CC’s Best of 2018: Curbside Classic: 2002 Holden Monaro – A Tale Of Two Cars

The story of the new generation Holden Monaro has two distinct parts: first there was an after-hours concept car built by a group of designers wondering how a coupe version of the Commodore sedan might go; followed by a pretty complete re-work when one Bob Lutz tapped the project for a larger purpose.  So it makes for an interesting story…

Some of this story is widely known.  Yes, the Monaro’s big brother the 1997 VT Commodore was based on the 1994 Opel Omega B, so the GM-generic styling ended up being somewhat dated by the time it debuted as a concept car in 1998 – but especially so by the time the Pontiac GTO debuted in 2004!

The original Coupe concept car nicknamed “Monica” started as an after-hours project – would there be any sedan where the design team has not at least sketched a coupe version?  The design was led by future head of GM Design, Mike Simcoe, and ended up being shown at the October 1998 Sydney Motor Show in a masterstroke by GM-H to steal the thunder from Ford’s important new AU model Falcon launch.

The wheelbase of the Coupe was unchanged from the sedan, but the rear overhang was reduced by 100mm, doors extended 150mm and the windscreen was laid back at a steeper angle to lower the roof by 45mm.  Both front and rear seats were repositioned to suit.  The concept Coupe kept the VT Commodore front and rear fascia aesthetics.

There was a very strong reaction to the car and the Monaro name was immediately applied by the press and public alike.  There were a good number of people wanting to place orders straight away, but of course it is not so simple to just build the car!  Australia does not have a history of buying many large coupes, or small for that matter.  The original Monaro models ran from 1968 until 1976 and were easily the most popular coupe of the era, but only 41,500 sold in total.

The Monaro was given the go-ahead by CEO Peter Hanenberger in late 1999 based on a conservative production schedule of only 4,500 units, which necessitated using some out of the ordinary procedures (such as low-cost, short-life pressing tools) to make the business case.  But once Bob Lutz saw the car and decided to send it to the USA as the Pontiac GTO things had to change, as volumes were now going to be much higher!

This is where the “tale of two cars” comes in, because the car had to be re-engineered to some degree and the planned production processes changed.  I spoke to one of the engineers involved at a social bbq a couple of years after the fact, but that was a decade ago now and I can’t remember the exact details now – and I don’t think it is something that anyone would go on the record just yet!

The cost ended up being a remarkably low $20m for design & engineering, and $40m for plant tooling to cover some 84 new panels, in a remarkably brisk 22-month program.  You might compare some of this to the 2005 Ford GT where various development processes were fast-tracked, and speaking to the engineer who worked on the car, certain design decisions were “played safe” to shortcut the optimisation process as experience gives the ability to get quite close the first time.  The Monaro’s design and validation were both carried out digitally (Simultaneous Math Based Process), without extensive use of prototypes.

For the 1999 Sydney motor show there was another concept, code-named Marilyn, a convertible version of the Commodore Coupe.  This was never a realistic prospect for production, due to the need for vastly more complex engineering changes to accommodate the folding roof on a platform never intended for one.

Monaro CV6 with 17″ wheels

The Monaro was launched in December 2001 in two forms.  The $47,990 CV6 (above) featured the supercharged 3.8 V6 with 171 kW (229 hp) and came only with automatic transmission (as per all supercharged V6 Holdens) and 17” wheels.  Most people were interested in the $56,990 CV8 that 225 kW (301 hp) 5.7 V8 and 18” wheels with the 6-speed T56 manual transmission or optional 4L60E auto.

Australian market Mustang Cobra, note the extra driving lights in the bumper (aftermarket wheels)

Its closest competitor was perhaps the Ford Mustang Cobra, with 240 kW (321 hp) from its 4.6L DOHC V8 which came only with a 5-speed manual with a whopping $85,000 price tag, however I expect a lot more Monaros were cross-shopped against the more practical Commodore SS sedan which was $6-7,000 cheaper to boot (which was 105L or 3.7 cu. ft. larger).  I know of one case where an SS was replaced by a Monaro at least.

As well as new styling front and rear, there was unique tuning for the suspension and steering, and the Monaro was very well received.  It was fitting that there were some bold colour choices to echo the late 60s heyday, including yellow, red, green and blue, as well as black and silver.  The yellow was used to produce an echo of the original Monaro advertising image.  At a dealer launch for the HSV Coupe evolution the cat suit was even brought back to complete the picture!

The Monaro also returned to the race track, with a special version developed for the Nation’s Cup GT class by V8 Supercar team Garry Rogers Racing.  The Monaro CV8R featured a 7-litre engine, 6-speed Holinger sequential gearbox and unique double wishbone suspension at front and rear, and there were larger wheel arches to allow the use of 11” wide wheels.

The car was allowed to race on the basis that there would be a similar specification road car produced, but with a speculated cost in the order of $210,000 perhaps not surprisingly it did not go ahead.  The whole exercise was to say the least controversial, and while it won the Bathurst 24 Hour race twice it no doubt was a major reason the race failed through other teams not wanting to race an unfair opponent – but that is a story for another day.  The 427 engine would eventually arrive in the 2008 HSV W427, or at least the standard LS7, not the racing version.

Likewise another story to be told is the return of the Monaro’s arch-nemesis, the 2002 FPV Falcon GT, marking the renaissance of another muscle car era.  The Chrysler 300 SRT8 returned Mopar to the party in 2006.

In December 2002 the Series II update was launched, which largely involved slotting in the dashboard from the VY Commodore sedan, a few extra neddies (235 kW/315 hp) and some other minor tweaks including new colours such as Purple Haze.  Fans of interior colour schemes will be happy to know that purple interior trim was also available!

June 2003 saw a CV8-R special edition launched to keep interest on the boil, with a special Turbine Mica grey colour.  At the same time the CV6 variant was dropped, because it had accounted for only about 10% of sales.  Coincidentally, 12-13 years later the 4-cylinder Ecoboost takes a similar share of Mustang sales.

The Series III update of August 2003 had a further tiny tweak to 245 kW (328 hp), and later another limited-edition CV8-R (350 cars this time) in Pulse Red.  In the original plan for the car this might have been the end, but a man named Bob Lutz had another idea.

The Pontiac GTO required some pretty significant changes, in particular to meet rear crash safety requirements.  The fuel tank was moved from under the boot floor to above the rear axle, which severely reduced boot space from 370 to 245 L (13.1 to 8.6 cu ft) (Original boot/trunk here).  On the plus side, this did make room for a dual exhaust with some meaty 3” outlet tips!

It is interesting to compare the reaction to the GTO with the reception of the Monaro in Australia.  The somewhat bland coupe styling was not much of an issue when there were so few large coupes on the Australian market, where the styling was regarded as clean and smooth rather than bland.  Notably the HSV versions (GTO pictured above) were judged to be overstyled or uglier to the point where I expect some buyers would have bought the lesser car because of it.  Personally I wouldn’t call it an improvement!  One aspect I did like was the wheels of the HSV GTO were a great echo of the earlier Monaro GTS styled hubcap.

For production efficiency, the GTO revisions were applied to the September 2004 VZ Monaro facelift.  In addition to slightly more aggressive styling, power was up to 260 kW (348 hp) and there were larger brakes with ventilated discs on the rear and an upgraded sound system with two subwoofers.

In 2005 a final run of 1,200 CV8-Z special editions in a striking “Fusion” gold hue were created to send the car out with a bang.  The very last Monaro was built on 13 December 2005 and auctioned on Ebay, raising $187,355.55 for the Leukemia Foundation that has long been supported by Holden.  About 12,000 of the new generation Monaros were built in total.

The HSV range continued on for a few more months, with final LE (pictured above) and Signature special editions being built in 2006.  Again there is too much detail with the HSV range to go into here, particularly with the all-wheel drive Coupe4 variant.

Aside from the GTO, there were also exports to the UK badged as a Vauxhall Monaro, with 800 cars sent over.  Presumably the one Top Gear did donuts on the beach with is no longer with us, but hopefully the 15 500 hp supercharged VXR 500s are.  The car was also exported to South Africa and the Middle East wearing Chevrolet Lumina badges.

Leaving aside the “ringer” 7-litre racers, the Monaro had a respectable competition record in tarmac rallying particularly in the Targa Tasmania, with a few cars built with his son James.  In the hands of Peter Brock the car was able to take on Porsche 911 GT3s on level terms, with some limited modifications that were also open to the Porsches.  The main thing was larger brakes, which still fit under the OEM wheels.

The Monaro came at a time when Holden was trying to diversify its model range with an awd crossover (Adventra) and double-cab ute (Crewman) as the most important variants; ironically neither of these were exported while the Monaro was.  And while the 52,000 units (approximately) of all types built over 5 years probably added more to the image of both Holden and Pontiac than the bottom line, I don’t think you could deny that we are better off for that group of designers exercising their creativity unofficially 20 years ago.


Further Reading:

CC Outtake: 2006 Pontiac GTO – Subtle Muscle

2003-07 Holden Adventra: Territory Enemy

Australian Auto Family Trees: The Holden Commodore From A-Z VB-VF (History)