The new VL Commodore had launched in March 1986, a real make-or-break moment for Holden. The Oil Crisis of 1973 had forced the Big Three to rethink their strategies, and the less famous sequel, triggered by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, had driven the message home: no more gas guzzlers. The car of the future must be efficient.
There was a difference of opinion as to how that should be achieved, however, and unfortunately for Holden, Ford got it right and they got it wrong. The XD Falcon remained a full-size family car with a more efficient engine range, crafted (at huge expense) by Honda in Japan. In contrast Holden had kept the engine range the same and made the car itself smaller, with a disastrous effect on sales. Ford's advertisers were handed a gift, able to argue that if it used no more fuel than its rival, why not buy the more spacious car? The result was that the VK and VL Commodores barely sold as many units combined as the XF Falcon did all on its own – perhaps the most stodgy, unsexy, willfully beige car ever built in Australia. The 1980s belonged to Ford, and Holden was left trading on the edge of insolvency.
|You know something's wrong when this is wiping the floor with you. (source)|
Then, in the middle of this long fightback, they copped another kick in the nuts with the introduction of unleaded petrol. Toxic lead buildup in children's blood had become a concern, the statistic being that every 10µg/dL (microgrammes per decilitre) of blood lead concentration lowered intelligence by 2-3 IQ points, not counting damage to liver, kidneys, blood stippling etc. It would take roughly 100,000 cars going past your doorstep per day to reach that figure, but given the presence of industrial lead and the leaded paint then common in homes, the threshold was within reach if you lived on a busy road. Even in the 1990s it was estimated as many as 220,000 preschoolers had more than the target 10µg/dL blood lead concentration.
Not many realise it now, but the resulting switch to unleaded petrol in 1986 completed a grand 63-year detour for the car, begun in 1923 when the growing U.S. automotive industry had faced a choice between adding toxic lead to petrol brews to control pinging, or equally-effective, non-toxic and endlessly renewable ethanol. They went for the lead, because Big Oil foresaw a future where ethanol made up an ever-greater percentage of fuel blends, or – God forbid – replaced oil entirely. They knew their tetraethyl lead (TEL) additive was toxic from day one, but protecting their profits was apparently worth poisoning the entire world, screwing over farmers and denying us 63 years of development on ethanol engines. And yes, although I don't like to sound like the tinfoil hat brigade, one of the ringleaders of the scam was indeed John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil – I roll my eyes at the idea his family is secretly controlling the world via the Illuminati and the Lizard People, but the bastard was a master at ordinary business-type evil.
Anyway, when we finally got back on track in 1986, unleaded petrol was proving a problem. TEL had been added to reduce pinging, so without it engine builders had to reduce compression and back off the spark, robbing their engines of power. Even BMW struggled with the change, switching over to its unloved, low-revving ETA engines to comply with the new fuel range – and if the Bavarians couldn’t stick the landing, what hope did a minnow like Holden have? They'd run out of couches to raid for small change, and facing the development bills to retune their Black straight-six and locally-built V8 engines for ULP, Holden bravely gave up and went looking for a turnkey solution instead.
That by itself kicked over a hornet's nest, because the engine they chose came from Japan. Although Holden called it the Powertech 6Ei, it was actually a Nissan RB30, obtained by a deal between Fisherman's Bend and Nissan in Japan. Yes, weather reporters at the scene could confirm blizzard conditions in Hell: Holden, a company set up in response to Japanese aggression in WWII, was getting a Japanese engine. The scandal that followed is beyond this article, but suffice to say it was immense: in 1986 the older generation were wall-to-wall war veterans (like my great-uncle), and everyone had been raised on stories of Japanese wartime atrocities, especially POW camps like Changi. Australia hadn't forgotten and hadn't forgiven: even forty years on, "Japan" was still a dirty word.
VL Commodore SS Group A
So Holden had axed the Black engine, and cultural baggage aside, the unit that replaced it was very good. Holden's plan had been to make the RB30 the workhorse engine, and then market the Turbo version as the performance option. The idea what wasn't without merit, as it beat Ford to the turbo-six idea by 15 years, and the numbers were downright incredible for the time: 150 kW at 5,600rpm; 296 Nm at 3,200rpm; 0-100 in 7.8 seconds; and even the average driver could cover the quarter mile in 15.5 – less, with some slick gear changes. In the new lead-free era, when anything under 17 seconds was good, 15.5 in a family car with five seats and a boot was blinding. The Turbo gained a following, but it was more cult-classic than Spielberg blockbuster: it was Japanese, it was a turbo, and the only reason it was here at all to shuffle off the long-serving Holden V8.
Despite the similar 308ci capacity, this engine had nothing to do with Chevrolet's 307. The design was Holden's own, and although its best days weren't exactly in the past, it would be no lie to say it was getting long in the tooth. It had been released for the HT range in 1969, been a factor in the Supercar Scare in 1972, with Repco tuning part of the golden age of Australian Formula 5000, and been Holden's strike weapon at Bathurst since 1974. To a whole generation, the V8 was Holden, and they couldn't axe it without some serious blowback.
So when they announced they were dropping it, that's exactly what they got. Suddenly Australia was up in arms, with "Save the V8" campaigns popping up seemingly overnight. Street Machine magazine went with the slogan "V8s 'til '98" and mobilised more than 10,000 enthusiasts for their letter-writing campaign. Front and centre was of course Peter Brock, who pleaded with the Holden execs and even published managing director Chuck Chapman's personal fax number in the Sun Herald. Caving to public pressure, Holden put plans to kill the V8 on ice and got busy retuning it for ULP – though God only knows where they found the money.
When it re-emerged on the VL in October 1986, the V8 was no longer even marketed as a performance engine: Holden's ads focused on its alleged towing prowess instead, one ad showing it tugging an America's Cup yacht, another a 747. The brochure skited:
Only Holden torques your language. Torque is up, in spite of the demands of ULP, and so is power. It's the best engine around for towing trailers, boats, horse floats and caravans. The big 5.0 now drives more smoothly. There's still nothing quite like an Aussie Holden V8, with its legendary longevity and the laid-back, top-gear style of driving it allows. And only Holden can give you one.Reading between the lines, it was clear Holden had struggled to give the VL any more power than the VK. Sure, outright figures were up – 122 kW at 4,400rpm and 323 Nm at 3,200 – but this was cheating, achieved by fitting the bigger valves from the racing version. Meanwhile, the RB30 Turbo – which produced max torque from only 3,200rpm, and wasn't being let down by the Aussie Trimatic ("Traumatic") gearbox – was actually an equally good option for towing, and once the aftermarket tuners started playing around with boost, the V8's figures were all-too-easy to eclipse.
But, nobody much cared. The V8 was back, loud and proud, and as if stage-managed from above, it had emerged just as Allan Grice had delivered Holden's first Bathurst win of the Group A era.
The timing could not have been better. Even if GM-H had master-planned it, no itinerary of success could have surpassed that of early October, which lead to the Sydney Motor Show launch of the VL group A Commodore on the 16th. That much maligned driver, Allan Grice, had just driven an impeccable Bathurst, proving that all the high technology that Nissan, BMW, Volvo, Mercedes and the rest could collectively throw at the Holden V8 wasn't going to be enough – the Chickadee Commodore romped to victory... The Group A racing Commodores were beginning to look as if they had the measure of the world. – Commodore Crazy, 1986So the survival of the V8 had been assured, and with it the survival of the Group A homologation special. In the event, the VL Group A basically involved transferring the well-developed A9L-spec V8 from Blue Meanie into a VL bodyshell, which rather disappointed those who'd been hoping the delay in releasing the V8 had been due to fitting fuel injection. But no, induction was via the same old Rochester Quadrajet carburettor with port-matched inlet manifold, along with the familiar Crane "gold" roller rockers, heavy duty crankshaft and conrods. There were new cylinder head castings to eliminate hot spots and the head gasket failures which had haunted the VK, while the camshaft profiles, combustion chamber shapes and exhaust system were all tweaked, and the car was given a heavy-duty clutch with a clamping pressure of 1,150kg. The low-restriction exhaust also featured a flange only inches from the cylinder heads; the Group A rules allowed a free exhaust from the first flange, so they put it as close to the engine as possible to capitalise on the rules.
Power went up to 137 kW at 4,400rpm (and more like 300 kW in race tune) and torque to 345 Nm at 3,200, and mated to the now-standard Borg-Warner T5G 5-speed manual, 0-100 times dropped to 7.5 seconds. Standing quarter times, however, stayed stubbornly around the 15-second mark, Motor magazine's best effort a 15.54 that crossed the line at 141.7km/h.
Inside the cabin the Scheel bucket seats (with a simple grey wool or velour trim this time around), Momo steering wheel and mandatory HDT gear knob were all retained, and an anti-theft alarm system was added. But this edition of the Group A was more about homologating the body, which involved much less fibreglass than previous models. The most distinctive feature was the "NACA duct" air intake on the bonnet, the latest attempt to feed the Rochester carb with a smooth, dense supply of air. There was a new radiator grille, a ducted front splitter to keep the brakes cool, and a smaller "bird bath" rear spoiler than we'd seen on Blue Meanie, and that was about it – none of the fat side skirts or swollen wheel arches of previous HDT models. Options included air conditioning ($1,225), a sunroof and Calais side skirts & rear apron, while kerb weight was some 1,295kg. It rolled on 16x7 Momo star wheels from the LE Calais fitted with Bridgestone Potenzas, and was finished in a special shade called Permanent Red.
When parked alongside the super-aggressive steroid specials of previous HDT offerings, this was first one where the bodykit actually looked like it belonged to the car. And no wonder: the VL Group A was actually a product of Fisherman's Bend, not of Bertie Street, and although each car was stamped with a limited edition number between 001 and 500, only 173 got the prized Peter Brock signature (and Energy Polarizer). It was on sale for $29,600, or about $69,000 today – or, since you're probably used to hearing car prices in British pounds, about £43,000 pre-Brexit – just under the Hawke trigger price for the luxury car tax.
There is no Davide Cironi video describing what it was like to drive, but if there was it would probably start with him bemoaning the cheap feel and crude build quality of the thing, which was fair, because any Australian review of an Alfa Romeo would start with the word "shitbox." From there he would probably remark that the steering was okay, but the front end lacked balance and the rear end lacked everything, especially lateral grip and power-down. This made the Turbo a bit of a widowmaker, but the smoother power delivery of the V8 made it a bit more manageable. In fact it was a more manageable car overall than Blue Meanie, less hard-edged and raw, meaning it wasn't quite as delicious at carving up a mountain road, but it was something you could consider making an actual journey in...
And then he'd come to the crux of the matter, that engine. You couldn't get a 5.0-litre V8 in Europe, it just wouldn't happen, so the sensation of an oldschool muscle car engine in a modern sports sedan would probably be bewitching – any gear, any time, put your foot down and something would happen. And when it did, unlike the old days, the chassis would contain it. And as for the soundtrack... well, the first time the Holden blasted past the Monza pits in 1986, we're told the whole of pitlane stopped to watch. All Holdens have a baritone rumble to them, which I'm biased against because over here it's the sound of knuckle-draggers, but without that association it's probably a very pleasant sound. Add in the top notes of the big-bore exhaust, like a trumpet being blown by the lungs of a hurricane, and you had something very, very special. The combination of Holden novelty built upon Opel familiarity meant the Commodores of 1986 and 1987 gained a bit of a cult following in Europe, and for all its inherent Holden-ness, I'm sure Cironi would have a hoot driving it.
The Monza Campaign
The prototype racecar had been sitting in the Holden Dealer Team workshop, almost finished, the day Holden dumped Peter Brock. Their decision was enormously damaging for Peter: his operation was no longer the works race team, and now he was persona non grata at the Bend, all Holden signage had to be removed from the cars, and his endless free supply of GM parts and technical support was cut off. In fact, he wasn't even allowed to buy parts anymore. Desperate for cash, HDT merchandised like crazy, selling anything they could slap a logo on, but even so the team had to start selling off assets to generate cash flow. One of these was the prototype VL Commodore SS Group A, after Melbourne electrical contractor Phillip Ross made an offer Brock couldn't refuse.
It was only a month later, however, that it became clear Ross had just been an advocate for the real buyer – Mr Allan Moffat!
|Taking delivery of the car (source)|
Moffat had once again demonstrated his incredible ability to inspire belief in others, putting together an impressive deal with the ANZ bank to buy the prototype VL and take it racing on the far side of the world. Allan's annotations to How to Win Friends and Influence People would probably be worth a fortune.
The car that had been built for the World Touring Car Championship in 1987 had never turned a wheel and John said it would be a pity to lose it. I had just begun my association with ANZ and I borrowed $125,000 to buy the car, and shipped it to England where I got some Rothmans signwriting.Now, on paper, a World Touring Car Championship is a daft idea. Touring car racing is deeply rooted in the local market, and local markets tend to be, well, local. Look at the state of the world in the post-Group A era and you'll see business as usual: the world fragmented into V8 Supercars, DTM, Super Touring, Super GT, Stock Car Brasil and even NASCAR, the U.S. putting their own spin on the tintop concept. And no amount of fanwank could ever have brought them together. They were all very successful in their small national ponds, because they were all what their local audience wanted, but there was no compromise that would ever allow them to race against each other. "World Touring Cars" should make as much sense as the Cricket World Cup, which involves countries you've never heard of (Sri Lanka) in matches against countries that don't exist (West Indies) and countries that aren't even countries (England).
We shipped it down to Monza in Italy in March for the first WTCC round, the same track where I had driven with Brock the previous year in a round of the European championship. – Allan Moffat, Australian Muscle Car #78
But in practice, of course, the World Cup is totally awesome. And in the mid-1980s, the FIA's Group A rulebook had been adopted by the Australian, British, German, Japanese and European championships alike, putting them, almost literally, on the same page. It was an opportunity like no other; the stars had aligned, destiny had called and left a dirty voice message. The FIA shrugged and signed the paperwork. The World Touring Car Championship was go, created by adding Bathurst, Wellington and Mt Fuji to the ETCC calendar.
And the first race was to be the Monza 500 – 87 laps of la Pista Magica, in the lake district of Lombardy, in early spring. It was a rough job sometimes...
Once they got to Europe, being Europe, there was a whiff of controversy in the air. Having dreamed up the World Touring Car Championship, the FIA had immediately strangled it in the cradle by appointing Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone to promote the damn thing. Fox, meet Henhouse: having put in the hard yards to make Formula 1 the commercial juggernaut (not to mention awesome spectacle) it had become, Bernie was in no mood to let a bunch of toy cars with number plates take his audience away. Group A was big and getting bigger, and that was going to stop right now.
So at the last minute, Bernie had imposed a U.S.$60,000 fee to enter the WTCC – per car. You could still enter the races as you pleased, but with no fee, you weren't eligible for points or prizemoney. At current wage rates, that works out as U.S.$126,000 today, which was pretty hefty for a glorified cover charge. But it did its job – several top teams baulked and pulled out of the championship altogether, most notably Tom Walkinshaw Racing, who'd been the team to beat in the ETCC in recent years. In the end, only fifteen cars were entered for the inaugural World Touring Car Championship: three Sierras (the works Texaco cars of Eggenberger Motorsport, and the works-supported entry of Andy Rouse Racing), four BMW M3s (two German, two Italian, all works), six Alfa Romeo 75s (divided between Alfa Corse in gorgeous red works colours; the Beretta-sponsored Brixia Motor Sport that later became the Scuderia Italia F1 team; and the white Albatech cars), and the real oddballs of the series, a single Alfa Romeo 33 (surely that was a dare?) and red #1 Maserati Biturbo, the car Jeremy Clarkson dropped a skip full of scrap metal on for being an offense to one of the best badges in the business.
|Although here photographed at Dijon, this was the car that ultimately banked the points at Monza (source)|
And that was it: the World Championship would be fought out between just these 15 cars, of which just 11 showed up at Monza. This would lead to some confusion – as Bernie no doubt intended – because there were 38 actual cars on the grid that day, including the classy blue-and-white Rothmans Commodore of Allan Moffat Racing. Despite the tight four-week deadline, Moffat and Harvey managed to recruit a crew of mechanics, score a supply of Dunlop tyres, borrow a truck and ship the car to Milan in time for the race, but they had precious little in the way of spares – only some head gaskets and spark plugs, with just one engine and gearbox to get them through the whole weekend.
With Tom Walkinshaw having withdrawn his Commodores in protest and the Eggenberger Texaco Sierras parked with fuel injection irregularities, Andy Rouse’s private Sierra took pole with a lap of 1:57.0, with Moffat/Harvey a lowly 9th on 2:00.39. Without spares, keeping the car off the high Monza kerbs was imperative, and qualifying meant little in a 500km race. And of all circuits, Monza was sure to be kind to the Commodore, maximising its power and aero package and minimising the penalty of its massive weight on tyres and brakes. Built for the long straights and steep climbs of Mt Panorama, the Commodore was sure to find the Grand Old Lady to its liking (even if her straights were slightly shorter...).*
The Andy Rouse/Thierry Tassin Sierra led the hordes of BMWs early from the rolling start, with Moffat starting in the Commodore and engaging in a great scrap for 4th with the M3s of Ricardo Patrese, Ivan Capelli and Winni Vogt. But the Sierra blew a head gasket after just 11 laps, and the spinning Maserati Biturbo shared by Armin Hahne and Bruno Giacomelli hampered Moffat soon after and he was forced to jump on the brakes to avoid contact. That meant he lost the aerodynamic tow from the BMWs and, despite some 315 kW from the Holden V8, he couldn’t catch back up.
He made it past half distance and was 6th when he came in for fuel and to hand over to Harvey. John lapped steadily during his stint, but eased back towards the end as the tyres began to overheat. This dropped them one place and they eventually came home a creditable 7th, behind the six works and semi-works M3s, Patrese and Johnny Cecotto winning on the road clear of Emanuele Pirro and Roland Ratzenberger.
We finished seventh, but that wasn’t the end of the story. There were six factory BMW M3s that finished one through six on the road and after the race they went through scrutineering and headed back to their Schnitzer, Bigazzi and CiBiEmme trucks.It was a difficult concept to grasp, but the winning Moffat/Harvey Commodore actually finished the 87-lap race in 7th, having done only 86 laps, and the car that had scored the "victory" points towards the WTCC had actually finished 13th (that was the #79 Albatech Alfa Romeo 75 of Walter Voulaz and Marcello Cipriani, since I know you were wondering). Imagine explaining that to an Aussie TV audience used to nothing more demanding than Hey Hey It's Saturday!
All they did on our car was lift the bonnet and admire the big engine, but then a privateer BMW M3 arrived and his car was 85 kilos heavier. So they got the factory cars back and discovered they had carbon fibre bonnets and guards and roofs and stuff under the cars made from titanium. They were out, but one thing the organisers forgot was to get the winner’s trophy back.
While this was going on, we had already gone back to the hotel and decided we had won our class. John and I had an early dinner and went to bed, but in the morning when we came down the reception guy was very excited. "Magnifico, numero uno," he said, and pointed to the front page of the paper which said the Aussies had won at Monza. John lit up like a Roman candle and I said, "Not everyone gets away with murder all the time." It was joyous. We phoned everyone we knew in Australia to tell them. It must have been about 60 people. It was one of those things you never forget. – Allan Moffat, AMC #78
Post-Scriptum: The Only Legal BMW at Monza
An interesting side note is the BMW that caused all the trouble. The cars that had been excluded were all works cars that had been built by professional teams with the factory's blessing. The other two M3s in the race had been privately entered, and only one of them had finished – the #49 of Hungarian artist and chemist turned hillclimb legend, József Cserkúti. His Külker SC Team had been entering BMWs in hillclimbs all over Europe, and thought the WTCC race at Monza was worth a crack. And indeed, after the factory cars were excluded, he found himself only one step away from the podium, in 4th. The translation of his comments, made to a Hungarian magazine immediately after the race, make for fascinating reading:
Q: Your results surprised everyone! Many people had had no idea that you had been building a new racing car. (...)So just think: if BMW hadn't given him any help, left him to limp around and eventually break down like the other BMW in the race, they might've got away with it. Somehow, though, I don't imagine Allan Moffat sent him a thankyou card after the race. That sort of thing was never his style...
CSJ: Ever since I first heard of the new BMW M3, I had been playing with the idea to build such a car for myself. The first components had arrived on 3rd January, since I had been working flat out. (...) We finished the car just a week before the (Monza) race. I tested it on the Hungaroring, and the team practiced refuelling tyre changes. The car was disasterous: the back end had been wobbling and the engine hadn't been perfect either.
Q: What kind of changes did take place at Monza?
CSJ: At Monza, we talked to the members of BMW Motorsport GmbH and they told us what to change. They gave us new spings and suspension parts, altered the electronics of the engine, changed the exhaust system, thus they found an extra 15 hp, so the power output increased to 295 hp. The factory team lent me two mechanics to look after my car and they changed everything on the car for free. Also, Pirelli supplied us with tyres. During practice, the car was running perfectly. All three of us had recorded a time enough for qualification.
Q: You had been partnered by a German driver.
CSJ: I'm lacking financial funds, so I hired out the car for spare parts. Also I would like to have Hungarian driver in the team, that's why I took András Szabó with me. He also did a time which would qualify us for the race. My other team-mate was German Anton Fischaber, who not only brought spare spare parts along, but he is a good driver as well. He had already competed in the European Touring Car series, and been the member of the Alfa works team testing the car at Monza for months. He is a five-time European hillclimb champion as well.
Q: What was the race like?
CSJ: To be honest, when we had arrived, I wanted to return to Hungary immediately. The entry list was full of F1 drivers, like Giacomelli, Nannini, Patrese, Danner, not to mention Johnny Ceccoto and Michael Andretti. Even the name of Niki Lauda was on the list! We were dreaming about qualifying for the race. But my fears disappeared during practice. It was Fischaber, who had started the race, I took over the car on lap 42, which time we were lying 11th. It turned out, I had made a mistake building the car, when I put the throttle and the brake pedal too close to each other and at a wrong moment I pressed them both. I spun, and flat spotted the tyres. By the time I settled down, I lost such a great deal of time, that the eventual class winners, Klammer and Oberdorfer lapped us. Circuit racing was a new experience for me, I'm not getting used to do 250 kmh! (...)
Q: According to the press agencies, you had finished seven places lower where you were actually classified. What happened?
CSJ: The Holden team had launced an appeal and all BMW M3 had been disqualified, except for mine.
Q: Your plans?
CSJ: Because of the new car, we spent all money available. We don't have the financial assets to enter the World Championship for 60,000 bucks, nor the European Series for 6,000. We're going to do some races both WC and EC to learn something about circuit racing. But we emphasize our efforts on the European hillclimb championship.
|Photographed here at Brno.|
* Yes, really. The front straight at Monza is 1,120 metres long, Conrod is 1,916. But Monza is Monza: the Grand Old Lady stands alone.