Wheels (Australia)

OUR COLUMNISTS

“I KNEW THAT, ALTHOUGH THE BUICK DEAL HAD BEEN NIXED, HOLDEN STILL PLANNED TO BUILD LEFT-HANDDRIVE VTs. WITH THAT, AN IDEA BEGAN TO TAKE SHAPE”

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MacKenzie on creating a Commodore to take on the world; Carey on why rear-drive will rule again; Westerman on wrestling with classic-car FOMO

L318235 WAS THE rarest VT Commodore ever made, a lefthand-drive SS powered by the punchy supercharg­ed 3.8-litre V6, with a paint and interior trim combinatio­n that wasn’t available to the public when the car started down the assembly line at Holden’s Elizabeth plant on March 17, 1998. Though I never got to drive it, I know L318235 well. It’s the one-of-a-kind Commodore I got Holden to build.

I knew Holden had engineered a left-hand-drive component set for the VT Commodore as part of a stillborn plan to build Buick-badged versions in Australia and ship them to the States. And I knew that, although the Buick deal had been nixed, Holden still planned to build left-hand-drive VTs.

Only this time they’d be badged as Chevys and sent to Saudi Arabia. With that, an idea began to take shape.

Back in the glory days when Australia designed, engineered and built its own cars, Wheels had establishe­d a tradition of taking our homegrown heroes oversees to see how they stacked up against the big boys on their home turf. Robbo had taken one of Peter Brock’s VL Calais Directors to Europe and the US in 1986, and driven both an HSV SV5000 and a Falcon XR6 in Britain, in 1990 and 1995 respective­ly. How about, I thought, we drive a Commodore – a left-hand-drive Commodore, the first Australian car designed to be built in volume as a left-hooker – across America?

The left-hand-drive bit was important. I sold the idea to Holden on the basis that the Americans we would meet along the way – including a handful of journos from the US car mags, whose unvarnishe­d opinions we would be seeking – would take the Commodore more seriously if the steering wheel was, for them, in the ‘right’ place. But I also knew in the aftermath of the axed Buick program many at Holden felt they had a point to prove to GM head office in Detroit. Innocently helping a magazine with a story would be the perfect cover.

L318235 was built using the last of the off-line Phase II left-hand-drive VT prototype bodies and the first batch of off-tool, pre-production left-hand-drive parts, plus regular SS suspension, wheels and tyres, and Commodore SS badging. Installing the supercharg­ed V6 – the VTs bound for Saudi were all base V6s, and the Aussie 5.0-litre V8 wouldn’t fit with the left-hand-drive hardware – meant Holden engineers had to fabricate 20 unique parts for the car.

Journo Bob Hall and photograph­er Warwick Kent spent eight days in L318235, driving it from Los Angeles to New

York via Detroit, taking in some of America’s most iconic landscapes along the way, to pull together the words and images for a 14-page cover story. The yarn included minicompar­os with the two front-drive four-doors that were then America’s idea of a performanc­e sedan – Pontiac’s Grand

Prix GTP and Ford’s Taurus SHO. Even the American journos agreed: The Commodore caned ’em both.

Memories of L318235 came flooding back to me almost exactly 10 years later as I walked into the Motor Trend garage in Los Angeles in mid-2008 clutching the keys to a GM four-door that had rear-drive, a V8 engine and the sort of steering, braking and suspension you would expect of a proper performanc­e sedan. In 1998 I had wildly hoped my one-of-akind Commodore SS might spark some interest at GM in a concept I firmly believed was a no-brainer for a country that had invented the muscle car.

And as I slid behind the wheel of the Pontiac G8 GT – basically a rebadged, left-hand-drive VE Commodore SS – a little part of me believed maybe it had.

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