Curbside Classic: 1976-80 Holden LX & UC Torana/Sunbird – Think Of It As Australia’s Chevy Nova

(first posted 1/17/2017)     The similarities between the Torana and the Chevy Nova are plentiful. Both slotted in under larger models and yet they were not the smallest of their respective model ranges. Both had a history of performance editions, most of which were gone by the late 1970s. Both received handsome redesigns for the mid-1970s, and both were available in sedan, coupe and hatchback bodies. And both the Nova and Torana were axed in 1979 to make way for front-wheel-drive replacements.

The Torana story started in the 1960s like the Nova’s. General Motors-Holden had been receiving and assembling CKD kits of the Vauxhall Viva, as well as other foreign GM models like the Chevrolet Impala. GM-H decided to eliminate other GM brands from the Australian market, and so the Viva became a Holden Torana in 1967. There were few differences between the Holden and its Vauxhall counterpart but for a unique four-door variant introduced in 1968.

In 1969, GM-H introduced the LC series Torana. While it still utilized the existing HB floorpan, the wheelbase was extended for a new six-cylinder offering; four-cylinder models retained the old wheelbase length and front sheetmetal. The new styling was very reminiscent of the ‘big’ Holdens.

While there had been sporty Toranas before, things got more interesting with the launch of a GTR model and an even more exciting GTR XU-1. The latter had a tri-carb version of the Torana’s 186 cubic-inch six producing 160 hp, as well as a body kit featuring a spoiler, styled road wheels and graphics. The XU-1 had been built with the race track in mind and was homologated for series production racing at Bathurst. Later models received a larger 202 cubic-inch six with 190 hp.

In 1974, GM-H introduced a new Torana with crisp, almost European sheetmetal that resembled that of the new 1975 Chevrolet Nova. Like the Nova had been offering for years, GM-H added an optional V8 engine; the Torana could afford to move slightly upmarket thanks to the arrival of the new T-Car Gemini. The LH therefore saw an increase in dimensions, and featured a twin wishbone front suspension like the big Holdens and trailing arms and coil springs at the rear. It was still smaller than the US-market Nova – total length was almost 20 inches shorter at 177.5 inches, on a 10-inch shorter wheelbase – but then everything was always a bit bigger in the US.

What was rather American was the sheer variety of engines on offer. Base models came with an imported Opel 1900 four-cylinder, while optional engines ranged from 2.85 and 3.3 six-cylinder units to 4.2 and 5.0 V8 engines. However, most Toranas left the factory with six-cylinder engines under the hood; V8 models in non-performance trim were rare. The 5.0 V8 was worth the extra cost, though: output was 250 hp at 5,000 rpm and 320 ft-lbs at 3,400 rpm, hauling around a body weighing only around 2700 lbs. It could be selected in sporty SL/R 5000 trim; the SL/R package was also available with the 3.3 six and 4.2 V8.

In 1976, GM North America debuted the Pontiac Sunbird. The same year, GM-H copied the name and used it on the mildly-revised LX-series Torana, specifically the four-cylinder models; cars badged Torana were henceforth equipped only with six- or eight-cylinder engines.

Another name reused down under was Radial Tuned Suspension, as Holden recalibrated the springs and dampers of their models to make them handle better after a misguided dalliance with cushy suspension tuning; RTS was rolled out to the Sunbird range in ’76 and the Torana in ‘77. Front stabilizer bars, previously optional, were now standard on all models.

The SS trim line also appeared in Australia, used exclusively on the new Torana hatchback. This was basically the hatch equivalent of the sedan’s sporty SL/R trim, while both sedan and hatchback also came in a cheaper SL trim. However, the hatch’s more upscale positioning meant it did without the entry-level S model, column-mounted three-speed manual and the smaller of the two sixes. Instead, LX Torana hatches — including the SS — were available with either the 3.3 six (as seen in the featured car) or the two V8s. Like the Chevy Nova hatch, the Torana and Sunbird hatches could be purchased with a ‘Hatch-Hutch’ tent for camping.

Unique to the SL/R and SS Torana was this satin silver dash finish. All SS hatches, even those with the 3.3 six, received the SL/R 5000’s aggressive front spoiler. However, they did without that car’s extremely 1970s exterior graphics that spelt out ‘SL/R 5000’ in large, high-impact type.

The hatchback had been intended to launch with the 1974 LH series but had been delayed. A wagon was also planned, which would have been the Torana’s first offering of such a body style, but this never eventuated. Early prototypes of the hatchback show a more Vega-esque rear.

The LX was the most desirable Torana yet, thanks to the crisp styling, available hatchback, vastly improved handling courtesy of RTS, and available V8 engines. The A9X, another homologation special, was the ne plus ultra of Torana handling and performance. Fitted with a stronger rear axle, the Torana’s first use of rear disc brakes, and a hood scoop, the A9X package was available on both the SL/R 5000 sedan and the SS 5.0 hatch.

In 1978, GM-H launched the featured UC Torana and its Sunbird stablemate. Gone were the SS, A9X, SL-R and both V8 engines. Handling had been dramatically improved over 1976-77, remarkably with almost no penalty to ride quality, but now the power was being snuffed out.

The V8 had been a victim of efficiency—V8 models had required extensive structural revisions that added weight, and GM-H had wanted to make the Sunbird and Torana lighter and therefore more fuel efficient. Room also had to be made for the new 1978 VB Commodore, smaller than previous ‘big’ Holdens and available with six- and eight-cylinder engines.

In trying to more directly target the hot-selling four-cylinder Japanese mid-sizers, like the Toyota Corona, GM-H had alienated the enthusiasts. Despite having offered sporty Toranas and Sunbirds before, even without V8 engines, there was no factory sports trim in the UC series.

It got worse: the Opel 1900, itself no firecracker with 96 hp at 5200 rpm and 116 ft-lbs at 3600 rpm, was replaced shortly after the UC’s launch with the new 1.9 Starfire four. This was simply a Holden six cut down in size and mustered a measly 80 hp and 103 ft-lbs.

The sixes were much stouter—the 2.85 and 3.3 both produced around 100-120 hp, depending on the transmission and option code, while torque was in the 150-160 ft-lb range for the smaller engine and 185 ft-lbs for the 3.3. The extra $500-600 on top of the Sunbird’s price was arguably worth it.

GM-H’s rugged and simple products of the 1970s are easily modified and although the ranks are thinning, the roads used to be littered with modified Toranas and Geminis. This could possibly have started out as a sluggish Sunbird, with the anemic Starfire ripped out and bigger wheels fitted as often happened with Chevy Novas back in the day. By the time of the UC, Holden didn’t bother to visually differentiate their four- and six-cylinder models other than badging.

Here’s an unmodified UC, a Torana SL hatchback with the 3.3 six. Underscoring the increasing importance of the mid-size four-cylinder segment in Australia, only the four-cylinder Sunbird was available in posh SL/E trim during the UC’s run. A DeLuxe option package was offered for the Torana SL sedan, however, offering full instrumentation, front and rear bumper over-riders and tinted windows.

The standard transmission in all Sunbirds and the Torana SL was a four-speed manual sourced from the Philippines. The base Torana S featured a column-mounted three-speed manual and a front bench seat. Holden’s three-speed Tri-Matic auto was optional on all models—column-shifted on the Torana S, console-mounted on the others.

The Torana had been thoroughly redesigned for 1974 and yet in 1979, it was axed; the Sunbird followed the year after. By Australian standards, this was a relatively short production run for a platform. But GM-H had considered extending the production run of the platform and continuing the Torana/Sunbird line on into the 1980s.

As I mentioned in my article on the WB Statesman, Holden was in a state of flux in the late 1970s. GM-H executives were weighing up their options for the 1980s—embrace proven, old platforms, or bet the farm on smaller, more modern, European platforms? The fuel crises of the 1970s undoubtedly persuaded GM-H to follow the option that resulted in the most economical vehicles.

GM-H did produce mock-ups of a Torana-based five-door hatchback codenamed the ‘VA’. This didn’t appear to progress beyond the clay model stage. As you can see, its styling is rather ungainly, as though a Citation roofline was planted on a Torana body.

Despite rear-wheel-drive proportions, the side view is scarcely easier on the eyes.

The VA plan was rejected in favor of the first Commodore, which was met with commercial success. Holden engineered another revision of the Torana/Sunbird, known as the UD, but it was stillborn, perhaps due to concerns about cannibalization of the new Commodore. The Commodore was only around 10 inches longer than the Torana and less than inch wider, after all, so such fears were valid.

Holden added the Starfire four to the 1980 VC facelift of their Commodore to serve as somewhat of an interim replacement for the Sunbird, despite its much higher price. The real replacement for the Torana/Sunbird came in 1982 with Holden’s version of the GM J-Car, the Camira. With efficient FWD packaging and modern styling, not to mention class-leading handling, the Camira was a fitting replacement (although tarnished by some quality issues and a weak engine at launch). Alas, the Camira never attained the enthusiast following of the Torana. Never underestimate the desirability of a V8 engine option and simple rear-wheel-drive mechanicals. That’s the reason why so many Toranas, Sunbirds and Chevy Novas went on to become the prized possessions of hoons.

Related Reading:

Carshow Classic: 1964 Vauxhall Viva HA Saloon – Viva Vauxhall?

Car Show Classic: 1978 Vauxhall Cavalier Sportshatch

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