V8s till '98: Sav­ing Holden's bent eight

Mus­tangs in Su­per­cars: Why not?

Australian Muscle Car - - Front Page - Im­ages: Nathan Duff Story: Phil Walm­s­ley

Holden chose a rev­o­lu­tion­ary way to in­tro­duce its lo­cally-de­signed V8 en­gine to the Aus­tralian pub­lic – in the rear of the Holden Hur­ri­cane con­cept car. The swoopy Hur­ri­cane was un­veiled to the press at Holden’s Tech­ni­cal Cen­tre in March 1969 and was never in­tended for pro­duc­tion. It fea­tured an ar­ray of styling and en­gi­neer­ing con­cepts, but of most sig­nif­i­cance to Holden’s fu­ture pro­duc­tion plans was what it called “the ex­per­i­men­tal” 253ci V8 pow­er­plant in the rear.

Holden al­ready of­fered a V8, but this was a fully-im­ported Chevro­let unit which be­came avail­able with the re­lease of the HK se­ries in Jan­uary 1968. The fu­tur­is­tic Hur­ri­cane’s pow­er­plant fore­told of The Gen­eral’s plans to com­mence pro­duc­tion of its own “bent eight”. Claim­ing 260 bhp, the en­gine’s high-lift camshaft and solid cam fol­low­ers wouldn’t make it into the pro­duc­tion ver­sion, but the glossy, golden pack­ag­ing sent a very clear mes­sage that the Holden V8 had ar­rived.

The HT range marked the com­mence­ment of sales of the lo­cal Holden V8, in ca­pac­i­ties of 253ci (4142 cc) and 308ci (5044 cc). De­spite its avail­abil­ity in the Monaro, the Chevro­let-sourced 350 re­mained the race­track weapon of choice in 1969.

Holden’s six-cylin­der To­rana GTR XU-1 took over from the Monaro for Se­ries Pro­duc­tion rac­ing, in­clud­ing the in­creas­ingly pres­ti­gious HardieFerodo 500, from 1970, but the 308 en­gine was fa­mously slated for re­lease in the XU-1 in time to race at Bathurst in Oc­to­ber 1972.

The ‘Su­per­car Scare’ put an end to that plan (see AMC #3 for the full story) and the Aussie V8 would have to wait an­other cou­ple of years be­fore it would see duty un­der the bon­net of the

Gen­eral’s reg­i­ment of To­ranas. That came with the re­lease of the larger LH in 1974, which nally saw the in­tro­duc­tion of both the 253 and 308 V8s to the To­rana range. This marked the be­gin­ning of Holden’s use of their lo­cal V8 in tour­ing car rac­ing, with the rst SL/R 5000s de­but­ing in April 1974 in the hands of Al­lan Grice, be­fore the race-bred L34 vari­ant hit the track for that year’s en­durance races.

By the time Holden’s top brass hosted mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ists in the Snowy Moun­tains for the re­lease of the VK Com­modore a decade later, the Holden V8 had claimed seven Bathurst crowns and ve Aus­tralian Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onships pow­er­ing a suc­ces­sion of To­rana and Com­modore mod­els.

De­spite the rosy glow of this race­track dom­i­na­tion, there had been a signi cant change in the Aus­tralian pub­lic’s buy­ing habits in the wake of the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, and Holden had been in a ght for sur­vival. Holden had lost signi cant mar­ket share to Ford, which had al­ready dropped the V8 from the Fal­con lineup in 1982. Sub­stan­tial funds would be re­quired to reengi­neer the Holden V8 for unleaded fuel man­dated from July 1, 1986.

The sun set­ting on the Holden V8 was a topic of con­ver­sa­tion at sun­set on a March night in 1984, dur­ing the VK model’s me­dia launch in Thredbo. ‘Din­ing out on Holden’ would quickly take on much greater sig­nif­i­cance for the journos gath­er­ing for din­ner, es­pe­cially when the con­ver­sa­tion turned to the V8 en­gine’s fu­ture. And when Holden’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Chuck Chap­man dodged ques­tions from scribes about the pow­er­plant’s longevity, an upris­ing was trig­gered.

Be­fore we hear rec­ol­lec­tions to­day from two of the jour­nal­ists lead­ing the probe, here is the May 1984 is­sue of Wheels mag­a­zine’s re­portage of how the now leg­endary ‘V8s till ’98’ cam­paign was born.

“It be­gan in­no­cently enough (well, fairly in­no­cently) be­tween Pe­ter Brock and Street Ma­chine ed­i­tor Ge­off Par­adise, at lunch. By the end of the night, it was a rag­ing, mil­i­tant cam­paign com­plete with badges and se­cret hand sig­nals.

“As far as any­one re­mem­bers, the ques­tion at din­ner went some­thing like: ‘Chuck, what about the V8, surely you’re not go­ing to kill it off, are you?’”

Chap­man’s eva­sive re­sponse con rmed to all that there was gen­uine rea­son for con­cern.

Name badges were hastily turned into ‘V8s till ’98’ badges and the cam­paign to save the V8 was un­der way. De­spite it be­ing Holden’s ini­tia­tive to axe the V8, it was far from be­ing a pop­u­lar de­ci­sion across the com­pany.

Mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor John Lover­age was said to have given the cam­paign his strong sup­port on the night. Holden was the only lo­cal man­u­fac­turer with a V8, and that gave the com­pany a mar­ket­ing ad­van­tage.

Wheels’ ar­ti­cle con­cluded with: “So the pledges of mag­a­zine space, of coupons and ‘Save The V8’ sto­ries lled the night. This has been just one of them. Start writ­ing. Not to Wheels, but to GMH.”

The coupon in the mag­a­zine read: ‘Dear Chuck, I/we read in Wheels that there’s a chance GMH will cor­rect its mis­take of plan­ning to drop the velitre V8. I/we hope our sig­na­tures be­low will help in­flu­ence your de­ci­sion in favour of the en­gine that gives GMH some mar­ket­ing mus­cle.’

Then Wheels ed­i­tor Pe­ter Robin­son to­day re­calls the oc­ca­sion of the launch as be­ing “a pretty liq­uid din­ner. It didn’t take much to get those present en­thu­si­as­ti­cally be­hind the idea. Ge­of­frey Par­adise is the man who should get the credit, as it was his idea. Chuck did noth­ing to stop us go­ing ahead with the cam­paign. The mar­ket­ing peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar were very con­scious of the dam­age done to Ford when they dropped the V8, and didn’t want to see that re­peated by Holden.”

Fel­low scribe Phil Scott, an­other ma­jor player in get­ting the cam­paign in the pub­lic eye, con­curs that the cam­paign was the late Par­adise’s brain­child. Scott was in the unique po­si­tion of be­ing Syd­ney Sun­day news­pa­per The Sun- Her­ald’s mo­tor­ing ed­i­tor, while also work­ing as a free­lancer for both Street Ma­chine and Wheels mag­a­zines.

“With a mass mar­ket cir­cu­la­tion of 650,000, we were re­ally able to get the mes­sage out there,” Scott says to­day. “This ig­nited all sorts of pas­sions with Holden en­thu­si­asts. The cam­paign was cer­tainly Ge­off’s brain­child. I re­call the launch night with rau­cous peo­ple hav­ing too much to drink. This pro­vided the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for the groundswell of sup­port for the cam­paign with most present com­mit­ting to push it in their pub­li­ca­tions.”

The lead­ing trio of pub­li­ca­tions meant the cru­sade reached three key groups: gen­eral mo­tor­ing en­thu­si­asts, the wider gen­eral pub­lic and, cru­cially, V8 diehards. The lat­ter group was, un­der­stand­ably, the most pas­sion­ate of the let­ter writ­ers and came from Street Ma­chine’s read­er­ship. And mas­ter­mind Par­adise was typ­i­cally blunt in call­ing them to ac­tion in the April/May is­sue.

“GM-H need to re­tain this mo­tor. From a mar­ket­ing point of view it is a valu­able tool. They could well be­come the only man­u­fac­turer in Aus­tralia to have a V8 in their lineup and any mar­ket­ing man worth his salt could get mileage out of that. Se­condly, it’s good for mo­tor rac­ing in­volve­ment and de­spite what some shiny bums in GM-H think mo­tor rac­ing does sell cars and pro­mote prod­uct aware­ness and thirdly, there is a spin-off to the per­for­mance sec­tor of the mar­ket.”

He pro­vided a “V8s ‘till ‘98 up­date” the fol­low­ing is­sue, in­clud­ing the coupon for read­ers to send to GM-H. It re­ported wide­spread sup­port across news­pa­pers and ra­dio.

Sta­ble­mate Mod­ern Mo­tor joined the of­fen­sive and noted that, “The word from our in­for­mants within Holden is that Chuck has im­ple­mented a ‘task force’ to study the fea­si­bil­ity of re­tain­ing the 308.”

Then GM-H head of de­sign, Leo Pruneau, was only too happy to pro­vide AMC with a Holden in­sider’s per­spec­tive of the time.

“The bean coun­ters looked like he­roes if they could save a dol­lar,” Pruneau ex­plains to­day. “Chap­man was be­tween a rock and a hard place. All us Holden guys in the com­pany wanted the V8, but those damn bean coun­ters just didn’t get it. All they were wor­ried about was keep­ing Detroit happy by sav­ing some money.

“Pe­ter Brock needed the V8 for the cars he was build­ing and for his rac­ing and he per­son­ally met with Chap­man one-on-one and pleaded with him to keep the V8. “We were all hop­ing like hell we still had the V8.” Pruneau chuck­les when he re­calls the V8s till ’98 stick­ers that went into cir­cu­la­tion, hav­ing mys­te­ri­ously ap­peared from within the bow­els of the mar­ket­ing depart­ment.

In­stant trac­tion quickly turned into se­ri­ous mo­men­tum. Never be­fore or since had there been such a dy­namic and per­sua­sive push to in­flu­ence the prod­uct de­ci­sions of a car com­pany, and it wasn’t long be­fore an an­nounce­ment was made.

Ap­pro­pri­ately, it was the cover of the Oc­to­ber/Novem­ber ’84 is­sue of Street Ma­chine that pro­claimed “Of­fi­cial – The V8 Lives.” In­side, the head­line tri­umphantly de­clared “It’s a V8 Vic­tory.

“So over­whelm­ing was the re­sponse to the V8s Till ’98 cam­paign, Holden have re­versed their de­ci­sion to kill the V8 en­gine this year.”

Claim­ing their role in the de­ci­sion, the ar­ti­cle con­tin­ued with, “Who would have thought that a throw­away idea be­tween Pe­ter Brock, GM-H mar­ket­ing heavy Ross McKenzie and Street Ma­chine ed­i­tor Ge­off Par­adise would de­velop into a full-on cam­paign and in the short space of ve months cause GMH to do a com­plete about-face on a de­ci­sion that was seem­ingly a dead set cert to pro­ceed.”

Iron­i­cally, it was at the Holden As­tra’s press launch in late Au­gust that Chuck Chap­man de­clared that, “GMH be­lieve Aus­tralian mo­torists want the op­tion of an ef­fi­cient, pow­er­ful and de­pend­able large en­gine for cer­tain ap­pli­ca­tions.”

Typ­i­cal car com­pany chief ‘speak’, that. But it was Chap­man’s un­scripted re­sponse to be­ing asked how the com­pany had come to that con­clu­sion that spoke vol­umes. The man­ag­ing di­rec­tor sim­ply laughed and told the press “you should know!”

Wheel’s summed things up nicely in its Oc­to­ber ’84 is­sue.

“In March of this year, at the time of the VK Com­modore launch, the V8 en­gine was dead come lead-free fuel in 1986, but with pres­sure from deal­ers, the Holden mar­ket­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion which re­alised it des­per­ately needed some­thing Ford couldn’t of­fer and, not least, as a re­sult of the mo­tor­ing mag­a­zines ‘V8s till ’98’ cam­paign which re­sulted in 15,000 let­ters to MD Chuck Chap­man, the de­ci­sion was re­versed.

“Im­por­tantly, the Holden ve-litre en­gine is to be dropped from 5044 cc to 4980cc to t in with the Group A rac­ing reg­u­la­tions, so that Pe­ter Brock will have at least a com­pet­i­tive car in the years to come. Bathurst just wouldn’t be Bathurst with­out the thun­der­ous roar of the bent-eight bri­gade.”

Group A vic­to­ries at Bathurst would be scored in 1986, ’87 and ’90. And when Group A made way for the do­mes­tic ve-litre V8 cat­e­gory from 1993 – what to­day is known as ‘Su­per­cars’ – the Holden V8 would have one more mo­ment in the sun. While the ma­jor­ity of Holden run­ners im­me­di­ately went over to the Chevro­let-based V8, wily en­gi­neer­ing ge­nius Larry Perkins saw a tech­ni­cal ad­van­tage in re­tain­ing the Holden V8. Perkins, driv­ing with Gregg Hans­ford, gave the en­gine its nal Bathurst vic­tory, lead­ing home the Chev-pow­ered Com­modore of Mark Skaife/Jim Richards.

Mean­while, on the road, it was an en­tirely dif­fer­ent story. Holden Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles took over the reins from Brock’s HDT op­er­a­tion as the fac­tory-sup­ported per­for­mance car arm; fuel in­jec­tion was in­tro­duced; and with the fuel cri­sis be­com­ing a dis­tant mem­ory, Holden made the Com­modore a gen­uine full-sized car again.

When the cur­tain was nally drawn on pro­duc­tion of the Aussie V8, 541,000 en­gines had been pro­duced. The ‘V8 till ’98’ slo­gan went re­mark­ably close to fore­cast­ing the even­tual life­span of the en­gine. The lo­cally-built V8 was ul­ti­mately re­placed by an im­ported V8 in the Com­modore sedan in 1999. It lived for 30 years.

Im­ported bent-eights con­tin­ued to power the com­pany’s ag­ship model un­til the end of lo­cal pro­duc­tion in 2017. Given that the last Com­modore-based HSV model rolled off the com­pany’s as­sem­bly fa­cil­ity in Clay­ton, Vic­to­ria on Jan­uary 3, this year, the ef­fec­tive life­span of V8pow­ered Holdens was a neat 50 years – 1968 to 2018.

Now, where can we get our­selves one of those rear-win­dow or bumper stick­ers?

Top: The Holden-built V8 in its ul­ti­mate form. Cen­tre: Pub­lish­ing heavy­weights Pe­ter Robin­son (left) and Phil Scott flank Holden head hon­cho Chuck Chap­man. Right: The Holden V8 sur­vived into the VL range and con­tin­ued to power VN, VP, VR, VS and VT...

The Holden-built V8’s life­span turned out to be 30 years, from the HT model (in­set) to the VT Se­ries I range, in­clu­sive of the HSV GTS (main). It would have been half that, if not for the V8s Till ’98 cam­paign. Be­low left: The Holden-built...

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