First published in the February 1999 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
The best designers in Europe give their verdict on the Aussie Commo.
Recognise the iron? Yes, it’s Wheels’ custom-coloured Holden Commodore in Italy, having made the transatlantic sea voyage to Europe from where we left It in New York. PETER ROBINSON sets the Aussie VT before a trio of Italy’s leading car designers – read on for the verdict …
Leonardo Fioravanti only knows how to drive quickly. Very quickly. Leonardo is Italian, as if you didn’t know from his name. That helps explain our speed. Every Italian, no exceptions, drives with the right foot firmly urging the accelerator pedal into the firewall.
We're in Turin, where the limit is 8Okm/h, and the speedo needle in the bronze Commodore SS has just topped 160km/h. Leonardo is enjoying himself.
"It has good horsepower, more performance than I expected," he explains, half turning to the rear seat as he speaks. I'm cringing in the back, waiting for the accident. He of little faith. It's the first time I've been driven by the great Italian car designer. Fioravanti spent 24 years with Pininfarina and can claim sole design responsibility for the Daytona and 308, among other Ferraris. The bloke's a design genius and I know he's twice been Italian Historic Racing champion but, until five minutes ago, he'd never driven a Commodore before.
Colin Curwood's pointing his Nikon, motor drive whirring, at the gesticulating Fioravanti from the front passenger seat. I know what's coming. The two-lane road leading south from Turin to Moncalieri, where Fioravanti now has his studio in a 14th century house, sweeps through a right-left-right series of fast corners, made all the more interesting by a series of lateral expansion joints. Great fun. Even the best of cars skip sideways, rear suspension compressing hard against each ridge, especially if you turn up the wick.
Fioravanti's flame is afire. "It's the first time I've driven a supercharged engine with an automatic," he says, pushing even harder on the loud pedal, deftly setting the Commodore up.
"The suspension is stiff, yet the taste of driving is American."
Then he brakes, hard. Two trucks, one passing the other with a barely discernible speed differential, block the road. Fioravanti punches the wheel with the heel of his hand in frustration, twitching the car. Is he judging the suspension's reaction, as compensation for his disappointment? I know we won't run under the back of the truck, but it's close. He pushes at the steering wheel boss, searching for the horn. Finally, there's a feeble beep. The truck doesn't move from the fast lane.
"At 200km/h, no person hears it," he complains, catching my eyes in the rear vision mirror, not hearing my explanation of Australia's low speed limits.
Most of the traffic on the Turin tangenziale (ring road) exceeds the 130km/h limit by around 30km/h. The Commodore's accelerated to 195km/h. Through the lens, Curwood notices Fioravanti is not wearing his seat belt and asks him to do it up. Mostly, Wheels tries to be politically correct and doesn't like to publish photographs of unbelted car occupants. Can't remember when it was last a problem. Australians click up automatically. Not Italians.
"I am very old," he explains, ignoring the request, waving an arm, as if it helps make the point. "I like new technology in cars when it helps the driving, but not 11-booster loudspeakers or seat belts. I only wear seat belts when I race, then you need them (he's watching the mirror for my reaction as he talks) but you can live in a car without these belts."
We dive off the tangenziale and head up into the hills behind Moncalieri.
"This is one of my favourite corners, it's a constant radius and very good for testing cars," he says, snatching on some lock, head cocked to the side. "That's a strange tyre noise. My 156 (Alfa) makes the same sound. It's on Bridgestones and they grip well, but I think Pirellis are a better compromise."
Sure enough, the Commodore's also Bridgestone shod, and their adhesion is being sorely tested as Fioravanti hurls the Commodore around the narrow, twisty lanes.
"I know these roads very well," he reassures us, the Commodore apexing a blind corner. Curwood's still snapping. From the footwell.
"The handling is typical rear drive," says Fioravanti, flicking his wrists into opposite lock to catch the oversteer, searching again for the horn. Finally, he makes contact. "It's horrible, we need more horn." In Italy, yes.
He asks me how much the Commodore weighs. I guess. I'm not about to try reading the brochure. Leonardo does the sums.
"I have doubts about the power-to-weight ratio. It feels too quick. The steering is light, maybe too light for the power and there's a small vibration in the wheel. I don't know about the brakes from high speed."
He is constant pushing buttons, trying all the controls.
"No automatic window in up mode?"
We start talking Ferraris. Among his small, private collection of interesting cars (Alfas, Lancias, a Citroen Light 15, even a 2.4 Jaguar), mostly from the '50s, '60 and '70s, is an original 308.
"I dream of a soft Ferrari with the F1 shift. When I worked at Ferrari (as deputy general manager in the late '80s) I always drove an F40. The F5O is too big. To drive softly in an F40 is ... " (He kisses the ends of his fingers, I think I understand.)
We drop Leonardo off in the beautiful square outside his studio. He has been so intent on thrashing around in the Commodore, it's the first chance to get him to comment on the styling. That was my initial intention when I rang to ask if he was interested in seeing an Australian car.
"The styling, if we don't consider the colour, is Omega with different front and rear ends. The rear is definitely American. The surfaces are professional, well treated, but I think the front end is too gentle for a car like this. The lower is okay, the upper grille is too small. This is a big car. It's a very enjoyable car and cheap for the size."
Yes, he liked the Holden.
Rather than spend a week driving the left-hand drive, Victorian-registered, Commodore around Europe for Wheels, Editor MacKenzie and I decided to seek out some expert opinion on this strange-to-European-eyes Australian car.
One down, two to go. But first. This is the very same Holden Commodore SS Bob Hall and Warwick Kent drove across America. Don't let the change in number plate deceive you. The original front number plate was stolen when the Commodore arrived in Germany. The Victorian authorities won't duplicate plates, so the SS had to be re-registered.
Peter Davis is American, and another car designer. He also happens to be the head of Fiat Centro Stile. We decide it's okay for him to comment on the Holden, how can there be a conflict of interest when Fiat doesn't sell cars in Australia? We follow his Barchetta- I'm pleased to see the roofs down- out of Turin. Peter knows a picturesque village on the way home. But, before the photographs, he wants to drive the Commodore.
"It doesn't feel American, there is no wallowing, the steering is more direct and you feel the road underneath."
"Guess who did this?" he says proudly, pointing to the cruise control stalk. Peter worked on interiors at Opel, before moving to Turin in 1989, and he's obviously delighted to find Holden still using something he designed a decade earlier. He looks at the other steering column stalks.
"The wiper's new," he says, vaguely disappointed.
We've found a ruined castle at the edge of the village and Curwood decides it's a photo opportunity not to be wasted.
"The colour's a bit vulgar," says Peter, in a too obvious attempt to be polite, as he walks around the car.
"Everything is so generous," says Davis. "There's an extra 15-percent bulk in everything. Bigger radius, depths, masses in the styling, inside, the seats. Yet it doesn't have the sense of being American, except in the sizes. It's more European than American, but it's also different.
"They haven't tried to do the impossible, what they have done (in terms of styling) is refined. It's clean, most of the details are nicely done. You can tell the spoiler was done in clay, it's so sculptured, and I like the way the body folds out from the lights. But the SS badge doesn't match the quality of the rest of the car. From nose-on it looks as if the track has been widened. The grille looks like black plastic and not painted metal. It doesn't have a strong front end.
"The bit of plastic that runs along the base of the windscreen should disappear. It's usually one of the last things you do, once everything else is solved."
He can't help point out the metal strip at the base of the sail panel (C-pillar), used to hide the junction of the fender and roof. Davis grabs the spoiler, laughing, "This is a dining table."
We don't take any notice of the Lancia Kappa or its driver. Lancia's executive sedan- even so, it's smaller than the Commodore – slowly drives by and turns into the driveway 100 metres up the road.
"The interior is extremely conservative," says Davis. "No big surprises, even the hockey stick shape of the top of the instrument panel. I'm sure it gives a certain confidence to buyers. The leather is good quality; it's obviously a well made car."
Fifteen minutes later the Kappa returns. This time it stops. We're sprung. Nevio di Guisto, until a year ago Davis' direct boss at Fiat and now the head of all Fiat platforms, climbs from the car. He's taken in the scene. Recognised that his head of design is being photographed with a strange car. At least he's smiling. Peter laughs nervously.
"I didn't recognise the car," Di Guisto says. "I noticed the golden colour first, because we've been trying to do something the same. Then I saw you."
But he won't be photographed. And is still dining out on the story weeks later.
We cruise home across Italy's Po Plain at an effortless 160km/h, the tacho needle sitting on a mere 2750rpm. The speedo reads to 220km/h. It's not enough. I whinge about the excess of tyre noise and wind noise above 180km/h and the car's sensitivity to crosswinds. And wonder why the auto tranny is so slow to react to kickdown. And it takes time to get used to the almost complete lack of engine braking.
My friend Maurizio Amtibaletto sells cars. His is not an ordinary car yard. In a strangely Italian custom, he can sell you any new car you want. Marble capitals once graced the entrance to Bresciacar. Opera plays in the showroom. Erica, my wife, is convinced he hides an iron in the office. Maurizio's trousers are always, always, perfectly pressed, even at the end of the day. One of those Italians. Regular readers will remember the story of collecting his new Morgan Plus 4 (Wheels, July 1996) in Rome and driving it to Brescia in convoy with a new Plus 8. Maurizio is, above everything, a true enthusiast. Anybody with an addiction for Triumph TRs must be. Still, he has enough sense to use a new 525tds automatic as his workaday wheels.
The first thing Maurizio notices is the central handbrake set for right-hand drive, then the V6 burble at idle. I expect him to spend 10 minutes at the Commodore's wheel. We're almost an hour. He is taking his road-testing role very seriously. "It's a straightforward car, very comfortable seats, the interior displays good taste. But the ride is harsh - is it trying to be a sports car? It's geared like a Corvette."
The brakes are spongy, the tyres too noisy. But he likes the performance, even if the engine doesn't sound right. And we discover that it changes up from third to fourth at 5200rpm, or 210km/h.
"They've made it very harsh, as if it wants to be a sports car, but it's not. It would seem much better at being quiet and comfortable."
I explain the relationship of the SS to the rest of the Commodore range. He understands immediately, and can't believe it costs so little.
Then, the inevitable.
We're in slow moving traffic. "I can't find the horn, where is it?"
He pushes at the wheel, again and again, until there's a sound that is no more than a puny vibration from under the bonnet.
"That's awful. I couldn't buy a car with such a horn. It is a ridiculous horn - it sounds like a 1962 Fiat 500."
The air-conditioning, however, is much admired.
"Most European cars still have weak air-conditioning. You need to set them at 19° to maintain 21°. This car's air-conditioning is terrific.
"It's good to know there are still muscle cars left in the world. I've been reading about the Commodore for years in Wheels- it's great to finally be able to drive one. It easily beats any Kappa."
I've rung Ferrari, on the off chance we can drive the Commodore around Fiorano.
"We have a little problem," says my contact. "Sauber (they use Ferrari engines) has booked the circuit. It is very hard."
We decided we'll always regret it if we don't take the opportunity to photograph the SS in Maranello. Instead of the near cliched shot outside the world's most famous car factory, we opt to shoot it at the end of via Alberto Ascari, at the gates to Ferrari's F1 racing department. And in Via Gilles Villeneuve, the road that leads down to the Fiorano circuit. Despite the continual coming and goings of the Tifosi, a permanent fixture in Maranello, nobody gives the gold Commodore a second glance.
I'm disappointed at the lack of response.
We're being followed by a Dutch registered Volkswagen Golf and a Swiss Peugeot. Their occupants are using the same photograph locations. Warm Up, one of four shops (at last count) in Maranello selling nothing but Ferrari stuff, features a mural of Michael Schumacher and Enzo Ferrari on the wall. The two never meet, but who cares. Certainly not the artist.
Perfect for the Nikon.
Next stop Monza. As we arrive, the Benetton F1 transporter departs. The Porsche club of ltaly has hired the track for the day.
But these are not 944 owners out for a speed, but GT racers. No chance.
On my way home, after dropping Curwood at the airport, I refuel the Commodore. A bloke in a Mazda MX-5 saunters over.
"Nice car. I haven't seen one of these before. Is it a Chrysler?"