Curbside Classic: 1982-89 Holden Camira – The Thrill Of Writing About J-Cars

(first posted 1/18/2018)        Five years ago today, I published my first article here on Curbside Classic. The subject was the Holden Camira, Australia’s version of the GM J-Car. I couldn’t believe it… I had found a site where I could write about something as mundane as a Holden Camira, and people would actually read my work. Even comment on it! What was this amazing site?

The second series of Camira, the JD

It’s funny, one of the first people to comment on my article was evidently a die-hard Camira fan. They exist, apparently. He had some pretty harsh words about my piece. I can’t remember what they were, exactly. It was so long ago, y’know. One can’t dwell on these things…

“‘An interesting and well-written article’ NOT! It is full of generalisations and errors and the “facts” presented seem to be entirely taken from very subjective motoring media reports” Maybe. Something like that, I barely remember…

Looking back, that article was a bit rough. My writing wasn’t as succinct then as it is now. My photographs were abysmal. And calling the Camira “short-lived” was a misnomer when it was sold for as long as almost every J-Car outside of the Americas. But Paul allowed me to share that piece as he’s allowed so many contributors to do, and he gave me feedback and helped me develop my writing skills. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

Fun fact: the only time I’ve ever been called out by a stranger for photographing a Curbside Classic was when I shot this red Camira.

And seriously, an article on a Camira? You’ve really gotta be impressed by this site, that such mundane cars can enjoy their moment in the spotlight. I’ve written about cars as humdrum as the Daewoo Nubira and the Daihatsu Applause. It’s remarkable, really.

The first series of Camira, the JB

The Camira may not be in anybody’s dream car garage but it is a crucial part of the Holden story. So, did I miss anything last time?

Getting involved in the J-Car project allowed Holden to bring to market their first front-wheel-drive vehicle and their most advanced car yet. Despite its only engine being a small OHC 1.6 four-cylinder, the Camira produced about as much power as the 2.0 fours in rival, rear-wheel-drive Japanese rivals, if less torque, while weighing less and boasting superior packaging. Automotive journalists also raved about the car’s excellent dynamics, especially when compared with its often stodgy, old-tech rivals.

You can actually buy a shirt with this promo photo on it on Redbubble. Of course I bought it…

One of the criticisms levelled at the Camira, however, was the lack of torque from the 1.6. Like many of GM’s questionable business decisions in the 1980s, the 1.6 was locked in when fuel prices were through the roof and another oil crisis seemed a foregone conclusion. Although Holden exported the 1.6 around the world, the plant encountered heavy losses and ran at only 60% capacity some years. This was a further thorn in Holden’s side as they endured a rocky 1980s, then setting the record for the largest losses of an Australian company—that expensive new engine plant certainly didn’t help the balance sheets. Market share had nosedived from 28% in 1979 to just 18% in 1983, while the Japanese nearly doubled their market share during that time.

Fuel prices had fallen back to earth, the anticipated V8 extinction event never happened, and bigger engines (and bigger cars) were popular again. This was arguably the beginning of the end of the mid-size segment in Australia. While cars like the Camira, Toyota Corona, Nissan Bluebird and Mitsubishi Sigma were consistently top 10 sellers, the following decade would see this segment decimated by larger and increasingly comfortable compacts from below and the perennially popular Commodore and Falcon from above.

The revised JD Camira of 1984 received a larger, fuel-injected Family II 1.8 with 28 more horsepower and 8 more pound-feet of torque, just as Australia was about to switch to unleaded petrol. This brought the Camira back to square one, effectively—the Camira switched back to a carbureter and lost all 28 of its extra horses and most of its extra torque. Ouch.

The third series of Camira, the JE

Fortunately, the JE series of 1987 brought a still-larger engine – a fuel-injected 2.0, finally – which restored those missing horses to the Camira while giving a hearty bump in torque (up to 130 ft-lbs). Still boasting a relatively light curb weight (2400 lbs), the Camira was once again quite zippy and could hit 60mph in around 10 seconds.

For all the hullabaloo about the J-Car platform being a “world car”, there was little enthusiasm within GM to do it all again. Isuzu and Opel/Vauxhall went their separate ways, leaving Holden with no affordable way to develop a replacement Camira. That is, until Holden and Toyota entered into a joint venture. Camira came and went and Apollo landed in Australia, a Camry with different badging and lights. It sold worse than the Camira, shifting around 5500 annual units. Holden had originally considered calling it Camira and perhaps it should have as, for better or worse, that badge had name recognition.

Although early Camiras encountered issues with headgaskets and smoky engines, those issues were largely resolved over the years. Alas, that lingering reputation of poor quality remains—whether the Camira was built any worse than other Aussie cars is debatable, although it’s interesting how Toyota topped the quality charts even with its Aussie-built models. Some companies simply have a greater dedication to quality control.

The European versions of the J-Car had become overnight successes, while the Camira’s story had many parallels with the American J-Car. Both initially failed to meet ambitious sales projections. Both deviated from the European J-Cars in terms of suspension design (the Camira used an adapted RWD T-Car rear suspension). Both initially featured underwhelming engines. Neither developed an especially credible reputation for quality or reliability. The similarities end there, however. While the Cavalier was repositioned and saw its sales take off, the Camira faltered on the market. In 1983, Holden sold 33,193 of them. Just three years later, that number was down to 10,377.

At launch, Holden anticipated the Camira could become their best-selling car in an increasingly economy-conscious market. It never did. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Holden as, despite the disappointing sales performance of the Camira and its successor, Holden managed to reverse its market share slide.

It was true five years ago and it’s still true today: it’s much more interesting to write about a car that didn’t meet its creator’s expectations. For that reason, it’s been strangely thrilling to write about cars like the FAW F1, Fiat Regata, and the Nissan Pintara. I’ll leave the Ferrari and Lamborghini articles to those who can truly do them justice. Thank you, Paul, for affording me the purview to write about the disappointing, the obscure, the forgettable, and the forgotten. On what other website can you find two articles about the Holden Camira?

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