(first posted 2/12/2015) It is looking increasingly likely that the next Holden Commodore will be an imported, front-wheel-drive, Opel-based product. A Commodore being based on an Opel is hardly anything new, with a full-size Opel being used as the basis for the first (VB-VL), second (VN-VS) and third (VT-VZ) chapters in the Commodore story. Surprisingly, this also wouldn’t be the first time a front-wheel-drive platform has been considered for the Aussie Holden. Were it not for an Opel that was impressive and flexible enough for Holden to use, the 1988 VN Commodore could have been based on the 1986 GM H-Body.
Holden managed to get a solid decade of mileage out of the original Opel Rekord-derived platform, with the VH, VK and VL revisions improving upon a solid base with newer and better engines as well as more imposing styling. Still, archrival Ford’s Falcon had taken advantage of its larger platform and appearance (including 3.54 inches of extra shoulder room) and the easing of the fuel crisis to snatch the number one sales slot. Holden engineers knew as early as 1982 that the next Commodore would have to be bigger in every dimension and look it.
Being a small market, General Motors-Holden executives knew that the economies of scale were in favour of using an existing GM platform for a new Commodore. Designing, engineering and tooling a unique Holden would have taken longer and cost $AUD100 million extra, and Holden had experienced significant financial losses in the 1980s. GM-H wanted to bring a new Commodore to market by 1987, but the successful VL revision of 1986 – featuring a Nissan-sourced, imported straight-six and turbo six – bought them an extra year. The 1988 Commodore would bear the VN series designation; Holden reserved ‘VM’ as a contingency in case they had to squeeze some more life out of the existing platform.
GM-H Managing Director Chuck Chapman and Ray Grigg, Director of Planning, started shopping GM’s global portfolio for a suitable car. In 1981, sensing Opel might be of use again to them, Holden’s people had sent testing standards to GM’s European division so that they could be used in the design and engineering process for Opel’s Rekord replacement.
Opel’s new full-size sedan would ditch the Rekord name for Omega, with a sedan and wagon available; a more luxurious, six-window flagship sedan would bear the Senator nameplate. These new Opels would have slippery, aerodynamic styling, including flush window glass, and an impressively low coefficient of drag of just 0.28. The UK would receive rebadged versions known as Opel Carlton and Senator.
Chapman and Grigg were very interested in the new Opel, which was larger than its predecessor; the wheelbase, for example, was now 107.5 inches. There was just one catch: Opel wouldn’t widen it. Holden’s European counterparts were too concerned expanding the car’s width would have a negative effect on aerodynamics, and thought the size increase over the Rekord was sufficient.
The most promising candidate for the 1988 Holden seemed to have been eliminated from contention. Interior space was just too high a priority for the Australian market. Holden executives asked their former co-worker now stationed in Detroit, Leo Pruneau, to see if there was something promising in the pipeline over there. The upcoming 1986 H-Body offered plenty of space and was in consideration, but Holden decided to weigh up alternatives.
Ultimately, it would prove to be $36 million cheaper to take the Opel, cut it down the middle and widen it, among other changes, than to use the longer H-Body as a base. All it took was a back-seat ride by Chapman and fellow directors to convince them the Opel just wasn’t wide enough; ultimately, the VN would be almost an inch wider. Although there was a distinct familial resemblance, Holden’s design team would also make many aesthetic changes to the Opel’s design. In particular, the wagon’s styling was smoothed out due to concerns it looked too hearse-like.
But what engine should power the new, bigger Commodore? By 1983, Holden had been in talks with Nissan to use their straight-six engines in the VL but there were reservations about continuing their use in the VN. Holden’s marketing corps were concerned that a six of such small displacement (3.0) would be at a psychological disadvantage to consumers vis-à-vis Ford’s larger 4.1 six; a plan to initially launch the VN with the Nissan six with an eye to replacing it later was deep-sixed. Holden’s existing 3.3 six, despite having received fuel injection for the VK, was deemed to be a developmental dead-end. Plans for collaboration with Nissan on a larger version of its six went nowhere, as did a proposed six-cylinder version of the existing Holden V8.
Although GM-H didn’t pick an American car for the base of the VN, they were impressed enough by an American engine: Buick’s fuel-injected 3.8 V6, extensively revised for 1988. It was chosen for its reliability and flexibility, with quite a flat torque curve; compared to the VL’s Nissan six, it was 10% more powerful, and with 20% more torque but had the same fuel economy. Power was 167hp – more than the old carbureted V8 – and torque 215 ft-lbs.
The 5.0 OHV V8 would return, extensively revised, with port fuel-injection. While the VL’s carbureted V8 was good for only 163hp and 238 ft-lbs – scarcely torquier than the imported turbo six and with fewer horsepower – the fuel-injected V8 had an impressive 225hp and 295 ft-lbs. 0-60mph was under 7 seconds.
To keep costs down and local content up, the VN would receive a lot of carryover componentry from the VL. Although the Opel’s independent rear suspension was impressive, it was ditched in favour of a revised VL live rear axle. It was a cheaper option – much the same as Holden’s use of rack-and-pinion steering rather than Opel’s recirculating ball unit – and Holden engineers were also concerned about the IRS’s compatibility with the torquier V8. That V8 torque also led to Holden sourcing the Turbo Hydramatic 700, used in the Chevrolet Corvette and Camaro; the manual transmission offered was a new, Australian-made five-speed Borg Warner unit. Additionally, all VNs had four-wheel disc brakes. Still, a lot of VL DNA remained.
The VL revision had managed to claw ground back from the Falcon with private buyers, but not with fleet operators. The new, more capacious wagon – with a longer 111-inch wheelbase – would help. Family buyers would also appreciate the roomy new wagon, as it had available third-row seating. Holden would also re-enter the ute segment in 1990 with a VN-derived Commodore Ute, known as the VG.
The VG would also be joined by a familiar luxury nameplate, Statesman, used on a long-wheelbase version of the VN known as VQ. This new flagship would feature independent rear suspension, a taste of things to come for lesser Holdens. An even more upscale version would also debut, resurrecting the Caprice nameplate.
The VN lineup consisted of several tiers. At the low end were the Executive sedan and wagon, aimed at fleets. The mid-range Berlina was for private buyers, with the choice of sedan or wagon, and at the top was the plush Calais sedan. The latter was well-equipped with remote central locking, power windows, rear-seat air conditioning vents, security system, cruise control, and a choice of velour or leather seats.
More sporting variants included the S, a V6 trim level with the V8’s larger front disc brakes, the Calais’ 15-inch wheels and firmer springs and suspension tuning. The V8 engine would arrive a year later in 1989, with the SS V8 becoming the hero model of the VN range. Holden Special Vehicles would also fettle the Commodore range, launching SV3800 and SV5000 models with tuned engines and suspension and subtle (by HSV standards) bodykits.
The VN Commodore was praised for its spaciousness and its responsive and economical V6, but it was the latter that would also earn its fair share of criticism. Quite simply, the V6 was coarse and unrefined. In addition, it had an over-eager throttle that took many drivers by surprise.
The VN’s lack of refinement also carried over to its interior which, despite a clean and modern layout, had too many chintzy trim pieces. Paintwork was also subpar, but Holden was dedicating itself to improving quality and later Commodores would be better finished.
The V8 was a huge leap in performance over its predecessor and had a more balanced power delivery than the V6, but all VNs suffered from nervous handling at high speeds. The SS disappointed critics with its fairly soft handling and an excess of body roll and understeer. Bump absorption was also an issue on all VNs: the suspension would hop around on rough surfaces. Blame the live rear axle.
Despite these flaws, the VN Commodore won Wheels Car of the Year for 1988, giving the new EA Falcon a thrashing in the process. The EA Falcon had quickly presented itself as being underdone, with an old-tech three-speed transmission, poor refinement and shoddy assembly quality, although these faults would be addressed in the EA II and EB revisions.
Holden’s bigger Commodore had proved itself to be a compelling full-size sedan, albeit a little rough around the edges, and would enjoy a reputation for being robust and fairly reliable. Toyota must have been relieved, as they received a badge-engineered variant of the VN as part of the Australian government’s Button Plan in 1989. The Lexcen, named after the late yacht designer Ben Lexcen, was available only with the V6 and automatic transmission; trims were GL and GLX.
The Lexcen wasn’t the most unusual Commodore derivative, though. The VN was the last Commodore to be assembled in New Zealand, and the base model Berlina (positioned beneath the Executive, oddly) was available with Holden’s 2.0 Family II four-cylinder. Power was 122hp and torque 129 ft-lbs. This engine was related to the 2.0 SOHC four used in GM J-Cars, including the Pontiac Sunbird. Later overseas market Commodores would receive a 2.6 “Dual Ram” six-cylinder sourced from Opel.
The VP revision of 1991 would address most of the VN’s flaws. Fit and finish was improved, and the Statesman’s independent rear suspension was fitted to Calais and SS models and offered as an option across the rest of the range. Noise, vibration and harshness were greatly reduced, and anti-lock brakes were offered for the first time. Overall, VPs handled better, rode smoother and sounded quieter. Cosmetic differences were minimal albeit controversial: Calais gained rear fender skirts, and the Executive gained an acrylic grille reminiscent of the Mercury Sable’s lightbar.
The VP would last until 1993, when it was replaced by the VR. This new series, with an extensively revised interior and exterior among other improvements, remains extremely common on the roads to this day. The VN and VPs, though, are becoming quite scarce. While the powertrains have proven themselves reliable, particularly the trusty V6, used Commodores tend to be bought by people who drive them hard. In particular, the powerful V8s are extremely thin on the ground.
Despite its smooth, European styling, this Commodore wasn’t a dapper dandy. It was rougher and tougher and simpler and better-suited to our shocking rural roads and extreme heat. The Commodore was like a dependable bloke with an Akubra and an arm full of tatts.
The book “Project VN: An Australian Car for the 1990s” by Pedr Davis and Tony Davis, which tracks the development and launch of the VN, was an excellent source of information for this article.