Holden VL Calais & VL Series 200 - Reader Resto

By: David Hope, Photography by: Suellen Saidee

Presented by

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This father and son ended up going very deep down the restoration rabbit-hole on a stunning pair of Commodores

It all started back in 2004 when I changed jobs, I’d been at a business for 20 years and been lucky enough to have a company car for the whole time, I had taken up a short-term contract for a couple of months before going onto another permanent position with a car.

I needed some wheels but didn’t want to get stuck with something so I struck a deal with my oldest boy, John, who was 15 at the time and getting close to a licence. "What do you want?" I asked, and his response was a white or red Holden VL Calais. We found a reasonable roadworthy red one within a week and at the end of the contract John bought it off me. He’s still got it and in the process of undoing all the modifications he’s done over the years, putting it back to almost standard with a turbocharger.

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Where it all started

I’ve always had some sort of old car, with Holden HRs being the dominant model: sedans, wagons and even a Premier wagon or a station sedan to use the correct terminology.

| Buyer's Guide: 1986-88 Holden VL Commodore Turbo

In 2005 I had a little Morris Mini and the HR Holden Premier wagon. Two different buyers, in quick succession knocked on the door and made offers I couldn’t refuse and the collectible garage was empty. I will say I didn’t miss them that much as they had slippery vinyl seats, extremely inefficient heaters, ventilation and brakes. On hot days you could fry an egg on the seats – even in Tasmania!

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Tired but complete and ready for a resto

It was decided to dip the toe in the classic car pool again and I had fond memories of my son’s ’86 VL Calais. Reasonably comfortable leather seats with a lumbar support, air conditioning, cruise control and electric windows, with the only drawback being fuel injection with which I wasn’t all that familiar.

After a bit of research, it struck me that the V8 version would suit an old bloke like me much better, with a Rochester carburettor to tinker with and a tried and tested old Trimatic gearbox. Both were technologies as old as me – almost!

| Video review: Holden Commodore VL Calais Turbo

So, I cast the net wide looking for a V8 and, after a couple of false starts, I found one in Sydney, matching numbers, all the bits still there, a runner and classy velour seats for extra comfort.

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Bodywork in coloured primer

I got my mechanically savvy Sydney-based brother to have a look at it. His verdict was that it was tired but still drivable and, as I was going to restore it anyway, there weren’t any terminal issues.

After a week or so the deal was done and my brother picked it up and put it on a transporter for me to export to Tasmania. He did remark that there was a distinct smell of burnt rubber in the car when he completed the transaction.

| 2020 Market Review: Holden Commodore/SLE/Calais VB-VL

On arrival in Tasmania it was obvious the young bloke I bought it off had quite a few farewell cruises with handfuls of rubber jammed up behind the back guards and a motor ready to explode in a big way, cam lobes worn off completely, broken valve springs and retainers as well as a dent in the sump that was playing a tune with the crankshaft.

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Unique VL Calais front with eyelids

Luckily, we had rescued the motor in time and the rest of the drive train had survived the abuse in good nick.

As the most-stolen car model in Australia, the VL Commodore had the standard crowbar-damaged glovebox and dash pad as well, as a ripped-out driver’s door lock.

After finding the original factory build sheets (broadcast document) under the carpet we decided to restore it to the condition it left the factory, without the rust, with all the accessories listed on the build sheet.

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The VL Calais looks better than new

This was in early 2006 and after inspecting the bodywork I decided to concentrate on restoring the components that my son John and I could undertake ourselves. We spent the next two years doing an interior, mechanical and underbody restoration using the build sheets as a template.

The bodywork was a real mess with a big hit to the passenger B pillar, an equally big hit on the driver’s guard leaving the bonnet gap out of square, plus a bent chassis rail as well as stress cracks around the Panhard rod mountings caused by too many burnouts. The usual Commodore rust around both windscreens and in the quarter panels resulted in the decision to leave it festering under plastic trim while cruising and enjoying the partial restoration.

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Velour trim looks very 80s luxo

Fast forward 10 years and retirement was declared so I decided to ‘invest’ in getting the bodywork done by an old-school panel beater who would get rid of all the filler, rust and paint as well as straighten all the metal damage.

After receiving an estimate and delivery schedule of six to eight weeks from the panel beater that gave me the confidence to proceed, he commenced the project.

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Limo-like back seat

After taking 14 months and costing three times more than originally discussed, the stripped to bare metal, straightened and prepped shell was delivered to the paint shop. After agreeing to an estimate, the car was painted in two pack very close to the original acrylic Eucumbene Blue colour. This also cost me three times more than the estimate.

The problem with restoring cars is you can’t just slap it back together when you find a problem, you have to keep fixing and finding till the estimate becomes a piece of fiction and you become more and more vague with the wife about the budget.

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These cars were built manually during the 1980s and each car had subtle differences built in by the assembly line workers such as blackouts, paint line borders and trim finishes.

The paint shop wanted me to be specific in what was expected of them, so we decided to look around for a template for them to compare to: an unmolested standard VL model, with fuel injected six-cylinder Nissan motor, something collectible with a luxury trim level, built in the same Adelaide factory around the same time as the Calais.

I handballed this task to my son John and, after he’d done some research, we settled on what’s called a Series 200 limited edition model. Just 600 were released in 1988 for Australia’s bicentenary.

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We put the feelers out and managed to find a completely original one that had been in storage for a number of years near Nowra in NSW. It was running but as it had been sitting for over 10 years, fluids, hoses and tyres were all suspect so picking it up and driving it home was not going to happen. After arranging shipping to Devonport we trailered it to Hobart.

Even though we were told it was a runner it reeked of fuel and it wouldn’t go unless it had over three-quarters of a tank of juice. Further investigation showed all the fuel hosing, including the internal lines, were completely rotted out. Our new project was a bit of a death trap.

After repairing the fuel system and replacing a cracked windscreen, we took it to the paint shop to be used as a template for the completion of the Calais.

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Arriving looking worse for wear

The Calais was returned to me in September 2019 for reassembly, I had spent 14 months cleaning and refurbishing the existing parts while sourcing any missing original parts to ensure the completed car matched the factory build sheet. The hardest bit to find was an original Cobra alarm module, which was showing on the build sheet. John found one for me and bought it with two Cobra branded remotes for my birthday – that boy knows how to invest in an inheritance!

One rewarding detail item, that was especially interesting to research, was the original factory stickers that would have been applied as the components of the car listed on the build sheet were picked and installed as the car was assembled. These have been reproduced and applied in the original locations.

Some 16 months after taking it off the road, I took it out for a drive and, I’m pleased to say, it’s like a brand new car, no rattles and very nice to drive. Going for a cruise on a hot summer’s day, air conditioning blasting while listening to 70s and 80s tapes on the four speaker stereo is just the retirement experience I’d planned for.

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So, we parked up the Series 200 and I spent the next three months driving and enjoying my 32-year-old brand new car until…COVID arrived on our shores.

In what now seemed like a familiar routine, lifting the carpets and finding the build sheets intact made the second car the perfect isolation project. So the covers were put on the Calais and work started on refreshing the Series 200.

This time round the car wasn’t going to leave my garage and all parts would be purchased contact-free on eBay or click-and-collect locally. For the next three months I scrubbed, cleaned, polished and shampooed the Series 200 into the 21st century and I can honestly say it’s as clean as when it left the Holden Elizabeth plant in April 1988.

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Rare special edition Series 200 VL

Spending a couple of months cutting and waxing all the powdery and scuffed painted surfaces is an ideal way to forget the mayhem going on outside the gate.

I’ve even played with the fuel injection and engine control module so I’m feeling more comfortable with the newer technologies on the car.

Researching the origins of both cars is like a forensic investigation. The government transport bodies in Adelaide and NSW are very reluctant to release any original registration information citing privacy reasons, which is a bit hard to understand.

I’ve traced the lineage of the Calais only as far as the selling dealer in the suburb of Reynella in Adelaide. Brian Gill Holden took delivery of the Calais at the end of August, 1987, but by November of the same year GMH had withdrawn their Holden distribution and appointed Southgate Holden in the same suburb.

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I haven’t got the glovebox manual so I’m struggling to find the original owner and Southbank, although very helpful, doesn’t have any servicing information pre 2000. The car was sold to the bloke in NSW I purchased it off in 2005, so I need to track down the missing 28 years of history prior to that. I managed to find someone with a Brian Gill Holden glovebox manual wallet, which are rare as. You would understand this as he was only selling them for less than 12 months, and I’ve had this reproduced. I haven’t given up yet on finding the original owner or what the car was up to between 1987 and 2005.

The Series 200 was much easier to research. The selling dealer is still around: Glendon Motors of Nowra. I spoke to the late dealer principal’s daughter and she was very helpful with period photos, number plate surrounds, keyrings and other memorabilia. Luckily the glovebox manual was still with the Series 200 and, after a bit of internet searching and ringing around, I got the mobile number of the 94-year-old original owner.

We’ve had a few chats and I’ve sent him photos of the car, which he has fond memories of. He’s keen to come to Tassie when borders are open and I’m hopeful of letting him take it for a drive. Fingers crossed.

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Nissan six in its snout

After all this time and expense, it’s time to drive and enjoy the hard work. I would have struggled without my son John who’s a bit of a whiz when it comes to all things automotive, whether mechanical, electrical or electronic.

Other people have helped out but most don’t want to get involved with old-school restorations as they’re a bit open ended and sometimes end in tears. So they don’t advertise that they have the capabilities.

I’m on their page with this, because these cars are my last project. Next stop for them is a line in the will with John’s name next to it.

Wash, wax, drive and enjoy...

THE TWO RESTOS:

Rusty start

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The rear quarter panel had a bad case of rust when bought.

 

Stripped bare

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The VL was stripped bare, note the narrow pillars.

 

Ready for a priming

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The bonnet and unique VL Calais eyelids ready for the paintshop.

 

Top end

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Many hours of elbow grease went into making the roof this good.

 

Tranny

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The mechanicals also copped a full going over.

 

Old school V8

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V8 wasn’t a big seller in the VL, but loved by those who had ‘em. 

 

Tanked

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We don’t think it was run over by a tank. Just looks like it.

 

Straightened out

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Rear bodywork restored to the shape its designers intended.

 

Lined up

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Clothesline worked well as a rack...

 

Calais jigsaw

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This bit goes here and it joins here and connects to that there...

 

Home delivery

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The Calais arrives home from the body shop shiny and ready for re-assembly.

 

Wheelie Nice

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Chrome Calais wheels look a treat after a refurbish.

 

Smile

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All the parts ready to be assembled for the new Calais face.

 

Factory fit

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The original broadcast sheet was recreated and placed where it sat rolling down the line.

 

Laid out

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The interior and dash are ready to be insertred into the VL body.

 

New trim

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The new interior has come up a treat

 

New heart

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There’s still a surpising amount of room in the engine bay.

 

Fits like a glove

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New glass gives the Calais the new car look.

 

Take a seat

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The pews on the Calais were very comfy with planty of adjustability.

 

Lifting the lid

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The body of the Series 200 needed some TLC.

 

Guarded

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The front guards rquired work to get them blemish free.

 

Rear end

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Holden’s designers gave the VL bootid a little kick up.

 

Original cars: 1987 HOLDEN + VL CALAIS 5.0 1988 series 200
Length of restoration: 10 years +

1987 Holden VL Calais specs

Body: Sedan
Engine: 4987cc V8
Power: 122kw @ 5400rpm
Torque: 323Nm @ 3600rpm
Transmission: 3 speed auto
Suspension:
Front: MacPherson strut coil springs,
Rear: 5-link solid live axle with Salisbury diff.

 

From Unique Cars #446, November 2020

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