"IT IS absolutely the finest car produced in Australia, probably the finest car built in the world." Normally, any journalist worth his salt would dismiss such a statement as a figment of a fertile imagination, especially when it is said, not of a Rolls-Royce or Mercedes-Benz, but of a Holden.
But when it comes from a man with the track record of Joe Whitesell, chief engineer of General Motors-Holden's, it must be treated with respect, the more so when you know it's a claim he believes can be totally supported.
"You rarely get a chance to design a car twice but that's what happened," he goes on. The car Whitesell is speaking about is the new Holden Commodore, the occasion the introduction of the long-awaited VB model to magazine journalists, and the location the GMH proving ground at Lang Lang.
The statement is Whitesell's way of emphasising that the Commodore "is not an Opel" and really is "The beginning of a new era in motoring in Australia." Strong, indeed proud words and they're repeated often during the day until our initial scepticism is almost swept away in a tide of enthusiasm for what is a brilliant – perhaps great – car.
Our final verdict will have to wait, of course, until we've had the chance to road test the Commodore in familiar surroundings and through our established test routine. But we now know enough to say that Ford, Chrysler, and the Japanese are confronted by a roaring lion, fully awake and painfully aware of the dangers after his long, arrogant slumber.
The Commodore must represent a new era in Australian motoring if for no other reason than it is the first family-sized Holden since the 48-215 that has not been designed and developed purely in Australia – and even the first Holden was to be an Australian-only product. The coming of Commodore means that there is very little chance of a wholly-Australian car ever happening again, at least from GMH and probably from the entirely local industry, after the XD Falcon.
The VB is GM's second world car – the first, of course, being the T-car/Gemini – and Australia is its second appearance after the initial release as the Opel Rekord in August, 1977. After Australia it goes to South Africa, Britain, and South America.
The Chapman/Whitesell team, which has so dramatically changed the philosophy and therefore the cars of GMH, was largely responsible (along with stylist Hank Haga) for the Opel Rekord. But the need to make the Commodore at least 85 percent local (local content is at 85-88 percent now and will rise to 90-94 percent early next year) allowed The General much latitude in tooling so any areas they were unhappy about could be modified or even completely changed to produce a better car.
Having driven the top-line Opel Senator, which is based on the Rekord but has a fuel injected, three-litre six-cylinder engine and independent rear suspension, I can only confirm the view that GMH has indeed built a superior car.
The General believes the Commodore will be the top selling Holden in 1979 – and the top selling car in Australia – although it is only available as a four-door sedan, in three forms, with a station wagon to follow in March/April next year. In exterior size – as we've pointed out before – it fits neatly between the Torana and Kingswood, and ultimately it will replace either one or, perhaps even, both. GMH is honest enough to admit it doesn't know.
However, until a positive sales pattern is established, all existing models in Holden's now prodigious, if complicated, range will continue. It is not hard to develop a scenario for the '80s which sees the Torana die within 18 months; the Sunbird remain until GMH can pick-up the replacement for the present Opel Ascona (which will be a front-wheel drive design, just to complicate the local content aspect of its appearance here) while the Kingswood continues and perhaps gets a major facelift until it is finally phased out in two or three years. The station wagons could go at the same time but since the wagons are built on the longer Statesman wheelbase, they could be kept in the line-up for as long as there is a demand. The Statesman/Caprice will definitely get a major facelift and will, with the utility, panel van, and one tanner, go on well into the '80s.
Development work on the V-car program began in Germany in 1971 and even in the preliminary stages it was designed to accommodate engines from all GM's overseas operations including the Holden eights and sixes. But it was not until early in 1975 that GMH decided the V-car had the potential to become a local best seller. After research clinics in November 1975, July 1977, and August this year it now believes it has a car which will meet the needs of the majority of Australian motorists in the 1980s.
The Commodore is smaller and much more space efficient than the Kingswood, although it retains virtually the same interior dimensions as the bigger car. At the same time it is bigger than the Torana although visually it appears to be closer to the Torana than the Kingswood in size.
GMH explains the Commodore's space efficiency by comparing its shadow area – the rectangle formed by the car – with the Torana and Kingswood. The Commodore is five percent bigger than the Torana and 14 percent smaller than the Kingswood, and yet it has 96 percent of the bigger car's interior room. The only dimension where it suffers by comparison with the Kingswood is in shoulder width where it is about 40 mm narrower but still wide enough for it to be regarded as a full five seater. Also significant is the fact that the Commodore has 14 percent more glass area than the Torana and 4.3 percent more than the Kingswood. Proof that it has an extremely low waist line and large rear window.
But space efficient cars are not necessarily strong cars and GMH's engineers had to ensure that the traditional Holden qualities of durability and reliability were retained. The Commodore is 130 kg lighter than a comparable Kingswood and only 38 kg heavier than a similar Torana.
The Rekord was designed using the latest "finite element analysis" computer technique, which stress analyses every area of the car's body to maximise strength and durability while minimising weight. VW used the same process in designing the Golf.
But such calculations are not enough. The first Commodore prototype – a lengthened Torana with VB running gear and suspension – broke just in front of the firewall; clearly if none of the traditional Holden virtues were to be sacrificed design modifications were required to the body.
For a while The General considered building two cars – one capable of withstanding all that tough Australian roads could throw at a car and the other suited for normal commuter type work. Sales volumes ensured that only one car be built ... we got the tough version. From load spectrum data GMIH has collected on a wide variety of local roads it believes cars in Australia have to absorb three to four times as much punishment as experienced in Europe.
Over 270,000 kilometres of road and proving ground tests in all states of Australia exposed other problems which meant fitting a closed box section from the MacPherson strut front suspension tower to the firewall, a modification to the front stabiliser bar mounting plate, reinforcement for the rear engine mounting, the addition of a full back seat panel, a stone guard support for the rear jacking point, and front and rear door beams.
Now GMH believes it has a car which combines the best of its European design talents with the strength expected from a Holden. It is a formidable combination. Opel used Pininfarina's wind tunnel to style the car. According to local styling chief Leo Pruneau "you let the tunnel tell you what the car will look like". Which is probably the perfect answer to anyone who questions why so many of the new designs coming out of Europe tend to follow a look-alike path with the same sloping nose treatment.
Aerodynamics played an important part in the height of the boot lid (it's now higher than originally intended because this was found to reduce drag), the exterior mirror (which is designed to keep dirt and grime away from both the side window and the face of the mirror), the large one piece headlights, and even the shape of the tiny windscreen washer outlets on the bonnet.
More importantly, the wind tunnel allowed Opel's engineers to ensure straight line stability is good, that wind noise is kept to a minimum and that any lift forces are reduced. Our brief drive did nothing to indicate the engineers and stylists got their homework wrong.
In addition to producing a body which looks attractive and is strong, GMH went to a great deal of trouble to ensure it can also combat the dreaded corrosion. The Commodore uses a single sided zinc pre-coated steel and all vital areas also get zinc rich pruners or tectyl coating. In fact about one kg of zinc is used on every car. There is also a corrosion resistant prime dip and a wax spray. The General's objective is for there to be no body panel perforations before 10 years in 95 percent of cars operated in south-east Queensland.
In search of a more comfortable ride, Opel's engineers adopted a MacPherson strut front suspension. While understanding the advantages of such a set-up, GMH must have been concerned about the durability of the struts in local conditions, especially in view of the poor durability displayed by struts in some British and European cars.
After 27,000 man hours and 100,000 kms of rough track driving, GMH is now convinced it has a strut system which will last the life of the car.
Instead of the cartridge type struts used on the Opel, GMH has developed, with local suppliers Monroe-Wylie and Armstrong, a "wet" strut design. The outer structural tube is filled with liquid which dissipates heat through its large surface and reduces the internal temperature, thus minimising fade.
GMH claims the strut allows precise damping control due to its direct attachment to the wheel and that castor and camber can be easily adjusted one degree plus or minus at the top of the struts.
The front spring rates – the coils are linear rate and not progressive – are almost 50 percent higher than those on the Kingswood and this has been largely responsible for the significant increase in ride comfort. A front anti-roll bar of 23 mm diameter is linked to the lower control arms and passes through rubber bushings mounted on the front sub-frame.
The rear suspension is a five link design with two upper and two lower control arms and a Panhard rod. GMH claims the system offers accurate axle location and does not compromise the suspension bushings because they only perform a single function. The
progressive rate rear coils provide 40 mm more suspension travel than the Kingswood – again for improved ride comfort – but still without impairing the precise handling or making for a reduction in roadholding.
The system also makes for a very quiet ride. All cars get a rear anti-roll bar that is mounted directly to the body. The rear dampers are mounted vertically and close to the wheel. There's no talk of the German independent system being used locally. GMH claims it's not needed.
Steering was another area in which Holden's second go at the V-car design meant a genuine improvement over the Opel.
Where the Rekord gets recirculating ball steering, the Holden has rack and pinion for improved feel and precision as well as lower weight, and better structural strength of the body. The turning circle is slightly larger than that of the German cars but it is still much smaller than both the Kingswood and Torana. With the manual steering, the Commodore has 4.1 turns lock to lock and a turning circle of 10.2 metres, with power steering and 3.3 turns lock to lock it has a turning circle of 10.7 metres. By comparison the Gemini has a turning circle of 9.5m, the Kingswood 11.7m, the Torana 10.9m, and the Ford Cortina 10.2m. It's hard to find fault with either the manual or power.
All cars have steel belted radial ply tyres on six inch rims as standard, the six-cylinder models get CR78 S14 tyres, the V8s CR70 H14s, and the new 60 aspect ratio Uniroyal and Olympic BR60 H15 are standard on the SL/E and optional on other models with GMH's own alloy wheel.
The local engineers have also developed two new braking systems which give a good front and rear balance and restrict lock-up to the point of virtual elimination. They also change the old over-servoed feel of previous Holden brakes to a much firmer pedal with more progressive feel. The base system used on the Commodore and Commodore SL is a disc/drum set-up, the SL/E gets four wheel discs which are optional on the other models. Both share the same vented discs at the front with new lightweight sliding head, front calipers (locally developed with Girlock), and a lightweight master cylinder with in-built proportioning valve. The rear drum brakes have a new GMH manufactured leading/trailing system which maintains good balance and incorporates a self-adjusting mechanism. The rear discs have a similar sheet metal caliper design (it saves five kg over a conventional rear caliper) to those at the front but it incorporates a mechanical duo-servo drum brake for the hand brake.
GMH says 65 percent of the parts in the Commodore are Holden designed and developed, the biggest single contributor to this must be the local six and eight.
Apart from a minor change to the emission equipment fitted to the six (to take advantage of the Commodore's light weight) the engines are as fitted to other Holdens. The 2.85-litre six is standard in the Commodore, the 3.3-litre six is fitted to the SL, and the SL/E gets the 4.2-litre V8. The five-litre V8 is optional on all models and, of course, the other engines can be fitted optionally to specific models. Conventional or not, the engines are far quieter – especially the sixes – than they've ever been.
Three on the tree is dead. Even the base Commodore has a four-speed manual gearbox and the SL has the Trimatic automatic with console shift as standard. Four-speed manual and Turbo-Hydramatic transmissions are optional on selected models. The four-speed is the Philippines box and is a little notchy in its change action. The clutch is cable operated but on the V8 is sufficiently heavy in its action as to be out of character with the rest of the car.
The propeller shaft is a two piece design with rubber insulated centre bearing and a constant velocity centre joint. GMH's new found emphasis on noise and vibration has meant the tail shaft has been tuned to match the smoothness of the rest of the car.
With the help of a Fourier analysis computer and a very thorough examination of all relevant areas the engineers have built an extremely quiet car. Noise and vibration has been reduced at their source, natural resonant frequencies of all major mechanical items have been moved outside the driving range and dampening has been used where it was not possible to isolate its natural frequency. This has meant that door seals, the shape of the drip mouldings, the compound of the rubber bushes and even such items as the brake lines, wiring harness, seat springs, and door handles have been designed to eliminate all possible disturbances. The result is a super smooth, quiet car.
In fact it is not really fair to call the Commodore a base car, if base means stark, for it is far from that. Bucket seats built to a new firmer – but perhaps not yet firm enough at the forward edges of the cushion – design with polyurethane foam cushions have been voted the most comfortable seats ever fitted to a Holden by the proving ground staff and they should know; a laminated windscreen and heated rear window are standard, along with a radio, steel belted radials, halogen headlights, carpets, and a comprehensive range of instruments. The SL has a height adjustment for the driver's cushion – on a Holden! – and the SL/E gets wipers and washers for the headlights, air conditioning, a Blaupunkt AM/FM radio/cassette, velour trim (leather will be available early next year), and even a remote control boot lid operation. Only electric windows are optional, you will need nor want for anything else.
The standard ventilation system has a four-speed fan and is capable of changing the air inside the car two and a half times every minute. There are four dashboard vents and two additional vents at foot level; it seems to work very well.
The air-conditioning system is controlled by just one turn knob and uses the same vents as the standard ventilation. It can direct warm air to the feet and cool air at the upper levels. The interior is modern without being revolutionary. The glove box is a bin type and there is a small recessed tray atop of the dashboard in front of the passenger. The instruments and heater/air-conditioner use printed circuits.
The General believes 50 percent of Commodores sold will be the base car, 30 percent SLs, and the rest SL/Es. How Australians will take to a smaller, more efficient and very un-Holden Holden remains to be seen, but we can only agree with an engineering friend who has been involved with the car at the component level, who says "if the Commodore doesn't succeed then we all deserve to be driving Datsun 200Bs".
More strong words, but the claims have been made and in future issues we will be striving to discover their truth or otherwise. Somehow we don't think we'll be disappointed.