40 years of Holden Commodore VH (1981-1984)

By: Mark Higgins, Photography by: Unique Cars Archives

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Leading up to the General introducing the third iteration of the Holden Commodore in 1981, there was a fair degree of puerile sniggering among the motoring press as to what model name the General would give it

You see, the original Commodore was the VB followed by the VC so the next had to be the V… anyway, you can see where I am going with this.

However, the GM-H marketing and sales troops at Fishermans Bend were awake to this and christened it the VH.

Running from October 1981 to February 1984 and with prices starting at $8366 the VH was assembled at Holden plants at Dandenong in Victoria, Elizabeth in South Australia and Trentham in New Zealand.

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Two tone paint had a distinctive look

It was the last Commodore to wear chrome bumpers. Sold as a sedan and wagon, its arrival came changes to the model names.

The Commodore L from the previous VC model became the SL in the VH range and sold as both sedans and wagons. The range-topping SL/E badge carried over as did the just-introduced-on-the-VC, Shadow Tone option that added a new level of distinction to the model and lifted the entire range.

In between was a new model, the SL/X available as a sedan or wagon.

| Buyer's Guide: Holden Commodore VH

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SL/X was the mid range model

By far the most significant model introduction (or re-introduction) in September 1982, and one that remained until Commodore production ceased in 2017, was the SS (Super Sport) with its V8 engine.

In 1983 Holden aimed the Commodore at the Ford dominated fleet market with the SL-based Executive pack. Standard kit included air-conditioning and auto-transmission, but there were no badges or decals to distinguish it as one.

| Watch next: Holden Commodore VH SL/E - video

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HDT range grew with the VH 

And like Santa arriving each year, in December 1981, 82, and 83 Holden rolled out its parts bin special branded the Vacationer.

The Commodore was a child of the mid 70s oil crisis with Holden deeming a smaller, more fuel-efficient family car was needed.

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But by the time the VH arrived that crisis was a memory and Aussie buyers demanded a full-size family car, which Ford happily delivered. This gave the VH the dubious honour of being THE Holden that cost the General its position as Australia’s best-selling car.

The VH was the third facelift of the first gen Commodore.

| Buyer's Guide: Commodore/Calais VB-VL (excl. Turbo)

Its front end bodywork was altered giving a lower, wider appearance. Gone was the egg crate grille of the VC replaced by a cleaner slated unit featuring the Holden emblem. Both the head and taillights were new. The SL rode on uncovered steel rims, the SL/X got flush fitting hubcaps and the SS and SL/E alloy wheels.

Finally, the word ‘Commodore’ was inserted into the bumper forward of the front wheels.

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Under the bonnet of the VH range were four, six and eight cylinder engines bolted to manual and auto transmissions.

Kicking off the range was the underpowered and unloved 1.9-litre (115ci) Starfire four with a mere 54kW. It was quietly withdrawn late 1982, though it sold into 83.

A couple of sixes were offered. A 173ci with 73kW, and the proven 202ci producing 83kW plus a pair of V8s: The 100kW 253ci and top dog 308ci with a mighty 126kW.

Although the power figures are nothing to write home about, the Commodore was relatively light varying from 1152 kg to 1326 kg so performance, especially in the 308 V8, was somewhat lively.

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The good news of course was the ability to order almost any model/engine/transmission combo, so you could have an SL with a 4.2lt V8 and manual gearbox.

There was a choice of a four or optional five-speed manual in the four and smaller six-cylinder engine but only a four slotter with the 3.3-litre six and the two V8s. The auto offered was a three-speeder across the range.

Stopping power in the SL and SL/X was a front disc rear drum setup with the SS and SL/E getting discs all round.

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Luxurious and prestigious SL/E cabin

Standard kit was pretty spartan back then. The base model SL offered vinyl trim as standard with cloth an option. Cloth or faux corduroy featured in the SL/X and velour in the SL/E.

The SL and SL/X dash had a speedometer, fuel and economy gauges and a cluster of warning lights. The SL/X also had a voltmeter and oil pressure gauge.

Entertainment was courtesy of an AM radio in the SL with the SL/X and SL/E fitted with a push button radio and cassette player with Dolby and auto-reverse play mode.

Offered as options on the SL/E were cruise control and a trip computer that could measure average speed and fuel consumption.

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SL/E’s single spoke wheel

By now Peter Brock’s HDT Special Vehicles were a highlight in Holden dealerships and with the VH came an expanded line-up, SS Group One, SS Group Two and SS Group Three.

As you guessed, all were based on the SS.

The SS Group One had no body or engine changes to the 253ci V8 engine and even wore the standard SS wheels. For your two grand outlay you got dash badging, a high capacity air cleaner, modified suspension, a larger master cylinder, sports steering wheel and gearknob.

SS Group Two models also made do with the standard SS wheels and 253ci V8. Engine mods included blue printed cylinder heads, extractors, chromed rocker covers, gas flowed inlet manifold, front guard wind splitters, a rear deck spoiler and Group 2 decals. This bundle of goodies added $3250 to the price SS sticker price of $13,385.

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The SS Group 3 also had the 253ci V8 in its snout with further engine and ignition blueprinting. Making the SS Group 3 standout was its 15×7 Irmscher wheels carried over from the VC and body kit comprising a lower front air dam, side skirts, rear apron, rear deck spoiler and the large rearward facing bonnet scoop like the A9X.

But the big kahuna was the SS Group 3 with the optional 308ci V8 in its snout, pumping out a respectable 180kW and emptying your wallet of another $5500 on top of the $13,385 donor car, for the privilege.

Initially all VH HDTs were Maranello Red with Alabaster White added then Alpine White much later.

Giving Commodore and HDT cars in particular a sales boost, was the motorsport success of the VH.

It made its debut in the 1982 Australian Touring Car Championship (ATCC) and while Peter Brock scored enough points to win the title, the use of yet-to be-homologated parts led to his exclusion from all but two races.

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Come Bathurst the VH didn’t disappoint, Allan Grice becoming the first driver to average a 100mph lap of the Mount Panorama track in his VH, snaring pole position. On race day Commodores filled the top four places with Brock and Larry Perkins winning.

Grice and Brock won two rounds apiece in the 1983 ATCC but it was Allan Moffat in his Mazda RX-7 that claimed the title. In October it was back to Bathurst and back to winning for the VH Commodore with Brock, Perkins and John Harvey claiming victory after Brock’s car failed early on and Harvey’s was commandeered. VH Commodores filled six of the top 10 places.

Its winning ways continued in the 1984 ATCC with Brock successful in the opening two rounds. But he missed several rounds racing overseas and finished runner up to Dick Johnson’s Falcon XE.

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The VH Commodore SS has the distinction of winning the final ATCC race held under Australian Groupe C rules when Allan Grice won the final championship round.
Holden enjoyed export success with the VH Commodore selling it in Indonesia.

It was a single model in SL/X trim with the four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual gearbox.

In February 1984, after a run of 141,000 units VH Commodore production came to an end, superseded by a heavily facelifted, six-window VK.

Happy 40th anniversary Holden Commodore VH.

 

From Unique Cars #458, Oct 2021

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