Auto-Biography: 1981-83 Holden VH Commodore – Mum, Let’s Go For A Drive

From 1982 until 1997, the Stopford family had a VH Commodore. It didn’t look quite like this one, mind you. Our Commodore was canary yellow with a brown vinyl interior and matching rust on the rocker panels. It was also the first car I was ever driven in. On this special day – my mother’s birthday – let’s take a look at the VH Commodore and the part it played in my childhood.

SL/E sedan

My father had a long line of company work trucks so my time in the Commodore was spent mostly with mum behind the wheel. She helped fuel my burgeoning love of cars, something that had first came to life when I was around 2 or 3. I would point at cars and say, “brown car” and “red car”. By the time I was 4 and in pre-school, that had advanced to being able to recognize cars by name. Mum bought me my first issue of Which Car? in March 1995 and I was instantly hooked. After that issue, she would take me down to the newsagent every time a new issue came out up until the magazine went out of print in 2000.

SL/X sedan

Mum nurtured my love of cars by taking me to the Brisbane Motor Show each year. We wouldn’t drive into South Brisbane, though – Mum didn’t (and still doesn’t) like to drive when there were good public transport connections available and the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre was certainly well connected by bus and train. Taking public transport did make it tricky, however, when I had bags and bags of brochures I’d collected from the motor show stands.

SL/X interior

There would have been plenty of room in the Commodore for my stacks of brochures as these cars were well-sized. With a width of 67.8 inches and a wheelbase of 105 inches, there was plenty of room for four people although the drivetrain hump made the fifth, center-seat occupant a tad uncomfortable. There was plenty of space for young me, though, and my brown, foam car seat. I just wish we had taken some photos of the car – I couldn’t find any in the family albums.

SL wagon

Mum recently found some of my old brochures from a Motor Show many years ago – Brisbane stopped hosting them almost a decade ago – and she was quick to recount how I used to tell her when a car salesman or booth employee made a mistake. I also used to write letters to magazines to request they conduct a comparison test between a particular set of vehicles – hey, I loved comparison tests back then, too – and my mother would then post the letters for me. Mum would also drive me in the Commodore to car dealerships to look at cars and I would regale the salespeople with my knowledge of the products they were selling. In hindsight, it all sounds rather embarrassing but I’m told it was endearing. It was probably cuter when I was a precocious seven-year old rather than a tubby twelve-year old, mind you.

By the time I was well and truly in the throes of automotive obsession, with my visits to dealerships and newsagents and motor shows, the family Commodore was looking worse for wear. As my Mum said the other day, “It was good until it was falling apart.” Rust aside, though, it had held up well after 15 years of use. The same couldn’t be said for the mud brown VC Commodore it had replaced. That Commodore, an automatic, continually stalled. The dealer’s advice was an unhelpful, “Just keep driving it, it’ll sort itself out.” Nevertheless, my parents still went and bought another Commodore.

At least the VH redeemed the Holden brand for them. The only hitch was its poor theft protection – one night, it was stolen while Dad had parked it in the city although it turned up later, a few suburbs away, with no damage. Commodores and Falcons were always on the Top 10 list for most stolen vehicles, owing to their often poor theft protection and their ubiquity.

The VH was a modest facelift of the VC but I maintain to this day the minor headlight, taillight, fender, and grille tweaks made the car look bigger and more substantial, somehow. The louvered taillights were also reminiscent of a contemporary Mercedes-Benz. The range still opened with the gutless Starfire 1.9 four-cylinder, effectively a Holden six that had been cut down and produced a measly 72 at 4400 rpm and 101 ft-lbs at 2400 rpm. The “Misfire”, as it was colloquially known, struggled mightily to haul around the Commodore’s 2539-pound curb weight: it reached 60 mph in around 17 seconds. And that was with the manual!

Fortunately, my parents avoided the base four and even skipped past the 2.85 six-cylinder (97 hp at 4400 rpm and 137 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm), choosing the carbureted 3.3 six. This engine produced a more substantial 111 hp at 4000 rpm and 170 ft-lbs at 2400 rpm, although it still took around 13-14 seconds to hit 60mph. Our VH had a four-speed manual transmission, while the 1.9 and 2.85 were available with a five-speed stick. The 2.85 and 3.3 “Blue” motors were evolutions of the “Red” Holden six of 1963 so neither were the last word in modernity, efficiency, power or refinement. The Commodore was shaded by the Falcon in outright power but it made up for it with superior handling thanks to its Opel Rekord origins.

My family never would have touched the optional V8 engines. Holden offered two in the VH, both with a choice of single or dual exhaust—in comparison, Ford offered no V8 Falcons between 1982 and 1991. The VH’s 4.2 V8 produced between 134 and 159 hp and 198-213 ft-lbs, while the 5.0 produced between 156-168 hp and 247-266 ft-lbs. To my parents, a V8 engine was pure frivolity and utterly unnecessary, especially considering our VH was in lowly SL spec with steel wheels; the SL had a rear demister, an AM radio, and precious little else on its features list. Atop the SL sat the SL/X and posh SL/E models, the latter of which was available in glamorous “Shadowtone” two-tone paint.

Mum found the Commodore easy to drive, certainly more so than the bigger Holden Kingswood wagon they had owned in the 1970s. The Commodore was trimmer while still offering a spacious cabin, although it was narrower than the rival Ford Falcon. For our family, the Commodore was large enough. For taxi and fleet buyers, the Falcon was preferred and that was part of the reason the Falcon came to overtake the Commodore in the sales race during the 1980s.

Other than some improvements to the engine management on some of the VH’s engines and some cosmetic tweaks, the VH was little changed from the VC. Holden further massaged the basic ’78 VB design with the VK and VL Commodores and even continued to use some of its underpinnings with the redesigned ‘88 VN. By the time my parents were looking to replace our VH, Holden was all the way up to the new-for-1997 VT.

I was quick to offer plenty of car-buying advice to my parents – some of it, in hindsight, rather crap – but I recall only going along on one test drive. That was in a base model Toyota Corolla which I distinctly remember Mum disliking as she found it too bland inside. My parents once again ended up at a Holden dealership, where they bought a dealer demonstrator Holden (nèe Opel) Astra GL. It was dramatically different from the Commodore, being smaller, front-wheel-drive and more expensive-looking, inside and out, than the decidedly fleet-spec Commodore. It was a bit snug for the three of us Stopford siblings in the back but we managed. Increasingly comfortable and spacious small cars basically annihilated the mid-size segment and probably did serious damage to the Falcon and Commodore, too.

The Commodore was still running fine when we sold it but Mum was fairly happy to see it go. The Astra was her baby and she affectionately dubbed it her “little red car”. While she never fawned over the Commodore, it earned the respect of our family. When I see a VH on the road, I remember the part it played in my childhood. It and the following Astra no doubt helped form my appreciation for General Motors. When I see a VH on the road, too, I remember the special lady that helped foster my love of cars.

Happy birthday, Mum!


Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1978-81 Holden VB/VC Commodore – The Beginning of a New Era

Cars Of A Lifetime # 1: 1997 Holden Astra – First Love