Crossing the Lion

words - Joe Kenwright
Reworking an ordinary Opel into the race-winning, best-selling Commodore showcased Holden talent worldwide. Although it ultimately earned Holden the right to build its own VE Commodore, Joe Kenwright finds it could just as easily have killed Holden

For the Australian public, the VE Commodore has its origins in a strange black and white insert that was poked into the Wheels, October 1977 issue after it was printed. It featured a special report from Mel Nichols in Europe that was so red hot that then-Editor, Peter Robinson decided not to hold it back until the next issue.

This report defied belief when it suggested that Holden's next Kingswood would be based on a small Opel that started as a 1.7-litre four. Even Wheels struggled with the concept and hedged its bets by suggesting there could be two versions: a standard wheelbase four with live axle and a long wheelbase Senator with independent rear suspension that would host Holden's six-cylinder and V8 engines.

The featured Opel Rekord looked tidy enough for a basic four-cylinder model that was barely a half step-up from a Cortina but in no way did it look like a Falcon or Kingswood challenger. This was when the XC Falcon was not yet a year old and the HZ Kingswood with Radial Tuned Suspension was enjoying a second wind.

As time went on, this amazing Wheels report proved chillingly accurate. A neat specifications table comparing the current Torana and Kingswood revealed the real story.

The new Opel Rekord central to the Wheels report shared the same 2668mm/105inch wheelbase as the EH Holden and the Chrysler AP5 Valiant which were both icon Aussie family cars in 1963. The current Kingswood ran a 2819mm/111inch wheelbase after Holden was forced to match the 1966 Ford XR Falcon.

The LX Torana was pegged to a 2586mm/101.8inch wheelbase after Holden was forced to surrender to Detroit demands to shorten it or risk having the previous Opel Rekord forced onto it. The reason why Holden happily sabotaged its own Torana in 1974 to avoid having to rework an existing Opel Rekord would soon become expensively obvious.

Buried in that same table was the fact that the Rekord was barely wider than the Torana. This made it a full 160mm skinnier than the Kingswood. Although it was bigger than the Torana in most other dimensions (not by enough to make a big difference), the Rekord was significantly lighter. To any informed Australian in those days, that meant weaker.

After Holden carefully avoided a lightweight European option for its LH Torana medium car in 1974, the short story was that four years later Holden was forced to stake its whole family car future on the Opel Rekord, not the Senator. Holden would not get an opportunity to fully address the width and strength issues until the 1997 VT series and even then, the compromises were not eradicated until the VXII in 2001 just prior to the Monaro release.

Any Australian who has been forced to complete or adapt someone else's work that could never fully do the job, would now have an understanding of why the VE Commodore is such a huge relief and morale booster to everyone associated with Holden. Holden has released an official Commodore history to mark the VE release but this is what really happened:

1978 Holden VB Commodore Holden quickly found that the Opel Rekord would break in half when confronted with long-distance cruising over Australian roads and heavier Holden engines. Holden had to rework the entire car for local conditions, a process that quickly exceeded the budget that had been rejected by Detroit for Holden to re-engineer the Kingswood via a weight-saving process similar to the XD Falcon.

During VB development, Holden added rack and pinion steering, developed a radically new 'wet strut' that wouldn't fade, extended the nose and capped it with a Holden-style grille. It was left with the basic Opel four-cylinder rear suspension design, light rear end construction and shorter wheelbase even for its top V8 models. However, Holden was able to retain then improve on the Rekord's benchmark ride and handling balance and set new standards of toughness and refinement for a compact car regardless of budget.

No single model before or since had such an impact on the Australian market when it changed expectations in styling, dynamics and comfort. It also changed Holden's relationship with local suppliers in line with Japanese and European trends when they had to become experts in their own field and could no longer depend on factory development for every component.

Reworking the Rekord caused such a huge budget blowout, there was no money left to replace Holden's 1963 red engines, now burdened with fuel and power-sapping emissions controls. The prime reason for switching to the smaller car was negated when fuel consumption was the same or worse than earlier Kingswoods.

There was also no money left for new commercials, Statesman or a wagon. In a desperate move, Holden was later forced to import the back half of the Rekord wagon and mate it to the Commodore front in a similar process to the Gemini wagon. The different keys for the ignition and the tailgate confirmed the different origins of the two halves.

The VB Commodore's competition launch was the Repco Round Australia Trial, an event that the Commodore blitzed with a 1-2-3 finish. As the European Cortinas entered in the event fell apart just like the original Opel Rekord did during development, this event was critical in confirming that Holden had done the job properly. VB sales topped 95,906 at a time when the Torana and Kingswood were still selling.

1980 VC Commodore As Ford released a much lighter XD Falcon with a more efficient cross-flow head, Australians could now buy a Kingswood-sized family car that used less petrol than the Commodore. It was the start of a downhill slide for Holden that would soon cost it sales leadership for the first time in 30 years.

Holden quickly reworked the red engine into the blue engine to find extra power and economy. While it succeeded in the short term, the extra plumbing and plastic engine components would later undermine the reliability that the VB had established from the start. After Holden chopped two cylinders from its six, the VC Commodore was given a 1.9-litre four which was not efficient enough to make a difference.

As the Kingswood and Torana were phased out and Chrysler's last Australian Valiant was sold, sales temporarily soared to 121,807. A new breed of locally-built Japanese cars and an alloy head XD Falcon upgrade were dark clouds on the horizon.

1981-84 VH Commodore Even though the VH Commodore was the best series thus far, it highlighted the slump. Its sales tally of 141,018 took a full year longer than the VC after Ford fitted a more sophisticated rear suspension to the XE Falcon and made further fuel economy gains. The Mitsubishi Sigma, Toyota Corona and Mazda 626/Ford Telstar twins then matched the Commodore's four-and-a-half seating capacity with lower purchase prices, better fuel consumption and equivalent performance.

Holden was forced to retaliate with the Camira J-car, an award-winning model that ate into Commodore sales as much as rivals when it offered similar cabin space, styling and sophistication at a lower price with big fuel savings. It was on the VH's watch that the unthinkable happened: Holden surrendered market leadership as taxi operators, rental companies, families, police and fleets were forced to shop elsewhere.

1984-86 VK Commodore A clever local upgrade that took the VK Commodore further away from its Opel Rekord origins and made it look bigger revived interest as it posted 135,705 sales. What these figures don't show was the loss of the WB commercials and Statesman and the Camira's early quality problems, which the VK Commodore could not cover. A cleverly widened Mitsubishi Magna straddled the Camira and Commodore market then made huge inroads during 1985. The popular Gemini was also in trouble after several new Ford Laser models pushed it back a full generation.

New lean burn and spark control technology coaxed extra power and economy from the VK's 21 year old engines only to cause premature engine failures later on. Holden was now on the ropes and would have been forced to close if it wasn't for a Detroit rescue package. There was nothing in the kitty to rework the six-cylinder engines for 1986 unleaded fuel requirements so the VK was the last Holden with an engine totally manufactured in Australia.

The only VK high point was several sensational victories in global Group A racing and a commitment to keep the V8 engine alive that would help the Commodore maintain dominance on the race track and a later revival in the showroom.

1986-88 VL Commodore As Holden shut down factories around Australia and consolidated its operations at Elizabeth, South Australia, Holden bought another short term reprieve by installing the benchmark 3.0-litre Nissan Skyline six. This was such an explosive development that astute journalists who stumbled on it prior to the VL launch were slapped with legal injunctions and gagged.
A masterful styling upgrade by local designers transformed the appearance to make the VL look even larger. With no Statesman, the VL Calais was given its own sophisticated look. Plans to offer a six-seater bench seat option were shelved at the last minute. A 2.0-litre Nissan six was offered in several export markets including New Zealand. Several VL Group A models upped the ante after the V8 was reworked for unleaded fuel.

A unique Turbo version of the Nissan six was launched later, a first for a local performance car. The VL is a key Holden icon when it marked the turning point in Holden fortunes and saved the local company. It also demonstrated to the GM hierarchy that if Australians were left to their own devices they could design and build a winner as sales recovered to 151,801.

1988-91 VN Commodore Holden finally got the green light to go back to a full size family car except there was no money for an all-Australian solution. The VN drew on the next generation Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton panels but like the 1965 HD Holden it was a cheap body stretch job over the old Commodore platform. Outrigger sections supported extra body width disguised by a wider live rear axle. Clever styling tapered the nose almost to a point to hide the narrow front end from the old model. Major economic changes in Australia blew out the cost of the imported Nissan engine forcing Holden to hastily adapt a US front drive Buick V6 to rear drive. 

By any objective criteria, it was a creaky, loose body with a harsh, undeveloped powertrain, hair trigger throttle response and light rear end that would not have been tolerated in today's open market. Opel's sophisticated new front end and heavily revised control link IRS were nowhere to be seen. The slick Opel dash also went as Holden was forced to design a cheaper and wider dash attached to the firewall then glued in as a module to cut costs. Although the VN underwent at least three engineering upgrades, it never reached VL refinement levels yet new build processes dramatically improved build quality.

In the Australian context, Ford's new EA Falcon was even worse and the first Mitsubishi Magna began falling apart in several key areas. Once the VN Commodore body loosened up, it didn't get any worse and posted astonishing distances with class-leading fuel economy. An export version with a 2.0-litre Camira engine was produced. A hugely improved EFI V8 drove a strong enthusiast market and forced Ford to follow. Sales rocketed to 215,180 and Holden was out of the woods. The VN later led to a stretched Statesman version and the first Commodore ute based on a cut-down wagon platform.

1991-1993 VP Commodore The VP consolidated VN improvements and added Opel's old IRS to certain top models. While it added extra grip and ride compliance, it was missing the adjustment and toe control links of the latest Opel design after Holden simply added longer drive shafts to span the extra width to reach Opel semi-trailing arms. Sales leveled at 111,949 as an advanced new Magna and a much improved EB Falcon were launched. The poor crash safety of the stretched VN/VP body shell and its EA Falcon rival was starting to raise eyebrows. Holden linked up with a major Australian university to become a world pioneer in crash safety under Laurie Sparke.

1993-1995 VR Commodore Holden now had the cash to add Opel's latest wide track front end which transformed front end grip once early front tyre scrub was solved. Its new electronic auto was more efficient but not as reliable as the simpler auto it replaced. The big news was the outstanding new Acclaim safety model which offered ABS, driver's airbag and the VP's basic IRS just above entry level. The Acclaim clean-sheeted local awards except buyers ignored it opting for the basic Executive with the original 1977 Rekord rear suspension which was no match for the new front end. An intriguing export version that combined Commodore and Statesman parts powered by Opel's small sixes was developed by HSV. Sales were a healthy 165,262 after Holden beat Ford by more than a year with such a major upgrade.

1995-96 VS Commodore In preparation for the new VT series, Holden launched the ECOTEC V6 engine which brought extra power and fuel efficiency. Dual airbags were a local first. Early oil burning issues were sorted by the 1996 Series II which introduced a variation of the VT's improved seats and previewed the VT's Getrag five-speed manual option. The Executive continued with the 1977 Rekord rear end but its days were numbered. Sales went ballistic at 277,774.

1997-2000 VT Commodore With further Australian input, the VT was further removed from the 1994 Opel Omega on which it was based. Against the latest Magna's period 1987 BMW look and Ford's ageing EL Falcon, no one noticed its 1994 European origins when it featured a longer wheelbase, wider track and major styling departures. Holden worked hard at steering journalists away from making comparisons with the Opel.

The VT was a huge $600 million program originally intended to deliver a high volume left-hand drive export US model most likely badged as a Buick. Its engine bay was widened ready for a powerful new US small block V8. Before the program was complete, the US export component was withdrawn which left Holden with a bigger and costlier new Commodore without LHD export volumes to amortise the extra costs. Holden was then forced to cut costs at the last minute so it could retain critical safety upgrades, electric driver's seat and IRS at all levels.

One of the casualties was the control links of the later Opel rear suspension, the empty holes a mute testament to their last minute removal. Deleted side strips, laminated seat fabric and the loss of detailing around the front highlighted the cost pressures when compared to the Opel. Although the dash was a development of the VN's bonded firewall concept and not as high brow as the Opel Omega design, it was a huge step over bleak local competition.

Providing it was driven within 80 per cent of its capabilities, the VT gave everyday Australians access to refinement, economy, safety and performance of cars twice its price. Brakes, a traditional Commodore weak point, were also upgraded. It was an outstanding achievement at the price. Its launch coincided with tax and leasing changes that allowed company car drivers to choose their own car. They astutely decided that the VT was in a class of its own as sales rocketed to 303,895.

Holden worked around the clock to develop replacement export markets and found them in Brazil and the Middle East. Then Holden had a stroke of luck. Chevrolet withdrew its big car exports from the Middle East and handed them to Holden's new WH Statesman based on the VT. Watching the WH Statesman's 1999 launch intently was a man familiar to many Australians. German engineer Peter Hanenberger, Holden's Mr Radial Tuned Suspension in the 1970s, had just returned as Holden's new managing director.

2000-02 VX Commodore After Ford continued to shoot itself in the foot with the AU Falcon, Holden had become complacent when there was no real pressure to tamper with a winning formula. Peter Hanenberger thought otherwise and shut down the factory until recurring quality issues were fixed at the height of the Commodore's sales success. It was a bold move as it left Holden prepared when the new Monaro unexpectedly generated new export opportunities to the US.

Although nothing had changed significantly, VT drivers noticed that the VX was a quantum leap in overall integrity and refinement with extra safety and ABS across the board. The VX Series II in 2001 was a critical upgrade after Peter Hanenberger fast tracked the program to fit the rear control links from Opel's 1987 models to all Commodores and the VT's cheap switchgear was finally replaced with quality Opel-style  items. The VXII was the first Commodore in local history that had a suspension package commensurate with its powerful local engines and helped push sales to 207,339.

2002-04 VY Commodore Not everyone liked the VY restyle but Holden had no choice when the VT's 1994 Opel profile would soon have to share local and export showrooms with a sharp new Astra and Vectra. Engineering integrity, cabin design and features went up another notch as the milestone new BA Falcon overtook the Commodore in those key areas. The new look would also provide a transitional style to the VE which was now taking shape. Sales hit a 241,909 high for such a short period.

2004-06 VZ Commodore For the first time since 1986, an Australian-built six-cylinder engine returned to the Commodore. A revised bonnet profile heralded the new Alloytec V6 engine which would underpin the all new VE range but in typical Holden fashion, it would spend its first days in the last of the previous series. It was not greeted with universal praise after it was fed through the exhaust system of the previous ECOTEC engine. New autos and a six-speed manual for the Alloytec engines, stability control systems and upgraded brake electronics brought the ageing warhorse bang up-to-date for frequent best-seller status in its final days.

The big news was the last-minute launch of the L76 6.0-litre V8 engines at the start of the 2006 for some of the most exciting factory performance models ever from a local manufacturer.

Key VE Advances that Opel-based Commodores couldn't deliver...
• Previous European sedans were usually traditional three-box designs with separate cabin, boot and bonnet. Note that the HT, HG and HQ Kingswood sedans styled in Australia all featured fastback roof and bootlines similar to the Monaro coupe. Even Ford's local XW and XY Falcon upgrades featured a four-door version of the Mustang hardtop look with their extended rear pillars. The locally designed XA-XC Falcons then shared similar rooflines to the HQ Holden. The VE marks a return to the sleek four-door coupe styling and short bootline once preferred by Australians with proportions very similar to the outgoing VZ Monaro with its sweeping roofline and shorter tail section.

• All large Australian Holdens (except the Brougham!) had short overhangs, a feature shared with most Falcons and the Territory. European and US models tend to have long front and rear overhangs that can make them look cumbersome in the Australian context. The VE marks a return to Australian priorities with well-spaced wheels and minimal overhangs front and rear that cannot be replicated on a front-drive model. It is a look that only the best BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus models can now match.

• As Ford was for the BA Falcon, Holden was free for the first time to develop a proper multi-link rear suspension for the VE to match Australian road conditions and the full spectrum of powerful locally-specified engines.

• For the first time since 1977, Holden has been able to specify and develop its own front suspension and steering system for the full range of Australian road conditions.

• For the first time ever, Holden has been able to tailor a VE dash design for each level instead of relying on stick-on accents in a futile attempt to make the base dash look different. Only Ford has done this before with different AU Forte and Fairmont dashes which were dropped at BA.

• The VE is the first Holden ever not to have boot hinges that slice into the luggage.

• The VE is the first Holden since the first 1978 Commodore where Holden hasn't been forced to adapt an engine from another vehicle to a car that was never designed for it. Not only has the VE been designed around the new Alloytec V6 and L98 V8 engines but Holden now has the scope to fine tune its own Alloytec engines for the VE when they are now made here. This gives the V8 models a major advantage over the current Falcon. Holden also has the scope to fit different-sized Alloytec engines for different markets with minimal change and expense for a big advantage over local rivals if market conditions change.

• Instead of having to modify an existing design from a totally different market to make it fit a new size and price profile, Holden can now build the whole car to fit the price and market requirements. As the Australian large car moves from a one-size fits all mass market model to a specific lifestyle, prestige or work choice, Holden can now tailor the VE to fit each requirement with control over a greater number of parameters. This will also make the VE a far more formidable export competitor.

• The new Statesman is the first local long-wheelbase model in Australian history to feature an extended rear door. All other Statesman and Fairlane models have relied on a metal blank to hide the shorter rear door of lesser models which restricts access and compromises styling.  Most have also required fussy rear pillars to hide the stretch. The new Statesman also marks a return to the sporty Chevrolet Impala roofline that made it Holden's most popular locally assembled US model until it was replaced by the HQ Statesman in 1971. The Australian love-affair with the big Chevrolet Impalas is shared with vital Middle East markets. It also lifts the new Statesman's integrated look to the same level as long wheelbase BMW or Mercedes-Benz models.

• Because the Chrysler 300C is tied to its three-box Mercedes-Benz origins and the Fairlane still looks like a stretched Falcon with a vertical rear pillar, the sporty new Statesman has the potential to reverse the decline of this segment and regain ground lost to imports.

Joe Kenwright reveals how the new VE Commodore is different from any Holden before it in Part I: The Most Dinki-Di Holden

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Published : Saturday, 29 July 2006
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