48 VL Commodore Turbo
The VL Commodore turbos are fast becoming 1980s cult cars. For good reason too. They might look like the VL Grandad drives to the RSL, but the turbo version would knock his socks (and Hush Puppies) off. Theme song: Wolfmother’s ‘Joker and the Thief’.
In the early 1980s, a six-cylinder highperformance Commodore probably seemed about as likely as Brock racing a BMW at Bathurst. However, by the second half of the decade, both scenarios became a reality, courtesy of not-soperfect Pete’s high-profile, post-Polariser defection to a Group A M3, and the far less conspicuous arrival of Holden’s VL Commodore Turbo.
This, the most potent, significant non-V8 Commodore, while still built at Fishermans Bend, was – gasp! – powered by a Japanese turbocharged straight six. The car’s conservative exterior gave little clue to the engine’s Eastern origins or the performance potential that lurked within.
The transition from VK to restyled VL Commodore, in what would be the last hurrah for the first generation Commodore before the VN series, marked the end of the Holden six-cylinder engine. The Aussie six, now in ‘black motor’ form, had been in production since the Lion’s 48-215 beginnings, but the fuel-injected, 106kW outgoing VK 3.3-litre powerplant wasn’t in the league of the VL’s new overhead-cam Nissan six for smoothness or performance. The turbo version was something else again…
Here was an innocent looking Commodore – the 150kW turbo was offered from SL, via Executive and Berlina, right up to Calais – with little other than small ‘turbo’ bootlid and dashboard badges (in a terrifically ‘high-tech’ ’80s font) to distinguish it from the 114kW naturallyaspirated RB30 or, for that matter, the V8. For maximum surprise value, buyers could even have the turbo engine in a wagon! Especially in hubcapped, bare bones SL trim, here was a textbook sleeper if ever there was one.
The hubcaps were different to those of non-turbo VLs, and while the engine was almost identical to the atmo version aside from the water-cooled Garrett Airesearch T3 turbo, steering, braking and suspension changes were factored in to match the increased grunt.
The sportier-looking wheel covers adorned 15-inch steel wheels wearing 205/65R15s, which were an inch bigger than those of the atmo six to accommodate an upgrade from 271mm to 289mm front discs with bigger, Corvettesourced Girlock aluminium calipers. The Calais, meanwhile, ran 15” alloys across the board.
The VL turbo adopted FE2 suspension, which was an upgrade derived from the police-pack VK, and brought stiffer springs and a larger, 24mm front anti-roll bar.
The FE2 package included Monroe gas rear shocks and revalved front struts with linear rather than progressive rate springs. The VL’s steering was modified to deliver increased feel.
The ratios for the five-speed manual – a fourspeed auto was offered – were revised to suit the torquey power delivery, and the clutch was uprated accordingly.
A factory-optioned limited-slip differential was a desirable replacement for the single wheelspinprone four-pinion 3.45:1 open diff, but couldn’t cure the power oversteer.
The 3.0-litre engine was developed by Nissan
for the exclusive use of GM-H in Australia. The Japanese maker kept the 2.0-litre double overhead cam, ceramic turbo RB20DET six for its own, Japan-only hi-po R31 Skyline, which eventually battled Group A VL V8s on Aussie racing circuits.
The Nissan RB series of six-cylinder engines went on to have an unlikely but profound impact on Australian motoring in both tin-top racing and on the road. However, it seemed that while the twin-turbo RB26-powered R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R’s success on Australian circuits was difficult for traditionalists to swallow, the RB30 turbopowered VL Commodore was embraced, and it went on to become an Aussie performance icon.
The turbo engine differed little from the atmo RB30. That’s not say it wasn’t beefed-up for boosted duty. Rather, the uprated turbo internals were fitted to both versions of the engine. For the turbo, the compression ratio was lowered from 9.0:1 to 7.8:1 using different pistons, while a new camshaft brought greater valve lift but reduced overlap, and a high-volume oil pump was fitted. A short-runner intake manifold and a specific exhaust system that began with a 64mm stainless steel turbine dump pipe feeding the mandatory-for-’86 catalytic converter completed the breathing enhancements.
The overhead valve Holden 5.0-litre V8 had been entirely overshadowed by this new, quasi muscle car that certainly didn’t look like one.
The carburetted 304ci V8, modified to run on unleaded, was no longer even marketed as a performance engine. The turbo six slipped as effortlessly into that role as it did along highways, while the V8 was sold as the towing option.
“Only Holden V8 torques your language” led contemporary VL V8 magazine ads. “Torque is up, in spite of the demands of ULP, and so is power. It’s the best engine around for towing trailers, boats, horse floats and caravans. The big 5.0 now drives more smoothly. There’s still nothing quite like an Aussie Holden V8, with its legendary longevity and the laid-back, top-gear style of driving it allows. And only Holden can give you one.”
The subtext was clear – Holden had struggled, faced with the advent of unleaded petrol and the continuing use of the Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel, to give the V8 significantly more performance than that of the outgoing VK, and it certainly didn’t measure up against its boosted sibling. Meanwhile, the Turbo, which produced its peak torque at 3200rpm – the same as the V8 – was actually an equally good choice for towing. At 323Nm, the 5.0-litre V8 had more twist than the 296Nm RB30 Turbo, but as aftermarket tuners quickly discovered, it was easy to eclipse the bent-eight’s figure by upping the turbo boost.
Not that it was short on performance to begin with. The VL Turbo’s low-15-second quarter mile performance wasn’t quite up with a XY GT-HO Phase III, but it shaded everything GM-H had turned out to date, from a Monaro 350 GTS to a Torana A9X. Even the VL SS Group A, at 137kW, was less powerful. It took a Walkinshaw to top the humble VL Turbo, and even then there wasn’t a great deal in it.
As to market place rivals, well, there really weren’t any during much of the VL Turbo’s lifespan. After all, has there been a Falcon model with less sporting and performance credentials than the XF (1984 to 1988)?
In its September 1986 issue Modern Motor reported winding a VL Turbo prototype’s speedo needle past its 200km/h maximum and hard into the trip meter reset button on the banked oval at Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground in Victoria. Fifth gear at 5600rpm equated to 250km/h, though realistically the tall-geared standard VL Turbo was out of steam beyond 220km/h.
At Sydney’s Oran Park Raceway the magazine recorded a 7.63-second 0-100km/h and a 0-400m best of 15.32sec. The VL SS Group A was still two months away, and wouldn’t be any quicker! Perhaps market positioning was at work behind Holden’s conservative 16.0-second official 0-400m claim for the Turbo.
Modern Motor praised the FE2-suspended Turbo, which “turned into corners with more confidence and less body roll, and put the power to the ground better,” while “ride was noticeably firmer” compared with a base VL.
It says plenty that Peter Brock used a VL Calais Turbo as his road car in 1986. It took HDT a while to recalibrate to forced induction, before the muscle car operation offered its Calais LE Turbo, however it was the aftermarket that saw the biggest gains from the RB30ET.
Witness the well-sized standard turbo, and the fact it ran only 0.5bar (7.3psi) boost without an intercooler, and the under-stressed RB30ET’s enormous power potential is clear. The sky really was the limit in terms of peak figures, and big-turboed, intercooled 10-second road-going VL Turbos remain common enough at off-street drags across the country.
In November 1986 Wheels magazine listed the Commodore SL at $14,958 and the SL Turbo at $18,381, but the Turbo price premium decreased as you went up the range, and was as little as
$1856 on top of the $25,461 base Calais – the pricing was as disarming as this particular car’s understated styling.
The Berlina and velour-lined Calais sedans were the biggest-selling VL Turbos, while SLs, with their cloth trim and DIY window winders, made up a small percentage of sales to private buyers, and were most commonly delivered as police patrol cars.
Holden built 151,801 VL Commodores between 1986 and ’88 and the majority sold were non-turbo 3.0-litre cars. As I write, the number of VL Turbos for sale on a well-known online classifieds outnumbers V8 VLs two to one, which would seem to reflect the relative popularity of the performance variants.
However, despite strong cult appeal, the VL Turbo remains an affordable collector Commodore; although the model’s accessibility and hoon appeal is a double-edged sword, and makes finding a clean car increasingly difficult. That said, many modifiers, well aware of the model’s sleeper status, went wild with the underbonnet work, while leaving the exterior original. Untidy SL Turbos commonly change hands for $5K or less, while decent examples start at $7500. Well maintained, restored or highly modified VL Turbos cost upwards of $15,000.
Almost three decades after its low-key appearance on the Australian hi-po landscape, the turbo six-cylinder Commodore’s performance credentials are ingrained in Australian muscle car legend. But the fact that it lacked the visual muscularity of earlier hot Holdens means that, even now, the VL Turbo remains capable of surprising those who aren’t in the know.
One person who definitely is in the know is Ben James. Ben kindly made his magnificently under-stated VL Commodore SL Turbo available to us for photography. His VL sedan remains in the spec in which it was delivered new. Ben could well be the ultimate VL Turbo enthusiast as he owns three examples, including a wagon!
Right: VL turbos were a mainstay of the Australian Production Car Championship in the late 1980s. On circuits with long straights they regularly beat the category’s sportscars. Below: Looks just like Grandad’s VL in the RSL carpark... except for five letters in red.