Slow haul to fix size issues

By Phil Hanson

Holden's Commodore has come a long, long way from its 1970s roots, writes Phil Hanson

Holden Commodore VZ. Photo / Supplied
Holden Commodore VZ. Photo / Supplied

Holden could hardly have done more to shoot itself in the foot when it dropped the beloved full-size Kingswood for the first Commodore.

At least that's how it seems in hindsight. At the time, the head-office guys must have thought they were doing the right thing; they had the research, they had the will and the technology. All they lacked was the crystal ball.

It was to be a long road back.

The oil crisis of 1973 caused barely controlled panic among car companies, particularly those building large, heavy, thirsty cars like almost everything made in Detroit - and the big Holden.

Holden, like its masters in America, immediately thought smaller when designing a new "big" car, but they made three mistakes: they thought Australian motorists really would want a smaller "full size" Holden. They thought that in the country where children can correctly name V8 components by kindergarten age, buyers would go for a four-cylinder engine. And they thought that the marketplace would take to what was essentially a car based on the Opel Rekord and Senator.

But the Diggers hadn't marched into battle so one of their Aussie industrial icons could build German cars.

Despite a second oil crisis shortly after the VB Commodore's introduction in October 1978, the public's reception was fairly cool, although the car offered almost the same interior space as the Kingswood. Ford partied into the night.

It wasn't until the VL of 1986 that the public finally warmed to the Commodore sufficiently for it to outsell Falcon, but then only in the private sector.

Meanwhile, in the background, Holden had had even more problems. The Rekord's structure was just not up to Australian road conditions and developing a fix blew out programme costs in a major way. Some sources said it would have been just as cheap for Holden to develop a whole new car, locally.

This little matter meant a wagon version had to be delayed and the design was deemed unsuitable, unless further developed, for either ute or long wheelbase models. Ford partied harder.

To make things even worse, the VB suffered serious quality problems. They never got fit and finish of the trim quite right.

One of the biggest miscalculations occurred with the upgraded VC of 1980; the 1.9-litre, four cylinder Starfire engine. This was little more than the company's straight-six minus two cylinders. Lacklustre performance meant the unit had to be worked hard, so fuel economy was little or no better than a six. The engine remained until the VK of 1984, when it was fitted only to models made in the Trentham factory for New Zealand.

The "full-size" Holden finally reclaimed its dimensions with the VN of 1988, based on the Opel Senator B and Omega A, but built on the carry-over VL chassis to save money. Financially, these were not good times for Holden and a dollar saved was ... a dollar saved.

Applying today's standards, some Commodores of yore were pretty ordinary. My view is the line didn't come right until the VT of 1997.

Although Commodore became more and more Australian, it remained to some extent a derivative of an Opel design until 2006 when the fourth-generation and soon-to-be outgoing VE was introduced.

Compared to its predecessors the VE was an exceptional car, of which Holden had every right to be proud.

Perhaps partly because of that pride, it had one of the longest launch programmes in automotive history; motoring writers on this side of the Tasman became awash with airpoints as Holden kept calling us back to introduce different aspects of the car.

Despite also coming along at a time when the industry and buyers were once again thinking small, it became a huge success for Holden - as might the VB had GM not knee-jerked the way it did.

- NZ Herald

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