Holden VL Commodore Turbo: Buyers' Guide

By: Unique Cars magazine

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Holden Commodore VL Turbo engine bay Holden Commodore VL Turbo engine bay

Our buyers' tips on what to look for and what to pay for a 1986-88 Holden VL Commodore Turbo

 

1986-1988 Holden VL Commodore Turbo

You can thank unleaded petrol for the VL Turbo. Specifically, the fact that Holden just could not see a way to make the old faithful 202 six-banger run successfully on the new brew. So rather than tear up otherwise useful money banging its corporate scone against a brick wall, Holden simply went shopping for a replacement donk. And what it found was the Nissan RB30, three-litre, SOHC six-cylinder which was also being fitted to locally-made Nissan Skylines. A deal was done and the VL Commodore of 1986 was the first full-sized six-cylinder Holden since the EJ of 1963 not to use what was effectively the old Holden red motor.

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And then a strange thing happened. Nissan of Nippon was also building a turbocharged version of the RB30 three-litre, but Nissan Australia wasn’t interested in it. Holden was, however. The turbocharged six got lower compression pistons, a different cam profile and a water-cooled Garrett turbo and found its way between the VL’s strut towers. No intercooler? Hey, what do you expect for less than 20-grand? In any case, the results spoke for themselves: 150kW, 296Nm a standing quarter-mile in a low-15 and a top whack of 220 or 230 kliks.

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As a nod to the safety Nazis, Holden insisted you take your VL Turbo with the FE2 suspension pack and mandated 15-inch wheels to take the bigger front brakes. The good news was you could have your Turbo with either the four-speed auto from Nissan or a five-speed manual. And you could tick the Turbo box on everything from the Calais right down to the lightweight, povo-pack SL model. What was even crazier was that the Turbo Commo absolutely aced the five-litre V8 version when it finally arrived a couple of months later with a half-assed ULP conversion on the old 304 and a wheezy 122kW (and a three-speed auto). Again, it was the first time since the 1960s that the fastest Holden you could buy was a straight-six.

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Eventually, the costs of using fully-imported engines purchased against a predatory exchange rate forced Holden to rethink the whole idea, so the next model Commodore, the VN, was engineered for the trusty old pushrod Buick V6 which was not really much more technically sophisticated than a 202 with Efi (and no bloody smoother) but had been built in huge numbers in the US where unleaded had been a reality for many more years. So the VL Turbo ran only from August 1986 until the same month in 1988. But in the process, it really carved out a name for itself and is still remembered fondly by blokes like me who road-tested them in the day.

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Mind you, `fondly’ only applies to the powerplant, really, because the rest of the deal – in standard trim – was less convincing. The stiffer FE2 suspension was a nice idea, but it was underdone in terms of taming the VL’s wayward chassis. Oh the steering was nice enough at first but the front end lacked balance and the rear end lacked everything…mainly grip. One drive on a wet road had you reaching for the Hail Marys and the wooden stake. Obviously, tyres weren’t then what they are today, but even on good rubber, a stock VL Turbo was a real handful. It lacked lateral grip, it lacked power-down and while the bread-and-butter atmo model was bad enough, combine those traits with the Turbo’s rushy delivery and you had yourself a big old bag-o-cats.

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Inevitably, P Brock sniffed the air and built himself a batch of VL Turbo-based weapons, one of which I was lucky enough to sample. It was a pale metallic green five-speed and with a few undisclosed Brock tweaks it was a genuine missile. I never found out what its top speed was, but it was definitely, ahem, north of 250. And even thought the five-spoke Momos were lovely (and still are) details like the skanky velour roof lining and fiddly switchgear stamped even a Brock Turbo as very much a product of the 80s.

Beyond Brock, the Turbo’s ultimate fate was at the hands of the tuners who, as an emerging breed in this country, were still on a pretty steep learning curve when it came to forced induction, yes, they built some rockets after a while, but they also rooted many a perfectly good stocker in the process. So no change there, then.

MARKET GUIDE: Cliff Chambers

If someone claims that young people aren’t into older cars any more, just take them along to a gathering of VL Commodore owners. Turbo versions of all kinds are hugely popular with under-40 enthusiasts and the Calais with its half-lidded headlights seems to have particular appeal. Prices are climbing and not just for cars that have been extensively and expensively modified. Quite the reverse. Standard VL Turbos are highly sought-after, so expect a feeding frenzy.

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A preserved Calais Turbo with its original trim and paint is well worth pursuing and spending considerable money to acquire. Outstanding cars have been sold at around $30,000.

Basic SL and Berlina models offered in the marketplace probably won’t have all of their original mechanical components. Expect to pay around $12,000 for one of these in good condition.

Ex-police vehicles or "interceptors" identified by the BT1 designation on the data plate and either 80, 85 or rare 90-litre long range fuel tanks are highly desirable and are often cloned.

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Excellent modified cars fall in the $15-20K bracket but original/unmodified cars are thin on the ground and would command a significant premium due to their rarity.

OWNER: TURHAN PEKER, VICTORIA

I've always been interested in VL Turbos, I think it’s one of the best things Holden did back in the day. They ran out of time to find a motor to build for the VL, but Nissan had the straight-six three-litre motor with the turbo. I think that’s why these cars are still as popular as they were when they came out. Especially the BT1 Interceptor, it’s the iconic police car. As a member of the Victorian Police Historical Society I do a lot of events, so over time I’ve met a lot of people currently serving, or who drove these back in the day. They always say how good these cars were, that they were like a rocket on take-off.

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I found out about the society through Victoria Police, and contacted them to tell them what car I have and to ask if they’d be interested in restoring it to what it once was back in the day. It’s been a continual project to get it back to how it was. I think the most interesting thing has been trying to source the parts the car would have had as a police car. I think the one thing that stands out is that the bars have clear-coat on them, when they should have a satin finish. That’s something I’m working towards getting done. The average person probably wouldn’t know anyway, but it’s just about paying attention to the finer details.

VALUE RANGE

1986-88 VL TURBO

Fair: $5,500
Good: $14,500
Excellent: $23,500 (Calais turbo)

BUYER'S CHECKLIST

1986-1988 VL Commodore Turbo

BODY & CHASSIS

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Even a car that has been dutifully maintained will, after 30 years, be suffering deterioration of body rubbers and sealants and perhaps some crash repairs as well. The VL seems less susceptible to rust than earlier Commodores and vendors may claim their car to be ‘rust free’ but look at the turret, lower edges of panels, the boot channel, the boot-lid and wagon tailgate.

Check the front and rear winsdscreen surrounds for visible rust. Not long ago, a Turbo that suffered major mechanical failure might have been wrecked for its body and interior parts, but today that rarely happens and replacing worn Calais trim or unique front sheet metal is challenging.

ENGINE & TRANSMISSION

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Providing the straight six hasn’t been pushed beyond its considerable limits these engines hang together pretty well. However there is always the temptation for owners to fit bigger turbos, inlet and exhaust systems and bumper-mount intercoolers and then ask extra money for features that are detrimental to durability. Turbochargers rarely ‘pop’ without warning so look when test-driving for exhaust smoke indicating failed seals while listening for a whining noise when accelerating. Manual and automatic transmissions are shared with other Nissan products, durable and far nicer to use than trannies fitted to previous Holdens.

SUSPENSION & BRAKES

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VL Turbos with stock springs and standard shocks are very difficult to find and comments based on the standard set-up are pretty much irrelevant. What we can say is that not every ‘uprated’ suspension will suit the subsequent buyer’s needs so test drive under a range of conditions before deciding to buy. An associated issue is large diameter wheels with ultra low-profile tyres. These provide minimal cushioning and send shock loadings into the suspension; they can also damage rims so check the inner edges for dents. Standard VL brakes were good and many will have been upgraded. Beware a soggy pedal or pulsing from warped rotors.

INTERIOR & ELECTRICS

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Second-hand seats for lower-spec cars aren’t hard to find but that may not be the case If you’re hoping to refurbish a trashed Calais cabin. Vinyl trim parts, hood lining and carpet are available but try to find a car that doesn’t need its seat trim replaced. Seat belts having been exposed to sun and trapped in doors for 30 years can be dangerous and it will be worth investing $500 or so in a set of new belts and inertia reel mechanisms. Calais headlights need to be checked a few times to ensure the covers raise and lower in unison and without catching. New light units are available for just $50 each but the mechanisms are difficult to replace.

SPECIFICATIONS

1986-1988 Holden VL Commodore Turbo

NUMBER MADE: 150,400
All models (approx. exc. HDT/HSV)
BODY STYLES: steel integrated body/chassis four-door sedan
ENGINE: 2962cc in-line OHC six- cylinder with, turbocharger & EFI
POWER & TORQUE: 150kW @ 5600rpm, 296Nm @ 3200rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h 7.6 seconds, 0-400 metres 15.3 seconds (Executive 5 speed)
TRANSMISSION: five-speed manual, four-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers & anti-roll bar (f) Live axle with coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: disc (f) disc (r) power assisted
TYRES: 205/65 HR15 radial

 

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