Car Show Classics: Commodore Generations At Motorclassica 2017

One of the features of this year’s Motorclassica show was a class for Holden cars, in recognition of the end of production.  Holden contributed significantly to the show, not only by bringing the Hurricane and GTR-X concept cars but also the first model of each Commodore collection from their collection.  While skipping the interim facelifts and updates misses much of the Commodore story, it does serve to give a quick overview of the Commodore story.

The first car was a 1978 VB SL/E, the top trim level of the new Commodore, which was a significant down-size compared to the previous full-size HZ Holden, created in response to the 1970s fuel crises.  Of course it was a revised Opel, adapted to take the carried-over drivetrains of 2.85L/173ci and 3.3L/202ci inline six cylinders, and 4.2L/253ci and 5.0L/308ci V8s, as well as to cope with Australian roads.  One significant difference was MacPherson strut front suspension, instead of the previous Holden’s A /F-body style double A-arm front end, and unlike the Opel, the Australian car also featured rack and pinion steering.

The size reduction was really significant; 151 mm/6” of wheelbase, 139 mm/5.5” of overall length but perhaps most importantly 170 mm/6.7” of width.  The payoff was a 122 kg/270 lb reduction in overall weight.  Even with thinner doors the width reduction meant that three adults were not able to fit comfortably within the mm/” shoulder width of the rear seat.  The outcome was that Ford took market leadership in 1982 and Holden went through some interesting times in the Chinese curse sense of the term.

After some pretty turbulent times, including a bailout from Detroit, 1988 saw the debut of Holden’s second-generation Commodore, the VN.  Starting with the 1987 Opel Senator body, GM-H had lengthened and widened the VN to effectively reverse the downsizing.  Thanks to crash safety and aerodynamics the overall length was slightly longer than the old Kingswood (at 191″ / 4850 mm), and while exterior width at 70.6” / 1794 mm was still 3.5″ shy, the VN had comparable shoulder room – and now offered a bench seat up front.The dirty secret was that under the new body the platform had the same width – front track was exactly the same as the 1978 car.

The number 1 VN was an SS – the most sporty trim level, not the top of the line Calais.  This was significant because at one point it looked like Holden was going to follow Ford in dropping the V8, but a magazine-led “V8’s ‘til ’98” campaign helped them change their mind and keep the faith with the buyers of the sporting Commodores.  While the bread-and-butter engine was now the Buick-derived 3800 V6 with 125kW/166hp, the 5.0/304ci V8 came back bearing fuel injection and putting out 165kW/221hp.  This was the start of Holden’s resurgence, with other factors such as the return of the Statesman and Ute, the establishment of Holden Special Vehicles and eventually returning to market leadership–not to forget profitability!

The 1997 third-generation VT number 1 representative was curiously a mid-range Berlina.  Development of the VT cost three times as much as the VN, and it showed.  The Opel Omega B was again lengthened and widened and this time the wheelbase grew the most, to 2,788 mm/109.8”, although the wagon’s wheelbase increase was greater still.  The weight increase was even more significant at a whopping 240kg/530 lb more than the VN, although it must be noted that there were some interim steps from the fairly flimsy original VN!

The interior quality took a similar leap as the body structure, while the standard independent rear suspension improved the driving experience.  Engines were an evolution of the previous ones, including the supercharged V6 introduced in the VS model.  As with previous generations, there were to be significant improvements to come, as well as significant export programs.

The final generation Commodore started with the VE model in 2006, and number 1 car off the line was this SS-V.  As is fairly well known, for the VE the Australian engineers started from scratch; they didn’t have much choice because the Opel Omega was not continuing.  One choice they did have but rejected was the GM Sigma platform of the 2002 Cadillac CTS, because it was fundamentally too expensive for a mainstream (non-luxury) car.  While overall length was constrained at 4.9m/192.7”, width increased 75mm/3” and weight grew with the increased body strength; up by 140kg/306lb.  The wheelbase grew significantly – 127mm/5”, however most of this was because the front axle moved forward in a bid to improve weight distribution as well as achieving a more sporty appearance.

There were three different dashboard treatments for the base model, sporting and luxury trim levels, with the SS-V having the option of the coloured dashboard shown above.  If orange wasn’t enough, red was available too.  As previously, the powertrains were carried over from the past model; the 3.6L HF V6 and 6.0L V8.  Again the ute and station wagon variations trailed the sedan, this time by one and two years respectively, although long-wheelbase Statesman debuted concurrently with the short-wheelbase sedan.  A significant change was the wagon moved (back) to the short wheelbase.

I neglected to take a photo of the next generation ZB Commodore that was on display because I was interested in old cars not new ones, hence the use of a press release photo here.  This of course is the Commodore going back to its roots as an adapted Opel, but this time the Opel in question being the front-wheel drive Insignia.  This has caused many brains to explode, and the hairy-chested sports sedan market will be lost to Holden as will the fleet sales that were supporting, and supported by, local manufacture.

I saw one of the new Commodore wagons on the road just before Christmas, and it was noticeably smaller than the VE/VF wagon (which are the same at the rear), in particular the side windows taper inwards.  This time the engine options include 2.0L turbo petrol and diesel engines, and the 3.6L V6 – the first time a V8 won’t be available.  I think it is the right thing for Holden to carry on with the Commodore name if only from a brand-recognition point of view.

There is much more to tell of course than I can fit in a brief overview of the cars on display as the Commodore went through some pretty significant changes after the launch of each generation, but those stories will have to wait for another time; otherwise delve into the existing coverage on CC linked below!


Further Reading:

Automotive History: Australian Auto Family Trees – The Holden Commodore From A-Z VB-VF

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

Curbside Classic: 1988-91 Holden VN Commodore – Revisiting the Opel Mine

Curbside Classic: 1994-95 Holden VR Caprice – Broughams Down Under   (the C-body equivalent if the Commodore was a B-body)

Curbside Classic: 2003-07 Holden Adventra – Territory Enemy    (Commodore-based Crossover wagon)