(first posted 8/27/2015) The WB Statesman represented the last old-school Holden before GM’s Australian division fully embraced the downsized, European-derived Commodore and the modern, front-wheel-drive J-Body Camira. An attractive refresh of the existing Statesman – not Holden Statesman, as these were marketed as the “Statesman by General Motors-Holden” – the WB-series would be the last truly full-size luxury sedan manufactured by Holden until 1990.
The WB Statesman arrived at a tumultuous time. The oil crisis had rattled the Australian car industry. Chrysler’s Valiant was axed after 1981 due to sagging sales. Japanese automakers were increasing their presence, with Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan investing heavily in local production.
In the late 1970s, former GM-H Director of Public Affairs Evan Green was working as a journalist. Interviewing Sir Brian Inglis, then head of Ford Australia, he found the oil crisis had cast a pall over the man. Sir Brian even went so far as to say in the interview that Ford was “stuck with the Falcon”.
How fortunes change. As the oil crisis subsided, buyers flocked to larger cars. The faltering Falcon was now soaring and ascended to the top of the sales podium. The smaller Commodore that had been so popular at launch was still selling, but the Falcon was selling better.
WA/WB sedan prototype. Interestingly, this photo had it labelled as a “WB Calais”, presaging the arrival of that nameplate several years later.
Holden had contemplated continuing the lower-rung big Holdens for a “WA” generation so that it could sell a traditional, full-size offering to consumers unwilling to downsize. American-born GM-H design chief, Leo Pruneau, was tasked with designing a refresh of the existing (HZ) Holden. Pruneau’s previous works had included the 1965 Opel Diplomat and the 1965 HD Holden, and he had worked closely with GM design chief Bill Mitchell. The WA sedan was to migrate to the larger Statesman body and floorpan, while the wagon would retain the existing body but feature new front sheetmetal.
Ultimately, the Kingswood sedan and wagon prototypes still looked old-hat. This was especially apparent if you compared them to the XD Falcon which, although featuring many carryover components from its predecessor, boasted clean, European lines.
WA/WB Kingswood prototype (above), HZ Statesman (below)
GM was unwilling to shell out more money for a more extensive makeover, and the basic Kingswood platform dated back to the 1971 HQ Holden anyway. Furthermore, GM didn’t see an investment in two separate family car model lines as being worthwhile for such a small market.
Besides, GM-H was willing to take a bold risk. In the late 1970s, it was a profitable division of the General Motors empire. While Ford executives were ruefully committing to a large Australian sedan that was looking too big and too thirsty for a market grappling with inflated petrol prices, Holden had a slick new, right-sized Commodore. The WA Kingswood project was dumped, and only the ute and Statesman would receive a revision and live past 1980.
At first it may seem odd that GM was unwilling to fork over more money for the revised big Holdens, considering the division’s profitability and market dominance. One needs to consider, though, that Holden was storming into a new decade with gusto. The Commodore had launched in 1978 and cost $AUD110 million to develop; although it looked similar to the Opel Rekord, it had been heavily Australianized. Holden had also invested $AUD300 million dollar in a new four-cylinder engine plant at Fisherman’s Bend, and was about to launch the radical new Camira which would be Holden’s first front-wheel-drive car. A revised Kingswood was a low priority for a division that was taking so many bold steps. In fact, Holden had even considered replacing the Kingswood and substituting the Commodore with a front-wheel-drive, J-derived model!
Pruneau may not have been able to fashion a modern and attractive Kingswood with the money and metal he had to work with, but he redeemed himself with the WB Statesman. Featuring a new, six-light glasshouse and a 3-inch longer, squared-off roofline, the Statesman was crisp and somewhat American in design. Importantly, it looked more prestigious than its arch-rivals, the Ford Fairlane and LTD, which looked far too similar to the Falcon they were derived from.
From the HZ, only the Statesman’s windscreen, hood, front doors and front quarter panels carried over. It was that last part that frustrated Pruneau, as he felt the HZ’s creased fenders were ill-suited to the crisp, sheer-look lines on his WB. To conceal this crease, WB Statesmans wore ugly, thick rub strips on their flanks.
Inside, the WB had a brand new interior with a wider center console and standard bucket seats. The longer roofline resulted in extra headroom, and Holden engineers in turn moved the rear seat back further and secured additional rear legroom. The base DeVille had black dash trim and soft cord cloth on the seats, while the more expensive Caprice featured walnut dash applique and velour trim (leather was a no-cost option).
DeVille models had standard air-conditioning, 14-inch wheels, thick carpets, rear air-conditioning vents and power mirrors, and initially retailed for $AUD14,790. You could option cruise control and power windows, or select the $19,769 Caprice on which those items were standard fitment. The Caprice also had larger and more attractive 15-inch wheels and a different grille. Optional on both models was a limited slip differential as well as an Outback Equipment Package. The big Holdens were priced higher than their Ford rivals, and were in the same price strata as luxury Europeans.
The only engine offering was Holden’s 308-cubic inch V8, producing 168 hp at 4400rpm and 266 ft-lbs at 2800rpm and featuring a 4-bbl Rochester Quadrajet carburettor. The only transmission was the Turbo Hydramatic 350 three-speed automatic, although this was replaced in 1981 with the locally-manufactured TriMatic.
Thanks to the efforts of Chief Engineer Joe Whitesell and his deputy, Peter Hanenberger, Holden had recommitted itself to handling prowess and launched “Radial Tuned Suspension” in the 1977 HZ Holden. Accordingly, the WB still featured little logos advertising the much-publicized feature. These cars may have been large – around 9 inches shorter than a Chevy Caprice, roughly the same width and with a 2 inch shorter wheelbase – but they weren’t complete land yachts to drive. Front suspension was independent with short and long arms, while out back was a four-link liver rear axle with coil springs. Four-wheel disc brakes were standard, as was power steering using a recirculating ball set-up. These weren’t exciting handlers, but they were pleasant to drive with a hushed interior and plenty of low-end grunt from the smooth V8.
The WB Statesman was a fitting capstone to a long line of flagship Holdens. Holden had come a long way from its first luxury flagship, the maligned 1968 Brougham, which was effectively a Premier with a longer trunk but no increase in wheelbase.
The WB also sold reasonably well. From its launch in 1980 until 1983, 5,450 Statesman de Villes and 3,055 Statesman Caprices were produced. WB Series II production, from late 1983 until 1985, comprised 4,269 de Villes and 1,153 Caprices. For traditional Holden buyers, the WB was a very satisfactory update on the existing, proven platform. For Holden’s coffers, the WB was likely a profitable venture thanks to its low development costs and high list price.
For a car that seemingly earned an eleventh-hour stay of execution, the WB had been a modest success thanks to the easing of fuel prices. Holden executives would have wished the rest of their lineup had been so successful. The Camira had received accolades and extremely flattering press coverage, but its quality control left a lot to be desired. Holden’s warranty claims soared by 60% between 1982 and 1985. The T-Car Gemini was losing to the modern, front-wheel-drive Ford Laser in the sales race and its replacement, the 1985 RB Gemini (Isuzu I-Mark) was a flop and lasted only two years. Finally, Holden’s old inline six and V8 engines were becoming increasingly hard to adapt to emissions standards, and the former ended up being axed for Nissan-sourced sixes in 1986. The less said about Holden’s worst engine, the “Starfire” four created by hacking down the Holden six, the better. Ford had managed to out-flank Holden not only with its traditional large car, but also with its modern, FWD offerings.
From 1985 until 1990, if you wanted a luxurious Holden you would have had to settle for the most luxurious trim level of the Commodore, the Calais. But although the Calais was smaller than the WB Statesman, between 1986 and 1988 it was available with a Nissan-sourced, turbocharged inline six and a sporty, semi-hidden headlight front. Those older, more conservative buyers turned off by this very different kind of flagship may well have wandered over to a Ford dealer and purchased a more traditional Fairlane/LTD.
The Statesman name would return with the 1990 Holden VQ Statesman (no longer marketed as a separate marque), a stretched version of the VN Commodore. The new VQ was a pleasant and modern offering, but it suffered from the same issue that affected the 1980s Ford Fairlane and LTD: it looked too close to the plebeian sedan it was based on.
Eventually, Holden’s prestige full-size line would receive more ostentatious and expressive styling, but none ever topped the square-rigged WB for sheer presence. What a beaut, indeed.