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Feature: The heart of the lion

The Commodore had big shoes to fill when it became Holden’s flagship model in 1978, replacing the Kingswood on the road and the Torana on the race track. Ahead of the Commodore’s final season in Australian touring cars, we retrace key early developments in its journey from unknown quantity to road and track giant in SupercarXtra Magazine issue #120.

18 April 2021

CLICK HERE for more information on issue #120.

Issue #120 also includes a pullout poster celebrating the great Commodores.

CLICK HERE to view and purchase the poster. 

Australian touring cars was at a crossroads when the 1980 Australian Touring Car Championship (ATCC) kicked off at Symmons Plains in Tasmania on March 2. The first era of Group C, starting in 1973, had come to an end. Ford and Holden had pulled their backing from the sport and the Falcon hardtop and various iterations of the Torana that dominated the grid up until the end of 1979 had been superseded in the showroom.

Teams faced a new decade with new cars, revised regulations and factories unwilling to play ball. The days of showroom models being built specifically to bring speed on the track, it seemed, were over… except they weren’t. 

A new name had arrived, one that would deliver Holden even more on-track success than the celebrated Monaro and Torana and draw the line between hot Australian road cars and their racing brethren closer than at any time since the production-series days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That name? Commodore. 

The Commodore was a success right off the bat. Peter Brock and his Holden Dealer Team took the first VB Commodore racer to victory in its first race, that opening round of the 1980 championship at Symmons Plains. More wins and the ATCC followed. Then ““ in its VC successor, which had gone on sale that year ““ Brock snared the Sandown 400 and Bathurst 1000 as well.

The Holden Dealer Team’s (HDT) racing activities were more deeply intertwined with the latest road car than just merely racing it. When Holden pulled the pin in 1979, Brock bought the team and called on a network of Holden dealers to help him finance the reborn racing operation for 1980. They said yes, but only if he’d supply them with a hot Commodore to tempt punters onto the showroom floor.

And so HDT Special Vehicles was born. Its first car, September 1980’s VC Commodore HDT, was not specifically built for homologation purposes in the manner of a Torana A9X or some of its successors, but the team would never have made it onto the grid that year without it. In a roundabout way, it would drive the future direction of both road and racing Commodores.

HDT might have achieved vast success with the VB/VC in 1980, but by 1981 Dick Johnson and his Ford XD Falcon had grabbed the ATCC ascendency. The Commodore had excellent aero/road-holding qualities for the era but lacked the grunt from its five-litre V8 to match it with Ford’s 5.8-litre equivalent, and Holden’s “˜factory’ team would lobby governing body CAMS hard for a solution during this time.

For HDT the answer was its hot new road car; the revised-for-1980 Group C regs had mandated the use of production cylinder heads, and the big-valve units fitted to the HDT Commodore were far more efficient than the small-valve “˜pollution’-spec equivalents currently fitted to the racers.

But the big-valve VC was trouble for HDT from the start. First, production issues meant the last few of the 500 Commodore HDT road cars weren’t delivered in time to make the homologation cut-off for the 1981 enduros.

Then, when it was finally homologated for 1982, CAMS (Confederation of Australian Motor Sport) slapped it with a 50kg weight penalty, owing to the big-valve HDT road car being based on the heavier Commodore SL/E body rather than the small-valve base model.

By this stage the VH had superseded the VC and HDT decided against racing the big-valve VC in 1982. But after a thrashing from Johnson in the 1982 ATCC opener at Sandown, Brock fronted up at the next round at Calder with the newly-homologated VC ballasted up to the new minimum weight.

He won from fifth but was excluded from the results for an alleged illegal manifold. Then he was slapped with a three-month suspension. HDT’s fight to get the big-valve VC homologated meant there were already tensions between it and CAMS.

The Calder exclusion and suspension turned it into a full-on legal battle that saw Brock take CAMS to court and race under a Supreme Court injunction for much of the year.

The case was eventually dropped but Brock lost points under a back-dated suspension, clearing the way for Johnson to take his second consecutive ATCC title.

A valuable lesson had been learnt, though. HDT’s next key road car, the VH Commodore SS series, was deliberately built around a base SL model, and when it was homologated for the 1982 enduros, HDT and other Holden teams finally had the big-valve/light-body combo they were looking for.

Allan Moffat and his Mazda RX-7, then Johnson again in his XE Falcon, denied the Commodore another ATCC crown to go with its lone 1980 success, but the VH was a much more competitive prospect.

Consecutive Bathurst wins in 1982, 1983 and ““ in the visually freshened but conceptually unchanged VK SS successor ““ 1984 sealed its place in the lexicon of classic Australian racers and muscle cars.

Group C’s increasing freedoms had taken Australian touring cars away from their production-car roots, but the adoption of the international Group A formula in 1985 saw things swing the other way. Engine modifications were much more limited than Group
C ““ pistons, compression ratios, bearings, fuel pump, camshaft, valve shape/material/timing and the clutch were free and you could use a homologated gearbox, but fundamentals like the original conrods, crankshaft and suspension mounting points had to be used. If you wanted wings and other aero body bits, they had to be on the production car.

The first Group A Commodore racer was a much more timid beast than its predecessor, producing just 300hp-odd compared to the 415hp of the last of the VK Group C cars.

It was slower ““ Brock’s best at Adelaide that year was 61.0 seconds versus his 56.4 the previous year ““ and HDT and other Commodore teams were outgunned on the track by the new benchmarks, BMW’s 635CSi and Jim Richards.

Durability issues with the Commodore V8’s single-row timing chain, meanwhile, killed its chances at Bathurst that year. But Holden and HDT would turn the Commodore’s track fortunes around with the first in a series of the most single-minded Australian road cars since the days of the Falcon GTHO.

Holden was the first brand in the world to capitalise on the “˜evolution-model’ aspect of Group A regulations. This allowed makers to piggy-back the key 5000 production-unit requirement (1000 for Australia) with 500 “˜evolution’ models that could incorporate whatever bits might help its charger on the track.

Its evolution car, the VK Commodore SS Group A, was launched in March 1985 and addressed many of the issues that had limited the base car on the track.

The capacity of Holden’s venerable five-litre V8 was reduced from 5044cc to 4987cc, dropping the racing Commodore into the sub-5000cc class and allowing it to shed 75kg from its minimum homologated weight.

Stronger conrods, roller rockers, twin-row timing chains, extractors and other tricks paved the way for more power and better durability.

HDT’s plan was to build all 500 between March and June to achieve homologation by August 1 and race the VK Group A in the enduros. But production issues meant progress was slow and the run wasn’t finished until October, so it and Holden runners had to use the uncompetitive original Group A Commodore racer for the remainder of the 1985 season, albeit with some concessions to help it along.

However, the VK Group A did do the business when it finally appeared in 1986. There was no ATCC crown again ““ Nissan’s Skyline and Volvo’s 240 Turbo had the legs on it in the shorter races ““ but it won on debut at New Zealand’s Wellington 500, and then again at Pukekohe.

Allan Grice showed the turbos a clean set of heels at Bathurst to make it five wins at the Mountain for the Commodore in seven attempts.

HDT and Grice also contested several rounds of the European Touring Car Championship in 1986. While wins were not forthcoming, they put the wind up the locals, especially Grice, who led on occasion.

By this stage Holden and HDT were already well on their way with their second evolution car, 1987’s VL Commodore SS Group A.

It picked up bigger front/rear spoilers, a bonnet intake that force-fed the carby and stronger, lighter conrods for more on-track revs, plus stronger crankshaft, roller rockers and extractors with their first flange joint just an inch from the cylinder heads, allowing teams to fine-tune the exhaust for different tracks.

Holden and HDT now had the production process down to a fine art, and all 500 were built between October and December 1986, allowing the new racer to be homologated on January 1, 1987.

It was clobbered by the Skyline and BMW’s M3 in the shorter ATCC events, but victory for John Harvey and Allan Moffat at Monza in the first-ever World Touring Car Championship round, plus another Bathurst win in the hands of Peter Brock, meant it wasn’t unsuccessful, even if those wins had only come after the exclusions of winning rivals, a familiar theme of the short-lived WTCC series.

The big news of 1987, though, was Brock and HDT’s bust-up with Holden. That sent the maker into the arms of Scot Tom Walkinshaw and led to the founding of Holden Special Vehicles, which would now look after Holden’s racing and special-vehicle ambitions.

HSV’s first serious contribution to the hot-Commodore genre, 1988’s VL Commodore SS Group A SV, was the most hardcore evolution Commodore yet ““ Holden’s five-litre V8 picked up fuel-injection and a myriad of other changes, while the wildest body kit in Australian muscle-car history reduced the co-efficient of drag by 25 per cent while producing downforce. But the latter’s complexity (there were 27 separate panels!) led to production troubles that delayed its homologation, and it didn’t make its track debut until September 1988’s Sandown 500.

By then Ford’s Sierra had become the Group A weapon to have and successes for the new Commodore were few and far between.

Relentless track development, however, meant it ended up quick enough to steal a celebrated, against-the-odds Bathurst win in 1990 against the Sierras and Nissan’s new touring-car dominator, the Skyline GT-R.

The last hot Holden to be built specifically with racing in mind ““ 1990’s HSV VN Group A SV ““ was the first evolution Commodores to be based on the all-new VN model that had gone on sale in late 1988.

It had modified heads, a stronger block, a six-speed gearbox and other advancements to help it deliver on the track, while the VN’s naturally more slippery shape allowed a much less complex (and confronting) body kit to be used.

By 1991, though, the whole Group A ship was sinking and CAMS gave the new Holden the go-ahead for track use despite just 302 being built. A now all-but unbeatable GT-R, though, meant it rarely got a look in at the front of the field.

By 1992 the Group A experiment had run its course and the next generation of touring cars proposed for Australia ““ the five-litre V8s that morphed into the current Supercars ““ would no longer require manufacturers to commit the same kind of costly and complex road-car derivatives to fulfil track-homologation requirements.

From now on the Commodore’s road and track advancements would occur in largely separate universes and eventually the link would be all but severed, leaving us with today’s purpose-built, highly-specialised “˜silhouette’ racers.

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