As motor show secrets go, this was a good one, and well kept. We’d heard a whisper about it the day before, and some internerds reckoned that they knew what was up. Sure, everyone had their theories, and the feeling that something was really on permeated the gathering hordes surrounding Holden’s darkened stand at the Melbourne Motor Show last month.
This feature was first published in MOTOR magazine's May 2008 issue.
Over at the Ford stand, there must have been a dreadfully familiar, sinking sense of déjà vu. Cast your mind back to 1998 and the imminent launch of the all-new AU Falcon at the Sydney Motor Show. After an investment totalling $700 million and betting the farm on its next big sedan, the Blue Oval was thoroughly rumbled by a clay two-door originally sketched up on a dining room wall…
“Everything you do is tactical or strategic,” acknowledges Tony Stolfo, the director of Holden’s design department. “Strategically, we’d love to continue down the path of actually doing a coupe off our [VE] architecture, but it’s a matter of building a business case and getting the corporation to back it.
“The tactical side, obviously, is that we want to take the focus off everyone else in terms of the motor show…”
And the Coupe 60 (Holden’s 60th birthday present to itself) does exactly that. Even though it’s an industry-standard, light-and-smoke machine rollout, the initial impact of the car rumbling out onto the stage was surprisingly stirring. Deep flanks, massive machined 21-inch rims on custom Kumho semi-slicks, quad side-outlet pipes, ridiculously low-slung bodykit complete with full-flat bottom, rear diffuser and crazy-low front bar, all finished in a lickable liquid-look Diamond Silver paintjob, the Coupe 60 hits all the right automotive emotive notes.
The fibreglass-bodied car took a mere seven months to complete, under a small team led by Project Design Manager Peter Hughes (one of the team leaders on VE). Starting with an SS V development hack as a parts store, the rear rails of a current-production VE chassis were shortened to reduce the car’s total length by 57mm and the exhausts modified, before the donor engine and ’box were fitted up. The majority of the build actually took place in a small workshop in Japan, which helped Holden keep the car secret.
The Coupe’s rear overhang is 22mm shorter, but the front is actually marginally longer, the V8 Supercar-style front splitter conspiring to push the front end out by 66mm. The front track has increased 76mm to 1678mm to fill those monster guards, but the rear has actually shrunk (down 123mm). The wheelbase remains the same at 2915mm long. One of the most immediately striking features of the bodyside image of the Coupe 60 is the lack of a B-pillar. It’s achievable in real life, too, though the trade-off will be, as always, weight and cost.
“We’ve dropped the H-point, or the seating reference point, downwards, which [has] allowed us to push the roof down as hard as we can,” says Stolfo. “It’s got very similar proportions to what you’ll see on the Camaro, actually.”
While there’s nothing overt on the Coupe 60 that screams ‘facelift’, Stolfo reckons it’s a good way to try new ideas out. “While there’s nothing new about the surface language, some of the graphic elements on this [car], you might see on an MCE coming up [a future facelift]. There’s cues around the whole car.”
“There’s a lot of carbon fibre, structurally as well as cosmetically, including a full flat underfloor,” chimes in Ewan Kingsbury, a softly-spoken Englishman whose previous concept credits include the recent Torana rendering.
“We tried to keep it cosmopolitan. Holden is sporty but sophisticated, with an edge – knockoff hubs and side exhaust, and brake induction vents are a nod to the Supercars, for example,” says Kingsbury.
He’s no stranger to the skunkworks world of building concepts, but even Kingsbury is surprised how easily this job worked out.
“This has been a bit of an after-hours project, but it’s come together pretty smoothly. Often they’re a nightmare,” he laughs.
He points out some of the interlinking design elements as we walk around the Coupe 60. “It’s one of the lowest cars we’ve ever done – and it’s a pain to transport, let me tell you,” he smiles ruefully. “We’re trying to convey a sense of width. The rear lights are all LED, and the vertical arrangement is designed to pick up the vertical strakes on the rear diffuser. The duck-tail spoiler is new, too. I hate the older Monaro with the wing… wings are a dying trend – I hope!”
Geek Speak: Active Aerodynamics
One of the cool things about this conceptual animal is how much of it actually works. “All the electrics work, the [power] glass all works… the car’s a driver and we’ve had it on the track,” grins Stolfo, who couldn’t help but give the throttle a not-so-gentle nudge on the way down the catwalk. Providing the drive is an LS2 5967cc bent eight fitted with the US-spec Active Fuel Management-capable ECU, which retards spark to four pots on light throttle percentages. It’s tuned to take E85 blended ethanol, too, making a big, fat, loud noise about what’s in store for the next major VE update. Everything else is straight SS V specification stuff, including the six-speed manual gearbox – except, of course, for the massive Brembo brakes (complete with caliper ducting), bobtail bootlid spoiler and quadruple side-exit exhausts.
The interior has also been made over to reflect the Coupe 60’s straddling of the line between balls-out boy racer and sophisticated sports coupe. The hugely expensive fixed-back carbon buckets incorporate headrests and have been extensively retrimmed in leather. Suede covers the seat base cushions, while the three-inch wide, four-point harness are straight off the race shop wall. The rear seats aren’t as padded as the fronts, the two occupants cradled in carbon tubs complemented by the same style of suede cushioning.
The VE’s highly modular interior has made it a bit easier for designer Frank Rudolph to fit up a bespoke dash arrangment for the 60. A LHD dash pad has been fitted with a customised hood housing a MoTeC SDL data-logging dash, while the flat-bottomed wheel sports suede grab pads and a line of shift lights along its top edge. Bespoke brushed-alloy surrounds on the air vents and carbon-fibre door accents finish off a luxurious yet purposeful cockpit makeover.
So, how did it stay under wraps so effectively? “I’m glad we managed to keep it so quiet!” laughs Kingsbury. “It’s quite rare to have a complete surprise and to be able to pull something out of the bag like that. We kept it secret in both Design and Engineering – most of the Engineering team weren’t even aware of the car. It’s the way it has to be, really.
“The car was built by a very small show-car builder in Japan. Data goes over there and they make the moulds and the structures. They’re great guys – I mean, we would love to build it here, but we’ve got so much work on, it meant that this one had to go outside.”
When Holden whipped the hanky off the 1998 VT-based Coupe, then-boss Peter Hanenberger wasn’t committing to a build project, claiming that the business case for such a niche vehicle made little sense. However, raw emotion for the concept swayed the company’s decision and, crucially, an export lifeline to the US gave the project legs. Still, despite the levels of hysteria that the VT Monaro generated, total sales numbered only 40,000 worldwide over its five-year cycle – still a lot better than the original 4500-car, three-year model it was based on.
Holden’s relatively recent (and massive) investment in one-piece bodyside dies for the VE will make it think long and hard about the business case for the next Monaro. The large car sector is in serious decline, despite recent wins for Holden to supply sand to Bondi in the form of the Pontiac G8 sedan and ute to the US. Even given the fact that modifying the current VE platform wouldn’t be that hard or expensive (it could, for example, design the rear end to suit export markets straight away, as opposed to the mid-life fuel tank relocation the VT Monaro had to undergo to meet US regs), a third-time-lucky Monaro – in a mass-market sense, at least – has the sheer weight of reality stacked against it.
“There’s no details around [Holden] whether or not we can actually make that or not make
it – it’s purely concept,” says a deadpan Stolfo of the Coupe 60. Yeah, right, Tony… you guys didn’t learn one single thing about building a coupe from this after-hours project.
“Having said that,” he recants, “if you look at some of the work [in the car], if we were to go down the path of looking at convertibles and so on, you’ve got to be able to take the loads etc. There’s [engineering] solutions there, we’d just have to explore them.”
New Holden boss Mark Reuss won’t confirm that the Coupe 60 is a portent of things to come, but, like Hanenberger, he’s a revhead through and through.
“The RWD, design, and engine capability of Holden is a well-loved treasure in the rest of the corporation,” he told us at the show. “Bob Lutz said it was drop-dead gorgeous. I used to do concept cars for GM in Detroit and this is the finest car I’ve ever seen. It’s stunning.”
“So, what do you reckon?” grins Stolfo.
Screw the business models. Just build the damn thing already.
Holden Coupe 60 Fast Facts:
BODY: 2-door, 4-seat coupe
DRIVE: rear wheels
ENGINE: 90-degree V8, OHV, 16v
MATERIAL: alloy head/alloy block
BORE/STROKE: 101.6 x 92.0mm
POWER: 307kW @ 6000rpm
TORQUE: 550Nm @ 4400rpm
FUEL/TANK: 98 octane/73 litres
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
SUSPENSION: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)
TRACKS (f/r): 1678/1613mm
STEERING: power rack and pinion
TURNING CIRCLE: 11.4m
LOCK-TO-LOCK: 2.9 turns
BRAKES: 380mm ventilated discs, six-piston calipers (f); 350mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers (r); ABS, ESP, TC
WHEELS: 21 x 8.0-inch (f), 21 x 10.0-inch (r), machined alloy
TYRES: Kumho custom semi-slicks
SIZE: 245/35R21 (f), 285/30R21 (r)
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