48 VL Com­modore Turbo

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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.

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