Commodore [ VT-VZ]
Sometime around 1992, there was mention in the news pages of one of the new-car magazines – was it Motor Manual? – of a Holden Calais spotted at Melbourne Airport. No big deal, but this particular Holden Calais was inside the security fence being readied for air-freight… And it was left-hand drive. Five years later, at the mid-1997 long-lead preview of the all-new VT Commodore at Holden’s Fishermans Bend head office, there were styling sketches of Buick and Toyota Lexcen versions of the VT Commodore pinned to the walls of the styling studio. The joint-venture between Toyota and Holden – where Toyota Corollas and Camrys had been sold as Holden Novas and Apollos, and Commodores as Toyota Lexcens – had been dissolved in 1996 so the VT Lexcen didn’t make it into Toyota showrooms. But there remained an air of anticipation about the all-Aussie Holden Commodore being exported to the USA…
Holden – for so long tucked down the bottom of the world, building cars only for Aussies, Kiwis and a few rich coconut farmers in South-East Asia – seemed to be now well and truly ‘in the loop’ with General Motors’ international model plans.
Car manufacturers are always looking ahead but it’s reasonable to say the VT Commodore program began when Holden styling bloke Michael Simcoe arrived home in 1992 from playing with pencils with GM in the USA. Melbourne-born and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology trained, Simcoe’s new job was to lead the styling team for VT.
As it had with VN, Holden had the option of unpacking an Opel design but what the Germans were working on with its late-1990s Opel Omega was too short and narrow for Australia and probably wouldn’t have swallowed a V8 – or a big airconditioning system – too easily. The VT quickly became an all-Aussie effort: By 1993 full-sized VT styling models existed and with a few tweaks to make things a little less radical (for instance, pics from the era show the later-model V X’s distinctive headlights were originally penned for VT) the design was locked-in.
From the ground-up, the VT Commodore was always going to be made in right- and left-hand drive. More correctly, the VT-based WH Statesman/Caprice was always going to be made in right- and left-hand drive as Holden – with its expertise in building durable rear-drive cars for use in stinking hot climates – was tasked with creating the new-century Chevrolet Caprice (to replace GM’s last big, simple, US-designed rear-drive Caprice) for Middle East markets.
Designer Simcoe was to gain legend status during 1998, the year after the VT was launched, when the Commodore Coupe concept car had the sheets pulled from it at the 1998 Sydney Motor Show, creating front-page news around the country. Simcoe and a team of trusted colleagues built the show car in secret, after-hours, without the knowledge of Holden management, using a discarded prototype VTII LS1 sedan.
The response to the concept car was incredible and Holden had little choice but to build the ‘modern Monaro’. Simcoe was quoted at the time: “It’s a totally deliverable design,” revealing it was more than a one-off – it could actually be built on Holden’s production lines. Backing up the business case for the development of the Monaro was the very handy fact that GM in the USA was willing to import the car; it ended up being sold as a Pontiac GTO in the US and a Chevrolet Lumina SS in the Middle East.
The Monaro was just one example of the f lexibility of the VT generation Commodore. As well as left- and right-hand drive short- and long-wheelbase sedans, a wagon and a traditional Aussie ute, over the next nine years the VT architecture was morphed into two and four-door cab/chassis commercial vehicles with rear-and all-wheel-drive, an AWD wagon and a HSV’s limited-build Monaro-based Coupe4.