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MOTOR's 30 years of HSV special

By David Morley, 14 Jun 2017 Features

30 years of HSV 1

Over the last 30 years, Holden Special Vehicles has given us some gems

The Germans have (in no particular order) AMG, M and Audi Sport. The Japanese have Nismo and Ralliart.

Over in South Korea, the letter N is shaping up and here in Australia for the last 30 years, we’ve had HSV. Holden Special Vehicles has been the dominant in-house performance brand in this country for those three decades and while Ford has tried Tickford, FPV and now Tickford again, it has never achieved the same cut-through, nor anything like the loyalty that the HSV brand has managed to engender.\

Read the full MOTOR 30 Years of HSV special

Like many good yarns, the HSV story starts with a train-wreck. When Peter Brock pulled the United Nations flag off his Holden VL Director in February 1987, the world of Aussie performance changed forever. Within hours, Holden had torn up Brock’s contract and it seemed like nobody was playing nice.

30 years of HSV engineOf course, the chat at the time was all about the divorce and how messy, not to mention unnecessary, it all seemed. The folk hero had fallen on his mug and Holden had, to some observers, ankle-tapped him.

In the longer term, of course, the demise of the Brock HDT car-building empire gave Holden a headache. But it also proved to be a giant opportunity. The brain-pain was all about missing out on the profits from a premium product line. The opportunity was the chance to have a crack at it from a new angle. Teaming up with Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR Group, Holden established HSV in 1987.

The aim was simple: Produce a range of high-end Holden-based road cars. And, as you lot know only too well, that’s pretty much what happened.

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Tom Walkinshaw’s presence was very much a back-room one while HSV’s front men in the early days were the towering John Crennan (who had moved across from the role of marketing manager at Holden) and Bathurst-winning nice-guy John Harvey who, emotionally challenged by the Brock implosion, found fronting HSV to be a true tonic.

In 1987, the fledgling outfit moved into a brand-new glass and chrome facility on Ferntree Gully Road in Melbourne’s Notting Hill, but within a handful of years had outgrown that and moved into a large corner of the old Nissan plant (which had been then-recently redeveloped by Lindsay Fox) just a few streets away in Clayton. Within three years, the operation had built its five-thousandth car.

30 years of HSV speedoA product and engineering based company to its boot-straps, some of the most important characters to have emerged form HSV over the years have been its chief engineers. There have been several but the ones I remember most fondly start in the early days with the Hummer-driving man-mountain that is Brad Dunstan.

Dunstan has since moved on to consultancy work (among other things) but his DNA is all over those early cars. (Lord, that sounds wrong.)

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Big Brad was replaced by the almost-as-physically-imposing John Clarke who was probably one of the most enthusiastic car-guys I’ve ever met. A big, toothy grin and a mind like a steel-trap, Clarkie (as he is known to all) lived and breathed HSV cars while he was in the chair and often told me things he probably shouldn’t have.

30 years of HSV seatsThe third chief engineer I admire hugely is the bloke currently running the clipboard show, Joel Stoddart. Joel has had a couple of bites at this particular cherry, the most recent coming after a stint in the caravan industry.

Not too surprisingly, he found that working out where the sink goes in a four-berth pop-top couldn’t compete with building supercharged V8 road cars, and he soon found his way back to Clayton and his old desk.

Over the years, HSV methodically worked its way through each generation of Commodore and Statesman, adapting each to the wants and needs of its customers. But equally, thanks to its relatively small size (by car-making standards) and the flexibility that comes with that, it was also able to actually come up with stuff that Holden never could have. Things like the stroked Holden V8 and later supercharged versions of the LS3, all exist because HSV made them happen.

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So much for the past. And while HSV is keeping its cards close to its corporate chest when it comes to what it will be offering in a post-rear-drive-Commodore world, the powers that be are adamant the brand isn’t going anywhere. There are suggestions that the Colorado ute might be in for the HSV treatment and SUVs haven’t been ruled out.

In fact, a general broadening of the HSV church seems like a good bet. Maybe HSV can hit a few winners and plonk itself into another purple patch. Or maybe the golden years have passed.

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