1986-1988 Holden VL Commodore Turbo

By: Mark Higgins, Guy Allen, Photography by: Ben Galli

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The VL Commodore cop car was an unwelcome sight in your rearview mirror, but now it has an enormous cult following


Holden VL Commodore Turbo

When you look back, the time of the VL Commodore was littered with milestones and turmoil.

Unleaded fuel was introduced, Holden’s six-cylinder engine was axed and replaced by a Nissan six, then a turbo – a first for an Aussie made family car, Peter Brock launched the Energy Polarizer and the Director and lost HDT Special Vehicles, then Holden Special Vehicles was born. There were two SS versions, one Brock one Walkinshaw, a couple of Bathurst wins and victory at the first round of the inaugural World Touring Car Championship. That’s a lot.


So let’s start in the early 1980s and the Federal Government’s decision to rid lead pollution from vehicles and introduce 91 octane unleaded fuel on January 1 1986.

While many imported brands could achieve this relatively easily, for GMH this presented a major obstacle.

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The much-loved Aussie-made 202ci six needed re-engineering in order to drink the new brew and whichever way Holden looked at it, the numbers didn’t stack up. So after 38 years Holden straight six-cylinder engine production ceased.


After scouring the GM divisions globally and finding nothing Holden looked at its rivals, even banging on Jaguar’s door and enquiring of their new 3.6-litre six, before making their decision.

Into the VL – the last iteration of the first-generation Holden Commodore went with an imported 3.0-litre fuel injected straight six designed and manufactured by Nissan in Japan and codenamed RB30E. It featured an overhead cam, alloy cylinder head, produced 114kW and 247Nm and with only 1300 kilos to shove along gave the Commodore unprecedented performance.

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Despite the power gain Holden execs were fearing sentimental backlash, but must have slept easy following the national media launch of the VL Commodore February 1986 with overwhelming positive reviews. Not only had the Commodore’s new powerplant received the thumbs up, so did the new (Nissan) transmissions – a five-speed manual and four-slot auto.

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Importantly, buyers also warmly embraced the VL Commodore and its Nissan engine boasting new levels of smoothness, quietness, economy and performance, along with improved ride and handling due to revised dampers, new springs and smaller anti roll bars giving better balance and handling and a firmer ride without any discomfort. All up approximately 151,000 VL Commodore sedans and wagons were built.


But it was more than the new engine transmission combo that made the VL Commodore a stand out. It was the recipient of the biggest styling and interior makeovers since the Commodore made its Australian debut in October 1978.

The VL bodylines were softened where before there were sharp angles, and a small built-in rear spoiler became part of the bootlid. Every panel forward of the A-pillars was new and the new 85 per cent brighter (on high beam) homofocal headlights became rectangular, with the range-topping Calais featuring semi-retracting headlight covers, a first for a production Holden. Two-spoke steering wheels featured on the SL and Berlina with the Calais having a single-spoke design, along with new design front pews. The cabin was markedly quieter and upmarket compared to the outgoing VK.

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Drivers looked at a new dash with round instruments replacing square ones, touch switches either side of the instrument binnacle operated the wipers, rear window demister, electric antenna and the headlight switch moved from the right-hand lower dash to the indicator stalk.

The graphics were all new and the centre console was redesigned for more storage space.

At the time of the VL launch, Holden was struggling to get its V8 to digest the unleaded nectar, but for racing purposes it was vital to have a V8, so Holden persevered and the five-litre vee eight finally saw the light of day September 1986.


It was still fed by a Rochester four-barrel carburettor and put out 122 kW and 323Nm, a mere eight kilowatts more than the Nissan six but around fifty more newton metres.

Holden had contemplated following Ford and dumping the V8 rather than modifying it to suit unleaded fuel but didn’t and, with continual developments, Holden’s V8 lasted until 1999, before being replaced with the LS1.

But the big news on the performance front for the VL was the turbocharging of the Nissan engine, a first for an Australian made family car.


If buyers thought the standard six was quick, they were in for a treat with the turbo version with power ramping up to 150kW and 296Nm. A Garret turbo sat inside a water-cooled housing for longevity, while new pistons lowered the compression ratio and an updated cam reduced overlap. The turbo also wore its own intake manifold and exhaust. Bigger disc brake rotors were fitted to turbo models with local company Girlock providing the same front calipers as on the Corvette, necessitating a switch to 15-inch wheels. The turbo VL was offered in all variants and with manual and auto transmissions.

The front cover of the August 1986 edition of Wheels magazine had the headline Off the Clock – the Commodore Turbo at 217km/h, with the photos showing the tacho at 6000rpm and the speedo needle wound around to the stopper. Impressive.


The turbo Commodore was a tantilising proposition, an Aussie built family hack capable of 220 kilometres per hour (137mph) and the first to feature a turbocharger.

With such impressive out of-the-box performance it was little wonder police forces around the nation leapt onto the puffed Commodore as their highway pursuit car of choice.


The cop-spec VLs, coded BT-1, were based on the base model SL. Underneath they were fitted with the FE2 sport suspension so they sat a bit lower, some with a long-range fuel tank and all with multi slot steel wheels. By far the most popular colour was Absinthe Yellow, though some state forces opted for more subtle white or pale blue.

It wasn’t just Victoria and South Australia where the VL was made. New Zealand also assembled them and offered two Nissan sixes: A two-litre (RB20) and the three-litre. As in Australia, they could be bought with the manual and auto boxes, while the carbureted five-litre V8 got the three-speed auto.


South East Asia was another market, with both Singapore and Thailand taking Australian-built cars. The VL was also assembled in Indonesia with the last of them being the "Holden Calais 2000".

Electronic Fuel Injection made its V8 debut in the VL Commodore on the Walkinshaw version of the Group A SS in 1988. This milestone car heralded Holden Special Vehicles as GMH’s new performance car partner. Sitting behind the EFI V8 was either the existing three-speed Trimatic auto or a Borg-Warner T-5 manual.

The VL Commodore lineup was a familiar one with SL, Executive, Berlina and Calais badges slapped on the new bootlid. Holden dumped the name Holden Commodore Calais in favour of Holden Calais.


Around 200 Calais wagons were built from March to August 1988 and are highly prized. They were offered with the six, turbo six and V8 and was an exercise in reducing the stockpile of wagon bodies before the VN. There was a bicentennial special in 1988, a limited-edition Series 200, with unique two-tone champagne paintwork and other goodies, but only offered with the naturally aspirated six.

The VL Commodore Group A SS has the distinction of being the only model made twice in the same body… and by two different outfits. The first 500, painted Permanent Red were assembled by Peter Brock’s HDT Special Vehicles with the second 500 the first effort of Tom Walkinshaw’s Holden Special Vehicles after Brock and Holden parted ways. If the Brock Group A looked mild the Walkinshaw version was wild with its over-the-top bolt on bodywork.


As for VL Bathurst wins, chalk up one a piece to Brock in 1987, as a privateer with HSV picking up the win in 1990. But the biggest VL Commodore win was by Allan Moffat and John Harvey in a Rothmans-backed racer, built by HDT and acquired by Moffat early 1987 after leaving the racing division of HDT.

With a tiny budget the Commodore lobbed for round one of the inaugural World Touring Car Championship at Monza, Italy. It crossed the line seventh but the top six cars in front failed post-race inspection and were disqualified, handing the victory to the Commodore.

Yes, a lot happened in the time of the Holden Commodore VL.



Josh Marczenko

JOSH MARCZENKO admits to a long-lived obsession with this particular variant of what is in fact, a relatively low-spec VL turbo. His first was bought 13 years ago. Like many VL fans, he sees these BT-1s, in the distinctive Absinthe Yellow (aka 1D008D variants) ordered by the Victoria Police, are the ultimate ‘get’ for the VL turbo fan.


Values tend to reflect that, with prices varying from 50 to 120k. Weirdly, interstate cars – such as ex-Queensland Police units in Blaze Yellow – don’t pull quite as much money as the Vic variant.

There are two of these things currently gracing the Josh shed – the stocker that dominates the main feature, plus a modified version shown here.


What are the differences between the Vic police versions and a regular customer car? Aside from the paint, they tend to be subtle. The drive-line is stock. However the steel wheels on ‘chasers’ should be the more robust 15 x 6 JJ Interceptor variant. They were designed to be more tolerant of being run on a flat tyre. As part of that package, stronger and larger (22mm versus 19mm) wheel nuts were used, and the car would have been delivered with the appropriate wheel brace, painted brown.

The original Goodyear Eagle NCT tyres are now impossible to source, however the original spare for the feature car has been saved and is in the boot. You could until recently get a remake version of the tyre, but even that supply is more less dried up.


Finding parts remains a big issue for VL restorers. Details like the ‘kick-up’ exhausts unique to the turbos, can be a challenge. And even when you do get the correct components, there may be an issue using them. For example, Josh’s car has date-stamped (1986) ignition leads – that was part of an extraordinary build done by previous owner and mechanic Joe Turano. They look great, but will eventually have to be replaced, as they don’t last forever.

These were usually a radio delete model. For restorers, the frustrating thing is the radio fill-in panel in the dash, and the aerial blank on the front fender were often thrown out as the cars were decommissioned and prepared for auction. As part of that process, they were refitted with radios. The fender blanks are now being remanufactured by a small after-market outfit, as are a number of detail items, such as wiring loom labels.


One of the furphies out there is they all had long-range tanks, but that’s not the case. Big fuel tanks were usually used in the patrol cars destined for rural stations, while city chasers often stayed with the smaller stock tanks, which is the case with the feature car.

Another myth-buster: People often use the door handles to pick a Series 1 or 2 VL – silver for the former and black for the latter. However the yellow cars came with black, even in Series 1.


Josh suggests a more reliable give-away is the seat shapes, which were squared off in Series 1 and rounded in Series 2.

Confusing the issue for collectors is the fact that Vic Roads ordered similar spec patrol cars. However theirs tended to have the V5W country-pack suspension, with a taller ride height. The police cars instead usually had the ‘sports’ FE2 suspension setup, with firmer springs and dampers.


After spending years tracking for-sale ads, Josh has a pretty good handle on the history of many examples that pop up on the market from time to time. These days, however, they tend to sell by word of mouth and he suggests that, if you were serious about getting one, join a club or owner group.

What’s the attraction with these cars? "The RB30 turbo is a great engine and these cars look good in yellow." What’s it like to drive? "It’s reliving the 80s with that classic feel. There’s nothing better than jumping in the car, going for a drive, it’s just like you’re in a time machine."




Back in the late 90s my brother was on the hunt for a VL ex-interceptor and we looked at numerous cars. He ended up pursuing and purchasing a 1986 Berlina manual turbo that he eventually sold back in 2003 through this very magazine. Prior to my love of all things Fomoco I once drooled over any VL BT-1 and plastered old classified clippings in my high school diary. These "gotaways" are from 1998 issues of our old sister magazine, Auto Car Supermarket. If only...



Body & chassis


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


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 and are durable and far nicer to use than trannies fitted to previous Holdens.

Suspension & brakes

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


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.


1986 - 1988 VL Commodore Turbo

Number made: 151,000 All models (approx. exc. HDT/HSV)
Body styles: Steel integrated body/chassis four-door sedan and wagon
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


From Unique Cars #451, April 2021



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