While GM was in the midst of downsizing in the US, there was some downsizing occurring elsewhere in their empire. The HZ Holden sedans and wagons, riding on a platform dating back to 1971, were being phased out to make way for a crisply styled, very European sedan and wagon half a size smaller. It was perhaps a risky manoeuvre in the land of the big sedan, but thanks to the talented engineers at General Motors-Holden, a new line of Australian family cars was launched with a nameplate that survives to this day. This is the story of the first Holden Commodore.
Although many companies have manufactured cars in Australia, Holden is the only Australian brand name. During the 1960s and 70s, Holden and Ford were the two biggest fish in a small and fairly well-protected pond. But the market for big six-cylinder and V8 sedans and wagons was showing signs of erosion. The demand for six-cylinder cars alone would sink from 50% in the early 1970s to 33% in the early 1980s. A lot of the blame could be placed on rapidly increasing fuel prices throughout the 1970s; in 1979 alone, Australian oil prices shot up 140%.
“This is it, and this time I know it’s for real!”
GM-H decided to invest $110 million in developing a new, smaller line of family cars for the Australian market. The first Commodore was an interesting hybrid. The body was based on the Opel Rekord E, with the front end from the six-cylinder Senator. Extensive strengthening of the body structure to meet the rugged Australian conditions was undertaken. The wagon’s rear sheet metal actually had to be imported from Germany. Underneath, the Commodore would be an amalgamation of Opel and existing Holden engineering.
The chassis was based on the Opel’s: it featured Holden’s first use of MacPherson struts up front and a solid rear axle with coil springs at the back. Steering was rack-and-pinion, and even the base Commodore had power-assisted brakes; a six-cylinder Commodore weighed around 2700lbs. Of course, the Commodore enjoyed extensive suspension tuning and durability improvements to survive on the harsh Australian continent, to the point where parts commonality with the Opels was significantly reduced.
In the engine bay sat a choice of Holden engines. Rather than launch new engines, Holden retained the existing 2.8 and 3.3 inline sixes and 4.2 and 5.0 V8s. These engines were referred to as “Red” engines; the sixes dated back to 1963, the V8s to 1968. New emissions controls meant these engines lost a bit of their zest and weren’t especially economical. Power output was 86hp and 89hp for the sixes; the 4.2 V8 had 117hp or 129hp with the dual exhaust, and the 5.0 V8 had 153hp.
Measuring 185.2 inches, with a 105 in. wheelbase and a width of 67.8 in., the Commodore had a much smaller footprint than its predecessor. The HZ, in sedan form, was 190.7 inches long with a 111 in. wheelbase and a width of 74.5 in. To lend some perspective, the GM X-Body was 196.7 in, riding an identical wheelbase to the HZ but slightly narrower at 72.2 inches. Despite the Commodore’s smaller size, it retained 96% of the HZ’s interior room.
The VB Commodore was met with immediate critical and commercial acclaim upon its launch. It became the best-selling car in Australia for 1979, and also won Wheels’ prestigious Car of the Year award despite the carryover engines. Wheels was rich in its praise of the VB, particularly its ride quality, brakes and handling, and declared, “The Commodore is a car we can be proud of, a car to compare with any (and we mean any) from Europe. Meet a new and very different Holden.”
Holden had hedged its bets, however, by keeping the HZ Holdens in production a full two years after the Commodore launched. And as there had been no ute or long-wheelbase sedan Commodore variants developed, the HZ Holden ute and Statesman – tweaked and now labelled WBs – continued into the mid-1980s. A revised WB-series version of the HZ sedan and wagon was mooted, but GM decreed the Australian market too small for such a broad line-up and instead invested more in promoting the Commodore as the new family car Holden.
The initial lineup consisted of base and SL sedan and wagon, and SL/E sedan. The base model came standard with the 2.8 six and a four-speed manual, as well as vinyl seats and silver instrument panel surround. You could upgrade your base Commodore with the 4.2 V8 or 3.3 six, the latter of which came standard in the mid-range SL, along with more exterior brightwork, woodgrain trim, corded cloth seats, and extra gauges.
The range-topping SL/E was 4.2 or 5.0 V8 only, and all V8s came with standard four-wheel disc brakes and power steering. The flagship also boasted blackout trim, 15-inch alloy wheels, headlight washers, air-conditioning, velour trim and cut-pile carpet. You could get the 5.0 V8 with a choice of American transmissions, the Turbo-Hydramatic 350 or 400, and SL/Es could still be optioned with a manual transmission as well as central locking and power windows. An SL/E so equipped would be a sight to see today!
The VC revision of 1980, recognizable by its subtler eggcrate grille, would help partially rectify the VB’s biggest failings: its hoary old engines. The six cylinder heads were redesigned and each cylinder received its own intake and exhaust port. New camshafts, pistons, improved exhaust manifolds and a new carburetor and electronic ignition rounded out the changes, which improved power by 25% and fuel efficiency by 15%. As the improvements weren’t immediately visible in the engine bay, Holden painted the engine blocks blue. Thus, these revised engines were known as the “Blue” engines.
But the VC’s other mechanical change was ignominious. A new, ostensibly more economical base engine was fitted: a 1.9 four cylinder known as “Starfire” but popularly known as “Misfire”. This engine was created by lopping two cylinders off the aged 2.8 six, rather than developing a new engine or sourcing one from overseas. The Commodore four was criticized heavily for a poor power-to-weight ratio that negated any theoretical fuel savings. Curiously, this maligned engine was also used in locally-assembled Toyota Coronas of this period.
VC performance ranged from poor (Starfire four) to good (5.0 V8). The former was ‘good’ for a 0-60mph of approximately 17.5 seconds, while the range-topping 5.0 did it roughly 10 seconds. The VC generation also saw the first HDT – Holden Dealer Team, after famous racing driver Peter Brock’s company-sponsored racing team – with a special bodykit, tuned suspension and a souped-up 5.0, putting out 214hp. Just 500 of these were built, with the SL/E’s cushy velour interior and a choice of three Marlboro-inspired paint colors: Palais White, Firethorn Red or Tuxedo Black. Various engine modifications were done to yield the extra power, including larger valves, a reshaped combustion chamber, and a larger radiator. Out back, there was a heavy-duty limited slip differential. These were the progenitor of today’s HSVs, and they scooted pretty well in their day: 0-60 was roughly 8.4 seconds.
The Commodore effectively supplanted the larger Holdens after 1980, but it also spelled the end of the smaller Torana/Sunbird. Redesigned for 1974 and shedding a lot of its heritage Vauxhall underpinnings, the Torana/Sunbird (the latter nameplate was used on four-cylinder models) had crisp, European styling and did battle with the rear-wheel-drive Toyota Corona, Mitsubishi Sigma and Nissan Bluebird, as well as the Ford Cortina. However, its main point of difference was an optional V8. The UC revision of 1978 would see the axing of that V8, though, to give the Commodore some breathing room, although the UC would enjoy quite competent handling thanks to GM-H’s new Radial Tuned Suspension.
Therein lay the rub. Holden quickly realised there was no space for both the Torana/Sunbird and the Commodore, especially with the VC’s new base four-cylinder. Although the Commodore was bigger than the Torana/Sunbird and certainly more space efficient owing to its more modern design, it was not remarkably bigger than the very cars its little brother competed with. This small footprint had been desirable during the time of rising fuel prices, but what goes up must come down.
Of course, what happened in the US in the early 1980s also happened in Australia. The easing of the fuel crisis allayed consumers’ concerns about buying larger cars. Suddenly, the Falcon – which had never been downsized – looked a lot more appealing to Aussie buyers who had become accustomed to full-size sedans. The trimmer Commodore was thus squeezed in between the four-cylinder intermediates, which were growing with each generation, and the comfortably-sized Falcon. The end result was Falcon would leapfrog Commodore for the sales chart gold in 1982, and would hold that spot all the way until 1989.
Holden would revise the Commodore three more times during the 1980s before a new platform, once again provided by Opel, would be available. Each time, there was an emphasis put on making the Commodore look larger and more substantial. Between 1978 and 1981, Holden manufactured 217,713 VB and VC Commodores. Commodores were always popular with families, fleets and governments, so a lot of them have been rode hard and put out wet. Not to mention, rust-proofing wasn’t great. Next time, I hope to look at the VH Commodore, the car I, like many Australians of my generation, grew up in the back seat of.
Post script: Yes, that is my former chariot looming large in the background of the first shot. I took those photos a couple of years ago.