Farewell to the Commodore name

By: Dave Carey

Presented by

holden commodore holden commodore

Holden's longest serving nameplate has been consigned to the history pages

 

Farewell Commodore

The King is Dead. Commodore, a 41-year old nameplate in this nation, withered on the vine and died – an incongruous end for the former bestseller. Across five generations and 16 models this Holden left an indelible mark not only on our motoring history, but on the very streetscapes we grew up in.

How and why we got here seems a constant source of dispute. To cite that Aussies fell out of love with the Commodore oversimplifies things. Plenty of Aussies still loved the Commodore, and they’d have bought one too, if they weren’t tradies needing a lifted, dual-purpose work/play/family/camping ute. They’d have bought one if the panache of a smaller European hatchback, often less car for more money, hadn’t beckoned them with its Teutonic siren-song. They’d have bought one, but for the plan to attack the Kimberley in their senior years. They’d have bought one, except the Commodore name had become just kinda… bogan… ya know? I mean, what would the neighbours think?

holden-commodores-2.jpgThe workhorse became a status symbol thanks to Commodore

Put simply, for a range of reasons not enough Aussies still loved the Commodore, rendering the product a niche player nursing mainstream infrastructure. It was a recipe for getting upside down financially – something Holden did with great success once before, I might add. So changing buyer lifestyle-choices, brand snobbery, V8 Supercars, market fragmentation, Thai free-trade agreements, unions, Labor, Liberal, fuel prices, global warming, the GFC and possibly even the Galactic Empire all serendipitously combined to kill the Commodore, not once but twice.

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FROM THE TOP

The 1978 Commodore began as an Opel, thrust upon Holden as part of a strategy to address both a fuel crisis and product rationalisation. Over the next four decades, Holden’s wary engineers and stylists painstakingly offset the Opel’s German efficiency with the need for longevity on our rough roads, serviceability in our remote towns and reliability in our volatile environment. From freezing alpine winters to searing summer heat and oppressively claustrophobic stop-start Sydney driving to the unrelenting expanse of the Nullarbor Plain, the Commodore, like the Falcon, had to take it from all sides, yet still wear a shit-eating grin.

When Holden shut down Elizabeth in 2017, we lost a lot more than a century of manufacturing history, because cars are gestalt entities; beyond the sum of their parts, cars stir our passion, nostalgia and happiness like no other machine.

Even broader than that, a local car industry is an integral part of a country’s national identity. We observed the business’s slow demise during the Gen-X era: the OZ-only Aurion two weeks prior to Holden, the FG-X Falcon the year before and the Mitsubishi 380 the previous decade. With the loss of the 2017 Commodore, we conceded a final swatch of Ken Done-stained Australiana to the Salvos bin.

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For years, these Aussie cars were our rides to school, drives to work, tradie rigs and repmobiles. Most importantly they were our taxis – the first cars our overseas guests experienced when they disembarked the Flying Kangaroo. Taxis weren’t usually the hero examples; vinyl seats and column-shifts persisted well after they ceased to be commonplace in private cars. And with many hundreds of thousands of kilometres under them before retirement, they might have gained a few rattles and squeaks. But they were our cars.

Case in point, no image of London would be complete without an austere congregation of black cabs. Historically, Austin, Beardmore and Metrocab have all supplied ‘Hackney Carriages’ conforming to Transport of London’s Conditions of Fitness. Seven inches of ground clearance and a 25-foot turning circle are required to ensure they can circumnavigate, quite specifically, the Savoy Hotel’s entrance roundabout.

Across the Atlantic the Checker Marathon spent 40 years sitting salient outside every airport, hotel and whorehouse from Kansas to Kalamazoo. The last of these beautiful behemoths retired in New York in July 1999, replaced en masse by a range of full-chassis domestic sedans, the most prominent and enduring of which was the Ford Crown Victoria. With the next generation of US cabs focussing on fuel economy and flexible cargo arrangements, the Crown Vic, a traditional sedan in every sense, is disappearing from US taxi ranks faster than the Checker did.

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Yet the vision of a Checker Marathon or Ford Crown Vic taxi is burned deep into the Betamax of every American movie and TV show made since 1960. Likewise, the silhouette of these cars is imprinted on the brains of almost every Westerner on the planet. Only an educated few would bat an eyelid if a Marathon, lumbering and large, appeared at the rank outside Delta’s JFK Terminal Two.

Sixteen thousand kilometres away, after a long, hot day at Summernats, Street Machine’s FG Falcon-based drag car, the Turbo Taxi, pulled up at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Four grot-encrusted magazine contributors stumbled out, drenched in sweat and blackfaced from burnout rubber. Senior staffer Scotty Taylor, about to return the road-registered racer to a distant car park, was surprised when a suit jostled past us and hopped in. Without giving Scotty so much as a cursory glance, he plonked his briefcase on the floor, whipped out his phone and asked succinctly, "Airport, please."

The 600,000km workhorse still wore Melbourne Taxi Yellow – not a hue renown of Canberra cabs, it should be noted, and was at least one model cycle out of date. Regardless, the colour and the shape represented a taxi to the subconscious of our businessman friend. His hunter-gatherer instincts detected an advantage in his peripheral vision and his impulses guided him, Aussie-style, to the passenger seat next to Mr Scotty Taylor.

Resisting the urge to take the man on a series of neck-snapping, turbo-sneezing, 11-second death runs between the Crowne and Canberra Airport, Scotty politely explained that the man had hailed a vehicle accredited by ANDRA rather than the ACT Road Transport Regulations. The bloke had a laugh, noted, "Yeah, it did seem a bit loud," and hopped out with a funny story to tell his kids, if he even remembered it happened. It wasn’t a Commodore, but if Holden had built a six as revered and tuneable as the Barra, it easily could have been.

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Throughout the 60s and 70s, the taxi wars went tit-for-tat-times-three between Holden, Ford and Chrysler, however the diminutive VB Commodore of 1978 conceded a great deal of ground to Ford in the important areas of fleet and cab sales. Travelling reps felt that downsizing their rides was akin to being demoted, while cabbies simply wanted real estate.

The strategy seriously almost put Holden under in the mid-80s, although it wasn’t all doom during the first gen Commodore’s nine-year run. Holden was wise to hang on to V8 power after Ford dropped the option in 1982, Broadmeadows pegging their performance future on the fuel-injected, alloy-headed, 4.1 litre six.

It was a rare misstep for Ford Australia, underestimating the emotional pull of a giant load of torque delivered from low revs. Conceding its error, Henry brought the V8 back after two models in absentia, but not before it created an Aussie racing- supporter void that the brand never truly recovered from.

| Read next: History of the VB-VL Commodore

holden-vk-commodore.jpgPeter Brock became the face of Holden

GENTLEMEN, START YOUR ENGINES

Over at Bertie Street, the sporting potential of Peter Brock’s HDT outfit was so serious that the factory commissioned him to build a run of VK Commodores for homologation in the ATCC’s upcoming Group A class. Three more race specials followed – another by HDT and two by replacement outfit HSV, before further rule changes made road versions unnecessary.

As cramped as the Commodore was perceived to be, it nimbly conquered the annual Bathurst 1000 some six times during the 80s, with an extra, against-the-odds 1990 victory for Win Percy and Allan Grice in the outdated, outgunned, bat-winged VL ‘Walkinshaw’.

A month later, Holden released the Durif Red Commodore SS Group A SV based on the big VN body. It was Holden’s final race special and sadly, the only Commodore to compete in the great race without achieving success. But this mattered not to fleet-buyers and taxi drivers. The ghosts of Opel had been stretched and altered, bringing buyers a viable alternative to the Falcon, with Holden’s $200m spend on the VN vindicated by an operating profit of $157m in 1989 alone.

holden-commodore-vn.jpgThe big VN arrived 10 years after the compact VB

BIG BODY BENEFITS

The VN-body included a long-wheelbase wagon for the first time on a Commodore, paving the way for the return of the Statesman and Caprice luxury duo, and the dearly missed Holden ute. The VN Commodore sold its balls off across the VP, VR and VS updates, with plenty of overseas travellers landing at Mascot Airport and finding taxis with the Lion in the loins. So serious was Holden’s assault on the market, they reintroduced the bench seat and column-shift, something that hadn’t been seen in a mainstream Holden passenger car since the HZ bowed out in 1980.

GM’s passion for inserting German-shaped pegs into Australian-shaped holes returned at the germination of the new-shape VT. The Opel Omega was a much larger car than the Senator it replaced, but it did not allow for 1520mm of rear shoulder room, a number so crucial, VT Planning Chief Tony Hyde almost had it tattooed in his forehead.

| Read next: History of the VT, VX Commodore

holden-commodore-ss.jpgThe SS added a touch of sportiness to family car motoring

Between 1990 and 1993, four international reviews conspired to bring the Australian VT unstuck were it not for Holden MD Bill Hamel. Nearing retirement and with nothing to lose, Hamel used his considerable experience to smash the VT through Detroit as an Aussie car. Ultimately, the Holden and Opel converged at just six points; the two B-pillar garnishes and the four Jesus bars. Any other similarities were academic.

holden-commodore-group-a.jpgThe Group A was a welcome addition to the VN range

The VT platform became a monster. The third-gen Commodore begat updates to the ute and LWB Statesman/Caprice twins, before heralding the Monaro coupe, the cab-chassis One Tonner, off-roading Adventra and the dual-cab Crewman. It was built in left-hand drive and sent to far-flung nations as the Chevrolet Lumina, Chevrolet Omega and Pontiac GTO. AWD running gear found itself variously under the coupe, wagon, Crewman and Tonner. Furthermore, from VTII onwards, ticking the V8 option filled the engine bay with GM Powertrain’s legendary LS motor.

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THE FINAL CHAPTERS

As the VT morphed into the VX, VY and VZ, large car sales took a plunge, but the next-and-final Aussie Holden, aptly based on the Zeta-chassis, was already locked in. Returning as the VE with a leaner, more focussed product range, the coupe, AWD, Tonner and Crewman were all gone. The bench seat too was consigned to the skip, but plenty of taxi drivers still plonked themselves into a comfy Commodore, especially as the boot was huge and could easily swallow a swarm of suitcases. It mattered not that the VE’s interior felt like a Chinese knock-off of itself; outside, it looked the goods and drove like no other Commodore before it.

Underneath, GM again insisted an existing product was fit for purpose, this time from Cadillac rather than Opel, but the US luxury brand’s Sigma platform was to be made of expensive materials and was, as usual, too small for Holden’s needs. Therefore, the VE/VF sat on a platform of its own, its international drivelines the only concessions to GM’s global strategy. The sequential duo led the class with their driving dynamics and the VF brought an interior quality that felt well in excess of its station. The fleets had abandoned the Commodore in favour of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure salary packaging, but anyone could grab themselves a VFII family truckster, tick the 6.2 litre V8 option and slice the quarter in a high twelve.

| Read next: History of the VE, VF Commodore

holden-commodore-motorsport.jpgThe local VF Series II was world class

The taxis were also turning; Camry Hybrids, proudly Aussie-built at that time, were becoming the cabbie’s choice, something that did not change when Elizabeth downed tools and the wurst-flavoured ZB Commodore started trickling into showrooms. That trickle never turned into a torrent, not that Holden was expecting one, but even they were shocked at the mid-size buyer’s apathy for the ZB.

holden-commodores-3.jpgIt all began with the VB and ended with the ZB

LAST RITES

So the Commodore was pronounced dead in December 2019, bringing the label’s successful 41-year history to a ragged, gasping and pitiful close. The German-sourced ZB spent 2018 in freefall, posting sales some 27 per cent lower than the Aussie-built unit that GM kyboshed the previous year. I’m not sure if it’s hilarious, ironic or tragic that Holden’s stylists and engineers spent four decades gradually, yet successfully massaging the Commodore away from its Opel roots, only for it to be replaced by an Opel. Then flopping.

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Would it have sold better as the Insignia? We’ll never know. But it should never have been called a Commodore. There was no connection, spiritually or emotionally, to the vehicles that preceded it, nor to the buyers that ignored it. It was never a ute. It was never a One Tonner. It was never a Statesman. It was never a coupe. But most importantly, it was never a taxi.

King Commodore is dead. Long live the King.

 

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