VB Commodore: the Aussie-European that was almost brilliant
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VB Commodore: the Aussie-European that was almost brilliant

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By DrJohnWright - 15 February 2016

The VB Commodore was launched on 26 October 1978, just one month and three days shy of the thirtieth anniversary of the great day for Australia when General Motors’-Holden’s officially unveiled ‘Australia’s Own Car’, the Holden 48-215. That was mere coincidence but it now seems obvious that this first of a long line of Commodore was the second most important Holden ever. And it will be less than 40 years from the release of the VB to the demise of the entire local automotive manufacturing industry. The first Holden Commodore is one of the standout cars of this seven-decade era.

Disappointingly, it is a standout car for negative as well as positive reasons. Outstanding though the concept and many elements of the design was, the Commodore failed to achieve its potential, chiefly through sub-standard build quality and outdated six-cylinder engines.

Between the 48-215 and the VB, every new Holden was essentially Australian by design (even if the HD was styled in Detroit) but with plenty of inspiration from the US. With the VB, for the first time, Holden had turned to Europe. There were even senior executives who worried that the public would reject the new Commodore as being too European in both style and character. Certainly it did not look or drive like a successor to the decade-long line of Kingswoods.

The VB was physically smaller than the HZ Kingswood, 129mm shorter at 4705mm, and more significantly 155mm narrower at 1722mm. Where the HZ was a Falcon-sized car with adequate width for three adults to sit in the rear, the Commodore was really a comfortable four-seater. Ford Australia’s marketing executives took more than a little delight in classifying it as a ‘D-Class’ car to rival its Cortina rather than a ‘C-Class’ offering like the Falcon and Kingswood; arguably, it was more like a successor to the Torana.

Evidence of nerves within Holden’s Fishermans Bend headquarters came in the familiar form of the HZ range: the old Kingswood and Premier remained on sale alongside the Commodore. Holden’s marketing spin was that the Commodore would eventually become Australia’s top-selling car. The press release issued on 26 October 1978 went as follows:

It will establish the standards by which all passenger cars in future will be measured. With the addition of Commodore to the range, GMH plans to achieve a 20 per cent increase in sales volume in 1979 over 1978 unit sales. That assessment is based on public reaction in market research clinics and a very enthusiastic response from our dealer network…GMH confidently expects the range to penetrate areas of the market not previously Holden strongholds – and in particular to provide very strong competition for many high-priced imports.

Even more interesting than the belt-and-braces decision to continue production of the Kingswood/Premier while there was demand (and obviously in case Commodore sales were poor), was the decision to keep the Torana going as well. It was difficult to see any point of advantage for the Torana over the far more modern Commodore. Did any other automotive manufacturer in the world offer three broadly comparable models, all with a choice of engine sizes, at the same time? Holden’s by then quite aged ‘202’ – renamed 3.3 for the metric era – could be specified in a Torana, Commodore, Kingswood or Premier. Frankly, it wasn’t much good in any of these cars and here was the beginning of a major headache for Holden management: where to go for a replacement sixpack.

This famous image shows Peter Hanenberger, the man who transformed Holden handling and would serve decades later as managing director, posing next to a Dark Carmine VB with a model.

When the Commodore was released there was a general feeling in automotive circles that Holden had made the right call. Here was the way of the future. Even though Australian motorists had long loved their six-cylinder and V8 family sedans, the view was that this was set to change and that Australia would move closer to European preferences. Why, even the Americans were clambering out of their behemoths into smaller, less powerful, more fuel-efficient cars.

This last adjectival phrase was the one that inflicted the aforementioned giant headache. Despite the fact that the Commodore itself was all-new, its engines and drivetrains were not.  Only a year would pass before Ford Australia’s brilliant marketing people would be able to exploit the Commodore’s fundamental failing.

In the months and years before the launch, deep concerns were being expressed within Ford Australia’s Campbellfield head office. Many executives reckoned the forthcoming XD Falcon was too big. While forward advertising cleverly promised ‘we’ve got your new car on ice’ (the ice gradually melting to show more of the XD’s elegant body), in those four months between the debut of the Commodore and the XD, there was great corporate nervousness for those clustered around the Blue Oval.

It must have seemed a long wait for the XD and in the mean time the XC was being extolled for its rear seat spaciousness. By comparison with the Commodore, the XC suddenly seemed an anachronism, but it was arguably a better proposition than the HZ Holden, which had brilliant dynamics but was held back by outdated engines. The fact is that these same engines also stopped the seemingly brilliant new Commodore from fulfilling its potential.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the downsizing which the Commodore offered represented only a rhetorical solution to the problem of fuel economy, because beneath those Euro lines lurked aged Australian engines. Even though the Commodore was about 100kg lighter than a comparable HZ, this was not enough to yield a remarkable improvement in fuel economy.

This blue engine was the first real upgrade of the ‘202’ since HQ days, but even in this guise and with blue paint instead of red, the Commodore six was no match for Ford’s trusty 4.1-litre sixpack.

I was a fly on the wall in Campbellfield in mid-1979, working as the Graduate Training Co-ordinator. The Ford approach was just so clever. Someone decided to build a manual version of an XD wagon equipped with the smaller of the two six-cylinder engines, the unloved 3.3 and the tallest final drive ratio. This immensely practical, long-wheelbase (Falcon wagons being built on the Fairlane wheelbase) vehicle consumed no more fuel – or maybe even rather less – than a Commodore sedan. From there the argument was a simple one. What right-minded person would forego generous space for five adults if there were no savings at the bowser?

With the argument established, the next step was to improve the fuel-efficiency of the Falcon engines. This is where the Honda alloy head project entered the equation. The Commodore’s early sales success began to slip under the Ford onslaught.

This story though is about the VB Commodore, a car which never achieved its potential. In October 1978 it seemed to be a work of genius, especially in SL/E guise with the optional 5.0-litre engine running through the three-speed automatic with the optional 2.60:1 (as opposed to 3.08:1) rear axle ratio. With its top speed of 190km/h, this version of the new Holden really socked it to the European sports sedans of the time.

No question, the SL/E was the standout variant. This was the car that managing director Charles (‘Chuck’) Chapman expected to ‘provide very strong competition for many high-priced imports’. The SL/E came standard with the 4.2-litre V8 and automatic transmission and entered the market at $10,513. It had stylish 15-inch cast alloy wheels shod with low-profile 60-series premium tyres, climate control, crushed velour trim, full instrumentation, remote boot release, front and rear reading lights, Blaupunkt four-speaker sound system with electric antenna, headlight wash/wipe, pinstriping and more.

Rivals such as the Rover SD1 3500 cost almost twice as much and most of them didn’t match the SL/E – especially in 5.0-litre guise – on performance or dynamics.

Even the entry level interior was stylish for the era.

At the other end of the spectrum was the entry level variant at $6513 with the 2850 six and four-speed manual gearbox. It now seems remarkable that this engine had been optional back in LJ Torana days, six years earlier. In that car – some 200 kg lighter! – it offered lively performance. But the entry level Commodore was a pretty ordinary performer, requiring about 18.7 seconds to cover the standing 400 metres and with a top speed of 155km/h. The 3.3-litre six added $815 to the pricetag. Most popular was the mid-range SL with the 3.3 and Trimatic auto for $7813.

All these Commodore engines were carried over from earlier models. While the new car was significantly lighter than a Kingswood, it was about 100kg heavier than a Torana.

Just above this was the car on which I so ill-advisedly traded my 1962 Pearl Grey (with matching grey leather) Jaguar Mark 2 2.4-litre automatic. This was the Sport-Pak option. It had the 4.2-litre V8 and four-speed, twin exhausts as well as a full set of gauges and the cord style cloth trim per the SL. It was also supposed to have the lovely alloy wheels but initial demand for the SL/E was so strong that whatever alloys GMH could get were going to SL/Es. I think I got some nominal discount on the price but I was never happy with those steel wheels. 

There were some exciting new colours, especially Firethorn (a plush solid maroon), Dark Carmine (a very deep metallic maroon) and Malachite (an ultra dark metallic green). But my shortchanged S-Pak came in dull Sandalwood complete with embedded grit and not much sheen.

Imagine my disappointment with this particular ownership experience after reading all the rave magazine and newspaper reviews! My brand new Commodore was back to John Martin Holden in South Melbourne on a practically weekly basis. I can’t even remember the catalogue of woes. But the car was unreliable and appallingly thrown together. The ashtrays fitted in the rear armrests regularly ejected themselves and I wondered how many little children travelling in the back of new Commodores were unjustly punished when the proud owner discovered these ashtrays sitting on the cheap carpet! 

My supposed Commodore V8 sports sedan didn’t have much in the way of acceleration and the engine developed a light rattle at 4500rpm. ‘You don’t need to rev it that hard’, the long-suffering service manager tried to persuade me! The dual exhaust system supposedly added nine kW to the 4.2-litre V8’s meagre 87 @ 4000rpm (for 96 @ 4400). A road test in Modern Motor reported a standing 400m time of 17.4 seconds and a top speed of 180km/h, meaning my dream V8 Commodore had worse performance than almost any shopping trolley on offer these days, which is difficult to credit. But that exhaust system sounded good.

Fortunately, this story will be offset later by a happier one…

It is still not completely clear whether the V-Car was forced on Holden or whether the management under ex-Opel boss Chuck Chapman chose it of their own accord.

In March 1973 Holden designers began work on the next generation car intended to replace the HQ after one or two facelifts. This was codenamed WA. It was conceived as a five-door, six-window hatchback. An early idea was to use a Wankel rotary engine, this being at about the same time as a deal was struck to sell a Holden Premier with a 13B rotary as the Mazda Roadpacer on the Japanese market.

Within a year the expensive WA was off the agenda, replaced by a cheaper option B known as WB. Confusion doubtless either reigned or threatened because in late 1974 the first drawings of what was to become the 1977 Opel Rekord were at Fishermans Bend. The earliest tape drawings of the VB Commodore are dated July 1975.

Early on, the Aussie engineers realised that it might not be possible to fit the existing six-cylinder engines – let alone the V8s – into the Rekord’s engine bay. In August a design team headed to Germany to work on this problem. Within three weeks they concluded that the job could not be done. This was also when they heard that Opel was working on a second, larger version of the V0-Car to be known as the Senator.

The ingenious Australian solution was to fit the longer Senator nose cone to the Rekord body. This hybrid looked so good that it was later picked up by Opel as an intermediate model between the Rekord and Senator. Guess what it was named? The Opel Commodore.

Some of the publicity images were short of brilliant in 1978!

There was still one more problem to solve. The Senator’s longer engine bay had been designed to accommodate a straight six. The Aussie V8s would only fit if the recirculating ball steering was replaced by a rack and pinion arrangement across the firewall. Australian engineer Arthur Bishop’s world-beating power rack and pinion steering was developed especially for the Commodore and endowed the up-spec cars with so much of their distinctive feel. Power steering was fitted to all V8 Commodores from day one and so were four-wheel disc brakes.

The clay model was finished three years before the car was released. One month later, in November 1975, the first disappointing styling clinic was held. While the 700 people who viewed the secret new car alongside an HJ Kingswood, a Torana, a Valiant, a Centura and a Cortina, loved the styling, they reckoned the car itself was too small.

Commodore program manager Ray Grigg quickly decided that the best way to overcome this ‘too small’ factor was to maximise the Commodore’s tough Aussie credentials. Prototypes were hammered through the Flinders Ranges in South Australia and, famously, one of the first three VB prototypes built in Germany and flown to Australia in late 1977, actually broke in two at the firewall. 

Among the radical new features of the Commodore was the so-called ‘wet’ MacPherson strut. Longtime Holden designer Peter Nankervis said: ‘They were boiling shocker fluid in the front struts driving down corrugated roads and Opel engineers didn’t know what a corrugated road was.’ By filling the outer tube with fluid, shock absorber fade was dramatically reduced.

Worse, the strut towers weren’t strong enough. So a brace between the wheel arch and the strut tower was fitted. With the reinforced towers and the ‘wet’ struts, the Commodore was way ahead of the source German products for toughness and durability. Unfortunately, the German engineers seemed to remain sceptical believing that trucks not cars were what you should drive on those kinds of outback roads. Europe, of course, had nothing like the Flinders Ranges.

I am moved to repeat my observation to Shannons Club members that Australia will suffer a huge loss when automotive manufacture finishes. During pre-production Commodore testing, a range of European cars were trialled, including a Volvo, a Rover and a BMW, none of which stood up to the unique Australian conditions. The Australianised Opel that would be sold as the Holden VB Commodore had the potential to be the best sedan in the world (at least, like its 48-215 ancestor, for Australian conditions).

Grigg’s priorities for the Commodore were ruggedness, outstanding ride and handling, unprecedented interior comfort and silence (for an Australian car).

SL/E interior could belong to a car of twice the price. Faux timber was an aesthetic glitch.

With resources needed to bring the sedans to production reality, the Commodore wagon had to wait another 10 months. It was offered in base and SL versions but there was no SL/E. Unlike the rival Falcon wagon, it was built on the same wheelbase as the sedan. A big selling point was that these wagons felt more sedan-like than previous Holden wagons, the idea being that you would only know you were driving a wagon when you looked in your mirrors. Surprisingly perhaps,  the actual load area was taller and in some respects more practical than the rival Falcon’s.  Interestingly, you carry a bigger box in the back of a Commodore, but for most prospective buyers that was hardly the basis for choosing between wagons.

The Kingswood lingered in new car showrooms until 1980 and doubtless some taxi operators took advantage of this because Holden was about to turn its corporate back on the industry, handing Ford Australia this sector of the market for at least a couple of decades. You could not specify a bench seat or a column shift for either manual or automatic transmission in any Commodore.

There were two schools of thought among senior Holden executives during the Commodore’s first few years on sales. Some agreed with chief stylist Leo Pruneau that the car needed to be redesigned to look bigger and more muscular, while others actually believed the original design was so close to perfect that it shouldn’t be tampered with. Declining sales meant that Pruneau’s view eventually prevailed. In the meantime the VB received a minuscule facelift in 1980 for VC and further revisions the following year for VH (HYPERLINK: http://club.shannons.com.au/club/news/1981-84-holden-vh-commodore-sle-v8-was-size-really-the-issue/). Pruneau’s more dramatic six-window VK with its larger glasshouse and aggressive frontal treatment would not arrive until March 1984, by which time the Falcon was enjoying a marked sales ascendancy.

For driving enthusiasts, the 4.2-litre V8 was really the entry point to Commodore ownership.

In summary, the original Commodore marked a step into the future for the Holden marque. Sadly, the car was compromised by poor quality. Large panel gaps, ill-fitting carpet, lacklustre paintwork (worse in some colours, such as Sandalwood) were the order of the day. Mechanical failures – notably the water pump – were common: my VB broke down more frequently than my 16 year-old Jaguar had done.

Despite this, the design brilliance of the first Commodore shone through and in some respects it was a better car than the VC, VH or VK. Repeated tweaks to the suspension failed to yield any reduction in the car’s inherent rear steer, while many hard drivers preferred the low level of brake boost on the VB. Meanwhile, the industry marched on. Yes, perhaps a VK Calais 5.0-litre was marginally superior to the equivalent 1978 SL/E, but half a decade had elapsed and surely no-one would have preferred the VK’s kiddy-style square instruments to those of the earlier car?

In 1985 I acquired a Malachite VB SL/E with the 5.0-litre engine and automatic transmission. There were no squeaks, rattles or breakdowns. Performance was smooth, effortless and quickish, with surprising fuel economy. It was one of the best and most endearing cars I have ever owned. When I eventually traded it on an Alfa 90, I was never entirely reassured that this had been a wise move.

Towing? Well it was OK if you had one of the V8s under the bonnet and perhaps an oil cooler for the automatic transmission.