Automotive History: Australian Auto Family Trees – The Holden Commodore From A-Z VB-VF.

2008 HOLDEN Commodore 30th Anniversary, VE sedan, wagon, ute.VE Holden Commodores celebrate the Commodore’s 1978-2008 anniversary.

Greetings Curbside Classicists, today, April 25th, is Anzac Day downunder, the official Australian and New Zealand day of remembrance of those who served and died for their country. As with many Kiwis and Aussies, my Grandfather fought and was injured in WWII, notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino.  So given today’s strong sense of Australasian pride, let’s celebrate with some Aussie metal of the vehicular variety.

Falc-Commie

Now, I’m not in the Wonderful World of Oz, but live across the ditch in Wonderfuller World of NZ, where virtually every Australian designed and/or built car has also been sold. Let’s face it, the Aussies might say ‘six’ really strangely, but we’re geographically close and watch each others’ TV soaps–and that’s when good neighbours become good friends. We also share a similar passion for large sex, sorry that was me slipping into Australianese, six and eight-cylinder cars–especially the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon, with honourable mentions to the 2005-current Chrysler 300 and the late Leyland P76 and Chrysler Valiant.

P76 ValP76 and Valitank. Author photos.

300C diesel

2006 Chrysler 300C Diesel wagon.

Aside from building some stonkingly great cars, the Australasian car market is distinguished by its unusual car model designation habit. Model series aren’t usually known by a year, ‘Series’ or ‘Mark’ (or ‘Johno’); rather, they’re identified by a 2-letter code–e.g. the current VF Holden Commodore (aka Chev SS) and FG Ford Falcon. The codes are generally arbitrary designations following a vaguely alphabetical order, and don’t usually stand for anything (although the FG Falcon commemorates the late Fairmont Ghia). The codes could represent a new generation, a major update, or a minor change–on one occasion the sole visual change was a new bonnet emblem.

Commodore badge

We’ll forage into the Falcon/P76/Valiants another day, but for now, let’s take a gander at the Commodore. What got me thinking about them was seeing two workmates’ 2001 VX and 2003 VY Commodores parked together at work. I planned to post an outtake of them, but my photos were spectacularly craptastic (and feature further down as evidence), and a VB-VF Commodore Family Tree seemed a more interesting option for the folks here at CC. This article relates primarily to the code-sharing Commodore sedan and wagon (and ute when available). The related coupe (Monaro) and LWB (Statesman/Caprice) derivatives are grafted trees in their own right and will be looked at another time–otherwise the Commodore Family Tree would be a forest!

HOLDEN Commodore logos VB-VF

The current VF Commodore is the latest and probably last (which is surely a GM Deadly Sin!) in four generations that began with 1978’s VB. Ultimately, the Commodore family tree has grown its way through four generations comprising 18 branches–(20 if you count the two ute-only designations of the concurrent sedan):

  • Gen1 = VB, VC, VH, VK, VL
  • Gen2 = VN, VG (VN ute), VP, VQ, VR, VS
  • Gen3 = VT, VU (VT ute), VX, VY, VZ
  • Gen4 = VE, VF.

Of the missing letter combinations, some were skipped due to unfortunate connotations (“Yeah Bruce, I just went down to me ‘olden dealer and picked up a VD”) or being more closely associated with another manufacturer (“Hey Wayne-o, check out my new VW Commodore!”).

VB Holden Commodore

Holden’s two-letter-designation Commodore story begins in October 1978, when the VB Commodore replaced the much larger HZ Kingswood as Holden’s mainstream family car. As has been mentioned here on CC previously, the VB was basically an Opel Reckord ‘E’ body with an Opel Senator ‘A’ front end–albeit heavily re-engineered for added strength after one of the original three prototypes broke in half at the firewall. I don’t know about y’all, but I hate it when that happens! To save time and space, well leave most model-specific details for model-specific CCs another time.

VC Holden Commodore SL.E with ShadowtoneVC Holden Commodore SL/E with Shadowtone paint

March 1980 saw the VB become the VC.  The update centred around engine upgrades, with a minor visual update of a new grille–the Holden badge dropped from the top-centre to dead-centre.

1981 VH Holden Commodore V81981 VH Holden Commodore V8.  Author photo.

The VH rocked up in September 1981, featuring new panels ahead of the windscreen, and pointier lights front and rear. My late Uncle bought a top-spec VH, an SL/E V8, new in 1982; I remember being wowed by the deep-blue velour seats (the first I’d sat on) and the Shadowtone exterior paint (dark blue over silver, similar to the VC pic). To eight-year-old me, the VH SL/E seemed awfully glamorous in what were dark economic times for New Zealand. Despite tough times though, Holden offered an NZ-only version of the Commodore, the Royale. It was basically the best spec mated with the worst engine (the horrendous BackStarfire four cylinder).

1985 VK HOLDEN Commodore SS Group A; a genuine HDT car.1985 VK Holden Commodore SS Group A; a genuine HDT car, #176 of 500.

Because the Commodore was smaller than its Kingswood predecessor, it was also smaller than its main competitor, Ford’s Falcon, which swept to market leadership in 1982. In an effort to make the Commodore appear bigger and more competitive with the Falcon, the VH was replaced by the extra-windowed VK in February 1984. I think the VK has the best-looking exterior of the gen1 Commodore variants, but the new interior was marred by ugly square instruments–although at least it didn’t have a square steering wheel! There were also new trim level names–including Executive, Berlina and Calais, in order of increasing opulence/decreasing crapulence. As with the VH, there was also an NZ-only VK Royale with Calais trim and MisStarfire four.

1987 VL HOLDEN Commodore (top), 1988 VL HOLDEN Calais front end (bottom)1987 VL Holden Commodore (top), 1988 VL Holden Commodore with Calais front clip (bottom).

Since the VK was a major update, it was a surprise when so too was its VL replacement in February 1986. The VL had a completely new front end design (with semi-hidden headlights on the Calais), a new tail and a revised dashboard (hoo-roo ugly square instruments). An even more major change was under the bonnet where Holden’s seriously outmoded straight-sixes were replaced by imported straight-six Nissan RB engines–in NZ, the Royale finally dropped the B-movie-“Star”fire four in favour of Nissan’s RB20 six. The engines were enormous improvements, but the VLs I’ve driven felt cheaper–especially the dashboard–compared with the VB-VH.

1991 VN HOLDEN Commodore1991 VN Holden Commodore. Remember when 14″ alloy wheels were cool? Author photo.

August 1988 saw the VL roll over and play dead, replaced by the first of the gen2 Commodores, the VN. For reasons known only to GM, the VN ute leapt backwards in the alphabet and was designated the VG. The VN continued the Commodore’s heritage of mashing up Opel body parts, but Nissan’s smooth straight-six was replaced by the ubiquitous but coarse Buick 3800 V6. In NZ, the VN Royale Berlina dropped the Nissan six, along with smoothness and performance, for GM’s Family II four.

1997 OPEL Senator 'B'1987 Opel Senator ‘B’

Although the VN represented quite a visual change in Australia, it was less so in NZ, as the VN’s panel-donor, the Opel Senator ‘B’, was sold new here in 1987 (we got RHD Opel Astras, Mantas and Senators new in the mid-80s and no, I don’t know why). A classmate’s parents bought a Senator new in ’87, and it was a very nice car. Opel withdrew from the NZ market around the time of the ’87 share market crash though, so in late ’88 Holden was able to pretend that the Senator never existed and that the VN’s styling was all new–(*ring-ring* “Hello?…Opel who? Sorry, don’t know them; would you like to buy a Commodore?”).

1992 VP HOLDEN Berlina1992 VP Holden Berlina with Freddie Mercury-style grille

Nearly three years after the VN, September 1991 brought the VP Commodore–the VG ute became a VP like its more-doored siblings.  The VP Joe Biden Commodore was a relatively minor facelift of the VN, notably featuring a Mercuryesque (Sable, not Freddie) clear plastic grille on the base models. The NZ-only Royale abdicated for the time being.

1995 VS HOLDEN Berlina sedan and Acclaim wagon1995 VS Holden Berlina sedan and Acclaim wagon. Author photos.

A major update was July 1993’s VR Commodore, which finally got rid of the ugly Opel Omega-based flat-top rear wheel-arch (on the sedans at least). The natural successor to the VR was April 1995’s VS. The left Commie above is a VR, the right one’s a VS. No, hang on, I just checked their VINs, they’re both VRs. Embarrassingly, I can’t tell a VR from a VS! In my defence, the exterior changes were limited to a redesigned bonnet emblem and different wheels…

1998_Holden_VS_II_Commodore_Royale_sedan_011998 VS Holden Royale with Opel 2.5 V6. Although lacking power, it wasn’t completely ‘opeless…

There were two versions of the VR and VS Commodores that were easily identified though. Holden imported Opel engines (2.6 litre straight-six in the VR and 2.5 litre V6 in the VS) and fitted their own LWB Holden Caprice front clip, to export the resulting Frankenholden to Malaysia and Singapore as the Opel Calais.  Following a cancelled export order, the VS Opel Calais was sold new in New Zealand by my local Holden dealer as the VS Holden Royale. I’ve also seen a few of the VR straight-six models here too.

Well, we’re two generations and 10 descendants down and several to go, how are y’all holden together? Sorry, bad pun I know, but not nearly as bad as the local radio station competition wherein the prize was a “Commodore”. The winner turned up for their prize and was not impressed to be presented with the driver’s door of a 1975 Commer van, much like the one below:

1975 COMMER 2500 van orange fr1975 Commer door still attached to Commer van. Author Photo.

Anyway, that was a minor knot halfway down the Commodore family tree, so let’s swap Commer doors for Commodores.

1999 VT HOLDEN Calais1999 VT Holden Calais. Author photo.

The first gen3 Commodore, the VT from September 1997, continued to share a lot with Opel. A major visual change over the preceding Commodores was the deletion of the C-pillar window. This meant that Holden could visually differentiate the Commodore’s upmarket LWB Statesman/Caprice derivatives by giving them the extra side window instead. Ford Australia used the same technique to distinguish its upmarket Fairlane/LTD from the Falcon.

holdenbuick3.8v6

ol’ faithful, the Buick 3800 V6.

Aside from the still-present and still-coarse Buick V6, the VT marked the first time a Commodore didn’t feel like it had been designed and built on a shoestring. It felt like a car that could be enjoyed the world over, and it was! Engineered in left- and right-hand-drive forms, the VT was sold in a number of international markets as a Chevrolet. In Northern America, the Commodore coupe (Monaro) was sold as the Pontiac GTO; in England, the Monaro was a Vauxhall. In fact, the VT Commodore, rather than its Opel Omega cousin, would likely have made a better base for the concurrent Cadillac Catera.

VX and VY Commodore sedansMy workmates’ VX (L) and VY (R) Commodores; also a photo-bombing Explorer. And no, we don’t all drive green vehicles! Author’s aforementioned crappy photo.

Given the massive investment in the VT, October 2000’s VX was a fairly minor update, largely involving new lights front and rear. The Holden Ute division missed the memo about skipping from VT to VX, and accidentally designated the ute VU. “C’mon up to Holden, the VU’s great from here” wasn’t the advertising slogan.

My workmates’ VY (L) and VX (R) Commodores. Explorer still keen to get in the pic. Author’s second crappy photo.

The VY Commodore of September 2002 also saw new panels and lights front and rear, accompanied by a new interior, giving a sharper-edged look inside and out.  In a truly international move, the VY took full advantage of GM’s ownership of Saab and featured Saab’s very stylish swiveling cupholders.

Commodore pimpleVY Headlight pimple

One unique feature of some VY variants is a small parking light hanging off the bottom edge of the headlights like a pimple. I like that feature a lot.

2005 VZ HOLDEN Adventra LX82005 VZ Holden Adventra LX8

Sadly the parking light pimple was squeezed out for August 2004’s VZ Commodore. Also squeezed out, finally, was the Buick 3800 V6, replaced by GM’s Alloytec 3.6 litre V6. Chevrolet’s 235kW/315hp LS1 V8 was available too–one such LS1 powers my sister and BIL’s VZ Commodore SS. Their VZ is a very nice place to be, and with the V8 is a great drive! I could spend hours playing with the Saab cupholders too. As with all Commodores since the VB, the VZ’s boot release remained where Opel originally stuck it, in the glovebox–a quirk that can be either useful or annoying, depending on how you look at it.

The VZ Commodore marked the last time that a Royale version would be built for and sold in New Zealand. Kiwi songstress Lorde sang about this recently: “And you’ll never see Royales (Royales), they don’t run in our blood, that kind of luxe just ain’t for us…”

2012 VE HOLDEN Omega2012 VE Holden Omega with factory option pack #911 that comprises sporty stripes and lights. Author photo.

The VZ was the final Opel-based Commodore, as July 2006 saw the all-new, all-Holden gen4 VE Commodore appear proudly on stage. After years of rehashing Opel panels and design cues, Holden’s stylists finally got the opportunity to do their own thing, and what a thing it turned out to be! I’m unabashedly a Falcon fan, but strewth me ol’ cobbers and sheilas, the VE’s a bonzer looker inside and out, mate! It makes me feel proud of what the Australians have achieved! As with gen3, the VE was engineered in left- and right-hand-drive form and sold in various markets as a Pontiac, Vauxhall and Chevrolet. The VE was so well-received, and/or so expensive to develop, that it remained on sale largely unchanged for seven years (crikey!), not being replaced until June last year (2013) with the VF Commodore.

2014 HOLDEN Calais wagon.2014 Holden Calais wagon

The VF retained the VE centre-section, but received all-new front and rear ends (sedan-only for the rear), and a nice new interior. After 35 years of the power window controls cluttering up the centre console à la Opel, Holden finally moved them to the driver’s door. Angels sang and the people rejoiced! I don’t think the VF has quite the design purity of the VE, but this 16th Commodore is overall the best yet. Sad then that after 36 years of Australian Commodores, GM is following Ford and ending all Australian production by 2017 (as is Toyota). This news caused huge consternation, as although demand for a large RWD family sedan isn’t what it once was, GM’s international portfolio doesn’t contain anything enthusiasts deem worthy of replacing the Commodore. It seems ironic that in three years’ time, neither Ford nor Holden will be marketing large RWD sedans in Australasia, yet Hyundai and Kia will… How the market reverses over time!

Screenshot 2014-04-24 21.42.50

But until that day arrives, let’s celebrate the Holden Commodore VB-VF Family Tree.  The evolution that occurred among the 18 branches of the tree culminates in today’s VF. The Commodore tree may be dying, but what a way to go–saving the best bloom ’til last.