Over the past three articles in this series, we have been delving into how Holden gradually extricated the Commodore from Opel’s often-forced influence. The errors of the mid 1970s saw the undersized VB series presented as a cookie-cutter copy of the European car but develop into a Bathurst-conquering sales delight. The saviour VL series gave Holden enough moxie to ask for the cash to make the VN, which, despite sharing Opel doors, became a massive success. This afforded Holden the currency and charisma to create the VT, again starting with an Opel base, but deviating so thoroughly that it shared only six parts with the European. All-wheel-drive, cab-chassis, dual-cab and coupe variants all followed, as did export success; it became, in VZ form, Commodore’s high-water mark, with 153,026 made in a single year.
There never was a GM design ready-made to slip into duty as a family-sized Holden, but with Opel not replacing the Omega B, there appeared to be nothing that could be adapted to the task either. That didn’t stop Detroit sending Holden engineers down a number of development cul-de-sacs before finally allowing them to create a uniquely Australian design – Holden’s first since the HQ Kingswood.
The VE arrived with a leaner, more focussed range; esoteric variants and exotic drivelines were gone, with export potential integrated into the initial design. Powered by a locally-built V6 or V8 imported from GM Powertrain, the VE owed zero to any Opel variant, and therefore we weren’t going to include it in our three-part adventure across the first three generations of Commodore.
However, it seemed harsh to leave out the Commodore’s Aussie swansong. Holden strived to create the greatest car it had ever made with VE, and it soldiered on in the face of falling sales, increasing irrelevance in the local market, and an unfortunately high recall rate. Still, it begat the VF Commodore, the last local Commodore and one of Australia’s truly great cars.
As Holden’s European-sourced ZB Commodore becomes more common on our roads, we feel we should dedicate a few pages to the rollercoaster ride that was the development of the last Aussie car.
HOLDEN COMMODORE VE
The VE’s story began in 1995, two years before the launch of the monster-selling VT Commodore. GM split long-term future projects into five distinct platforms, each headed by a different Vehicle Line Executive (VLE). Only one platform, Project Sigma, was rear-wheel drive. Troublingly, the Commodore was not assigned under any of them.
The Sigma platform, pegged to underpin the forthcoming luxury-medium Cadillac CTS and larger STS, was the only option remotely suited to the Commodore. Holden’s then-chairman and managing director Bill Hamel knew they’d need Aussies on the project if they were to influence the design, reassigning Holden design boss Phil Zmood and designer of body packaging for RWD platforms Stephen Bridger to Detroit in order to champion Holden’s interests.
Zmood spent almost three years arguing the case for Holden’s size and technical requirements to ensure any future Commodore would be no smaller than the VT. But the Yanks, looking to build the CTS and STS as competitors for BMW’s 3 Series and 5 Series, respectively, successfully fought against upsizing their vehicles.
The Aussie team also had serious concerns around component costs. Expensive alloy suspension elements and a proposed magnesium dashboard support could be easily absorbed in the sticker price of a luxury car like the Cadillac, but in a Holden, not so much. Despite GM honchos chasing a high degree of commonality between the two cars, it became apparent as early as 1997 that the Sigma program would be split in two.
The lack of a VLE line for Holden was overcome by Peter Hanenberger; as boss of the four European VLEs, the former Holden engineer used his considerable influence to create a fifth ‘non-US’ VLE responsible for Large/Luxury Cars, International. Holdens, in other words.
Holden crash-tested 79 cars after running thousands of virtual barrier tests, with an average 5-10 per cent variation from real-world results. For the VE, Holden increased its array of crash test dummies to include five different child sizes from infant to six-year-old, plus Holden's famous 'Roboroo' crash test kangaroo
As the only VLE not based in Europe or the USA, Aussie Rob McEniry’s appointment to the new role was a telling confirmation of Holden’s growing strength within GM. Yet despite this show of confidence, GM still required McEniry’s team to reconfirm that Australians needed a larger, cheaper car than the Sigma platform could offer.
On 19 October 1999, McEniry’s proposal for an all-new car was approved, but only in principle. Being responsible for large RWD products meant he had to prove, seemingly for a third time, that GM didn’t already harbour a ready-made alternative. The manufacturing team, headed by Nick Baloglou, investigated a bunch of alternatives – some sensible, some ridiculous – before reaffirming the conclusion Holden needed a bespoke platform.
Finally, on 12 April 2002, General Motors officially sanctioned the development of the Zeta platform, the upsized, budget-conscious architecture to underpin the all-new VE. The same year, management decided the Caprice would be created in tandem with the VE, rather than after the fact like previous models.
For the first time in Commodore’s history, there were no hard points, suspension pickups or pre-designed components with which to launch the project. The VT, which became so uniquely Australian, did so by shifting bit-by-bit from Opel’s Omega B design. For the VE, there was simply a daunting, blank page.
The man to fill that blank page was stylist Peter Hughes. He was given half a day to come up with a sketch to ignite the fires of management, but after years of discussion around overhangs, front proportions, wheel-to-body ratios and striking glasshouses, he had it banged out in no time, right down to the VE’s distinctive style line emerging from the front quarter panel.
Having worked on every Commodore since the VN, long-time Holden designer Richard Ferlazzo assumed the position of chief designer for the VE and VF
From hundreds of sketches and 14 clay scale models, Mike Simcoe – who’d replaced Zmood as Holden design boss in 1995 – and chief exterior designer Richard Ferlazzo chose four final designs, and by early 2001, two full-sized clay models were built, each split down the middle by a mirror. Naturally, Peter Hughes’s concept followed the sharp lines of his original sketch quite closely, while the other, designed by Ondrej Koromhaz, was softer in form and closer to the outgoing VT-generation. It was Hughes’s design that was eventually green-lit in July 2002, albeit with some details of Koromhaz’s concept integrated.
Having returned to Holden as chairman and managing director in 1999, Peter Hanenberger was now closely involved in the project, but in April 2003 expressed concern that the design was perhaps too plain. Suggesting an embellishment on the fender, over Mike Simcoe’s protestations, the trademark VE quarter vent was born and cheekily previewed on the VZ Commodore SS.
With the design team thoroughly occupied with the VE’s exterior, dashboard prototyping was outsourced, based on the ‘Flex Vision’ concept created by Jenny Morgan-Douralis. Like all Commodores, the VE dash had to encompass the requirements for the base model right through to the luxury Calais and Caprice, for the first time also integrating the needs of left-hand-drive markets from the outset.
Flex Vision offered three different design concepts from the same basic blueprint, with minimal trim changes. Fleet models focussed on width, giving drivers a sense of space; luxury variants included brushed-metal fascias for a feeling of solidity and luxury; the sports models used vertical lines to create a cosseting cockpit.
Underneath, Holden’s ultimate rejection of the Sigma platform allowed engineers to drop the Cadillac’s expensive double-wishbone front suspension. It was decided that the Commodore could retain a MacPherson strut system, albeit completely redesigned and shifted forward as per Simcoe’s vision.
Holden chairman Denny Mooney launched the VE in July 2006, saying: “It doesn’t get any better than this”
Safety-wise, Bosch’s ESP (Electronic Stability Programme) was calibrated for all models even before it was approved, following US studies citing a 35 per cent reduction in crashes for vehicles fitted with the system. Incoming Holden chairman Denny Mooney, who replaced Hanenberger in January 2004, approved the fitment without question, citing that it “saved his bacon more than once”.
Powerplants received perhaps the least attention, with the all-new Alloytec becoming standard fitment from the VZ of 2004; it only received minor changes to the exhaust and induction systems. Likewise, the L76 V8, unexpectedly brought on-stream for the late VZ to comply with ADR79/01 emissions standards, carried over unchanged.
Denny Mooney brought with him a focus on panel gaps and tolerances both inside and out, which forced the VZ’s MY06 upgrade and pushed the VE’s release date out to late 2006. Following dozens of mules, hand-built prototypes and hundreds of unsellable manufacturing validation units, the first VE proper came off the line on 5 July 2006, five days before the last VZ sedan.
It’s testament to Peter Hughes’s fresh styling that the VE Commodore had an unusually long life cycle, buoyed by the staggered introduction of the ute (August 2007) and wagon (July 2008). But as fleet sales began to diminish in the face of salary packaging, Australia’s workers had also begun shifting away from traditional three-box sedans or load-swallowing wagons, with many preferring upright SUVs, dual-cab utes or full-blown off-roaders.
This shift was not lost on Holden bosses, who reacted by applying more focus on sports models favoured by private buyers. The V8-powered SS was joined by two further specs, the SS-V and SS-V Redline Edition, while the family-man Acclaim was dropped. The Calais and Calais V offered a luxury-sporting pretence, as did the Caprice, leaving the Statesman as the staid unit for hire-car duties.
Upon release, the VE was lauded as the greatest Holden ever; Wheels mag chucked a Car Of The Year award at it, while reviewers fell head-over-heels with the styling. For a big unit, the VE handled superbly; the Commodore’s ability to point around a corner remained a benchmark for large cars throughout the VE and VF’s life cycle.
But chinks in the VE’s armour soon started to appear; Mooney’s chase for quality wasn’t entirely successful and the VE copped more than its share of product recalls. The interior too came in for some criticism, with feel, fit and finish called into question. It was, perhaps, a victim of supplier cost-cutting rather than inherent design, but it became a sore point for Holden’s otherwise successful project, one it would address for the VF Commodore.
Having signed off on the VF project in February 2011, GM’s vice president of global design Ed Welburn found himself sitting in a full-sized seating buck at Fishermans Bend 19 months later. The partial car, used to prototype interior and seating, had a particularly nice treatment installed. Turning to one of the design team, Welburn asked to see the fleet model, the version to become the Evoke. “This is the fleet model,” was the response.
It was no secret that after six years, the VE’s interior was looking aged, with criticisms around quality dogging the otherwise well-loved model. In contrast, the completely redesigned interior of the VF, which shared only the rear air vents and front-centre armrest with the VE, appeared a special place to be.
The push upmarket wasn’t by accident; the tide was turning on fleet sales for base models and private buyers tended to head straight for a Calais or SS – and not just in Australia.
While the VE’s interior nobly split sport, comfort and luxury specs with nifty design tricks, the VF showed little divide: full-colour trip computers, upgraded screens, coloured head-up displays and plenty of soft-touch surfaces to replace scratchy, cheap-feeling parts. Smaller, sexier steering wheels, with sports models featuring an Audi-style flat bottom, were tested not in a marketing workshop but by chassis engineer Rob Trubiani – a man who spent half his day hooning around at Lang Lang and was therefore in an ideal position to share his opinion.
Mike Devereux, installed in the managing director’s chair in 2010, followed a succession of short-lived MDs after Denny Mooney. Like the others, Devereux was tasked with addressing Holden’s flagging sales, and felt that improved fuel economy was the key. He approved significant investment in expensive, weight-saving alloy parts, including the bonnet and bootlid, along with an electric handbrake, which also freed up cabin space.
Related: Harrop-modified Commodore VF SS
Externally, new front and rear quarters hid an unchanged glasshouse and B-pillar. Gone were the VE’s beloved muscular wheelarches, toned down for a significant improvement in aerodynamics and therefore a tangible benefit to fuel economy. Items such as bumpers, grille and headlights contained up-spec details across the range, from Evoke to Calais, with Richard Ferlazzo stating: “Large sedans don’t need to be all things to all men anymore; it’s afforded us the luxury of pushing [the VF] a bit more upmarket as an aspirational car.”
A staggered reveal whetted the public’s appetite, with the SS-V and Calais V shown some five months before the VF hit the showroom. Given the sales skew towards the private sector, low-rent versions could wait. In a first for Holden, the initial glimpse of the VF Commodore wasn’t even on Australian shores, but during Speed Week at Daytona Beach, Florida.
Developed concurrently with the VF, the Chevrolet SS would be Holden’s lasting imprint on the US market, following the Monaro-based Pontiac GTO, VE Pontiac G8 and police-market Chev Caprice PPV. Designed as a niche-selling flagship to sell alongside the Camaro and Corvette, the VF’s beautiful interior owed its existence to the US market; they wanted a range-topping sedan with an interior to suit.
But from 57,307 Commdore sales in 2007 to just 30,523 in 2012, buyers had spoken. Those that were interested in fuel economy bought small cars, those that wanted big cars bought fourbies, and those that needed a ute bought a Thai-imported dual-cab. Enthusiasts bought Commodores, usually ticking the V8 option. Holden addressed this directly. With the decision made to close the Elizabeth plant and end 69 years of Holden manufacturing in Australia, the VFII, released in 2015, was all about the 6.2-litre, 304kW LS3 V8. Bigger brakes, rorty exhaust, 570Nm of torque and a staggering 6600rpm redline could be specified in the Calais, Calais V, Caprice, Commodore SS and SS-V, along with a bewildering array of special editions that were rolled out as production drew to a close in late 2017.
The VFII’s revised front bar harboured a small ‘LS3’ badge on the variants that mattered, as well as functional bonnet vents. Holden went so far as to shorten the diff ratios, contributing to the VFII’s neck-snapping performance at the expense of fuel economy. Nobody cared; this car wasn’t for the economists, it was for the drivers.
The VFII stands as a love letter and thank you note to the enthusiasts for whom Holden is life; the ultimate driver’s car with staunch looks, classy interior and unrelenting V8s. HSV stepped up to deliver the GTS-R and GTS-R W1 swansongs, etching the VF in history as one of the greatest performance cars constructed on our shores.
Video: HSV GTS-R W1 in action
Perhaps Denny Mooney summed it all up at the launch of the VE Commodore, way back in 2006. Speaking of the new platform, he said: “I’ve been in this business all my life and it doesn’t get any better than this.” He was right, just nine years early.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Perhaps the most special of special editions was the VF Reserve Edition, available only to Holden employees who were current as at 31 December 2013. The budget-conscious could order it as an SV6 sedan or wagon, while the enthusiastic could grab an SS-V sedan, wagon or ute. Of the 171 built, 93 were V8s and of them, only five were utes. And one was manual.
- With variations of the Aussie-built GM High Feature V6, known locally as Alloytec, powering Cadillacs, Opels and Saabs, it made sense that a few of its turbocharged donks might find their way into some engineering mules. Holden had a fleet of turbocharged VE Commodores stalking Melbourne, running 24-valve, DOHC 2.8L LP9 V6s, force-fed by twin-scroll turbochargers and good for 221kW. If you ever got your doors blown off by a sneezy Omega, this may be why!
- The VE and VF featured the widest and most international selection of GM gearboxes ever offered by Holden:
GM Powertrain: Four-speed auto (Toledo, Ohio); five-speed auto (Strasbourg, France); six-speed auto (Yspilanti, Michigan)
Aisin: Six-speed V6 manual (Nagoya, Japan)
Tremec: Six-speed V8 manual (Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico)
VE/VF CONCEPT CARS
- 2003 Opel Insignia concept
- 2004 Holden Torana TT36 (above)
- 2005 Holden EFIJY
- 2008 Holden Coupe60
- 2008 Pontiac G8 ST coupe utility
WM STATESMAN/WN CAPRICE
The WM Statesman/Caprice copped its big reveal in July 2006, sharing the stage with the VE sedan at the Melbourne Convention Centre. Having been developed alongside the Commodore from 2002, resources dictated that the VE wagon and ute be bumped in favour of the WM long-wheelbase twins. By 2005, although Holden’s WL Statesman/Caprice sold just 3573 units in Australia, Middle Eastern exports were 19,400, with a further 6000 kits made for assembly in China. Wagons and utes just weren’t that important.
The Statesman/Caprice was born of two concepts, marked A and B, that were workshopped across late 2002 and early 2003. A was a formal notchback shape, while B featured a sweeping rear roofline and short bootlid similar to the Audi A8. Both designs were put into production – the front of concept A and the dramatic rear of concept B.
The export potential of the WM saw it given more attention and budget than previous Statesman/Caprices, with the $190 million spend helping put greater differentiation between the Commodore cousins.
Unique rear doors returned for the first time since the WB Statesman of 1980, now meeting the rear wheelarch rather than stopping several centimetres short. The WM’s one-piece sides, made with the same new-for-VE panel press, created the fourth-longest single automotive stamping after those of the Roll-Royce Phantom and the Maybach 57
Underneath, the Statesman/Caprice twins were 94mm longer in the wheelbase than the standard Commodore and a whopping 212mm in overall length, the extra space going to rear-seat passengers and boot area.
Extra weight blunted the response from the 195kW 3.6-litre Alloytec V6 shared with the Commodore range, but those wanting an executive express with effortless acceleration could opt for the 270kW 6.0-litre L98 V8.
October 2010 saw the Statesman discontinued, with Holden citing flagging domestic sales for the model. At the same time, the Caprice was de-specced and given a price drop, with the V8-only Caprice V introduced as the new range-topper.
The VF Commodore release in 2013 brought a new, final Caprice. The WN update was surprisingly unchanged outside, unlike the Commodore, which, doors aside, received all-new panels. The classy new interior was mostly shared with the Calais V, and, like the VF range, was crammed with tech: reversing camera, blind spot monitor, lane departure warning system, collision avoidance system, head-up display and automatic parking.
The announcement that Aussie production would end in 2017 set the path of the final iteration of the Caprice. Like the VFII, all bets were off in relation to power and economy; buyers wanted the former and weren’t concerned about the latter. The WNII of 2015, still wearing the basic shape it wore upon release in 2006, received the 304kW LS3, hurting fuel efficiency for the sake of creating an executive carriage that could accelerate like a ballistic missile, bringing smiles to thousands of private buyers and hire-car drivers alike.
Unlike the VT Commodore, the VE/VF was designed with left-hookers in mind from the outset. Initial plans for a Buick-badged Statesman were canned mid-development in 2004, and one year later, Bob Lutz, who had previously championed Holden’s position within GM, announced a hiatus on all Zeta-platform projects. When work resumed two months later, the Zeta-based GTO, Impala, Monte Carlo, Buick Velite and a V12-powered Cadillac flagship were all gone, and with them approximately 500,000 cars per year; only the fifth-generation Camaro remained. Holden’s LHD program was far from wasted though; the Aussies chucked VE and VF variations to almost every corner of the globe.
• Brazil: Chevrolet Omega sedan (2007-2008 and 2010-2011)
• Middle East: Chevrolet Lumina (2007-2013)
• South Africa: Chevrolet Lumina (2007-2013)
• United Kingdom: Vauxhall VXR8 sedan (2007-2009 and 2010-2017)
• USA and Canada: Pontiac G8 sedan (2007-2009), pictured above
• USA: Chevrolet SS sedan (2013-2017)
• China: Buick Park Avenue sedan (2007-2012 as CKD kits)
• Korea: Daewoo Veritas (2009-2011)
• Middle East: Chevrolet Caprice (2006-2017)
• USA and Canada: Chevrolet Caprice PPV sedan (2011-2017)
• Calais V International sedan (VE MY08)
• Commodore Omega 60th Anniversary sedan and wagon (VE MY09, MY09.5)
• Commodore SS-V 60th Anniversary sedan (VE MY09 & MY09.5)
• Commodore SV6 60th Anniversary ute (VE MY09 & MY09.5)
• Calais V 60th Anniversary sedan (VE MY09, MY09.5)
• Commodore International sedan and wagon (VE MY09.5, MY10, VEII, VF MY14)
• Commodore SS-V SE sedan, wagon and ute (VE MY10)
• Commodore SV6 and SS Thunder ute (VEII)
• Commodore Equipe sedan and wagon (VEII MY12)
• Berlina International sedan and wagon (VEII)
• Calais V Redline Edition sedan and wagon (VEII)
• Commodore Z-series sedan and wagon (VEII MY12)
• Commodore SV6, SS and SS-V Z-series sedan, wagon and ute (VEII MY12)
• Commodore SV6 and SS Storm sedan, wagon and ute (VF, VF MY15)
• Commodore SS Collingwood Edition sedan (VF)
• Commodore SS-V Redline Craig Lowndes Edition sedan (VF MY15)
• Commodore SV6 Lightning sedan and ute (VF MY15) • Commodore SV6 and SS-V Sandman wagon and ute (VF MY15)
• Commodore SS Black Edition sedan, wagon and ute (VFII MY16)
• Commodore SS Black 20 Inch Edition sedan, wagon and ute (VFII MY16)
• Commodore SV6 Black Edition sedan, wagon and ute (VFII MY16)
• Commodore SV6 Black 20 Inch Edition sedan, wagon and ute (VFII MY16)
• Commodore SV6 Reserve Edition sedan and wagon (VF II MY16 and MY17)
• Commodore SS-V Redline Reserve Edition sedan, wagon and ute (VF II MY16 and MY17)
• Commodore SS-V Redline Magnum Edition ute (VFII MY17)
• Commodore SS-V Redline Motorsport Edition sedan (VFII MY17)
• Calais V Director Edition sedan (VFII MY17)