1978 Holden Sunbird SL/E - Reader Ride

By: Nathan Dobinson with Guy Allen, Photography by: Guy Allen

Presented by

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One minute Nathan Dobinson was checking the brakes, next thing he owned it

Holden didn’t have much sales success with its four-cylinder, locally designed and developed cars in the 1970s, which now makes them quite rare cars.

One of these is the UC Holden Sunbird SL/E, the most lush four-cylinder Holden you could buy in the late 1970s.

The UC Sunbird arrived with its six-cylinder twin the UC Torana in March,1978 and continued with the Opel 1.9-litre four until September when an all-new locally developed engine was dropped in.

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Yes, that was the Starfire Four, derived from the 2.85-litre Holden six. It wasn’t Holden’s greatest engine. But to give the Sunbird some sizzle lacking in the engine bay, Holden at this point also introduced a lush top-of-the-range Sunbird SL/E, available in sedan and hatch, with a standard four-speed manual or three-speed trimatic auto option.

Borrowing a trim theme from the VB Commodore SL/E, the Sunbird had cut-pile carpet, crushed velour seats and 13-inch alloy wheels. Sports instruments, a three-spoke GTS sports steering wheel, dwell wiper control and bumper overriders were also part of the package.

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Now this is what is called ‘original’ condition

This is Nathan Dobinson’s example, a 12/78 build in Firethorn Red with Trimatic auto. It is his first car, given to him on his 16th birthday.

"It turned up in the driveway about 10 years ago. It was Dad’s mate’s car, who bought to do up and sell," explains Nathan.

But then on his 16th birthday, Nathan was asked to drive it up the road to check the brakes. "Then Dad asked, ‘How is it? Because this is your new car’."

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From there, like any car-obsessed bloke with his first toy, Nathan took much pride in getting the Sunbird into shape.

"It became an obsession really, I cleaned it up to make it look nice. I got Holden Racing Team seat covers and floor mats, just so I wouldn’t wreck the interior."

Nathan learned to drive in the Sunbird, and it became his daily for about six years. Then, he faced a string of bad luck.

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"One morning I had an accident, and got the front end out of shape. I drove it another couple months then, in a summer heatwave, it overheated."

With the resulting engine damage, the Sunbird was parked for four years. Eventually he realised that the Sunbird was getting expensive just sitting there. "It cost more in storage fees than to have it running."

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The SL/E copped the full interior treatment

So Nathan pulled the motor out and got it rebuilt, and then started to piece it all together. "Now it’s pretty much just a weekend warrior, it goes to shows and to the shops or work every now and then."

He’s aware there are not many standard UC Sunbirds left. "At shows, it’s pretty much the only UC. People are in disbelief that it’s still a Starfire. Most people threw a six or V8 in, or convert the body to a LH-LX."

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Roomy rear cabin

Nathan won’t be dropping in a V8 anytime soon, He’s keen to preserve it as it is. "I wanted to strip the whole car down, bare-metal it, but people said the current patina should be left alone, you can’t replicate it. People pay money to have patina like this." In any case, it looks like the Sunbird is now a permanent fixture in his life.

 

From Unique Cars #453, May 2021

 

 

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