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The Holden VL Commodore and Calais were a range of mid-sized cars manufactured between 1986 and 1988 by the General Motors (GM) Australian arm, Holden. The VL series was the final update of the first generation Holden Commodore architecture, heralding imported straight-six engines from Nissan of Japan.

The total build number for the VLs was 151,801.

Design

The VL Commodore represented a substantial makeover of the VK, and would be the last of the mid-size Commodores. The engineers sought to soften the lines of the VL, rounding off the panels and introducing a small tail spoiler built into the boot lid.

For the VL, Holden implemented rectangular headlamps as opposed to the square-type fitted to earlier models. For the top-of-the-range Calais model, the design incorporated the use of semi-retracting headlight covers, the first for a production Holden. This had been previously attempted on the never released Torana GTR-X which featured fully retractable headlights. Interestingly the Calais covered headlights that were the same as the regular VL Commodore headlights.

Major changes were made to the dashboard with new instruments, touch switches mounted either side controlling wipers, rear window demister, electric antenna (Berlina/Calais), and the headlight switch moved from the right-hand dash side to the indicator stalk. Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning control graphics changed slightly, the center console offered more storage with new transmission shifter and surround.

Powertrains

Straight-six engine

A comprehensive makeover for the VK Black engine was completely dropped in favour of an imported 3.0 litre RB30E straight-six unit designed and manufactured by Nissan in Japan. This featured an overhead camshaft (OHC) and an alloy cylinder head. The reason for the Nissan-Holden combination was because all cars manufactured in Australia from 1 January 1986 had to run on unleaded 91 octane fuel. The previous six-cylinder Black motor was unable to do this, as was the V8, hence the later release date of this engine. As the tooling for the Holden straight-six engine had become worn by this stage, it also was not considered cost-effective to adapt the design to unleaded petrol. The new engines included features such as an Electronic Combustion Control System (ECCS) and a ram-tuned intake manifold.

Six months into its release a 150 kilowatts (200 hp) turbocharged RB30ET version of the Nissan engine was released. The Garrett turbo unit was fitted inside a water-cooled housing to ensure longevity. The engine received new pistons which lowered the compression ratio, while an updated camshaft was used to reduce overlap. The allure of the Commodore was quickly established particularly when the top speed was 200 kilometres per hour (124 mph) and then extended to 220 kilometres per hour (137 mph) with the addition of the Garret turbocharger. In addition stopping power for the turbo models was upgraded to larger brakes and Girlock finned alloy front calipers. The Australian Police commissioned the turbocharged models as their "interceptor" Highway Pursuit cars of choice. These interceptors were denoted by "BT1" in the model code on the Body & Option plate attached to the firewall.

GM also sourced a Nissan electronic four-speed automatic. Those that opted for a manual, received a Holden five-speed transmission.

The New Zealand assembled six-cylinder VLs had the 2.0 litre Nissan RB20 engine six-cylinder available as an option in addition to the 3.0 litre models. The engine was mated with the Japanese Jatco four-speed automatic; the 5.0 litre (4,987 cc) V8 remained available in carbureted form with the old three-speed automatic. New Zealand models were not saddled with emission controls.

V8 engine

Previously, Holden had considered discontinuing their V8 engine rather than adapting it to unleaded petrol. This was partly in response to Ford Australia's 1983 decision to drop the V8 in its competing Falcon model. However public outcry spearheaded by a media-driven "V8s 'til 98" campaign persuaded Holden to continue production. Eventually with continual developments, the Holden V8 lasted until 1999, before being replaced by the imported GM LS1 V8 engine.

The 5.0 litre V8 was released in October 1986, it still featured the familiar Rochester four-barrel carburettor, not electronic fuel injection (EFI). Now adapted to unleaded fuel, this V8 5.0 litre was boasting both more power and torque than its predecessor, now at 122 kilowatts (164 hp) with 323 newton metres (238 ft·lbf). GM had fitted the V8 with larger valves carried over from the previous Group A engine.

EFI did however, make its V8 debut in the VL Commodore in the evolution version of the Group A touring car homologation special, the SS Group A SV (see below). Commonly known as "The Walkinshaw", the SS Group A SV also marked Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) taking over as Holden's official performance car partner. With the 150 kilowatts (200 hp) 3.0 litre turbocharged engine being the performance flagship, Holden marketed the V8 as ideal for towing due to its low-down torque characteristics. The V8 engine was mated with either the existing three-speed TriMatic automatic, or the five-speed Borg-Warner T-5 manual.

Specification levels

Introduced in Commodore SL, Executive and Berlina variants, the VL vehicle line also included a luxury Calais model. However, this was known as the "Holden Calais" as opposed to the "Holden Commodore Calais". A limited number of Calais station wagons (198 ever produced) were offered from March 1988 through to production end in August of the same year. Holden released the Calais wagon late in the VL's model cycle only to reduce their excessive stock pile of wagon bodies. These wagon-bodied Calais offered the same engine options available to sedan buyers: the standard straight-six, the turbocharged version of the same and the V8, and were specified with the same equipment fitted to the Calais sedan.

The V8-powered models were introduced in October 1986. The following year, a special edition Commodore Vacationer was offered. To commemorate the 1988 Australian Bicentenary, an aptly named "Series 200" sedan was briefly offered from March 1988. The Series 200 was issued with two-tone champagne paintwork, and featured air conditioning, power steering, electric windows, central locking among other features over the base-line Commodore SL. Only the naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine was fitted to this model.

Commodore SS Group A

November 1986 saw the introduction of the Commodore SS Group A which was developed from the Commodore SL by Peter Brock’s HDT Special Vehicles organisation. 500 examples were built, all of them in "Permanent Red", by Holden to allow the model to be homologated for Group A Touring Car racing.

The SS Group A was twice a winner during the inaugural World Touring Car Championship in 1987. Allan Moffat and John Harvey drove their Rothmans sponsored Commodore to victory in the very first race of the championship at Monza in Italy. Initially finishing 7th on the road, the pair were declared winners after the entire BMW Motorsport crew running the new BMW M3's that finished the race 1-6 were disqualified for running 80kg underweight thanks to the use of carbon fibre body panels. Moffat and Harvey would later go on to finish a brilliant 4th at the Spa 24 Hours on the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium.

The HDT spec Commodore's second win in the 1987 WTCC was at the 1987 James Hardie 1000 at Bathurst. Peter Brock and his HDT had a well publicised split with Holden in early 1987 which saw the factory stop all support for the race team. Running as a privateer for the first time since 1977, Brock finished 3rd on the road driving with Peter McLeod and David Parsons in the teams second car (#10) after his own car failed on lap 34. The two Ford Texaco Racing Team Ford Sierra RS500's that finished 1st and 2nd were eventually disqualified in February 1988 for illegal bodywork (wheel arches that were 1 size too big) and Brock's HDT P/L were declared winners giving the HDT spec VL Group A SS Commodore two wins from the 11 race WTCC.

Commodore SS Group A SV

The SS Group A was followed in March 1988 by the fuel injected Commodore SS Group A SV which was produced for Holden by Holden Special Vehicles to replace the SS Group A as Holden’s homologated Group A race car. 750 examples were built.

In motorsport the Walkinshaw spec VL Group A SS took time to be a success. Up against the lighter and more powerful Ford Sierra RS500's and Nissan Skyline HR31 GTS-R's the car was easily outgunned in the ATCC and also struggled in longer distance races for the same reason, its general lack of pace not helped by the non-appearance of the factory Holden Racing Team in the 1989 ATCC. This changed when Englishman Win Percy was sent to Australia in 1990 to run the team on order from team owner Tom Walkinshaw. After constant development during the season both HRT and the Larry Perkins cars were running faster than ever, as evidenced by their qualifying 6th (HRT) and 7th (Perkins) at the 1990 Tooheys 1000 at Bathurst. Percy and Allan Grice pulled off what is often referred to as Holden's greatest win at Bathurst when they outlasted the field to win by less than a lap.

Perkins and co-driver Tomas Mezera went on to win the 1990 Nissan 500 at Eastern Creek driving a Group A SV and Perkins also went on to win the 1992 Sandown 500 in his VL in what was the last major win for the model in Group A Touring Car racing.