When new, the VR Commodore was a perfectly respectable choice for a new car. Fleets loved the base Executive and families loved the safety-focussed Acclaim. There were posher Berlina and Calais models for management types, utes for tradies, and SS V8s for enthusiasts. Few people hold onto their car forever, however, and eventually a car changes hands a few times and ends up in the driveway of a very different owner. And so it was that the VR Commodore and the facelifted VS have become so ingrained in my mind (and many others’) as “bogan” cars.
What is a bogan, you may ask? It sounds pejorative but it’s a commonly-used word in Australian vernacular. Broadly speaking, it means somebody who is unrefined or unsophisticated. The marks of boganism typically include a love of cheap Aussie beer, a preponderance towards wearing one’s hair (if male) in a mullet or with a rat’s tail, and a prolific tendency towards flannelette shirts, Stubbies shorts, and Southern Cross tattoos. It’s a term used nationally and isn’t necessarily a socio-economic distinction, and some people wear the label with pride.
If this all sounds horribly classist, like some Australian analogue to “white trash” and “trailer trash”, it’s not really. Maybe we take things less seriously here but bogan isn’t quite so offensive a term to bandy around. In my experience as someone from a lower-middle-class background, you’re less likely to offend an Aussie by calling them a bogan as you would by calling an American “trailer trash”. Perhaps it’s closer to “redneck” in terms of affection. The word has even ended up in the Oxford English Dictionary, wherein it’s defined as:
An unfashionable, uncouth, or unsophisticated person, especially regarded as being of low social status.
Now, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on all VR/VS Commodore owners but it didn’t surprise me to see this VS Calais missing its licence plates and left by the side of the road. Maybe the owner is just keeping it there temporarily. Or maybe it’s like so many other VR/VS Commodores I’ve seen: often being hooned around Brisbane suburbs, or wrapped around a street light, or wearing the fluroscent yellow “Police Aware” signs officers affix to abandoned cars.
I figured the VRs and VSs would eventually disappear from our roads, much as their VN and VP predecessors appear almost extinct. I had assumed they would be used up or hooned to death by bogans, who’d eventually graduate to VTs as those later models got older and cheaper and inevitably changed hands. However, there are still a decent number of VRs around which puts some holes in my theory. And some of them seem to have never changed hands.
Even more perplexing is how the VR and VS Commodores seem to outnumber the contemporary EF and EL Falcons. There was no gulf in reliability and, while the Commodore probably had the edge in outright handling ability, typical VR/VS drivers aren’t exactly going to take their Commodores autocrossing.
The deaths of the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore are often attributed to the rise of the crossover and increasingly large and comfortable small cars. One other reason could quite possibly be the cars’ image. As the owner of two Falcons and one Commodore, I certainly heard a few cracks about my “bogan” cars. I can’t blame used Falcon and Commodore buyers: these cars can be bought cheap, they’re reliable, powerful and have burnout potential.
Image aside, the VR Commodore was a fundamentally good car and a step-up from its VP predecessor, itself a revision of the 1988 VN. There was a new front suspension for the first time since the Commodore’s launch in 1978 and track was widened 1.5 inches. The VR had the first driver’s airbag of any Australian car and there was a new dashboard design, more modern if still rather plasticky. Independent rear suspension and anti-lock brakes were now fitted to most models.
Exterior sheetmetal was heavily revised on sedans, although wagons and utes retained their old bodywork aft of the A-pillars including squared-off rear wheel arches that now didn’t match their counterparts at the front. I only recently noticed that and now I can’t un-see it.
The 3.8 V6 (174 hp, 217 ft-lbs) and 5.0 V8 (221 hp, 283 ft-lbs) engines were carried over from the VP, with higher-output 5.0 and 5.7 V8s available in the Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) range. Four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmissions were available across the entire engine range. An Opel-sourced 2.6 Dual Ram inline six-cylinder engine (147 hp, 162 ft-lbs) was offered in export models. I learned that flipping through the owner’s manual of a friend’s VR many years ago and it was a source of great befuddlement.
HSV models still had that boy-racer look to them with various garish cosmetic embellishments. It wasn’t until the E Series models of 2006 that HSV finally employed a cohesive yet aggressive design language to their modified Holdens, only to bollocks it all up for the E-Series 2 facelift. Visual impurity notwithstanding, VR HSV models packed a lot of punch: 248 hp and 302 ft-lbs in the 5.0-powered models, and 288 hp and 350 ft-lbs in the 5.7 models. The main HSV models were the base Clubsport, Maloo ute, and luxury Senator.
In 1995, the visually almost identical VS brought a thoroughly overhauled 3.8 V6, now labelled as part of the Ecotec family, with a new engine block, heads and manifolds among other enhancements. Power was up by 22 hp and torque by 6 ft-lbs and yet fuel economy was improved by 5%. As had become tradition with the Commodore, there was a minor, mid-cycle Series II revision. The big news with the Series II was the introduction of Holden’s first supercharged V6 as an option in the luxury Calais and the long-wheelbase Statesman and Caprice models.
The VT Commodore of 1997 was the Commodore’s first bona fide, ground-up redesign but the new Statesman/Caprice and ute models weren’t available until 1999 and 2000, respectively, leaving the VS models to carry on until then.
The Commodore wrestled the number one sales slot back from the Falcon in 1996 with the VS and never again would the Falcon outsell the Commodore. And so it was that the VR and VS Commodores were bought by thousands of families, executives, fleet buyers and police agencies. Despite this, I just can’t help but think of these thoroughly competent cars as bogan mobiles.