on the brand identity and to get the stuff out at the right price point. The brand issue comes from Holden’s heritage, but Holden is no longer an Australian car company.

Somehow you have to capture the essence of that, then everything else falls into place.”

Bernhard, Holden’s first locally born boss in 25 years, having sat quietly absorbing tales from the past, says: “Shifting the brand was forced on the business [by the closure of Elizabeth]. We’ve got to take the portfolio and make it relevant and consistent as we cross over from VF – and we want to sell as many Commodores as we can – to the new product while making sure we’re selling a consistent message into the future.”

Of the 2018 Commodore, Simcoe for one is not nervous. Never given to hyperbole, the acclaimed designer discreetly says: “It’s a good car.”

proving ground who told me Holden was testing Commodores powered by two new Nissan sohc sixes: normally aspirated and turbocharged.

This was a significant story because it spelt the end of local production of Holden’s six-cylinder engine, and we planned to run it over four pages in Wheels July 1984.

At the time I also wrote a column for the Japanese magazine Car Graphic. What I didn’t know was that Car Graphic published two weeks before Wheels. The day after CG published with my column detailing the Nissan-Holden tie-up, I was woken at home by a call from Holden’s solicitors.

Because I refused to reveal my source, our company solicitor Malcolm Turnbull (yes, our current Prime Minister) told me the only way to prevent spending time in jail for contempt of court was to pull the story, and that’s what we did.

However, news of the Car Graphic column leaked to the Australian media, first appearing in The Financial Review. Holden was then forced to injunction all the major publishing houses to prevent them printing details of the engine. The cases were settled on 29 October 1984, with an agreement not to publish power and torque figures.

The VL Commodore duly arrived in early 1986 to TV advertising that proclaimed: “That’s world-class engineering from Holden.” To which Nissan responded: “Nissan know-how gives Holden Commodore a world-class engine.”