Curbside Classic: Holden Camira – The Short-Lived Australian J-Car

Holden Camira wagon

In the rich history of the Australian automotive industry, few cars have offered so much hope–and have provided so much disappointment–as GM’s ill-fated Australian J-car adaptation, the Holden Camira. The first compact front-wheel-drive Holden, the Camira premiered in 1982 at the same time as its platform mates in the U.S. (Cavalier, etc.) and Europe. Where the Camira differed, however, was in its conservative,  mini-me Commodore styling and considerably smaller model range. But that was hardly the full extent of its shortcomings.

The first Camira, dubbed the JB (Australia has always used these alphabetical model codes rather than a model year), came only as a sedan with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. A wagon, but no new engines, followed in 1983. The Camira was marketed as Holden’s mid-size model, despite its compact status in the U.S. and the Commodore being a considerably smaller “full-size” Holden than previous Kingswoods and Premiers.

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The Camira arrived to rave reviews. Wheels, Australia’s most-read car magazine, proclaimed it their Car of the Year for 1982. The compact Holden’s enjoyable handling and fine road manners, as well as its space-efficiency, were singled out for praise. The 1.6-liter “Family II” engine met criticism from many reviewers, but ultimately not enough to sink its COTY chances.

For a country brought up on relatively torquey six-cylinder engines in larger cars (and even the RWD Torana, which the Camira replaced), the revvy, 86 hp four was a different animal. However, for all the criticism leveled at the engine, the performance surpassed that of the 1.9-liter “Starfire” four in the VC Commodore. That Commo-four, with its whopping 78 hp/100 lb ft powering a heavier, medium/large sedan, was both a critical and a commercial flop, delivering far less performance than the six with equivalent fuel economy. It was, however, mostly a stopgap measure after the Sunbird/Torana, which the Camira replaced, ended production in 1980. After 1984 the Commo-four disappeared, never to return to Australian shores. It lingered for a little while longer in New Zealand, a country which was home to some obscure Holden products (as a side note, the weirdest would be a version of the VS Commodore called the Royale, sold with a small Opel six and featuring the front clip of the long-wheelbase Statesman)

With a compact, efficient package and a smart, small wagon–designed by Holden with a low, flat loading area, and exported to the UK as a Vauxhall Cavalier wagon – the Camira should have been a success. Ford’s Telstar, a rebadged Mazda 626 released around the same time, showed that Australians would embrace an efficient, FWD, mid-size package with an Australian badge. The Camira was certainly a far more modern design than the also locally-assembled RWD Mitsubishi Sigma, Toyota Corona and Nissan Bluebird; however, those three had one advantage: better quality control.

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The JB Camiras rolling out of the Holden factory overheated and had smoky engines. A lack of proper drainage in the doors also created an embarrassing mess for owners. These quality problems caused the modern Holden mid-sizer to be ignobly dumped from Holden’s New Zealand range and replaced with the Japanese-sourced Holden Camira JJ (aka Isuzu Aska). A sporty “SJ” model, released in 1983 with no engine enhancements, was derided as a “standing joke”.

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In 1984, a revised “JD” Camira (presumably JC was skipped to avoid alienating non-Christians) was released. This new Camira, with a sleek, grille-less fascia, packed a multi-point fuel-injected 1.8-liter engine with 114 horsepower and a standard five-speed manual. It arrived just before Australia’s switch to unleaded fuel; consequently, a catalytic-converter was added, and power went right back down to 84 hp, although the good fuel economy remained. By 1987, a JE Camira arrived with a 114 hp, 130 lb-ft, 2.0-liter fuel-injected four cylinder (which 10 years later would still be powering an Australian J-car, the Daewoo Espero). With some suspension tweaks, a more powerful engine, and even a snazzy new sport variant (the SLi 2000), the JE Camira looked more appealing than ever.

Australian buyers didn’t think so: Camira sales had steadily fallen after the early Camiras’ quality problems had become known. Whether that can also be attributed to the capricious nature of mid-size car sales in Australia is another question, and I wish I had some sales figures to back up that theory. For some reason (until recent years), small cars and the full-size Falcon/Commodore have generally enjoyed the lion’s share of the Australian car market,  while squeezing the mid-sizers out. Ford didn’t actually field a mid-size entry for much of the 2000s, nor did Nissan from the mid-90s until now. Of course, now even our full-size cars are dropping in sales and the Aussie market is dominated by small cars (in particular, the Mazda3 and Corolla) and small crossovers.

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But I digress. The Camira was a thoroughly competent car that could have been a great (or at least, moderate) success for GMH. Instead, slapdash quality of early Camiras killed the car’s reputation in the Aussie market, and it remains a target of derision. Only the wagons seem to survive in any reasonable numbers, although rust certainly was a problem. That’s a shame, as the Camira’s replacement–a Toyota Camry rebadged as the Apollo–was a similarly disappointing seller that has ultimately been forgotten. It would be interesting to see an alternate scenario, where an Australianized second-gen J-car had carried GMH’s mid-size torch.

I spotted this white 1984-87 Holden JD Camira SL wagon in an Aldi parking lot. Despite having photographed many cars over the years, I somehow forgot the whole “keep the whole car in the frame” rule of photography, and then the owner came walking out with his purchases. I assure y’all that I will be a better CC photographer in the future! This particular Camira looks a little rough, but it definitely gets used. The workmanlike wagons, with their nice, flat load floor (photo missing!), have survived in much greater numbers than the sedans–I can’t even remember the last time I saw a Camira sedan!

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