Farewell to a legend: ranking the 10 greatest Holden Commodores of all time
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That's it. 42 years, 11 iterations across five generations, one of the best rivalries in motoring ... and now it's all over. General Motors has pulled the plug on the iconic Australian brand.
Much like its old Ford foe, the Holden Commodore's significance to motoring in this part of the world cannot be underestimated. It's easily one of the most influential and important cars to roam the streets on either side of the Tasman as one of the best selling vehicles over its four decades. So, as we prepare to bid farewell to the Commodore, we thought we'd have a crack at naming the 10 best examples of the breed.
10. Export quality: 2001–2006 Holden Monaro
We start this list with something that ... erm ... isn't even a Commodore.
It may not have sported that iconic nameplate, but it did wear another memorable badge with pride. And, when it landed following the turn of the millennium the reborn Holden Monaro ticked a few other significant boxes for the marque.
The Monaro was a passion project, transferred from mind to reality by a sudden appearance at the Sydney Motor Show and years of subsequent peer pressure from fans for Holden to go and make the damn thing. From there it became the brand's first true import, rebadged overseas as a Vauxhall VXR, Chevrolet Lumina Coupe, and Pontiac GTO. And under the svelte body lines was a Commodore platform.
These globe-trotting antics made it one of the first cars to well and truly put Aussie motoring on the global map, and the success of the project was reflected in the volume exported overseas. It's claimed that around 60,000 Monaros were made, and out of them 40,000 were America-bound GTOs.
On top of being one of the few near-universally well received nameplate call-backs from this century, the Monaro also spawned off a long list of interesting spin-off models. Things like the lovely all-paw HSV Coupe4 and brutal HSV HRT 427 represented the closest a humble lion-based product would get to being a Europe-challenging sports car.
9. Ultimate sleeper: 1984 Holden VK Commodore / 1986 VL Commodore 'BT1' Interceptor
From a car that wasn't badged as a Commodore we move to a car that was probably hated by most car enthusiasts during its heyday.
The concept of special 'police pack' vehicle editions is a concept as old as horse and carriage. While some see them as 'the enemy' during their time in service, they tend to take on a life of their own once decommissioned. Ford Crown Victorias, for example, continue to have a cult following in the US — particularly examples formerly owned by police.
If there's an ultimate police Holden, it's the Absynth Yellow 'BT-1' VK and VL Interceptors of the mid-'80s. On steel wheels they were rather innocuous things (apart from that colour of course), but under the bonnet it was a different story.
Now, there are all sorts of stories about the 'special engines' that BT-1 were fitted with. VK Interceptors were said to come with Brock-fettled versions of the trusty 5.0-litre V8 of the time, but it's the VLs that are more intriguing. They came with the Nissan-sourced turbocharged RB30ET, with mystical tales of each being fitted with a 'cop chip' for added performance over standard along with a limited-slip diff, SS-spec suspension, and a few other tricks.
The mystery is part of the fun, and given the newfound cult status that Nissan RB engines have these days it's no wonder that the quickest six-pack of the period is an in demand thing.
8. Wild side: 1980 Holden VC HDT Commodore
All that 'race on Sunday sell on Monday' stuff seems like second nature these days, but there was once a time when everyone in the sport was a pioneer. For Holden, the 'Brock-ified' VC HDT Commodore was a turning point.
Built as a homologation special for the Group C touring car period, the VC HDT can be considered to be somewhat revolutionary. Not only was it one of the earliest examples of a brand green-lighting a homologation special performance vehicle, but it was also one of the first times the feat centered around a family sedan as opposed to a sports car — a la Group B rallying and the like.
Ford had obviously performed a similar trick a decade prior with the Falcon XW and XY GTHO, but (perhaps thanks in part to the oil crisis and the hysteria around performance cars) the GTHO never got the longevity it deserved. The HDT VC on the other hand, arguably, laid the foundation for generations of hot Commodores in pivoting the nameplate's image of 'bland family car' to potential sports sedan gold.
Plus, how good did it look with those Irmscher alloys?
7. Golden Child: 2001–2002 'HRT 045' Mark Skaife Holden VX Commodore V8 Supercar
The first of two race cars to make it onto this list goes down in history as one of the most devastatingly successful chassis in Australian Touring Car Championship and Supercars history.
The Holden Racing Team was already a Bathurst-winning and championship-winning squad, but the level of domination that they happily claimed over the period of 2001 and 2002 set a new bar in this new era of touring cars. Over the two seasons, Mark Skaife claimed 24 race wins. The majority of those wins were claimed by 'HRT 045' — a VX Commodore that wound up getting nicknamed 'Golden Child'. And yes, two of those wins were Bathurst 1000 victories.
The question for the ages is whether the Ford Falcon AU of the period was an easy beat or whether HRT's big four-car umbrella and A-list driver, personnel, and car line-up was just that much better than anyone else's. More likely than not it's a bit of column A and a bit of column B, but this special chassis (and the efforts of Mr Skaife) needs special mention in that equation.
6. First of the breed: 1978–1980 Holden VB Commodore
A German-based replacement coming in to replace an established Holden legend? Yeah, sounds familiar doesn't it.
The current Holden ZB Commodore cops a lot of flack for its foreign roots, but those slinging the mud would benefit from remembering the background of the very first Commodore; the VB. It too had European roots as a reworked version of the Opel Rekord, and it was seen as the spiritual replacement to the larger, meatier, more iconic Torana (while more literally replacing the HZ).
The biggest distinction between the VB and the ZB was that Holden put much more elbow grease into making the former one of its own. Far from just being a case of tweaking the suspension tune, Holden strengthened the chassis and body, and swapped in the front clip from the Opel Senator to help accommodate a 5.0-litre V8 capable of 125kW in its richest form.
The changes were complimented by an extensive motorsport program. It wasn't just ATCC, either. The VB Commodore was utilised by a factory Holden Dealer Team campaign in the Repco Round Australia Trial; a grueling 20,000km circumnavigation of Australia's wildest vistas and most baron off-road tracks. The drive to prove the Commodore's reliability paid off, with some rallying wannabe called Peter Brock claiming first with Matt Philip and Noel Richards and HDT VB Commodores filling the podium. The winning car still sits, as it finished all covered in dirt, at the Bathurst Museum.
But it wasn't really the V8 options or the racing that made the VB special. Rather, it was the deft blend of those traditional powertrain choices with arguably the most clever and sophisticated platform that had been offered in Australia up to that point. The rack and pinion steering set-up was something Ford fans wouldn't see for a decade, and a feather-light weight of around 1380kg.
The VB's relatively tiny dimensions didn't necessarily hang around on future Commodores, but its blend of oldschool power and driving dynamics capable of shaking up the best from Europe certainly did.
5. Red and blue: 1985 Holden VK Commodore SS Group A / 1986 Holden VL Commodore Group A
Yes, by now I realise we're playing fast and loose with the whole '10 greatest Commodores' thing. But, it's difficult to split these two quick '80s race cars for the road.
While the HDT VC Commodore laid the foundation for hot, heavy homologation edition variants of Australia's favourite family car, it was the ATCC's shift from Group C to Group A that really got things going. This new format placed further emphasis on homologating things for the race car, so road-going creations became more extreme overnight.
For the VK Group A SS 'Blue Meanie' the 308 Cubic Inch V8 actually shrunk a tad to aid the Commodore's chances in Group A. But that didn't stop it from producing a claimed (by Peter Brock) 196kW — a pretty considerable figure for the period. The block was strengthened and de-stressed, it got a cold-air intake, roller rockers, and a lumpier cam.
Perhaps more to the point is that, unlike the HDT VC with its lush and luxurious crushed velour cabin, the VK Group A SS was properly spartan and raw. Most featured a bare-bones interior and next to no sound insulation, meaning that every noise from that tweaked powertrain would hit each occupant's eardrums like a tonne of bricks.
Come November 1986 and the introduction of a VL Group A SS Commodore, and the recipe stayed largely the same. A sleeker nose and larger front and rear spoiler package helped with aerodynamics, with an against-the-odds Bathurst 1000 win that October underlining the VL's progress. Fabulous car.
It was all overshadowed of course by the Energy Polarizer — an aptly named Brock-led 'device' that was, in essence, a box of magnets and crystals that 'aligned the molecules' of each car to improve performance. Negative publicity around the Energy Polarizer led to Holden and Brock severing ties, with the nine-time Bathurst champ finally returning to the factory team in 1994.
4. Final form: 2012–2017 Holden VF Commodore
Yup, arguably the Commodore's spiritual final form. A car that American publication Road & Track once said was the best sports sedan since the E39-generation BMW M5.
It might not have revolutionized the wildly successful VE it was based on, but the VF did make a few big steps. It sported arguably the nicest cabin ever seen in an Australian car, refinement was also at an all-time high, and it featured in a seemingly ramped up global program with Chevrolet.
Coverage from the international press confirmed what many a local knew; the VF was the most complete and well-rounded Aussie creation to ever be produced. And even as the market swayed away from large cars and towards SUVs, the Commodore defied expectations to hang on as one of Australia's top-10 best sellers until the bitter end.
It's hard to zero in on one particular VF to elevate. Many will gravitate to the grand final swansong; the explosive HSV GTSR W1 with its 474kW/815Nm Corvette-derived LS9 V8. A shout out too to the 2013 HSV GTS, which was briefly the most powerful four-door sedan in the world. But arguably, it's the more humble Commodore SS-V VF II Redline that's more significant. Offering the HSV-hand-me-down naturally aspirated 6.2-litre LS3 in an SS made for a wonderfully psycho bargain-basement brawler with a slightly sleeper edge.
Until you heard it burbling away at the lights, anyway.
3. Big Banger: 1984 Peter Brock Holden VK Commodore Group C
It's tempting to label the VF II Redline and its 6.2-litre V8 the 'Last of the Big Bangers', but that moniker is already taken in Holden folklore.
While yes, the Group A era in Australian touring car racing arguably improved the road-going offerings for the public, the departure from Group C was by and large something that racing fans mourned. The ostentatious aero, fat wheels and tyre, big personality Group C warriors were something that resonated with the punters in the stands better than perhaps any other era of race cars in Australia.
It was Australia's equivalent of rallying's Group B formula. Wildly popular, as cars became more and more unique — and expensive. Issues around costs saw the formula ditched, but not before Holden ensured that it would all end with an almighty bang.
While Holden's 1984 VK Commodores are outshone on the record books by cars like the aforementioned Skaife 'Golden Child' VX, they did much more to capture the imagination of those who witnessed its success. Brock and Larry Perkins romped home to a commanding two-lap victory over HDT teammates John Harvey and David Parsons.
It was an emphatic send off for the most loved era of Australian touring-car racing. There was a whole saga (that continues to today) over where the actual '05' Bathurst winning Commodore went after it won on the mountain, but that's another story for another day.
2. Plastic pig: 1988 'Walkinshaw' Commodore SS Group A SV
Yup, number two belongs to one of the most divisive, wild Commodores to ever be created. And yes, technically, it isn't a 'Holden' per se.
Landing in 1988, the 'Commodore Group A SV' quickly earned a provocative reputation — as illustrated by the multitude of nicknames it adopted. Some, like 'Walky' and 'Walkinshaw' were kind. Others, like 'Plastic Pig' and 'Batmobile' were the opposite.
While today Walkinshaw Commodores are among the most financially coveted Holdens you can buy, lion fans from the time detested them. The performance numbers (180kW/380Nm out of its 5.0-litre 304 V8) and tech were more cutting edge than a Holden had any right to be, but punters struggled with the Walkinshaw's crazed aero.
The low front end, the chunky side bolstering, the dining room table erected on the back. There are stories of Holden dealers all over Australia taking portions of the kit off and re-dressing their Walkinshaws as standard Commodores, to try and conceal the fact that they were a slow seller.
What people perhaps didn't recognise at the time was that the Walkinshaw represented the greatest improvement over the standard Commodore line-up, and that standing probably holds up today. 'Race car for the road' wasn't out of the question, with a specially cast block, bespoke crankshafts, connecting rods, and pistons were among the goodies underneath that exterior cladding. Combined with Walkinshaw's twin throttle body inlet manifold set-up developed specifically for Group A, and you had a V8 driving experience that still holds up nicely today.
It kicked off 30 years of loud and proud engineering at HSV, it brought European conversations about aerodynamics to Australia, and in a true David versus Goliath feat it defeated Nissan's incredibly advanced R32 GT-R 'Godzilla' at the 1990 Bathurst 1000.
1. Billion Dollar Baby: 2006–2012 Holden VE Commodore
They might be ubiquitous at the moment, but there will come a day where Holden VE Commodores (particularly those with a performance tilt) will become collectibles.
It's not simply because they're a good car, popular with V8-loving petrol-heads on opposing sides of the planet. Nor is it because of the tuning and modification potential of its V8 engines (which included the LS3 and LS7). No, VE prices will start to creep upwards when motoring fans grasp the significance of the achievement.
Despite the 'nothing more Australian than meat pies and Holden cars' company line, the Commodore was based on foreign underpinnings from 1978 until 2006. The VE was the first 'all-Australian' Commodore. The rear-driven Zeta platform blended comfort and dynamics in true Holden fashion, the looks straddled the line between reserved and muscular (those pumped out front guards still look gorgeous today).
Seven years, over AU$1b of expenditure, 3.4 million kilometres of testing went into its creation, and what resulted was a car that illustrated Holden's engineering abilities to the world. And if that wasn't enough, Holden's mates at Chevrolet utilized that same platform for the rebirth of the Camaro.
Not a bad endorsement, even if it was the beginning of the end.