Resident historian DAVID BURRELL has put together this story on the origins of the Holden Commodore, with special access to the GM media archives and never-before-seen photographs of the car’s development.

 

The development of the  1978 VB Commodore, and its VC-VL successors, is a complicated and fascinating story that springs from a number of separate programs in Holden which, for many reasons, eventually merged into one.

The first program was the VA Torana, planned for release in January, 1977.

 It was scheduled to replace the LX model. 

The VA was to be followed by a VB Torana in January, 1980 and the VC in January, 1983. 

Work on this program started in late 1973.

commodore - holden commodore development 01 - Secret Commodores the public never shown
The VA Torana was primarily a slant-nosed version of the LH/LX.

Meanwhile, in February 1973, Holden’s forward plans called for the HQ series to be facelifted into the HJ, which in turn would be replaced by an all new car —  the WA — set for release in January, 1978.

The WA was to be built on a shortened HQ frame with a wheelbase of 108 inches (4572mm). 

The design team shaped a stylish, wedged-shaped automobile. It was to include a six-window sedan, five-door hatchback, commercials and a long wheelbase luxury Statesman/Caprice. 

But it was not to be. 

Financial pressures, shrinking market share (thanks to an aggressive Ford and value for money imports) and an innate conservatism within Holden’s top management, caused the accountants and main decision makers to baulk at the $80-100 million cost of developing the WA.

They wanted a cheaper solution. 

As author Paul Beranger so succinctly wrote in his must-have book Crayon to CAD, Holden’s “business was being driven by bean counters, less interested in product that had customer appeal than concerns over expenditure.”

commodore - holden commodore development 02 - Secret Commodores the public never shown
The clean and crisp panels of the WA would have looked good alongside the similarly sharp lines of the XD Falcon.

That cheaper solution involved stretching the life of the HQ into the HJ, HX and HZ models.

These were to be followed by a major re-style using as many carry-over panels as possible — to save money. 

The restyle was coded WB and would sell as the short wheelbase Kingswood/Premier and long wheelbase commercials and Statesman/Caprice.

commodore - holden commodore development 03 - Secret Commodores the public never shown
An early proposal for the WB Kingswood sedan. Restricted to re-using the HQ body shell, stylists could not overcome the basics of the model’s design which was shaped during 1968.

Then, in early 1975 — it all changed again. 

Holden was directed by GM in Detroit to consider using the planned 1977 Opel V-car Rekord/Vauxhall Carlton as a replacement for the VA Torana. 

A team from Holden went to Opel to investigate the George Castillo and Henry “Hank” Haga-designed V-car. 

The shape and package size was already established by the time the Holden team arrived.

In 1976, Chuck Chapman arrived from Opel as Holden’s new Managing Director.

As GM’s chief engineer in Europe, Chapman had been deeply involved in developing the yet-to-be released V-car. 

He actively supported using it to replace the VA Torana. 

The HZ would be retained and transition into the WB and sit above the V-Car in the size and pricing hierarchy.

And so the work on ‘Australianising’ the V-car began.

It is a story that has been told and retold.

The Opel was not strong enough for Australian conditions and Holden ended up spending $100 million strengthening the sedan —  about the same amount that senior managers had said was too costly for the full range of WA models. 

The Opel derived Commodore was released in November, 1978. 

It was coded “VB” as it followed the still-born VA Torana.

At the same time, increasing cost pressures resulted in the WB range being cut back to just the commercials and the Statesman/Caprice. 

The HZ sedan was given the task of carrying Holden’s big car sales efforts and then terminated in April,1980. 

The smaller VC Commodore, released on March 31, 1980 would thus become Holden’s mainstream sedan offering.

Even before it was released, styling of the VB’s successors and variants was well underway.

There were plans for a four cylinder VB, characterised by a shorter bonnet and front fenders.

commodore - holden commodore development 04 - Secret Commodores the public never shown
The never released four cylinder design of the VB Commodore. It was to be called the Sunbird.

The six-window design was initially planned for Calais versions of the VH and VK, while the “lesser” models would retain the existing roof line.

 In the end, the six-window roof was held over for the entire VK range to give it a more substantial appearance.

commodore - holden commodore development 05 - Secret Commodores the public never shown
The VH six window proposal. Only the Calais was supposed to have the six window roof line.

The six-window design is not the same as the Opel Senator’s roof line.

Holden’s design team found a way to create the extra window within the existing sheet metal.

Opel, on the other hand, had spent millions on a completely different roof and were very embarrassed when they discovered what the Australians had done and how easily it had been accomplished.

Early design proposals for the VL involved major changes, enlarging the car’s appearance and giving it a more rounded shape. 

This styling direction made it into clay model but was scrapped as cost pressures, caused in no small way by the success of Ford’s bigger XD-XF Falcon, began to restrict what Holden’s designers were allowed to do.

commodore - holden commodore development 06 - Secret Commodores the public never shown
This extensive restyle of the VL, using the old VB-VK centre section, never made it beyond the clay model stage for cost cutting reasons.

By the time the VL was released, Holden had decided to meet Ford’s big car challenge with another Opel derived product.

But this time they would widen and lengthen it and call it the VN.

A special thanks to GM-Australia and GM Media USA for the images used in this story.

All are copyrighted by GM-Australia 2019/2020 and GM Media 2019/2020.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au

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Burrell

David Burrell is founder and editor of Retroautos.com.au, a free online classic cars magazine. Dave has a passion for cars and car design. He's also into speedway, which he's been writing about since 1981. His first car was a rusted-out 1961 Vauxhall Velox. His daily driver is a Pontiac Firebird. Prior to starting Retroautos, David was an executive in a Fortune 500 company, working and living in Australia, NZ, Asia, Latin America and the UK.