Holden VE Commodore: The legacy

Holden Commodore

The end of the line

First published in the February 2013 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.

Holden’s VE Commodore seems certain to be the last true clean-sheet Aussie-developed family car. With VF imminent, Robbo drives an SS V from Adelaide to Sydney to reflect on what we’ll be missing.

By Peter Robinson

IN the true dark night of my soul, I always knew Holden’s VE Commodore would be the last all-new Australian car.

Deep into writing Autobiography, my book that chronicled the VE story – from Mike Simcoe’s first proportion-defining scribble to the 2006 press launch – it seemed to be accepted as a sad inevitability inside The General. The indigenous Australian family car, designed, engineered and manufactured locally, could never be sustained in an era of global product development and ever tougher emission and fuel standards.

Falling domestic demand for large family cars during the life of VE and a dramatic plunge in exports simply confirmed that the huge R&D investments required for a new Australian car were impossible to justify.

Holden -VE-Commodore -on -dirt -trackNext year’s Holden Commodore VF – a refresh, not the once-planned, pre-GFC, new top-hat of the VE – continues the concept. But already we know General Motors and Holden have no plans for a true home-grown successor. Pragmatism rules.

When the last VF slips off the Elizabeth, South Australia, assembly line at the end of the decade, at least 70 years after Ben Chifley unveiled the first Holden, the locally built Commodore will be replaced by something Chifley would have struggled to comprehend, or recognise. Perhaps a mid-sized, front-drive sedan, or, more likely, a compact SUV.

To investigate the validity, even the relevance, of Australia’s love affair with our native cars – for 60 years our best sellers, until being deposed by the Mazda 3 in 2011 – just months before the launch of the VF, Wheels collected a VE in Adelaide for the long haul to Sydney.

Our new long termer, an SS V 6.0-litre manual sedan, isn’t, as snapper Wielecki feared, painted the “dreaded, beige-side-of-champagne colour, designed for the Kath-and-Kims”. Worse, it’s a $55,290 Z Series in Holden’s latest hero colour: ‘Alchemy’ purple, which photographs as a kind of dirty, swampy black in most light.

It also rides on the highly polished 19-inch forged alloys inherited from Pontiac’s G8 VE variant.

Wielecki’s unimpressed. “They’re for someone with bad taste who wants to go to the Summer Nats,” he bleats. I whinge that the rear spoiler detracts from what otherwise, despite familiarity, remains a desirable and superbly good-looking sedan. A slightly curmudgeonly start to three days on the road together, then.

Holden -VE-Commodore -parked -sideWith the odometer reading a mere 195km, the VE heads towards the swooping, cresting, cornering roads of the Adelaide Hills. Any serious wheel twirling will happen in the next few hours, with the rest of the journey all seemingly endless, arrow-straight roads.

Already I’m taking advantage of the bent-eight’s bottom-end flexibility, loving the subtle V8-burble, the tall gearing and bemoaning the day when lazy, big-capacity engines are no more.

One run up and down through the precise, rather than heavy, short-shifting, manual box – with its firm yet smooth clutch action – convinces me of the recent progress Holden has made in drivetrain refinement. Cohesive, no slack, no rough edges, exactly what a keen driver expects from a big-muscle sports sedan.

No surprise, then, that 20 percent of Commodores are V8s and, of those, an amazing 40 percent still drive via a clutch. It’s a percentage of manual take-up rarely seen anywhere in the market, or the world, today.

In the VE’s six years, steering ratios have generally quickened and the Commodore now feels slower to react through the first 15 degrees of wheel movement than it should. So, while it still feels planted, comparatively, the latest car isn’t as agile as it might be. Will the VF’s electric steering use a quicker rack? We’ll soon know.

I’ve never bonded with the VE’s excessively large-rimmed and big-diameter steering wheel, and that hasn’t changed. Unwelcome reflections under the midday sun mean reading the instruments is near impossible, while the red-numbers-on-black of the trip computer become an endless source of frustration, legible only in the dark.

Holden -VE-Commodore -Peter -RobinsonBarely above idle at 1600rpm, the Commodore effortlessly pulls sixth gear up the long Eagle on the Hill climb. The L98 270kW V8’s torque peak is 530Nm at 4400rpm, but the torque curve’s plateau feels as high and flat as Uluru.

 Crawling between shops down Lobethal’s narrow main street, it’s ridiculous to imagine that this village in the Adelaide hills was home to a sealed 13.8km street circuit, which hosted the 1939 Australian Grand Prix.

Frieda, who migrated to Australia with her parents as a 14-year old from Austria in 1956, shows us the two chequered poles that mark the start-finish line of a race won by Allan Tomlinson in a supercharged MG TA, at an average speed of 135km/h, in front of 60,000 spectators. There’s also a plaque: ‘In Memory of the men and machines that competed on this circuit at a time when motor cycle and racing cars were symbols of speed and courage.’ Indeed; Lobethal was Australia’s Spa: no run-off areas, racing at daunting speeds along fence-lined, high-crowned country roads with three long straights; a circuit dubbed Australia’s greatest by three-time AGP winner Doug Whiteford.

Frieda remembers the 2009 Lobethal Grand Prix revival, with a 93-year-old Tomlinson (who died in 2011) driving a replica of his winning MG down the street, but is keener to tell us that as teenager she earned five shillings (50 cents) an hour picking peas, twice what her parents were paid to work in Lobethal’s famous Onkaparinga tweed factory. “All we could see,” she says wistfully, “was peas and green trees…it was the end of the Earth.”

Holden -VE-Commodore -drivingInstead of the M1 motorway, we deliberately head the VE onto the 13km of the old Princes Highway from Nairne to Kanmantoo. Off-camber blind corners, closing-radius bends, mostly bumpy surface, up and down, this road perfectly defines the challenges thrown up by the Adelaide Hills.

The VE storms the conditions, despite my self-imposed 4000rpm rev limit to run in the engine and transmission. Instantly at home, the FE3 suspension tune, introduced on the Series II, might have been specifically engineered on, and for, these roads. Firmer dampers and thicker rear anti-roll bar, plus an infinite degree of clever work on the chassis, add a subtlety to the body control and ride quality compared with the firmer and less supple FE2 setting.

Enthusiastic cornering occasionally set the stability-control light flashing, without annoying intrusion. There’s no crash-through on bumps, the front Brembo brakes are strong and progressive, the VE calm, confident and rewarding. Balancing the gentle turn-in understeer on the throttle, the chassis absorbing all the bumps thrown at it, I simply refuse to believe Holden’s soon-to-arrive Malibu, fully imported from the USA, will cope with even remotely the same assurance.

 Wielecki, an inveterate adventurer – he once took four months to ride a 110cc postie bike across Australia – loves the weird. He’s spotted a variety of sculptures at the entrance to a property on Strathalbyn Road. These wondrous contraptions turn by wind power, including one that looks like it’s driven by a bloke on a bike, but isn’t.

Holden -VE-Commodore -in -front -of -murialTailem Bend and a fast-flowing Murray River come and go before the VE heads south to Meningie and the marsh lands, salt lakes and the sweet seaweed smell that characterises the Coorong. Wielecki, sighting a pink lake, is keen to use the location. After checking the salt’s firmness, the Holden creeps along the tracks, is snapped, and safely returns to the blacktop. Not so the aging Toyota Land Cruiser that’s driven straight off the road and immediately sunk into the salt, just a few metres off the sealed surface. Alex, a Pom, and Jessica, his Oz girlfriend, aren’t concerned, despite their wheels sinking ever deeper, even with the front diff locks engaged and low range selected. Pushing achieves nothing. We leave them –  yes, with a supply of water – as Jessica attempts to thumb down a helpful tradie.

I want to refuel for the run north to our overnight stop in Bordertown, but bloody Wielecki wants to shoot the Commodore with Kingston’s Big Lobster – 17 metres high and four tonnes of questionable sculptural value.

The 12.4L/100km is reasonable given the performance, but confirms that the VE’s 71-litre tank fails to deliver a big-country-suitable range when tied to the bent-eight.

We drive the 116km to Bordertown at a steady 130km/h and see two other vehicles. Our boredom is shattered only by an explosion of sound. A bird has smashed into the driver’s exterior mirror, breaking off the upper plastic cover. Thomas finds the dead bird, I locate the mirror section and refit it. No damage apart from a couple of tiny scratches. Tough car, the Commodore, and that’s the thing – this car is designed to beat the Aussie Outback. Today, too few buyers care, and those who know still demand the image of an off-roader when they hit the Grey Nomad trail with a caravan.

Holden -VE-Commodore -tyres -spinning -dirt -roadThe 133km from Bordertown to Pinnaroo, an utterly composed 160km/h cruise, tacho needle hovering over 2400rpm, is broken only by Wielecki’s enthusiasm to capture a field, the cloud and the colour of the grass. Traffic? What traffic, beyond a lone school bus.  

The Mallee Highway heads east into Victoria, through a series of depressing, near-derelict Soldier Settler towns that struggle to survive. I don’t dare draw any parallel to the Commodore’s future. We cross the Murray again at Tooleybuc, heading east to Deniliquin on roads that are as flat and wide as they are lonely. The Commodore eats the desolate, treeless landscape.

What will happen to ‘Denny’, self-proclaimed as ‘The Ute Capital of the World’ and host of an annual festival celebrating them, when Ford and Holden stop building them? A Ranger and Colorado Muster? I think not.

The Commodore treats the gravel road with disdain, proving again that no import can match the effectiveness of the subtle, local tune of stability-control and ABS systems. If only the interior showed the same capability; it’s the most obvious area where the Commodore has fallen behind the opposition. In terms of materials, quality of fit, design and equipment the dashboard lacks the class you expect from a $55K sports sedan. Bloody hell, even the navigation takes an eternal 36 seconds to boot up. Expect a massive advance in VF. 

Ned Kelly’s rambling 7500-word Jerilderie Letter sowed the seeds for a North Eastern Victorian Republic, but today in Jerilderie we’re more interested in the small, covered car yard that contains a second-generation Chevy Camaro, an FJ Holden, first-generation Ford Mustang and a tatty ’67 Corvette.

Holden -VE-Commodore -on -dirt -roadNarrandera throws up the Mary Celeste of servos, a deserted Caltex station that’s been closed for eight years. How it could die, located at the busy junction of the Sturt and Newell Highways, is a mystery.

Finally, there are corners again, joyous corners, on the road from Junee to Gundagai and the Hume Freeway. Engine breathing hard, running the V8 out to the soft 6100rpm limiter, the SSV proves its credentials as a serious sports sedan. It feels supremely strong.

In terms of responsiveness, performance, chassis balance – particularly how you can lean on the outside rear rubber – consistent steering behaviour and comfort, there is nothing like the Commodore (except the Falcon, of course) at anything close to the same, affordable price. Overall consumption, to the last fill before Sydney, reveals a 12.9L/100km average.

Australians won’t truly appreciate what they’ve lost until the domestic cars disappear. So please, enjoy the Commodore (and the Falcon) while you still can.

Australia’s top 10 cars: Number 1 – The VE Commodore

First published in the May 2013 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.

By John Carey

In many ways the VE Commodore is the best car Australia has ever created. At its core are virtues of strength, spaciousness, and sophistication, which serve equally well in everything from a humble V6 Omega Sportwagon fleet car to a growling V8 E Series sports sedan costing twice as much. While it’s the kind of large car that’s become this nation’s speciality, the 2006 VE is different from any earlier Commodore. At last given the chance to design, engineer and develop a car from a clean-sheet starting point, Holden grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Holden -VE-Commodore -drifting -topdrivingBoneheads blinded by the expensively burnished images of premium brands simply will not believe Australian engineering can equal or best that of, say, Germany. But it’s true. The wholly Holden chassis of the VE invited comparisons with similar-size cars from Munich and Stuttgart. When the VE was launched, seven years ago, there certainly wasn’t a contemporary BMW that steered with the beautifully fluid accuracy and consistency of the Holden. And its suspension set-ups, perfectly calibrated for comfort and control on our roads, were probably superior to most Mercedes.

Equally outstanding was the VE’s shape. Every previous Commodore was basically Opel’s work. Turning a European Omega into a car for Australia meant strengthening, stretching and different interiors. But the exterior was always designed to please those living in the Heidelberg that’s not in Melbourne. The internal competition among Holden’s designers for the right to design VE Commodore’s skin was won by Peter Hughes. Way back in 1999 he’d made the sketch that remained a touchstone for the exterior design team throughout the program. It was the starting point for the full-size clay model of his design that was eventually selected ahead of a competing proposal from another Holden designer.   

Holden -VE-Commodore -rear -top -drivingIt’s a great shape; a perfectly proportioned combination of dynamic drama and easy elegance, precisely and simply detailed. It was admired from afar by eminent designers. Jaguar’s Ian Callum was one of them. He found out who had designed the VE’s exterior from Hughes’ former boss, Mike Simcoe, who was working for General Motors in Detroit by the time the car launched. The generous Scot made a point of sending Hughes an email saying how much he admired the VE’s exterior.

But good looks and fine dynamics aren’t the only reasons the Holden heads our 10 Greatest. It’s no accident that the first three cars on our list are products of the noughties. This was an era when Australia’s car makers were facing, for the first time ever, an operating environment not rigged heavily in their favour. 

The Australian car industry spent its youth wearing a protective tariff burka. At the time of the VE, it was down to a G-string and tassels pasted to its nipples. Back in 1971, for example, the year of the HQ launch, non-British built imports had 45 percent added to their prices between dock and driveway. By the end of the decade the rate had risen to 57.5 percent, regardless of country of origin. But from the late 1980s the Button Plan of Bob Hawke’s Labor Government began to strip away 2.5 percent a year, gradually exposing both the Australian car market and car makers to the lustful gaze of overseas competitors. By the time the VE was ready for market in 2006, tariff protection was down to 10 percent. Today the twirling tassels are gone, and it’s just five percent.

Holden -VE-Commodore -rear -drivingThere were additional challenges the VE faced. The market share of large cars was in obvious decline, a consequence not only of the creeping withdrawal of tariff protection but also changes in customer preference and Australia’s shift to a more city-centric demographic. Holden needed to look beyond Australia’s borders if it was to have a future.

It’s fortunate that the company was being led by Peter Hanenberger as the VE program took shape. The charismatic, crafty and persuasive German was a General Motors lifer who knew the outfit inside out. He also knew Australia well, having spent time here in the late 1970s as a chassis engineer, tasked with making the HZ Holden handle with his ‘Radial Tuned Suspension’.

Hanenberger engineered, with the support of GM global product boss Bob Lutz, an international role for the Australian-developed architecture. The platform, codenamed Zeta, would be an export-ready design, and capable of adaption for other models made in other countries – if it hit targets for cost, performance, safety and production flexibility. This was a new kind of pressure for Holden.

Holden -VE-Commodore -at -parkThings didn’t go quite as well as planned. Exports to the US of the Pontiac G8 version of the VE began in 2008, but lasted little more than a year as GM’s mounting troubles led to the American brand being axed. But since 2009 the current Chevrolet Camaro has been built in Canada on a shortened version of Zeta. Now exports to the US of the VE’s direct descendant, the Zeta-based VF, are under way once more. This time badged as a Chevrolet, as it always should have been.

The VE, of course, has its flaws. Heating and air-con system problems afflicted early production. The base V6 engines, both 3.6-litre at launch and the 3.0-litre direct-injection introduced for the 2010 model year, aren’t as smooth or satisfying as they should be. And a four-speed auto was out of place in 2006, even in fleet models like Omega and Berlina.

Even with its acknowledged imperfections, the VE Commodore still deserves its place at the top of our list. For its design, engineering, value and versatility, but also because it’s a greater and much more significant achievement than any other car Australia has ever made. Holden began in 1948 with a basic design imported from America. With VE, the voyage was in the opposite direction. More than just a good honest car, this was the Commodore that proved, beyond doubt, that Australia’s got talent.

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