Feature: Origin of the Holden Commodore SS
Holden's muscle car for the masses has over 30 years of history behind it. Here are the highs and lows
Holden Commodore SS
In 2015 it was all but impossible to envision a Commodore line-up that did not include an SS variant. But it wasn’t always so. The first Commodore SS was the 1982 VH and to understand its configuration, it helps to go back to 1980 and the first ever ‘Brock’ Commodore.
This was officially called the HDT Holden Commodore SL/E V8. Available only in red, white or black, this was the flagship of the VC range. But because the starting point was Holden’s up-spec SL/E, it was relatively expensive at $18,999 (when an SL/E 5.0 cost $15,155), produced in a small batch and then available to special order, known as Option 336 and with black-over-silver Shadow Tone livery.
Not only was it pricey, it was also heavy. To homologate the VH Commodore for Group C touring car racing, Holden’s marketing people chose the base model as the starting point. This was the first SS Commodore, essentially a taxi equipped with the smaller 4.2-litre engine, cheap trim, body-coloured grille and bumpers and priced at a bargain basement $13,385. From this entry point, more powerful and expensive versions could be spun off.
At this point the whole VH SS plot grew complicated. The base car was purely and simply a Holden which never went anywhere near HDT’s North Melbourne headquarters. But the rest were Brock specials. Four models were planned, starting with the HDT Holden Commodore SS Group One 4.2. Next was the Group Two 4.2, then the Group Two 5.0 and, finally, the Group Three 5.0. But in practice nearly everyone who wanted anything better than the standard SS wanted a 5.0-litre V8 and all the trimmings, so the vast majority of cars built were at either end of this five-car spectrum.
It was simpler in 1984 with the VK Commodore. There were just two models, SS and SS Group Three, both done by Brock and both equipped with a reworked 5.0-litre engine. The cylinder heads were ported and polished by ‘Dyno’ Dave Bennett’s Perfectune operation before going to HDT for final assembly with bigger valves. The manifolds were matched to the heads and the carburettor got a cold-air intake. Engines then went to Holden where they were fitted to option XV2 cars. The XV2 option was essentially a BT1 ‘Police’ pack with extras, and even Brock’s new design alloy wheels were shipped to Holden so that they could be fitted on the production line.
The SS came with the standard VK grille and body-coloured matching bumpers. It sported Brock’s hand-selected and rather garish green-blue cloth trim with herringbone pattern. The front seats were supplied by Scheel and a leather Momo steering wheel improved the view to those love/hate square gauges. Like every V8 Commodore ever offered the SS had standard power steering and four-wheel disc brakes. There were the Brock-designed 15-inch alloys, the M21 four-speed manual transmission was mandatory and there was a limited-slip differential to keep you right-side up. Peter Brock’s special footrest was included.
The Group Three cost about 35 per cent more. It got same design alloys in 16-inch diameter, an extensive and radical bodykit including a giant bonnet scoop, a whopping 90-litre fuel tank (up from 63), Bilsteins all-round, a heavier front anti-roll bar, a better sound system, a rear centre armrest and one or two other items. Colour choice was simple: white or silver.
To homologate the VK for international Group A touring car racing, Brock’s team developed the VK SS Group A. But it was manufactured by Holden in a batch of 500. To meet the regulations the capacity had to be less than five litres, so the 5044cc 308 was given a new crankshaft to shorten the stroke from 77.8mm to 76.8 with a resultant capacity of 4987cc. Job done. It also got a new camshaft and Crane roller rockers, revised inlet manifolds and tubular exhaust headers. Plus there was a double-row timing chain, a lighter flywheel and the Group A got a sleeker bodykit with no side or rear skirts. Interior trim was basic.
The VL SS Group A was introduced just before Christmas 1986. A heavy-duty crankshaft and connecting rods, and revised camshaft profiles and combustion chambers went into the 4987cc V8. Because the Group A rules permitted a free exhaust ‘after the first join’, said join was moved closer to the engine block. The same Borg-Warner T5 five-speed as Chevrolet used in the Corvette was fitted; road cars got softer suspension than chosen by Brock for earlier models. While still far from plush, the interior was more welcoming.
The split between Holden and Brock was looming. Despite the famous racer’s wishes the company refused to equip the new car with Brock’s ‘Energy Polariser’ because the engineers saw "no technical merit in it and cannot endorse its use." Brock responded by refusing to allow decals of his signature to grace the car. Buyers who wanted his name on their car had to buy the ‘Plus’ variant which also got the polariser. This was an untidy arrangement which doubtless caused frayed tempers on both sides. From this point the Holden versus Brock saga gathered momentum.
It was probably fortunate for Holden’s racing interests that in 1986 Tom Walkinshaw campaigned the VL Group A in Europe. Shortly after the model’s debut, Tom Walkinshaw Racing received two plane loads of parts and cars. TWR then developed its own aerodynamic package using the MIRA wind tunnel and within weeks of these Commodores being despatched, the romance between Holden and Brock was over. Holden’s marketing boss, Rob McEniry, told the world on February 13, 1987. In May a tender was issued to: produce and market modified Holdens, provide an additional engineering base and manage a racing team. From nine strong submissions, TWR’s was accepted. The first cars were due in November.
November morphed into March 1988, by which time the all-new second generation (VN) Commodore was less than six months from release. The first batch of 500 cars addressed the homologation issue; a second of 250 more than addressed remaining demand. There was much criticism not only of the car’s appearance but also the poor quality of the bodykit.
The ‘Walkinshaw’ Group A in Panorama Silver (in fact an ultra-light blue), was a heavier and more substantial car than then the first VL Group A, weighing 1470kg (up 130). But its hugely improved aerodynamics made it far more stable at speed. It also boasted throttle-body fuel-injection.
Seven months after the August 1988 arrival of VN, the SS became a regular variant within the range. Here was a raucous and appealing machine with a new 165kW electronically-injected edition of the by then venerable 5.0-litre V8. For the first time SS buyers could choose a (TH700) four-speed automatic transmission, while the standard (T5) manual had five speeds and was a bargain at $25,375 (compared with the entry level Executive’s $20,014). Holden’s ‘FE2’ sports suspension and a limited-slip differential gave it a hot, sharper edge than other VN Commodores. There was a choice between Atlas Grey and Phoenix Red and, later, a very contemporary Alpine White.
Because the larger VN was barely heavier than the outgoing VL, the 1360kg SS variant offered remarkable performance for the era, accelerating to 100km/h in less than eight seconds on the way to a 15.9-sec 400m.
One more Commodore homologation special remained and this was the VN SS Group A with an effectively all-new version of the 5.0-litre V8. It developed 210kW at 5200rpm and 400Nm way up at 4000rpm – ideal for climbing Mount Panorama. The zero to 100km/h time was six seconds flat. The Group A got the Corvette’s six-slot ZF manual and 17 X 8 alloys shod with Goodyear Eagles. Just 302 were made.
The biggest news with the October 1991 VP facelift was the availability of IRS. This was standard on the SS, turning a performance bargain into a more dynamically impressive car. Even so, there were Holden shortcuts. The IRS was of Opel design but Holden adapted it cheaply by omitting the extra control arms.
In August 1993 the VR SS offered little gain over its predecessor with the exception of the optional 180kW HSV-improved V8. April 1995 saw the last of this shape Commodore, but the VS SS was little changed.
The biggest news for prospective SS buyers since VN days came with the remarkable VT SS, which, while heavier than its predecessor, offered a real step forwards in image and driveability. This far more sophisticated Commodore was arguably the most important new Holden since the original 48-215 and the SS was given special respect as a model in its own right. Significantly, the engineers had argued for 17-inch alloy wheels as standard and this at a time when the rival Falcon XR8 had 15s as standard with 16s available as an option. Fourteen months later when the AU was introduced, 17s were still only available at extra cost: it’s a small point but it shows how Holden had the marketing and (perceived) engineering edge.
There was much more to come. Mid-year 1999 came the Series II and the 5.7-litre Chevrolet Gen III V8 in detuned 220kW form replaced the venerable Aussie 308. The SS got a six-speed manual as standard with moonshot gearing, which made sixth gear unusable most of the time. But this lighter engine actually gave the SS quicker responses and a more nimble feel.
A red VX SS with the black and white Victorian rego of VXSS-01 graces the cover of the October 2000 edition of Wheels. Open the magazine to the inside front cover double-page spread and there’s a Tiger Mica Orange VT Series II. The major visual distinction at the front is the subtle teardrop effect on the new model’s headlights. At the rear, the VX got the body-coloured boot lid instead of the more upmarket looking red appliqué linking the tail lights and emphasising the width of the car; change for the sake of change, surely.
Beneath the bonnet the Gen III gained five kW for a maximum output of 225 while torque went from 446Nm to 460. Traction control was offered for the first time with manual transmission, previously available only with automatic. Side impact safety was much improved. There was a new body kit but perhaps the real highlight was an instrument panel colour-coded to the exterior paintwork. For the Series II only minor changes were made.
Just two months into VX came really big news, the arrival of the SS Ute, known as VU. This reduced the price of a new SS from $45,290 to $36,490. Holden was late following Ford into this market niche. The SS and the XR Falcon utes were Australia’s new sports cars, the humble coupe utility having morphed into a fully kitted out hotrod with modest commercial relevance.
With VY in October 2002, the Commodore got new almost triangular tail lights which at least one motoring journo wag likened to the Magna’s but designer Mike Simcoe was unimpressed. Power climbed to 235kW and torque to 465Nm. The ute lost its unique nomenclature to become another VY. In August 2003 the Series II arrived with more power – 245kW – and more fiddles but bigger news was the VZ in August of the following year. Power was now about what it should have been in the Gen III back in 1999, namely 250kW backed by 470Nm.
Crisper looking new 18-inch alloys, revised gear ratios, a new power steering pump as well as the faux air vents in the front guards were key VZ differentiators. By now, the SS had put on some 250kg since VN days.
In July 2006, on a Sunday of all days, Holden flew journalists into Melbourne to preview the first of the fourth generation Commodores, the VE – the billion dollar baby. There were now two distinct SS sedans, the standard car and the more plushly equipped SS-V, a new hero car for the range alongside the Calais V.
The difference in character between an entry level Omega sedan on narrow steel wheels looking a bit small in the guards and an SS-V was greater than it had ever been on any previous Holden. There was a fair jump from the Omega’s 3.6-litre Alloytec V6 to the latest 6.0-litre version of the V8, developing 270kW with 530Nm and finally running through a six-speed auto (or manual).
Spring 2009 saw the introduction of the Sportwagon which gave SS and SS-V customers a third body shape.
Minor improvements marked the Series II in September 2010. The highlight was the $2500 Redline Edition offered on SS-V variants. Nineteen-inch wheels with 245/40 tyres and four-piston Brembo front discs and revised suspension combined to move the SS right to the edge of HSV territory.
At its launch in May 2013 nobody could have predicted for sure that the VF would be the last ever all-Aussie rear-drive Commodore. The facelift gave the SS and SS-V more elegance, superior electronics and user-friendliness but no gain in performance. Richer materials in a more stylish interior made the VF both subtler and sexier than its predecessor. Extensive use of aluminium, including for the bonnet and boot, dropped weight by 43kg.
In September 2015 Holden’s released the VF II with a 304kW/570Nm 6.2-litre LS3 V8 which gave the SS its first sub-5.0 0-100km/h time of 4.9 seconds. Four-piston rear Brembo brakes, changes in rear spring rates and damper rates meant better braking and a smoother ride. A bi-modal exhaust brought more V8 roar inside the car – a roar that will echo through the ages and never be forgotten.
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