The Commodore has evolved with its market since its launch 30 years ago, which is why it will stay on family shopping lists, writes PAUL GOVER
FUEL crises, an economic slump and drastic downsizing across the car world. Does that sound familiar? It should — and not just because it is what we are living through in the second half of this year.
Those are the conditions that led to the creation of the first Holden Commodore in the 1970s.
The arrival of the VB Commodore in 1978 signalled a big change in direction for Holden, when the hulking Kingswood was ditched in favour of a new-age ‘‘compact’’ family car based on a European design.
The Commodore looked different from anything previously pitched at Australian families, but it was the right car for the time. And a 1-2-3 steamroller of the make-or-break Repco Reliability Trial in 1979 removed any potential doubts about the car’s ability to cope with the worst conditions in this wide, brown land.
Even though Ford hit back hard with an XD Falcon that became a bestseller, the Commodore was an instant showroom hit and the Holden star has been doing the job ever since.
Sales have slipped in the past 18 months as the price of petrol punches holes in many Australian wallets, but the Commodore has still had a 12-year run as the country’s best-selling car, despite the best efforts of Ford with the Falcon and, more recently, Toyota with Corolla.
It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the Commodore.
For a start, more than 2.5 million have been built. ND the Commodore has become an export success with big sales to the US as the Pontiac G8, as well as a motorsport spearhead. It has given Holden followers bragging rights with 18 Bathurst 1000 wins and nine victories in the Australian Touring Car Championship.
But all that was way in the future when the first VB Commodore rolled off the production line at Pagewood in Sydney — a factory long since closed and turned into housing— on October 25, 1978.
The starting price for an SL Commodore was $6513. Today a VE Commodore Omega costs $36,790.
‘‘I think for years Holden has been known as the Commodore car company. It’s still our most significant model,’’ says Tony Stolfo, who has clear memories of the original VB but is better known as the head of Holden Design at the time of the VE.
‘‘It’s the thoroughbred of the cars we sell, the backbone of our business.
AIt tells us where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going.’’
In 1978 the new Commodore said Holden was looking to the future. And there was a global tie-up in one of GM’s first world car programs, even if the originals from a German design by Opel changed a lot to ensure space for five Aussie adults and an in-line six or V8 engine under the bonnet. ‘‘I thought the car was right for its time. The Commodore took us into the future and had a major impact,’’ Stolfo says.
It was also surprisingly sporty, though a tail-happy suspension tune — set on the gruelling roads at Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground — was wound back for more familystyle travel in the VC and beyond.
There are too many Commodore landmarks to track in anything short of a multi-volume book, but it was the car that launched Peter Brock’s fastcar empire at the Holden Dealer Team, as well as the Holden Special Vehicles operation, which has just celebrated its 20th birthday.
And there was the Commodore with the Nissan in-line six in the nose. And a turbo model for performance.
And the Commodore with the ‘‘Starfire’’ four cylinder under the bonnet, lopping two cylinders off its six-cylinder. For economy.
Holden came close to killing its V8 engine in the 1980s but eventually reversed the death sentence and today sells more V8-powered Commodores than before.
There have been 14 individual Commodore models from the VB to the VE, and major body changes for the VN in 1988, the VT in 1997 and the VE in 2006. The nameplate has won more than 60 awards, including a carsGuide Car of the Year crown.
The Commodore has become an international success, first as the Pontiac G8 sedan and more recently as a left-hand-drive ute and the building block for the born-again Chevrolet Camaro whose body sits over the top of the VE mechanical package.
There is clear potential for overseas sales of the latest Sportwagon. ALES of large cars have definitely dropped, but Stolfo, who is already looking at future developments of the Commodore, says the basics will not change.
‘‘Large cars will continue to be part of the mix into the future. But they have to stay relevant,’’ he says.
‘‘It’s tough. You have to consider where the consumer is, as well as the political, social and environmental conditions.
‘‘We have to retain the DNA of the Commodore, which means five passengers and a big boot. The overall size may change, with a smaller and more efficient powertrain, but the technology will allow us to make the car safer and quieter and reduce its outside dimensions without affecting what people expect from a Commodore.’’
Golden years: Holden is celebrating 30 years of the Commodore, which started with the VB Commodore (left) in 1978. The new-age ‘‘compact’’ family car looked different from anything previously pitched at Australian families.