Magazine Classic: 1986 Holden Commodore vs Europe – Challenging Teenage Perceptions II

Wheels Commodore test_Page_1 (click images for full size view)

Earlier this year, we here at the Royal Curbside Classic Towers celebrated Thunderbird Week by watching every episode. Oh, hang on, wrong Thunderbirds, rather than Gerry Anderson’s supermarionation masterpiece, we celebrated the life of the Ford Thunderbird. Although the Bird of Thunder was never available new here in New Zealand, I wrote about my teenage recollections of a 1987 T-Bird T-bo, tested in February 1987’s issue of Australia’s Wheels magazine. The test arose because Wheels had shipped an Aussie Holden to the USA to test against the Thunderbird, Mustang, Monte Carlo and Grand National.

Until I read the test, my young and impressionable self believed all American cars were outdated chintzy barges, but boy-oh-boy did the beautiful modern Aerobird change that perception! Despite being similarly thunderstruck by the Wonderbird’s looks, Wheels decreed the Commodore to be the comparison winner. This led to CCer Syke saying “You think they went all the way to the US to lose?…I do wonder how much of the results were actual comparison, and how much were, er, influenced by patriotic fervor” Good question, what did Wheels really expect? To help decide, let’s take a voyage back in time, to what 13-year-old me thought of the “Calais V8 vs Europe’s Top Sports Sedans” test that featured two months before the American comparo.


Calais in Vegas uh France

Back in December 1986, I’d turned 13 and had finished my junior school years. What a minefield adolescence is, and as I wrote in my previous article, one of my methods of dealing with it was to pore over my Great-Uncle Bill’s Wheels magazines as soon as he’d read them. 99% of the covers had photos taken in Australia, so December 1986’s issue stood out with its striking night shot of Aussie iron in front of French iron – the Eiffel Tower. Teenage me wondered what it was doing there, complete with its Aussie rego plate mate, so I excitedly ripped (figuratively) into the magazine.


Calais at, uh, Calais

As always, I started with then-editor Peter Robinson’s editorial. Robbo has just this year retired after 52 years with Wheels (and other titles) and is probably Australia’s most highly-esteemed motoring journalist.  I had – and still have – enormous respect for Robbo, I love his writing style, his clarity, his honesty. Even though I was across the ditch in NZ, teenage me felt a surge of Australasian pride as Robbo wrote about how an Aussie Holden “could take on the Europeans and keep them honest”.

I nodded even more enthusiastically at his next sentence: “The concept of the local herocar challenging the rest of the world, and without any home ground advantage, brings out feelings of national pride…” I was simply gobsmacked to then read that Wheels had put words into action and had actually shipped a Commodore to Europe for a sports-car comparison test! As I wrote in Challenging Teenage Perceptions, inter-market comparisons simply didn’t happen in those days, so this was a unique event.


Superb 1980s font!

To provide a brief background before we leap into the magazine, General Motors’ Aussie arm, Holden, had been building the Commodore, their simplified but toughened version of the European Opel Commodore/Rekord/Senator, since 1978. I wrote about the Commodore’s family tree here. As well as 4- and 6-cylinder version, Holden also stuffed their 308 V8 into the Commodore. Many V8 Commodores were then modified by Holden’s semi-official racing team, HDT (Holden Dealer Team) into performance cars for road or race. HDT, owned by Aussie racing legend Peter Brock, enjoyed a close relationship with Holden who offered factory warranties on HDT cars until the unfortunate Great Polariser Debacle of 1987.

With the launch of the facelifted VL-series Commodore in 1986, HDT launched perhaps their most polished effort yet: the ‘Director’, based on the top-spec Commodore, the ‘Calais’. Although most Directors wore a gloriously ugly bodykit, Brocky’s personal Director wore the more subtle ‘LE’ bodykit. It was Brock’s personal car that Wheels took to Europe and then on to America.

Back to 1986, my 13-year-old self read how Wheels wanted to compare the Calais against the Mercedes-Benz 190 2.3-16, BMW M5, Ford Sierra Cosworth, Audi 200 Quattro and Lancia Thema 8.32. The thought of such exotica made my head spin! As it turned out, the Ferrari-engined Lancia didn’t eventuate as none were available, and the Audi was dropped due to being not sporting enough. So the final selection of cars was the Commodore, M5, Sierra and Mercedes. Nowadays the thought of comparing a Mondeo/Fusion (the Sierra’s grandson) with an M5 would be a joke, but back then they were serious competitors on performance if not price. Anyway, let’s see what teenage know-it-all me thought about the cars!

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M, to the power of 5: BMMMMMW

The BMW M5: Wheels reckoned its styling was bland, but I disagreed – it was far too ugly to be bland! I thought – and still think – the proportions were dodgy, with a too-long nose, a too-high roof and a too-narrow body.  I had seen the odd 5-series in New Zealand, and thought (and still think) they looked even dorkier in the metal than in Wheels‘ photos. The interior wasn’t bad – although having been raised in Volvos, I thought the M5’s door trims looked too slim to be safe.

I imagined myself being safely cocooned from side impacts in a thick-doored Volvo, but the M5’s thin doors practically invited cars in. Funny how your mind works when you’re a kid! Of course the M5’s Pièce de résistance (Stück Widerstand?!) was its fuel-injected 3.5 litre twin-cam straight-6 engine. Mmmmmm, such a glorious noise it must make I thought to myself. And with 213kW and 340Nm, it must be a rocketship! 0-100km/h tested at 6.6 seconds en route to a 243 maximum velocity. Ugly goes faaaaaast baby!

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So subtle it’s practically invisible. Tea tray on rear hatch useful for serving drinks at car shows.

The Sierra: I’ll admit my teenage bias here: I thought the Sierra was the most awesome car in the world! Why? Well in 1986 our family car was a 1983 MkV Ford Cortina 2.0 L wagon, the fifth Cortina my parents had owned. I loved the Cortinas (still do, the MkV is such a pretty car), and I knew the Sierra was the Cortina’s even better replacement. I longed for when Mum and Dad came to trade the Cortina on a spaceage Sierra.

That day did eventually arrive in 1989 – conveniently just as I got my learner driver licence! Ahhhhh *sits back and daydreams* Wait, where was I? Oh yeah, the Sierra, the most awesome car in the world. It was a top-seller in New Zealand in station wagon form and the Cosworth was also sold new here – albeit it at an eye-watering price of around NZ$95K (a Sierra 2.0 Ghia wagon was around NZ$27K at the time). Family friends had bought a Sierra Ghia wagon new in 1984; I’d travelled in it many times and was obsessed with the spaceage styling and spaceagier features inside and out – it even told you when your brake pads needed replacing! Wheels didn’t mention that feature, but they considered the 151kW/278Nm Cosworth “a performance bargain”, even its road behaviour was “busy”.

They suggested the styling “might be felt to be a trifle over the top”, but teenage me thought they must be really, really old guys as the styling was just perfect and that rear spoiler was, like, so cool! The engine might have been based on that featured in my parents’ humble Cortina, but the Cosworth blokes breathed hellfire and brimstone on it with a twin-cam 16-valve head and a large turbo. The Cossie was the fastest car to 80km/h, and second-fastest (to the M5) after that. Did I mention how cool that rear spoiler was?

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“Little red Corvette Calais …”

Next, the Commodore: I thought it looked passably modern, but having spent time in them, I knew the interior wasn’t the best quality. Gorgeous colour though, and its 345Nm made it the torquiest car on test, although its 137kW (1 more than the Merc) meant it was thoroughly thrashed on the drag strip by the M5 and Sierra. But it was the caption to the photo page (above) that really caught my young attention and left me confused. You see, the caption said “…styling, ride and handling all reflect a long history of adding-on to a design which basically is now a decade old. And in this company the Director showed its age”.

Wait, what? I’d enthusiastically read Robbo’s editorial about the “local herocar” keeping the Europeans honest and now they ‘re saying it’s old? This wasn’t panning out as bonza as I’d expected Robbo mate. Didn’t you ship the Commodore there to win? To paraphrase Syke, you surely didn’t go all that way to lose…did you? I need to read on…

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If you stare at the seat upholstery long enough, you’ll see a map of Nurburging.

Ok, the Mercedes: its inclusion puzzled me – HDT Commodores, M5s and Sierras were recognised performance cars in New Zealand at the time, but Mercedes-Benz produced solid and beautifully-made old-man’s cars, not performance saloons. As I read its specifications I remained puzzled – it didn’t seem to be in the same camp as the other cars. Oh sure, I knew 136kW from a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder was darn impressive for ’86, but where was the turbo?

The exterior was (and still is today) beautifully proportioned and very handsome – despite the questionably rectilinear add-on front, rear and side skirts – but did Mercedes really call that plastic thing on the bootlid a spoiler? As Crocodile Dundee almost said as he pointed from the Merc to the Sierra: “That’s not a spoiler, this is a spoiler!” And as for that seat trim, I went cross-eyed just thinking about it. Wheels seemed strangely impressed though, noting the “total package [was] a triumph of balance.” I’ll freely admit, at just-turned-13 I had no idea what ‘balance’ was, all I knew was it lacked a V8 or a turbo or a lairy spoiler, so it just wasn’t cool.

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Look, a loch!

Turning the page, I was still flummoxed. I had thought the slow Mercedes and ugly BMW would be also-rans, leaving the Hot Holden and Fast Ford in a traditionally-Australasian battle for dominance – as the beautiful photo suggested. Yet the test wasn’t shaping up along those lines at all – and in ways that a young teenager couldn’t fully comprehend. Apparently there was this thing called ‘dynamics’ which was a key part in testing the cars. Not being old enough to drive, I didn’t really understand the significance of finely tuned ride and handling. I knew what ride was – that thing that made Great-Uncle Bill’s Jag XJS comfy and his Vauxhall Shove-it (sorry, school boy humour) uh Chevette uncomfy (it was also unpowerful and unnice but that’s another story).

But handling? My only experience of handling was my childhood trolley, which had a two foot-power ScottyM™ engine and Arm-power© rope-steering that went exactly where and when I wanted – and could be persuaded to drift a bit on the grass too! Sure, I’d also been riding a Honda XR250 motorbike (with a real engine, gearbox and brakes and everything!) on the farm for 2-3 years too, but again, it went where I pointed it, and if it didn’t it was because I was too short to reach all the controls properly (I was tall enough to do really exciting jumps on it, but I digress). I knew I was also still too short for any of the cars Wheels tested too, but hey, a kid can dream can’t he? And oh, speaking of dreaming, that’s a nice-looking Celica in the ad next to the ‘Dynamics’ section *sits back and daydreams some more*

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Celica: a Silly-car no longer.

Back to Wheels, they reckoned the four sedans were “fine-handling…their few deficiencies almost excusable when weighed against their competence.” Apparently the Sierra’s deficiencies were turbo-lag and handling that was darty – apparently not of the Dodge Dart variety – but it was “the most fun to drive on a twisty section of road.” Mmm, my teenage perception of the Sierra as the most awesome car in the world ever remained intact! And did I mention the super-cool rear spoiler?

Terrible brakes aside, the Beemer left Wheels beaming at “the balance, the sensitivity of the chassis…there to be enjoyed by the enthusiastic driver.” And who really needs to stop that badly anyway – if I wanted to stop my trolley (and occasionally the XR250) in a hurry I’d hit something, a simple and effective solution! I so wanted to dismiss the 190E 2.3-16, and not just because of the silly jumble of letters, numbers and symbols in its badge. Wheels‘ opining that it was a “taut sports sedan that is enormously forgiving and thoroughly pleasurable to drive” didn’t convince me one iota. I mean “taut”, wasn’t that what my teachers did?

How could the Merc be great to drive when it lacked a V8, a highly-strung straight-6 or a turbo? And without a super-cool awesome rear spoiler, I just couldn’t understand how it was competitive. I also couldn’t understand Wheels‘ comments about the Commodore: it “would clearly have benefited from further development.” Okay, they said it could still stay with a BMW on the road, but it was supposed to be a Euro-beater, and it didn’t sound like that was going to happen…

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Hurry, hurry, hurry, get your ROH wheels here – they’re wheely good! (I’m here all day, try the veal)

And moving onto the ‘Accommodation’ section, the general mood of Commodore-misery (Commodisery©) continued, with Wheels noting the finish was “well below the level of the two German cars.” The MMMMM5 and 190E 2.3-16.234a-K459 /63#superfluousalphanumerics were reported to contain high-quality fittings and fixtures. The Sierra was viewed as having “a cheap, plastic feel” which teenage me thought was ridiculous. Of course when I bought my first Sierra non-Cosworth in 1993 (followed by two more through the 90s), I accepted there was a grain sand-dune of truth there.

But did I mention the awesome rear spoiler?! Wheels certainly did – they said it did “its best to block out the view entirely.” Must be those out-of-touch old guys writing again, I thought, can’t they see every teenage boy everywhere thinks that spoiler is the most awesome thing ever? Who wants to see what’s behind, it’s what’s in front that you’re chasing that counts, baby! Despite the Sierra’s cheapness, Wheels thought even less of the Commodore: “it comes across as a strange mixture that never quite falls together as a coordinated machine.” Yee-ah, in your face Holden, the Sierra’s better!’ Well that’s what this 13-year-old said – kids say the darndest things! Did I mention my Sierra bias?

The test conclusion was a stark surprise to me in more ways than one. The Commodore came dead last, with Wheels admitting they asked “too much of the basically 10-year-old Commodore…[it] isn’t a driver’s car in the same way as the Sierra or the M5.” In third place came the Sierra, and this kid was shocked and stunned, shocked and stunned. Those philistines said they were concerned about its “long term durability” and that the rear spoiler was “totally over the top”. Over the top? They were wrong, it was only half way up!!

The BMW was viewed as “formidable”, but it was the Mercedes that won due to being “so well balanced, so beautifully vigorous, that you could never tire of driving it.” Well that result challenged my teenage perceptions… As a 13-year-old, I simply couldn’t comprehend how the slowest, non-turboiest non-awesome-rear-spoilerediest car could win. To be honest, 28 years later, I still can’t, but what say you?


Wheels ended the test by wondering if, given the Commodore’s poor result, it could perform better when they shipped it on to America for the next round of testing. The Commodore was, as it happened, victorious in America, but that led to Syke asking “You think they went all the way to the US to lose?“. At the beginning of this post, I too wondered what Wheels really expected. And based on the European result, I think they would have been quite worried that they may, indeed, have gone all that way to lose…