When the LS1-powered Holden in your garage is an all-wheel-drive ‘all-paws’ Black Panther.
Owning a limited-build, noughties muscle car is a much different proposition from a 1960s or ’70s machine. Especially if that modern classic is a HSV Coupe 4. Just ask John McCoyLancaster, owner of ‘Panther’. Here the black beast’s master outlines how he tracked down, caught and cares for his all-paw pet.
There’s never been anything quite like the Coupe 4. Not before, nor after it.
Holden Special Vehicles’ super coupe is truly unique. After all, it’s the first and only Australian designed and manufactured all-wheel drive coupe. It broke cover as a near-production concept at the Australian International Motor Show in Sydney in October 2003, which means it’s already 15 years old. Today it stands as one of the most collectable modern classics.
The Coupe 4 was already on my wishlist 10 years ago when I started looking around for something different to put in the garage. Like most car guys, there were plenty of desirable machines on that list, but getting an Australian muscle car was the highest priority.
At the time, third generation Monaro models were between about three and seven years old – a perfect choice for a second owner like me seeking a low-kilometre car where someone else had taken the dreaded depreciation hit. I subscribe to the view that buying pre-loved examples of your dream car enables you to put it in your garage for about 50 percent of the original purchase price.
I found many Monaros for sale, but with a busy work schedule I made the decision to get something collectible. It was also important that the family could all enjoy the car and that maintenance costs would be low.
Luckily there were some smart heads around to offer advice. One of those was AMC’s founding editor Mark Oastler, who suggested a Coupe 4 because it was rare, AWD and a car with many special features not likely to be repeated again. He even suggested a black on black car – black exterior and black interior. It was an opinion backed up by Marc McInnes, then Holden’s NSW state manager.
Not knowing how rare these cars were, the search began. I soon learnt that there were only 132 Coupe 4s made in both V2 and VZ form, from 2004-’05. There were only a few colours – silver, black and red. What’s more, there were two shades of red and two shades of black! Only two interior colours were offered – Anthracite or Ochre leather – with most having the latter, lighter colour. And there were only three options: Satnav, tyre pressure sensors and sunroof.
So with a greater understanding, we realised the likelihood of nding the right car with the right colours would be reasonably difficult. My preference was for a manual six-speed, but as the Coupe 4 only came with the fourspeed automatic I obviously had to forego this prerequisite. HSV chose this transmission because of the car’s size and the requirement to use the US-developed transfer casing.
As I learned more about the Coupe 4, my resolve to nd and own one grew. As it turns out, only two weeks after I’d made my mind up to only pursue this particular model, a good example in the right colour and the right speci cations came up at a Holden caryard in Sydney. The bonus was that it had one of the three options – a sunroof. Having purchased a VZ Holden By Design wagon in 2004 with a sunroof this would give us a matching black and white pair.
So we went to take a look. The car for sale had been purchased new from Central Coast Holden at Gosford and had later traded in on a new car a few months prior to us seeing it.
We were in the grip of the Global Financial Crisis so I was a bit nervous about the economic situation. An offer was made – and rejected! However, after some further conversations over the following days we eventually settled on a number and the deal was on.
The taxi ride to the dealership to pick up the car couldn’t have gone fast enough. Then the rst drive was one to remember and I have vivid recollections of poring over the car when I got it home. As you do.
This 2004 VZ Coupe 4 was originally purchased for $106,000 new. The original dealer invoice that came with the car detailed the base cost, plus the option of the sunroof, then the onroad costs to get to this price. The books in the glovebox also detailed the original owners and the service records.
I’ve learnt from Holden service managers there is no signi cant difference in the servicing of a Coupe 4 from other Commodore-based cars, apart from the need to ensure both front and rear diffs are maintained properly. With the increase in the number of 4WD vehicles that have recently expanded the Holden range, new tools and more experience with these drivetrains has resulted in services becoming quicker and cheaper.
One of the great things about owning a car like this is that you just keep learning new things about them. In fact, even though the car is now almost 15 years old, fresh stories and information keep coming out.
The Coupe 4’s seemingly growing signi cance in Australian muscle car history is another source of ‘owner satisfaction’. There are many Holden enthusiasts who do not know that Australia actually produced a car with all-wheel drive.
Holden Special Vehicles lost money on every one of these cars, given the development costs involved and the cost of building each example. But the Coupe 4 was more than just being about the 132 examples that were eventually built. The team at Holden and HSV that put the car together were looking to leverage the development of these special cars for more exciting things in the future – with the potential for an export model AWD in the VE.
HSV’s head of design at the time, Julian Quincey, said that the team set out to create an “upmarket” yet “understated” look for the Coupe 4, “one that expressed the un ustered composed way that the vehicle puts its power down.”
Most of the Coupe 4s – like this one – ended up with executives rather than collectors with an eye on the future. As a side note, two notable Australian racing identities had Coupe 4s as company cars. One was Mark Skaife, who had his from 2004 through to 2006. That car recently found new owners. Then there was Kees Weel from PWR Performance Products in Queensland (and former owner of Paul Weel Racing with his son). Weel Snr bought one new and has loved it ever since. Kees even put one of PWR’s underbonnet superchargers on the car!
When our Coupe 4 arrived home for the family to see, there were many words said in admiration of its good looks. The car quickly gained a name – Panther. What else would you call a black car that had all four paws ready to pounce!
The next Christmas, a tailored black car cover was given as a gift that keeps on giving. While this cover has served the car well, the Coupe 4 is, of course, better enjoyed when the cover is off and out of the garage.
Let me tell you, the Coupe 4s were built to drive, as you would expect from the rst-and-only locally-produced high performance two-door coupe to feature all-wheel drive – the most highly-engineered muscle car ever made here.
Former Holden senior engineer and Australian Rally Champion Bob Watson was involved in designing and testing the AWD system. Although the Cross-Trac system was also featured on a range of Adventra wagons and Crewman fourdoor utes (also known as Cross-8s), it was taken to a new level with the coupe. Building the cars involved a special collaboration between Holden and HSV where each of the coupe bodies destined to be a Coupe 4 was taken off the production line to make modi cations to the front and rear quarter panels. A speci c working area was set aside at the Elizabeth plant to put each car onto a rotisserie and laser cut the guards and the holes to locate the cross-members. A specially-developed tool, which cost over $1 million at the time, was then used to roll the edges outwards. Then there was some handfabrication to ensure the highest levels of quality and t. A further specially programmed robot was employed just to t the Coupe 4 interiors; they cars had a unique rewall and the necessary cross-members to accommodate the transfer case and all of the drivetrain components. The engineers utilised CAD technology and CNC machines to design unique billet parts to t suspension components into the small spaces remaining for the Coupe 4 and ensure the handling and performance would be at benchmark levels.
One member of the build team was former Jaguar Racing F1 engineer and then HSV suspension specialist, Dave Slater. “We tried to design a nice, balanced package, so when you turn into a corner the whole car turns in at once, not the front followed by the back end,” Dave said.
With its wider platform (by 60mm front and rear), the car required specially-developed wheel arch flares, which harked back to the A9X Toranas. The design also respected Mike Simcoe’s original wishes for an uncluttered look, using the original bonnet shape without the nostrils of the VZ Monaro, mated to the Senator front spoiler with built-in high intensity Xenon driving lights.
And so to the driving! Living in outer Sydney has provided many opportunities to take the car for drives that stretch its legs. There was much joy in finding the car’s strengths up the Putty Road, the drive to Bathurst, the run up the old Pacific Highway, and a few runs down to Canberra (with the mandatory run over the Monaro Highway). There’s a sure-footedness about driving this car unlike any other late-model Monaro. You can feel all four wheels gripping the road. The suspension is set with performance in mind, and yet it is more compliant than either its GTS or GTO siblings. Regardless of the weather conditions, there is nothing quite like the confidence and the assured grip that heightens the capability of these cars.
Few cars have the same level of performance, with 270kW in play. When it was officially launched in mid 2004, Phil Harding, HSV’s director of engineering at the time, said that, “Performance is not just about kilowatts, it’s about getting the available power to the ground.” The HSV engineering team recognised that the Coupe 4 was the quickest point-to-point car they had around the Lang Lang ride and handling circuit at the Holden proving grounds in Victoria.
When I take Panther to events, it’s always interesting to note how the car is perceived and what comments she brings. There are those who view the car as just being another Monaro and, conversely, those in-the-know who are always eager to chat and hear Panther’s story. For instance, at the Monaro Nationals in 2016 she was one of two Coupe 4s entered and there was plenty of knowledge shared with those who didn’t know that they were produced, plus a request to park her next to a CV8Z and then a VZ GTO so that the physical differences could be seen more easily. Then there were the stories from those who worked on the line, so you continually learn new facts and hear fresh anecdotes.
One of the longer journeys we had together was cruising down the Hume Highway for the car’s 10th birthday in 2014 for a visit to HSV and the MotorEx Cruise of Charity in Melbourne. The reception Panther received at her birthplace was quite surprising. All of the senior management came out to take a look. MD Harding wanted to go for a spin and commented that HSV has not been able to make a car that handled as well as the Coupe 4 since it was built. Holden design chief Richard Ferlazzo was there on the day and called it “the ultimate expression of the Monaro”. Then, at the Cruise for Charity, many of the crowd, again, were not even aware this AWD car had been produced. So it was funny to watch people get on their hands and knees looking under it to verify the truth – as if they don’t believe it when you tell them!
Have there been any downsides? Well, some tell you that the power is not enough. Compared to the last of the cars from HSV, you could say that’s the case. But we are talking about a car that’s arguably a design and engineering masterpiece. Is the turning circle a bit wider than others? Well, yes, but it just means you factor that in when driving around the streets. But when running at full noise down Brabham Straight at Sydney Motorsport Park and heading into Turn 1 at over 200km/h, a little less movement of the wheel to take the corner was a definite plus.
Others point to the size of the boot. The Coupe 4s were based on the export body for the Pontiac GTO and have the fuel tank behind the backseat. This was done to also provide for the quad exhausts, amongst other things. There is also a space-saver spare under the floor of the boot. The smaller boot space has never caused us an issue.
Some people buy a modern muscle car, put it in the shed, throw the cover on and only take it out on sunny days for short trips staying within the postcode. Each to their own, but this is not for me. Panther is in her element in the wet, even if that puts her in danger of copping a hit from less able ‘creatures’.
Should the unthinkable happen, that’s where my forward planning will pay off. While getting services done we have taken up opportunities to purchase some of the rare or unique parts that may be needed at some point in the future. We have a few very special parts stored away in the shed: front spoiler, rear spoiler, a full set of flares, front suspension pieces, spare front and rear brakes, badges, floor mats, replacement interior
and a set of spare wheels and centre caps. All of these items, and a few more, have been collected from a range of sources. I have a special shelf where all the parts sit together so they can’t be confused with other car parts.
We’ve tried to identify and find the parts we might need one day. Even a car as young as 10-15 years old can present challenges when it comes time to securing low-volume muscle car parts. And as time goes on it will get harder and often more expensive to find the New-Old-Stock required. Advice on parts has come from dealers, other owners and clubs. Monaro owners around the country have continued to be a friendly and helpful group that continue to share info.
There are still a few more items we would like to collect, but they aren’t available from the local Holden dealer anymore. They include one of the unique grilles and a set of replacement sill panels with ‘Coupe 4’ etched into the aluminium. We’re also looking for another set of those Xenon headlamps and will probably set aside a roof spoiler and side skirts. Storing a replacement firewall, along with a
replacement drivetrain, may be seen to be going too far, but we’ll keep our ears to the ground.
Part of the enjoyment of a car like this comes from researching old stories in magazines and on the internet. These often detail the special pieces that will make all the difference when it comes time for repairs or restorations. For instance, I’ve learnt that the software to run the system is from the Hummer H2. As the Coupe 4 involved a great deal of engineering and a high degree of collaboration between Holden and HSV it was treated as a new vehicle and required full crash testing and ADR compliance. Six cars were crash-tested, the coupe being the rst of the new-generation muscle cars to undergo this – and the rst to do so with alloy wheels.
The results of the test changed the design of every muscle car that followed as the wheels were designed with lightness and strength in mind and therefore didn’t disintegrate – instead, they came right through the cabin! The front end consequently needed to be reengineered and the new safety elements were then incorporated across all Holden and Ford muscle cars from that point on. As I understand it, this particular element is quite signi cant because even though custom wheels have been available since the 1970s, no car had been tested with them in a crash situation until the Coupe 4. And that wouldn’t have been done unless the cars were demonstrating signi cant engineering changes. So what’s the here-and-now for Panther? The car continues to be a joy to own. There is much pleasure in admiring the shape, in cleaning and polishing, with servicing and with driving. It is a rare occurrence to see another one of its type – and we have only ever encountered one other black Coupe 4 in our travels.
If given a choice to drive to Bathurst on a wet weekend we would still choose the Coupe 4 as this is what it was built for. With recent additions to the Holden model line-up also being all-wheel drive, and the increased use of this drivetrain architecture in Audi, Subaru and others, it is only now that the con dence and capability, let alone the engineering of the Coupe 4, is being appreciated. This car was made in Australia, by Australians for the local and international market. We are proud to own such a great car and such an innovative one at that.