Mark Fog­a­rty

“That a big-en­gined VB could have come off the pro­duc­tion line in Mel­bourne back in 1980 is an un­told story”

Motor (Australia) - - INSIDE LINE -

IT COULD have been very dif­fer­ent. Had an ironic twist of fate not in­ter­vened, the To­rana A9X wouldn’t have been Holden’s last of­fi­cial ho­molo­ga­tion spe­cial. A Su­per Com­modore ver­sion of the orig­i­nal VB model was not only pro­posed, but a pro­to­type was ac­tu­ally built. The idea was to go head-to-head with Ford’s 351 cu­bic inch V8-pow­ered XD Fal­con on the race­track and the road with a Chevro­let 350 V8-pro­pelled high-per­for­mance Com­modore.

The fac­tory-fit small-block Chevy would have been ac­com­pa­nied by A9X-style flared fen­der ex­ten­sions, front and rear spoil­ers, and bon­net scoop penned by leg­endary Holden de­signer Leo Pruneau. Of course, a VB Com­modore with the 5.7litre Chev V8 never hap­pened. The all-Aus­tralian Holden 308 (slightly shrunk to 304 ci/4.9-litres in ’85 for the in­ter­na­tional Group A rules) re­mained the big­gest mo­tor un­til re­placed in the mid-1999 VT II by the im­ported Gen III 5.7-litre Chevy. But the fact that a big-en­gined VB could have come off the then Dan­de­nong pro­duc­tion line in Mel­bourne back in 1980 is an un­told story.

It was Holden’s de­ci­sion to of­fi­cially end its un­of­fi­cial in­volve­ment in rac­ing in late ’79 that put paid to the plan for a lim­ited run of Com­modore 350s to en­hance the Lion’s prospects at Bathurst and be­yond. The project got as far as an un­of­fi­cial run­ning pro­to­type road car. Had it made it to pro­duc­tion, the pro­posed Su­per Com­modore would have been the last Holden-made ho­molo­ga­tion spe­cial. It could have been the first Com­modore SS or, more likely, would have be­come known by its spe­cial pro­duc­tion op­tion code, just like XU-1, L34 and A9X. One was never al­lo­cated, so let’s call it the Com­modore B57 – B is for Bathurst and 57 is for 5.7 litres.

It’s per­haps a fine dis­tinc­tion, but later race-bred Com­modores weren’t strictly fac­tory ho­molo­ga­tion spe­cials. There was plenty of Holden help and fund­ing be­hind the scenes, but they were de­vel­oped and pro­duced by HDT Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles and then Holden Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles, as op­posed to spe­cial builds from the main plant. The last Com­modore built as the ba­sis for the rac­ing ver­sion was the HSV-con­cocted VN SS Group A in 1989.

Two decades ear­lier, while plot­ting the Com­modore track re­place­ment for the all-con­quer­ing To­rana A9X, then Holden Dealer Team boss John Shep­pard ex­pressed his de­sire for a Chev 350 op­tion to ho­molo­gate the ul­ti­mate VB un­der Group C rules. Holden had tar­geted 1980 to switch to the Com­modore and Sheppo was asked what he wanted for the A9X’s suc­ces­sor.

De­spite un­cer­tainty about a change of rules, his wish list in­cluded re­plac­ing the 5.0-litre Holden V8 with the 5.7-litre im­ported Chevy. His ra­tio­nal was that if the XD Fal­con could race with a 351, why couldn’t the VB move up to GM’s equiv­a­lent? Shep­pard’s idea for the ‘B57’ was met with scep­ti­cism by Holden en­gi­neers, who said the con­ver­sion would be too dif­fi­cult. Not to be de­terred, he fit­ted a 350 to a VB test hack and then pre­sented it as a run­ning car. As many Com­modore mod­i­fiers have found, the 350 dropped straight in, with only the starter mo­tor need­ing to be re­lo­cated. Hav­ing proved it was prac­ti­cal, Sheppo re­calls that the pos­si­bil­ity of pro­duc­ing ‘B57’ as a Bathurst spe­cial be­came se­ri­ous enough for Pruneau to sketch some styling con­cepts. Then the whole land­scape changed.

In late ’79, fol­low­ing a di­rec­tive from Detroit, Holden de­clared that it was with­draw­ing from rac­ing. Which was in­ter­est­ing in it­self be­cause for more than a decade, the Lion had been hid­ing the fac­tory team be­hind the Holden Dealer Team fa­cade. Ev­ery­one knew it was Holden that was be­hind HDT, fund­ing it, pro­vid­ing en­gi­neer­ing sup­port and pro­duc­ing spe­cial road-go­ing mod­els with per­for­mance en­hance­ments de­vel­oped for rac­ing.

Amid the up­heaval, the ‘B57’ project was aban­doned. Luck­ily, de­vel­op­ment of a Com­modore racer with carry over run­ning gear had started. A pi­lot-build VB ‘mule’ with com­pe­ti­tion A9X me­chan­i­cals and hacked-away wheel open­ings to ac­com­mo­date wider rac­ing rub­ber, plus apoly­car­bon­ate front air dam, was track tested and proved promis­ing. The spec­i­fi­ca­tion was frozen as Holden pre­pared to off­load the team. HDT was sold to Brock in a deal un­der­writ­ten by a band of in­flu­en­tial Holden deal­ers, who backed him in re­turn for ex­clu­sive ac­cess to en­hanced sig­na­tureed­i­tion Com­modore V8s. Thus was born HDT Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles.

As it hap­pened, the A9X-de­rived 5.0-litre Holden V8 was still good enough for the Com­modore to be com­pet­i­tive against Dick John­son’s 5.8-litre XD. The new-look Marl­boro HDT com­pleted de­vel­op­ment of the VB racer in time to dom­i­nate the 1980 Aus­tralian tour­ing car cham­pi­onship with Brock. In up­dated VC guise, wins at Sandown and Bathurst com­pleted his sec­ond ‘Triple Crown’.

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