Curbside Capsule: 1985-87 Holden Gemini SL/E – Missing The I-Mark

It’s almost Gemini Season. I’m no astrologer but this is apparently a period of tremendous energy, motion and change, sometimes unpredictable. That likely doesn’t describe this Gemini owner’s experience with their little yellow car though it accurately characterizes Holden’s travails in the 1980s.

There’s not much more I can say about the RB-series Holden Gemini than what I said in my exhaustive piece on it, its Isuzu-badged twin overseas, and the Chevrolet/Geo Spectrum. Although they were generally pretty reliable, RB Geminis seem to be almost extinct. There’s no enthusiast following for them like there was its rear-wheel-drive predecessor and it was a disappointing seller for Holden. Unlike the RWD Geminis repainted in lurid colors and hooned to hell, this top-spec SL/E was probably purchased by an older and more conservative buyer. It was around the 1980s when hatchbacks really took off in the small car segment. It seemed younger, more style-conscious folk preferred hatchbacks while small sedans became the choice of older buyers.

Pardon the terrible interior photo. Amidst the glare, however, you can see the cloth seats have held up well. The SL/E sat atop the mid-range SL/X and fleet-only SL models. All came with a choice of five-speed manual or three-speed auto and a standard AM/FM stereo and split-fold rear seat. The SL/E added electric mirrors, two extra speakers (for a total of four), tilt-adjustable steering column and remote trunk and fuel filler door releases. Power steering was an option. It sounds rather monastic today but this was pretty well-equipped for a small car in mid-1980s Australia.

Here’s a better picture from the brochure.

Australia only switched to unleaded fuel in 1986 and a lot of cars took a huge hit in power. The carbureted Isuzu 1.5 four – the only engine available in the RB Gemini – managed to avoid that, producing the same 69 hp at 5000 rpm and 86 ft-lbs at 3400 rpm before and after the change.

Though the featured Gemini has probably provided many years of stable and reliable motoring to its owner, the RB-series Gemini itself was a symptom of the sickness plaguing Holden. Launched in May 1985 in Australia – so the Gemini may well be a Gemini! – the RB was the first front-wheel-drive Gemini series. It was also the last Holden Gemini.

Compared to the last series of its RWD predecessor, the TG, production was down significantly – 16,263 vs. 24,675. While the sedan-only RB shared showroom space with the hatch-only Astra, a rebadged Nissan Pulsar, so too did the TG. Sure, the RB didn’t have wagon or panel van versions like its predecessor but it was still a sales disappointment – even when combined with the Astra, Holden’s total volume in this segment in 1986 was about a third that of Ford or Toyota. This was bad news for a company that was heavily in the red at this point and shedding market share. Fortunately, a restructuring and cash injection from GM HQ helped put Holden on a more stable footing by the end of the decade.

The venerable Gemini nameplate, however, was given the boot. Being merely a local assembly operation, it couldn’t meet the high level of local content required to help Holden reach an 85% target and the Button Plan was forcing Aussie car manufacturers to consolidate their products. Besides, it was pretty silly marketing two separate, unrelated model lines in the same segment. A new generation of the rebadged Nissan Pulsar – the Astra, now powered with Holden engines – replaced the Gemini in 1987.

The movement of the stars and the positioning of the planets wasn’t going to guide Holden in the right direction in the 1980s. Instead, it was the downward movement of sales and the cluttered and confusing positioning of its range. The first FWD Gemini was merely average and made virtually no impact in Australia, even less of an impact in North America, and Europe didn’t even bother with it. This was the beginning of the end of Isuzu passenger car production and if Isuzu didn’t see it yet, they should’ve checked their horoscope.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1985-87 Holden RB Gemini/1985-89 Chevrolet Spectrum/Isuzu I-Mark – The Stars Didn’t Align

CC Outtake: 1989 Geo Spectrum – The Blue Band of the Spectrum

Cohort Sighting: 1991 Isuzu Stylus XS – A Rare Bird