Holden VN Commodore Group A prototype restored

By: Glenn Torrens, Photography by: Mark Bean

Presented by

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Holden's 1990 VN Commodore SS Group A was its last race-ready showroom special. This is the tale of how a pre-production car escaped the crusher and, three decades later, was restored

The life of a prototype is usually short, not sweet. To make sure the car its maker intends to sell will perform properly, last a reasonable amount of time, not kill anyone, and not send the dealers crazy with warranty claims; teams of engineers and mechanics begin working with new tech for ‘next year’s model’ years before it’s due to hit the showrooms. After specifications are determined, modified present-model cars are fitted with the new-design parts – anything from suspension to engine to driveline and air-con - and driven to destruction.

Later, after the new series car reaches showrooms, any mechanical updates, new features or special models will be tested, too. When the engineers’ work is done and the shiny new series is on sale, those surviving experimental, prototype and test cars are usually crushed or chopped up … never to be driven nor seen again.

But sometimes one of these test cars will escape.

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Iconic HRT livery painfully recreated

And so it was for this 1990 VN Holden Commodore SS Group A. It’s one of apparently two PILOT-plated (pre-production) cars manufactured by Holden in August 1990. Being of correct production/mechanical specification for the limited-build VN SS Group A, the car was completed with all the good Group A bits listed on its build plate: the twin-throttle body 5.0-litre engine (coded LB9), six-speed ZF gearbox (ML9), narrow-track rear axle with 3.45 LSD (GM3) and unique interior trim (161) of the production VN Group A. It also has the wider rear wheel housings and HSV’s premium four-wheel disc brakes. Obviously, this one was completed in white, not the impressive Durif Red of the actual production cars.

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MAKE IT A DATE

Magazines of the time tell us the VN SS Group A’s on-track debut was to have been at Bathurst 1990 but the development program ran a little late. Instead, Holden’s fourth and last Group A Commodore arrived in Holden dealers from October 1990 with Australian racing eligibility from 1 Jan 1991.

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That means, by the time this one drove from the end of Holdens’ South Australian production line in August 1990, the design and development work for the last-ever Holden race homologation model was complete.

In fact, by then not only were the specs locked-in, but much of the brochure/publicity photography was complete and motoring journos had driven the new Group A at Sydney’s then brand-new Eastern Creek Raceway (now Sydney Motorsport Park).

So there is an aura of mystery about why this white car (and its sister) was built. Many enthusiasts will (and do) quote ‘durability testing’ which is a reasonable assumption for why this car was built: Holden development cars were usually white because a light-coloured underbody is easier to work on by the side of a road on a test trip and white also allows quick identification of stress cracks in the body. But according to those dates, this white car was manufactured too late; after the Group A’s specifications were locked-in using other prototype cars.

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However, a quote of the time from Holden Special Vehicles spokesperson (and legendary racer) John Harvey provides us a clue. During the launch of HSV’s first Club Sport, the VN, at Calder Park in winter 1990, the motoring journalists’ chat turned to the eagerly anticipated but yet-to-be announced VN SS Group A. On that subject, CAR Australia magazine reported that Harvey said: "We’ve done a couple of pilot cars and we’re happy…"

The pilot cars Harvey mentioned could have been used as – said simply - practice cars: first for Holden to test-build the true-specification core cars on the Elizabeth, SA production line. Then, on arrival at HSV’s facility in Melbourne, the final assembly process (eg for the body kit) would have been practiced and checked. This car is likely to have been one of the pilots used.

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Another clue? A tow bar! Part of Holden’s design and testing process was to simulate extreme driving conditions at its Lang Lang Proving Ground and on Australian roads by applying a drag load to the car with a weighted and independently-braked dyno trailer… hence this car’s heavy-duty tow package. After their initial design work was completed, engineers had to double-check (what the engineers such as Warwick Bryce call an audit – see sidebar) aspects of the car’s performance using production-line specification vehicles (such as this Pilot) rather than with hand-built test/prototype cars.

No matter what, this car ticks all the boxes: it’s the real deal: a correctly plated Pilot-build of Holden’s last-ever race special… it’s a great piece of our Aussie car history.

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A FORTUNATE LIFE

After this car’s Pilot tasks were complete, it was converted by Holden Racing Team (HRT) apparently, at first, to be a spare car. From ex-test to track-spec, its seats, headlining and carpet were removed and it was fitted with a full protection cage and air-operated jacks – but not the racing driveline – of an HRT track car.

But it was never required to be fitted with race-spec mechanicals for competition use. Over the next decade it was displayed and driven for various HRT publicity exercises. In one high-profile outing for the TV cameras, another legendary Australian race driver, Allan Grice, drove it under Sydney Harbour, through the then-new road tunnel prior to its opening in August 1992. By then, it had been updated to the VP series Commodore’s appearance – with the different tail lights and different front guards with longer front indicators - to reflect the then-new Commodore’s showroom styling.

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The car was updated again to 1993 VR Commodore appearance which, with the VR’s comprehensive re-styling, required the original VN rear quarters be removed and the shapely new VR panels be welded on. The bonnet, boot, front guards and of course the race-spec HRT bumpers and aero package are all bolt-ons. It’s likely the original engine’s through-the bonnet Group A twin-throttle intake manifold was replaced at this time with a standard Holden EFI bunch-of-bananas manifold that, of course, fits under a standard VR bonnet.

In this guise, the late great racing driver Peter Brock took kids for hot laps of Eastern Creek – and probably other tracks, too - and drove it in various episodes of the Aussie TV show he presented during the 1990s: Police, Camera, Action! This car features in the opening scenes of a 1997 episode of This Is Your Life about Peter Brock, too.

During the noughties - and apparently into the V8 Supercars’ VE Commodore era - it was used as a pit-stop practice car for HRT. In case you’re wondering: the other Pilot car was configured as a production-class race car and after its competition life, is now in the hands of a collector.

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One of the best local Lion liveries?

Nearly three decades after this car was built, it appeared in a For Sale ad on a close-knit enthusiasts’ Facebook page. "The ad said something like: ‘If you know what this is and are not a time-waster, let’s talk!’" recalls its new custodian, Nick. "It just popped up; I was just cruising through Facebook in the middle of the day."

Nick, a Holden/HDT/HSV enthusiast, was immediately interested. "The seller had a deposit in an hour," Nick continues, "and the car was picked up and paid for the next day."

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Shipped to Sydney, its condition could best be described as tatty – but given the car’s age and life, that was not a surprise, nor a disappointment or problem. Nick quickly settled on a plan for the car: it was to be restored to its appearance when it first appeared in its HRT uniform.

"We chose one set of photos of the car on display at Bathurst [races]," explains Nick. "It would have been 1991. The pics came from an HRT fan back in the day…" Those pics were a precise representation of the car before it was updated/modified over the following years so they became the reference for the restoration.

As it was dressed in later VR panels, Nick needed to retro-spec the car to its original VN appearance by removing the VR rear quarters. Nick searched for NOS/unused rear quarter panels without success so instead, a VN Commodore S, undamaged and complete with a transplanted 5.0-litre V8, was bought to provide most of the required components.

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Standard engine despite HRT’s race conversion

To properly reclaim the spot-welded quarter panels, Nick and his bro-in-law and resto assistant Jimmy sliced deep into the VN S’s body’s sub-structure so the spot welds could be drilled from the inside-out. This allowed the quarters to be offered up ‘clean’ to the Group A’s sub-structure. Nick also retained the VN donor car’s clip-on window surrounds, belt moulds and C-pillar glass, trim clips and air-con lines before the EFI V8-powered rolling chassis was sold as a driveline donor (in fact, I bought it!).

Andrew and the crew at AWP Classic Restoration in Dural, in Sydney’s north west, is responsible for most of the paint and panel. "Alignment was critical - VNs were a bit sloppy," says Nick, alluding to the fact the VN series unfortunately sometimes had some too-wide panel gaps when new. "But we got everything straight when we re-skinned it."

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The final step in restoring the car’s appearance was to replicate the car’s race-spec signwriting. Richard at XFactor Signs in Sydney replicated the car’s Bathurst guise by guesstimating the stickers’ sizes against body components shown in those Bathurst photos, plus a few more pics published in books. The effort went as far as replicating the minor mis-alignment of some stickers!

MECHANICAL MAKEOVER

As bought, the original engine was, as Nick says, "tired". For much of its life, it seemed to have been operated without an air cleaner and as mentioned the distinctive twin-throttle intake manifold was missing. Shane at Emu Plains Automotive freshened the engine back to its ‘standard’ specs - not that there was much that could be described as standard inside a VN SS Group A engine!

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Race-spec is only part of the history

Thankfully the VN SS Group A’s unique stub-type exhaust extractors remained but replacing the twin-throttle type Group A intake manifold was difficult and expensive.

"It needed everything," says Nick of replacing the Group A’s distinctive and exclusive intake. "But I found a complete set-up that included the fuel rails, the ECU, the engine bay wiring and all the plastics – all the special Group A bits."

Most of the other important driveline components had remained in place. During Nick’s restoration, everything under the car was checked and overhauled; the suspension’s every bush and rubber was replaced prior to the undercarriage components being repainted. The original Group A-spec Bilstein dampers had also disappeared so were of course replaced.

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From a fully-loaded road car to racer

That German-made ZF six-speed gearbox was a bit more of a headache. Nick wanted to have it rebuilt - as the engine and diff were – but his gearbox guru shook his head when it was discovered that ZF in Germany could no longer supply spare parts nor information for the now 30-year-old, discontinued design. Thankfully it’s a tough gearbox and the only problem component – a weeping output shaft seal – was able to be replaced after a bit of detective work: The Group A’s ZF gearbox was also used behind GM’s Lotus-designed, Yamaha-assembled, quad-cam, 32-valve, 5.7-litre LT5 engine in the special-build 1990 ZR-1 Chevrolet Corvette and so Nick was able to match the Corvette part number to a seal available in Australia. After the international investigation and search (the gearbox was used in the Opel-built 1990 Lotus Carlton/Omega twin-turbo twins, too!) the seal cost just $16 and was fitted before nothing more than changing the gearbox’s oil. Job done!

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INSIDE STORY

When converted from factory to track-spec by HRT, the showroom-spec headlining, carpet and seats were removed. So too were the electric windows; the wiring was rolled up and cable tied and those exclusive original door cards had holes cut into them for manual window winders. It’s something of a shame that standard Commodore cards weren’t swapped-over at the time given these ones were exclusive to the SS Group A. However, Nick has another set of SS Group A originals stored for when (if?) he ever feels like returning the car to showroom-spec.

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HRT acquired the car  after it had filled its Pilot role

Other details of the car have been modified over the years, too: the original instrument cluster (Calais-spec with the three-window trip computer) was replaced with a set of simple race-type analogue gauges. With on-road use in this car’s future (it’s now H-plate eligible in NSW) the factory-spec headlight and wiper switches – long ago removed - were replaced during the restoration.

The original race-spec SAAS driver’s seat had been swapped during the car’s life, too. From how the car appeared in those important 1991 Bathurst pics, Nick was able to find a correct-spec seat and have it retrimmed in correct NOS material, complete with the SAAS embroidery on the headrest.

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That yellow plate is worth a fuss

Although there was plenty of expert assistance along the way, Nick – a tradesman mechanic - did much of the work on the car himself. With the car restored, it was shown publicly for the first time at the NSW All Holden Day in July last year.
This incredible car is a sensational and important piece of Holden’s and Australia’s motoring and motorsport history preserved forever. Top effort mate.

 

From Unique Cars #447, December 2020

 

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