V8s till '98: Saving Holden's bent eight
Mustangs in Supercars: Why not?
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...