The Holden Commodore is an automobile manufactured since 1978 by the Holden subsidiary of General Motors (GM) in Australia, and, formerly, in New Zealand. In the mid-1970s, Holden established proposals to replace the long-serving Kingswood nameplate with a smaller, Opel-based model. Opel continued to provide the basis for future generations until the launch of the fourth generation in 2006, which deployed an Australian developed platform.
Initially introduced as a single sedan body style, the range expanded in 1979 to include a station wagon, with utility and long-wheelbase Statesman/Caprice derivatives following in 1990. The foundations for a revived Monaro coupé, four-door Crewman utility, and all-wheel drive Adventra crossover were provided by the now discontinued third generation architecture. From 1984, Holden began branding the flagship Commodore model as Holden Calais; the Holden Berlina and Holden Ute followed in 1988 and 2000, respectively. These were known previously as the Commodore Berlina and Commodore utility.
Introduced in October 1978, the Holden VB Commodore development covered a period with the effects of the 1973 oil crisis still being felt. Hence, when Holden decided to replace the successful full-size HZ Kingswood with a new model line, they designed the new car to be smaller and more fuel efficient. Originally, Holden looked at developing a new WA Kingswood, however, this project was later dismissed. With no replacement in development, Holden looked towards Opel for providing the foundations of the VB, basing it loosely on the four-cylinder Rekord E bodyshell with the front grafted on from the Opel Senator A. This change was necessitated to accommodate the larger Holden six- and eight-cylinder engines. Holden also adopted the name "Commodore" from Opel, which had been using the name since 1967. Opel went on to use Holden’s Rekord-Senator hybrid as a foundation for its new generation Commodore C, slotting in between the two donor models.
Using GM’s rear-wheel drive V-body platform as used by the Rekord and Senator, the VB retained 96 percent of the preceding HZ Kingswood's interior space, despite being 14 percent smaller in overall dimensions, although five percent larger than the Torana. With the Commodore dropping a full class below the Kingswood and its Ford Falcon competitor, the smaller Commodore was predictably more fuel-efficient. This downsizing was first seen as a major disadvantage for Holden, as they had effectively relinquished the potential of selling Commodores to the fleet and taxi industries. These sales losses were thought to be unrecoverable; however, the 1979 energy crisis saw Australian oil prices rise by 140 percent, putting substantial strain on the automotive industry to collectively downsize, a change that Holden had already done.
During the VB’s development, Holden realised that when driven at speed over harsh Australian roads, the Rekord would effectively break in half at the firewall. This forced Holden to rework the entire car for local conditions, resulting in only 35 percent commonality with the Opel. The Rekord’s MacPherson strut front suspension was accordingly modified, and the recirculating ball steering was replaced with a rack and pinion type. These modifications blew development costs beyond expectations to a reported A$110 million—a figure close to the cost of developing a new model independently. With such a large sum consumed by the VB development programme, Holden was left with insufficient finances to resource the development of a wagon variant. Added that the Commodore architecture was considered an unsuitable base for utility and long-wheelbase models, Holden was left with only a sedan, albeit one in three levels of luxury: a base, SL, and SL/E. Desperate measures forced Holden to shape the Commodore front-end to the rear of the Rekord wagon. As the wagon-specific sheet metal had to be imported from Germany, the wagon, introduced in July 1979, suffered from inevitable component differences from the sedan. Although infrequently criticised in the early years, quality problems were evident, with poor trim and panel fit problematic for all first generation Commodores. This coupled with mechanical dilemmas such as water pump failure and steering rack rattle ensured warranty claims were high in the first year. In face of these issues, VB was praised for its value for money and sophistication, especially in regards to the steering, ride quality, handling and brakes, thus securing the Wheels Car of the Year award for 1978.
The most significant change to the VC Commodore of March 1980 was the engine upgrading to "XT5" specification. Now painted blue and thus known as the Blue straight-sixes and Holden V8s, these replaced the Red units fitted to the VB and earlier cars. Changes included a new twelve-port cylinder head, re-designed combustion chambers, inlet and exhaust manifolds, a new two-barrel carburettor and a Bosch electronic ignition system for the inline sixes. Tweaks and changes to the V8s surrounded the implementation of electronic ignition, revised cylinder head and inlet manifold design and the fitment of a four-barrel carburettor on the 4.2-litre variant. These changes brought improved efficiency, increased outputs and aided driveability. In response to increasing oil prices, a four-cylinder variant was spawned in June 1980. Displacing 1.9-litres, this powerplant known as Starfire was effectively Holden's existing straight-six with two cylinders removed. The four's peak power output of 58 kilowatts (78 hp) and torque rated at 140 newton metres (100 ft·lbf) meant its performance was compromised. Reports indicate that the need to push the engine hard to extract performance led to real-world fuel consumption similar to the straight-sixes.
Holden’s emphasis on fuel economy extended beyond powertrains, with a fuel consumption vacuum gauge replacing the tachometer throughout the range, although this could be optioned back with the sports instrumentation package. Visual changes were limited: the relocation of the corporate crest to the centre of the redesigned grille, black-coloured trim applied to the tail lamp surrounds on sedans, and the embossment of model badging into the side rubbing strips. The previously undesignated base car, was now the Commodore L, opening up the range for a new unbadged sub-level car. This delete option model, was de-specified and available only to fleet customers. On the premium Commodore SL/E, a resurrected "Shadowtone" exterior paint option became available in a limited range of dark-over-light colour combinations. According to contemporary reviews, changes made to the VC's steering produced a heavier feel and inclined understeer, while the revised suspension gave a softer ride and addressed concerns raised while riding fully laden.
The VH series Commodore introduced in September 1981 brought moderately updated frontal bodywork, with a new bonnet and front guards to facilitate the reshaped headlamps and a horizontally slatted grille. These front-end design changes worked to produce a longer, yet wider look. At the rear, sedans featured redesigned tail light clusters, the design of which borrowed from Mercedes-Benz models of the day, using a louvered design. At the same time, the nomenclature of the range was rationalised. The SL superseded the L as the base model, with the old SL level becoming the mid-range SL/X, and the SL/E remaining as the top-of-the-line variant. Wagons were restricted to the SL and SL/X trims. Redesigned pentagonal alloy wheels—replacing the original SL/E type used since 1978—along with a black painted B-pillar, wrap-around chrome rear bumper extensions to the wheel arches, and extended tail lamps that converged with the license plate alcove—distinguished the range-topping SL/E from other variants. The new pentagonal wheels were initially in short supply, such that only Shadowtone option SL/E sedans received them during 1981 production.
Mechanical specifications carried over, except for a new five-speed manual transmission, optional on the 1.9-litre four-cylinder and 2.85-litre six-cylinder versions. In an attempt to improve sales figures of the inline-four engine, Holden spent considerable time improving its performance and efficiency. Modifications were also made to the 2.85-litre six to lift economy, and the powerplants managed to reduce fuel consumption by as much as 12.5 and 14 percent, correspondingly. Holden released the sports-oriented Commodore SS sedan in September 1982—reintroducing a nameplate used briefly ten years prior with the HQ series. Provisioned with a choice of 4.2- or optional 5.0-litre V8 engines, both versions of the VH SS were teamed with a four-speed manual transmission. Racing driver Peter Brock's HDT Special Vehicles business produced three upgrade versions, known as Group One, Group Two and Group Three, the latter version available in either 4.2-litre or more commonly 5.0-litre V8 configuration.
By the time of the VH series, Commodore sales were beginning to decline. Holden's six-cylinder engine, which was carried over from the Kingswood, could trace its roots back to 1963 and was no longer competitive. Continual improvements made to Commodore's Ford Falcon rival meant the VH was not significantly more fuel-efficient or better performing despite the smaller size. This was curtailed by the absence of any major powertrain revisions by the time of the VH and the lack of visual departure from the original VB. Holden also had to deal with the influx of their own mid-size Camira from 1982, which presented comparable interior volume with lower fuel consumption, and for less than the Commodore pricing point. Camira sales were strong initially, but as fuel prices had stabilised, buyers gravitated away from Camira and Commodore towards the larger Falcon, which overtook the Commodore as Australia's bestselling car for the first time in 1982.
Representing the first major change since the VB original, the VK model of 1984 introduced a six-window glasshouse, as opposed to the previous four-window design, to make the Commodore appear larger. The revised design helped stimulate sales, which totalled 135,000 in two years. This did not put an end to Holden’s monetary woes. Sales of the initially popular Camira slumped due to unforeseen quality issues, while the Holden WB series commercial vehicle range and the Statesman WB luxury models were starting to show their age; their 1971 origins compared unfavourably with Ford’s more modern Falcon and Fairlane models.
New names for the trim levels were also introduced, such as Commodore Executive (an SL with air conditioning and automatic transmission), Commodore Berlina (replacing SL/X) and Calais (replacing SL/E). The 3.3-litre Blue straight-six engine was replaced by the Black specification, gaining computer-controlled ignition system on the carburettor versions and optional electronic fuel injection boosting power output to 106 kilowatts (142 hp). The 5.0-litre V8 engine continued to power high specification variants, but was shrunk from 5044 cc to 4987 cc in 1985 due to new Group A racing homologation rules. The new unit cut its predecessor's weight by 75 kilograms (170 lb) and models were fitted with an upgraded braking system. As high oil prices became a thing of the past, Holden decided to drop the 2.85- six and 4.2-litre V8, while the 1.9-litre four-cylinder was limited to New Zealand.
Marking a high point in terms of sales, the last-of-the-series VL Commodore sold in record numbers, finally managing to outsell the Ford Falcon in the private sector. The 1986 VL represented a substantial makeover of the VK and would be the last of the mid-size Commodores. Designers distanced the Commodore further away from its Opel origins, by smoothing the lines of the outer body and incorporating a subtle tail spoiler. A thorough redesign of the nose saw the Commodore gain sleek, narrow headlamps and a shallower grille, while the Calais specification employed unique partially concealed headlamps.
By this stage, Holden’s 30 year old six-cylinder was thoroughly outmoded and would have been difficult to re-engineer to comply with pending emission standards and the introduction of unleaded fuel. This led Holden to sign a deal with Nissan to import their RB30E engine. This seemed a good idea in 1983 when the Australian dollar was strong; however by 1986 the once viable prospect became rather expensive. The public quickly accepted what was at first a controversial move, as reports emerged of the improvements in refinement, 33 percent gain in power and 15 percent better economy over the carburettor version of the VK's Black straight-six. An optional turbocharger appeared six months later and lifted power output to 150 kilowatts (200 hp). In October 1986, an unleaded edition of Holden’s carburettored V8 engine was publicised. Holden had originally planned to discontinue the V8 to spare the engineering expense of converting to unleaded. However, public outcry persuaded them to relent. VLs in New Zealand were also available with the 2.0-litre six-cylinder RB20E engine.
The VL suffered from some common build quality problems, such as poor windshield sealing, that can lead to water leakages and corrosion. Awkward packaging under the low bonnet coupled with Holden's decision to utilise a cross-flow radiator (as opposed to the up-down flow radiator installed to the equivalent Nissan Skyline) meant the six-cylinder engine was especially susceptible to cracked cylinder heads, a problem not displayed on the Nissan Skyline with which it shares the RB30E engine. The Used Car Safety Ratings, published in 2008 by the Monash University Accident Research Centre, found that first generation Commodores (VB–VL) provide a "worse than average" level of occupant safety protection in the event of an accident.
The Holden VN Commodore of 1988 and subsequent second generation models took their bodywork from the larger Opel Senator B and new Opel Omega A. However, this time, the floor plan was widened and stretched; now matching the rival Ford Falcon for size. Continuing financial woes at Holden meant the wider VN body was underpinned by narrow, carry-over VL chassis components in a bid to save development costs. In the VN and succeeding models, the Commodore Berlina became known simply as the Berlina. The range expanded in 1990 to include a utility variant, given the model designation VG. This was built on a longer-wheelbase platform that it shared with the station wagon and luxury VQ Statesman limousine released earlier in the year. During this time, the rival Ford EA Falcon was plagued with initial quality issues which tarnished its reputation. Buyers embraced the VN Commodore, helping Holden to recover and post an operating profit of A$157.3 million for 1989. The team at Wheels magazine awarded the VN Car of the Year in 1988: the second Commodore model to receive this award.
Changes in the relative values of the Australian dollar and Japanese yen made it financially impractical to continue with the well-regarded Nissan engine of the VL. Instead, Holden manufactured their own 3.8-litre V6 engine based on a Buick design, adapted from front- to rear-wheel drive. The 5.0-litre V8 remained optional and received a power boost to 165 kilowatts (221 hp) courtesy of multi-point fuel injection. Although not known for its refinement, the new V6 was nevertheless praised for its performance and fuel efficiency at the time. A 2.0-litre Family II engine was also offered for some export markets including New Zealand and Singapore where it was sold as the Holden Berlina. Accompanying the changes to engines, the VL's four-speed automatic transmission was replaced by the Turbo-Hydramatic and a Borg-Warner five-speed manual. A Series II update of the VN appeared in September 1989, featuring a revised V6 engine known internally as the EV6. With the update came a power hike of rising to 127 kilowatts (170 hp) from 125 kilowatts (168 hp).
Under an unsuccessful model sharing arrangement as part of the Hawke Labor government reforms in 1989, Toyota began badge engineering versions of the VN Commodore. These disguised Commodores were sold as the Toyota Lexcen, named after Ben Lexcen, the designer of Australia II yacht which won the 1983 America's Cup. The original T1 Lexcen offered sedan and station wagon body forms in three levels of trim: the base, GL and GLX. These cars were offered with 3.8-litre V6 engine and automatic transmission combination only