50 HDT VK SS and SS Group 3
The first VK Commodore models offered by HDT Special Vehicles celebrate their 30th birthday in 2014. They might live today in the shadow of the later ‘Blue Meanie’, but they hold a significant place in Holden’s muscle car heritage in their own right. Theme song: David Bowie’s ‘1984’.
The first VK models offered by HDT Special Vehicles celebrate their 30th birthday in 2014. The HDT VK Commodore SS and SS Group 3 might live today in the shadow of the later VK Group A – aka the ‘Blue Meanie’ – but they hold a significant place in Holden’s muscle car heritage in their own right.
Body by Holden, Soul by Brock
When General Motors said ‘no more racing’ to its Australian outpost at the dawn of the 1980s, the Holden Dealer Team squad was reborn, logically enough, as a race team funded by dealers. In return for securing Holden’s tin-top racing presence, the 57 contributing dealers got access to the original race-related, highperformance Brock Commodore, the VC.
The Peter Brock-fronted HDT Special Vehicles operation was an immediate hit. HDT SV may have been sprinkled with lots of Brock magic, but its success was masterminded behind the scenes by Adelaide businessman Vin Kean, whose expansive automotive empire, United Motors, included one of Australia’s two biggest Holden dealerships.
“In the wake of the success of the VC HDT, says former Holden design director Leo Pruneau, “other dealers now wanted to get in on the act, because not all the Holden dealers sold the original VC HDT, the only guys who could sell that car were the guys who put money into the racing team.”
Holden responded in 1982 with its first SS (‘sports sedan’) Commodore – the 4.2-litre V8powered VH SS – which was later modified by the Holden Dealer Team road-car operation to create the HDT VH SS.
However, with the February 1984 arrival of the VK Commodore, Holden dropped the
SS variant, abandoning the high-performance road-car market. Meanwhile, arch-rival Ford’s 351 Cleveland-powered XE Fairmont Ghia ESP had vanished by the end of 1982 and the Blue Oval, faced with the fact that big engines were out of favour with oil-shocked buyers, had officially binned the bent-eight in ’83. The outlook was bleak for lovers of local muscle…
With the VK Group C racer set to debut in the second half 1984, HDT Special Vehicles stepped in to keep the race-road ties alive by adopting the previously abandoned SS badge and applying it to a potent road-going VK.
By this stage, Vin Kean was out of the picture. The South Australian told AMC for this story that his direct business involvement with Brock ended in June 1984.
Kean is full of praise for HDT SV director and effective production manager John Harvey, who he describes as being “a very settling influence” at a time when the Melbourne operations was standing on its own two feet.
Harvey highlights that 1984 was a big year for the HDT on and off the track and that absorbing the SS was a big undertaking.
“We knew that the Group A (VK Commodore road car) was coming but that was a year or so away,” Harvey, the 1983 Bathurst 1000 winner, explains. “It was partly our idea – HDT: Peter and myself – but Holden gave us a lot of support.”
August marks 30 years since that car went on sale – 1984’s HDT VK Commodore SS. Back then, to the casual observer, the stock-bodied VK SS
might have been mistaken for a warm V8 variant from Holden, with its understated colour-coded bumpers and grille, modest SS decals and 15-inch Aero alloys. However, with HDT’s muscle men in charge, that certainly wasn’t the case…
‘Holden V8 Commodore SS. Nothing even comes close’ read a contemporary magazine advertisement by way of explaining the red 911 Carrera pictured alongside a white VK. It was true enough – the SS was more powerful than the Porsche and just about everything else on sale in Australia in 1984. Curiously, the fact it was a HDT model didn’t rate a mention. However, the tagline put the VK SS succinctly – ‘Body by Holden. Soul by Brock.’
Despite the wolf-in-wool look, the 177kW VK SS was up 40 percent compared with the regular 126kW VK V8, which gave it performance more like that of the ultimate, high-output 5.0-litre HDT VH SS Group 3, and far in excess of Holden’s own outgoing VH SS.
A month after the VK SS, with the arrival of the body-kitted SS Group 3, the new HDT model had the visual appeal to tell the under-bonnet story.
In 1985, the advent of Group A racing regulations gave rise to Bertie Street’s ultimate, racing homologation VK SS Group A. With its eye-catching Formula Blue hue and evocative Group A designation, the Blue Meanie has always overshadowed the earlier VK HDT offerings, and commands the big bucks in Brock Commodore circles. However, the humble VK SS and Group 3 had much the same mechanical makeup as their more famous stable mate and deserve their share of the spotlight.
After all, it was the VK SS and Group 3 in showrooms on Monday, October 1, 1984 awaiting buyers buoyed by the HDT’s day-glo 1-2 dominance of that year’s instalment of our Great Race. Brock’s 1984 VK victory with Larry Perkins would be the last time he’d grasp the winners’ trophy on the rostrum.
In a road-car context, the VK SS and Group 3 were the last to be powered by the venerable 308, which had been in production since 1969. They were also the only Commodores to be offered with both the 5.0-litre and the 4.9-litre 304.
Reducing its capacity was an exercise in sneaking the racing Commodores into the under-5000cc Group A classification so that they carried less weight. The legacy of the Group A was that the Holden V8 continued as a 4987cc engine from June ’85 until production ceased in 2000. The VK model also farewelled the Holden straight-six, which had been in production ever since 1948.
Styling the six-window, plastic-bumpered evolution of Australia’s Opel-derived Commodore – including the HDT iterations – was Holden design boss Leo Pruneau’s last project before leaving the company.
His job wasn’t difficult in the case of HDT’s entry-level VK Commodore SS.
“It still looked more like a Commodore,” says VK SS owner and Brock Commodore Owners Association of Australia committee man Dave Sciberras. “It didn’t look like a Group 3 – it didn’t have a bodykit screaming ‘Look at me!’”
A $400 body kit, which included side skirts and a slightly smaller version of the Group 3 boot spoiler, was an option on the $17,995 base SS, but it came with the three-slat Holden grille rather than the Group A letterbox grille. The latter was a popular retro-fit by owners.
However, it turns out the letterbox grille wasn’t even part of Pruneau’s plan for the Group A car. “How that letterbox front-end got into the picture I’m not absolutely sure of that, because that came
later, after I left,” he says with his characteristic Midwest American twang. “I think the guys did that for Brocky because he wanted a different front-end.
“After I left, things got a little bit scrambled up there because Brocky kept wanting to do things on his own and he wouldn’t come to Styling to see if we thought it looked alright. Anyway, it didn’t make that much difference but he kinda got off on his own bat after I left and it bothered me, quite frankly. It started (with the VH SS) as only red cars. It was just going to be a one-colour model much like the Lotus Cortinas – they’re always white with a British Racing Green stripe down the side. But later on, the more Brocky got into it, he started adding other colours.”
The relocation of Pruneau’s deliberately-placed SS side decal might have been yet another vigilante Brock styling effort. “The SS name got lowered on the body side,” recalls Pruneau. “I had it up originally just exactly where Ferrari put their logos on the side – I thought if Ferrari can do it so can we!” he chuckles.
For the VK model, rather than incorporating aftermarket wheels such as the German Irmscher alloys used on the VC and VH, Pruneau sketched up the 15- and 16-inch Aero wheels.
“By the time VK came around I was able to do a wheel for Peter. It was based on the same principle that Porsche used for cooling the brakes on their Le Mans cars. There were a series of vanes cast into the wheel and it pumped air across the brake caliper,” Pruneau explains.
Interestingly, the wheels were directional – left and right side wheels had their vanes cast in opposite directions so as to be effective on their respective sides of the car. Thoughtfully, the spare wheel was of the more easily damaged kerb-side design.
“We designed it with the idea that we could use it with a cap cover or with exposed wheel nuts. We thought we’ll do that because for Bathurst we want the best aero we can get so we’ll put the cover on for the Bathurst version,” Pruneau adds.
The Aero wheels and ‘moon caps’ quickly became cult features, but as it turned out, the HDT didn’t use the wheels at Bathurst, opting to use five-spoke Momo wheels instead, although the Mobil-liveried racer – or a replica of it – appeared in promotional photos wearing white Aero wheels. Brock’s famous signature sealed the SS. “Since the SS car was really a Holden model and Brocky was going to do something extra to it, we really ought to have his signature on the car,” says Pruneau. “Peter came in one day and I said ‘Just sign this, Peter’, and I told him what I was going to do. I picked out the one I thought looked the best then photographically enlarged it and made a decal.”
The creation of an HDT VK began with a specially-specified, four-speed manual, powersteer Commodore arriving at Bertie Street from Holden’s Dandenong plant, says Brock Commodore expert, Sciberras.
“Holden supplied VKs in XV2 spec which is a bit like a BT1 (police pack) – it had things like Berlina-spec taillights and colour-coded bumper bars and door handles and black moulds,” Dave Sciberras explains.
The first VK SS was build number 1354, built in August 1984.
A four-speed manual was standard. However, the T5 five-speed was a $2850 option courtesy of Brock’s appointment as the Australian distributor for Borg Warner. “All the VKs came ID-plated as an M21, but you know if the car came with an ex-HDT T5 gearbox in it from the build sheet,” says Sciberras.
“There were no autos, unless someone wanted to put the auto in later on,” he adds. “I know that HDT did do that for one customer. He bought the car for his wife – she couldn’t drive manual. Six months later they got divorced and they put the manual back in.”
The 9.2:1 compression pushrod V8 was fed by a cold-air induction system and a four-barrel Rochester carburettor atop a port-matched inlet manifold. The head was modified by Melbourne’s Perfectune, and featured larger inlet and exhaust valves. Exhaling via extractors and a free-flowing exhaust, it produced 177kW at 4800rpm and 419Nm at 3500rpm. By comparison, the 196kW Group A engine, with additional modifications largely limited to durability components such as screw-in roller-rockers, delivered its extra kilowatts thanks to a more aggressive camshaft.
In a contemporary test, Modern Motor concluded that “Peter Brock’s car-making venture looks like it has struck gold with this, its third series of special Commodores,” after praising the HDT VK’s turn-in willingness, bumpy-road grip, ride quality and “instant response to the accelerator.” The magazine recorded 7.6 seconds to 0-100km/h and a 15.7 second standing 400m.
HDT’s interior upgrades included a Momo Flyer steering wheel and a pair of well-bolstered Scheel front seats, as well as a Eurovox Micro Command audio.
The suspension of front struts, and a rear live axle located by trailing arms and a Panhard rod, was upgraded with shorter, stiffer springs with oil-filled Monroe-Wylie front strut inserts and gaspressure rear shocks.
The braking package consisted of 281mm discs – ventilated at the front and solid at the driving wheels.
Final drive was via a 3.08:1 limited-slip differential. HDT built 517 of the base SS variant in Alpine White and 213 in Asteroid Silver, wrapping up production with build number 3383 in February 1986.
The Group 3 arrived a month later than the VK SS, in September 1984, and the first car – build number 1409 – was delivered to Larry Perkins.
“Larry was running the race team at the time so it was a road car, but it had a real banging engine in it,” says Sciberras.
The Group 3 name was carried over from the HDT VH SS, but Pruneau says it wasn’t Brock’s first choice.
“Peter wanted to call them Phase one, two, three,” recalls Pruneau. “I thought, that’s too close to Ford, so we agreed on the name ‘Group’ – Group one, two, three.”
However, the Group 1 and 2 weren’t popular. “I don’t think anyone bought one of those,” he says. For the VK SS, which was already equivalent in performance to the high-output HDT VH, Group 3 signified suspension and aesthetic upgrades – there were no engine changes from the VK SS. Meanwhile, the Group 1 and 2 spec levels were dropped.
The Group 3 brought a larger 27mm front sway bar and gas-filled Bilstein dampers supplied by Melbourne’s Quadrant Suspension, as well as an upgrade from 15- to 16x7-inch Aero alloys with centre caps.
The $24,635 Group 3 got a full bodykit – side skirts, boot spoiler, and bonnet scoop. A lot of them were produced without a bonnet scoop, says Sciberras, and front guard wind splits were an option.
The base SS’s Cerulean Blue trim colour carried into the Group 3, but upgrades included cut-pile carpet, rear headrests and a centre armrest, matching door trims, and a Eurovox graphic equaliser sound system.
The 63-litre VK fuel tank was enlarged by HDT sub-contractor Brown Davis, who welded in a band of steel to increase the capacity to 90 litres.
In the Holden line-up, in the VK era, running changes ruled – the series-two models didn’t begin in until much later. But there was a seriestwo Group 3, which introduced the 4.9-litre V8. It was revised with triple-pleat seats in place of series-one herringbone trim and is distinguishable by its interior door locks, which are of the slide type rather than up/down buttons.
HDT produced 214 Group 3s in Alpine White and 56 in Asteroid Silver, which made 1000 VK SS and Group 3 in total, plus a couple of oneoff cars in Venus red (build number 1672) and Tuxedo Black (2000).
“The red one was used in the brochures. It had red wheels, red wiper arms, and red headlight protectors,” adds Sciberras. For comparison, HDT built 502 VK SS Group As and 48 Group A/ Group 3 LEs.
Since 2007’s muscle-car-boom, SS and Group 3 values haven’t fallen as far as those of the Group A, says Sciberras (values of the latter peaked at more than $100K, and have settled around $65K). He says today you’ll pay around $35-40K for an immaculate VK SS and $50K for a Group 3. “Before Brock died, you could buy a VK SS for under 10 grand!” he says.
We’ll let John Harvey have the last word, by way of his thoughts on the prices that HDT’s creations now change hands for, even if he does understate the late great’s place in Aussie tin-top legend.
“That’s life isn’t it, that’s history. You build limited numbered cars, in this particular case that carried the Brock name, who was probably the most famous racing driver we’d had for a few years, and one of the first to get into the building of specialty cars at that level, and with that background. So they were extremely popular.
“We couldn’t build enough of them, and in some cases we could have – and probably should have – built more.”
Big Banger theory: Holden enthusiasts wanting a hot Brock Commodore in the immediate aftermath of the HDT’s crushing 1-2 victory at Bathurst 1984 had the choice of the SS and SS Group 3.
Main: Many buyers of the entry level HDT SS (Asteroid Silver) optioned their cars with the $400 bodykit.
Peter Brock got a bit cheeky in relocating Leo Pruneau’s strategically placed SS decals. There was no changing the very 1980s Cerulean Blue trim, finished off with Scheel seats and Momo Flyer steering wheel.
Top: Aero alloy wheels and caps were inspired by Le Mans sportscars and developed for the racing Commodores.