Curbside Classic: 1990-94 Holden VQ Statesman/Caprice – The Admirals To The General’s Commodore

When General Motors-Holden axed the WB Statesman and Caprice in 1984, they effectively handed the segment to Ford and its Fairlane and LTD twins. That left the Commodore was their largest sedan but, while the car was stretched longer and longer as it evolved from VB to VL, it was never widened. That would change with the ’88 VN series, which also led to the resurrection of the Statesman and Caprice names for a new flagship line.

A healthy three inches wider, the VN Commodore was an amalgam of the existing Commodore platform and the Opel Omega A. Holden had bet the farm on the smaller Commodore which, with fuel prices at their peak in the late 1970s, seemed like a cracker idea. Then fuel prices fell and the big Ford Falcon’s sales shot up, overtaking the Commodore. To add insult to injury, Holden had not only ceded the luxury sedan segment to Ford, it had also given them the ute segment when they axed the WB-series Utility in 1984.

The full-size, Australian luxury sedan was the car of choice for limousine companies, Prime Ministers and staunch traditionalists who wouldn’t dare buy a more expensive, less powerful German car. While the Commodore-based Calais offered the plush trim and amenities expected by those buyers, it was considerably smaller than the big Fairlane and LTD.

VQ Statesman

In 1990, Holden roared back into the ute and full-size luxury sedan segments with the VG Utility and the VQ Statesman and Caprice. The VQ cars were the first Aussie-built cars to feature an independent rear suspension, something later introduced to the Commodore line with the ’91 VP series. The semi-trailing arm and coil spring rear suspension was loosely derived from that of the Opel Omega and Senator; unlike the Opels, the Commodore would retain a live rear axle. Statesmans used Monroe shocks and a 16mm stabilizer bar at the rear, while Caprices had Bilstein gas shocks and a 15mm bar.

VQ Caprice with aftermarket wheels

Statesman and Caprice used the same 111.25 inch wheelbase as the Commodore wagon, four inches longer than that of the sedan, and engineers widened the track by just over an inch. Although the Commodore’s V6 was later offered in the Statesman, the VQs were initially available only with the fuel-injected 5.0 Holden V8 with 221 hp and 283 ft-lbs. Despite a curb weight of around 3500 lbs, the V8 still allowed the VQs to reach 60 mph in around 9 seconds. The only transmission was the smooth-shifting Turbo-Hydramatic 700 four-speed automatic.

The Statesman and Caprice were recognizably different from the Commodore due to their longer bodies and unique roofline. However, there was still a strong and perhaps uncomfortable familial resemblance, Holden using the same headlights, taillights, door skins, hood, and front fenders. The Caprice did receive a fetching waterfall grille, however, as well as some nicer wheels. More cosmetic changes had been planned during development but were nixed due to Holden’s perilous financial situation during the 1980s. When the VN Commodore was launched and sales took off, Holden suddenly had more funds available for the VQ twins but it was too late to make any significant exterior changes. It would take until the 1994 VR series for the Statesman and Caprice to once again have a truly unique appearance.

A VQ Caprice with what looks like late-2000s HSV wheels

The Statesman and Caprice were rather subdued in appearance, more so than the often imposing and American-inspired long-wheelbase Holdens of yore. North Americans, however, might have noticed a strong similarity between the VQ’s roofline and that of some their local GM products: the Saturn SL and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.

Statesman (left) and Caprice (right) interiors

Then there was the interior, which was far too close to that of the Commodore. There was nicer cloth upholstery and more features, of course, but the dashboard design was the same. At least the Caprice spruced things up with some real black bean wood trim on the dash, steering wheel, and door panels as well as a choice of velour or leather trim. There were some puzzling omissions for a luxury model though, including the lack of steering wheel height and reach adjustment and power-assisted front seats. The Caprice countered, however, with luxury touches like roof-mounted rear cabin audio controls with headphones.

Holden and Ford had both released dramatically overhauled large cars in 1988 and both had immediately been criticized for quality control issues. Even the more expensive Statesman and Caprice suffered from build quality issues and a rather creaky structure, and body twist and movement was exacerbated by the extra length of these models. It would take both Ford and Holden until 1992-93 to get those issues under control.

While the Statesman/Caprice and Fairlane/LTD all lacked the polish of Japanese luxury sedans, the Holden duo were widely regarded as dynamically superior to the Fords. Additionally, Holden offered a V8 while the Fairlane/LTD were initially I6-only, Ford having dropped their V8 engine in the 1980s only to bring it back in 1991. Where the Fords held the upper hand was in sheer space, measuring 1.73 inches wider and 3.74 inches longer in the wheelbase. The Holdens still had superior rear legroom, however.

The Caprice had a much nicer cabin than the Statesman, even if the Commodore resemblance remained strong, and also had a marginally softer ride due to different rear dampers and a fractionally smaller rear stabilizer bar. You paid for the extra luxury, however, as the Caprice fell afoul of the Luxury Car Tax and cost a staggering $AUD17,000 more than the Statesman and $4k more than a Ford LTD. For its $56k price tag, you could have bought both a Statesman and a Toyota Corolla. Only around 15% of VQ buyers chose the Caprice.

Those seeking more power and exclusivity could purchase the first long-wheelbase luxury sedans to be tuned by Holden’s fledgling performance outfit, Holden Special Vehicles (HSV).

HSV produced 135 Statesman SV90s between 1990 and 1991, followed by 50 Statesman 5000i sedans between 1991 and 1992. Both used a more powerful version of the Holden V8 with 241 hp as well as a firmer suspension tune and various cosmetic tweaks.

A Series II revision arrived in December 1991, coinciding with the revised VP Commodore’s launch and including its minor suspension tweaks and the VP Calais’ speed-sensitive power steering. HSV offered two versions of the VQ II, the SV93 and the 268 hp Statesman 5000i. Most importantly, anti-lock brakes were finally available as an option on the Statesman and fitted as standard to the Caprice. The Statesman now had the Commodore’s 3.8 V6 as a credit option along with a rare column-shift/front bench option. Another new option was an electronically-controlled, self-levelling rear suspension. The Caprice also finally had power-adjustable front seats and ditched the standard velour trim for leather. It was the 1990s now, after all.

Only the Fairlane and LTD came close to the VQ twins in terms of luxury appointments, power and sheer size. These domestic luxury sedans were in a class of their own, equivalently sized and powered Japanese and European imports costing tens of thousands more. Those more expensive sedans may have often been better built and more refined but the VQ twins were well-suited to Australian conditions with plenty of low-end torque and a comfortable ride.

Ford ultimately had the upper hand, though, even if they had the inferior product. They’d had the segment to themselves for several years and had loyal buyers. The Fairlane and LTD also looked very different to the Falcon they were derived from. Those two factors were enough to ensure the Fords remained dominant. In 1991 and 1993, Ford shifted just over double the number of Fairlanes as Holden did Statesmans; the divide was less marked between the LTD and the Caprice but the market still favored the Ford. It would take until the 1994 VR for Holden to threaten the Ford, the two arch rivals neck-and-neck in sales through the rest of the decade.

The real threat to the Statesman and Caprice wasn’t the Ford, however. Sure, both the Ford and Holden twins had a few good years left in the 1990s and early 2000s but after that, sales winnowed away. The market had opened up, tariffs had disappeared, and the cachet of German nameplates proved increasingly alluring. Once a status symbol among Australian executives, the Statesman/Caprice and Fairlane/LTD lost relevance with private buyers.

In the early 1990s, when a full-size Australian luxury sedan meant you had made it, the Statesman and Caprice struggled. If the Commodore hadn’t existed, the VQ twins would have looked rather appealing. Alas, there was a Commodore, it was several thousand dollars cheaper, and it looked the same inside and out except for a different roofline. The VQ was therefore a beachhead. Holden’s real attack would come with the VR.

VQ Statesman photographed in Virginia, Brisbane, QLD. VQ Caprices photographed in the Brisbane CBD and the Melbourne CBD.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1980-85 Statesman WB by General Motors-Holden – What a Beaut

Curbside Classic: 1994-95 Holden VR Caprice – Broughams Down Under

Curbside Classic: 1988-91 Holden VN Commodore – Revisiting the Opel Mine

Curbside Classic: 1988-95 Australian Ford Fairlane/LTD – Identifying The Common Lincs