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Driving the Red Lion's finest

 

1981. Holden's original Commodore, adapted from a rear-wheel drive Opel sedan and given the Australian treatment, was initially available with 2.8-litre and 3.3-litre inline six-cylinder motors, and two Holden V8s, a 4.2 and a 5.0.

It was developed - at a cost of $Au110 million - as economic rationalisation kicked in and oil price shocks began and there was a perceived need for Holden's next family car to be a smaller vehicle than the HQ-based HZ.
The Commodore benefited from Peter Hanenberger's Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) which had turned the HQ chassis from rather lumbering to nippy and nimble by the time the HZ rolled around.

The first Commodore I drove was the VH, which debuted in 1961.
The test car wasn't a 5.0 V8, nor even a 3.3 six, but a 1.9-litre four, running an engine based on the Starfire four (a Holden six with two cylinders lopped off) that had debuted in the Sunbird (a renamed Torana).

Power output was modest, and the engine wasn't especially refined, but it did answer the need for a more fuel-friendly Commodore - at least on paper. Like all low-powered cars the Commodore four needed to be kept up to its work if you wanted to make decent progress, and that meant a fuel consumption penalty.

The good news was the chassis balance. We drove the Commodore four on a range of demanding roads and were delighted by its roadholding, turn-in to corners, and its willingness to change direction like a thoroughbred sports car.
Holden Commodore four accommodation was good, the car was comfortable, the chassis sublime - all it needed was an engine.

1986. The 1986 VL Commodore is arguably the jewel in the crown of the Commodores based on the first generation body shell.
The reason is simple - the six-cylinder engine sourced from Nissan. It was a high-tech electronically fuel-injected overhead cam design that delivered 33 percent more power and 15 percent better fuel economy than Holden's venerable 3.3-litre pushrod six.

Soon it would be joined by a fire-breathing, 150kW turbocharged version that was more powerful than Holden's 5.0-litre V8.
Both engines delivered excellent performance - even the standard 115kW car would hit 100km/h in just under nine seconds.

But it was the Nissan engine's silky smoothness and refinement that set the VL apart from the sixes that preceded it - or for that matter, the V6s that succeeded it.
It was cutting edge technology. At the time Holden did the deal with Nissan for engine supply, the Japanese manufacturer wasn't even using it in its own cars. The new high-tech 3.0 litre engine, running on lower octane unleaded fuel, could be matched to a five-speed manual or an equally efficient and economical four-speed electronic auto transmission.

Holden also gave the VL sheetmetal a thorough workover, with a sleeker, long and narrower-profile nose and a lip spoiler on the rear of the boot lid.

The Nissan six gave the Commodore unrivalled refinement and superb performance; matched to the balanced chassis it resulted in a car that was rewarding to drive and virtually an instant classic.

A good Nissan-engine VL would still impressive today, 20 years after its heyday and would be a good classic car buy. Certainly it was a fine model with which to close out the first generation Commodore family.

1988. Memories of the fuel crises that had triggered the downsizing of Holden's family car, were fading.
Holden realised it needed a full-sized contender, like Ford's rival Falcon, and turned once again to Opel for the basic body shell - which was widened to meet Australian demands for plenty of space for three adults in the back seat.
Holden says the VN was "a winner from day one" with its aero-look styling and raked windscreen.

The basic power plant came from General Motors' US luxury brand, Buick, though the raspy 3.8-litre pushrod V6 which became increasingly raucous as the revs rose, seemed anything but a luxury car engine.

There was no shortage of boogie - the six was as powerful as the old carburated V8.
The VN also introduced a 165kW fuel-injected V8, the most powerful mass-produced Australian engine to that time. It was standard on the SS and optional across the range. Buyers could choose an Australian-made five-speed manual transmission or US-sourced four-speed overdrive automatic.

The VN’s trump card was its roomy interior that took the fight squarely to the Falcon.
So much for the good stuff. The VN's dynamics fell far short of what Commodore drivers had come to expect. It was a big car, and like many big cars it was a little clumsy. Turn-in wasn't as crisp as the smaller previous model's and at speed the VN would "float" as air pressure built under the nose and the front end went up on tippy-toes.

That aside, performance was effortless; which couldn't be said of the short-lived and unloved attempt to market a four-cylinder VN, using an Opel Family II SOHC motor. With less - maybe even virtually no - weight over the front wheels, the VN four was better mannered than its V6 siblings, but that was where it ended.

If you hanker after a VN, opt for the GTS which added alloys, contrasting red trim and a generally more sporty air to the not-unattractive body shell. Mechanically it was the same as regular VN sixes, but it had the FE2 suspension which uses recalibrated shocks, stiffer springs and lower ride height. It transformed the VN into a bona fide sports sedan - the standard powertrain provided performance-enough - and is the VN to have.


1997/1998. We didn't drive another standard Commodore until the landmark, all-new, VT was launched in 1997.

There were still Opel genes in the bodywork, but the VT was wider than its European cousins and had standout styling by Holden's design guru, Mike Simcoe,
The $Au600 million investment resulted in a superb car which was to wipe the floor with Ford's somewhat gawky AU Falcon.

With its wider track and longer wheelbase, the VT was the largest Commodore to that time, and was designed to be built in left and right-hand drive.

Few changes were made to the recently upgraded 3.8 litre ECOTEC V6 power
plant, but Supercharged V6 power output was raised to 171kW. Revisions to the standard 5.0-litre V8 increased power output and a high-performance 195kW V8 was also offered, before the VT Series II introduced the 5.7-litre, Chevrolet-developed, Gen III V8.

The VT drove with a nimbleness that belied its size; and the chassis tuning job was so good that the VT didn't feel big to drive.
It was also more benign to drive than the AU Falcon: there was a touch of understeer built into the steering feel, and the Commodore lacked the Falcon's eager, too-sudden-for-some-tastes, turn-in.
Grip levels were high, and the VT was entertaining and satisfying to drive.
That level of satisfaction continued through the VX and VX II, and was enhanced in the VY which received major chassis development.

The VY's new steering package delivered a precise feel through more positive feedback and improved on-centre definition, a direct response to the Falcon's generally sharper steering feel.


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