Australian Performance: Holden Commodore

Australian Performance

One of the best muscle cars ever built that was only briefly sold in the US.

When you think of muscle cars, it's likely that you're thinking of American cars. It's true that the most enduringly classic muscle cars are American, but Australia has had their own muscle car tradition for as long as we have, and the cars they produced deserve some attention as well. It could even be argued that Australia kept the muscle car alive better than America did, and the fact that the new Camaro is based on an Australian car and had much of its development work done in Australia makes for a pretty good argument here.

That car which the Camaro is based on is the Holden Commodore, which might seem at first glance like any other boring old sedan. As a car first conceived and developed in the shadow of the energy crisis, it would be reasonable to think of the Commodore as one of those cars possessed of that special kind of terrible which late-Seventies cars so often contained so much of. There is some truth to this, but the Commodore has long since redeemed itself, and the modern car is quite nice. But what makes it interesting is the versions which have been made by Holden Special Vehicles (HSV), the performance division of Holden.

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When it came to building a performance Commodore, Holden's first version was a serious performance machine. This was the Commodore SS Group A, a homologation car built to compete in the 1986 Group A touring car season, as well as the 1987 World Touring Car Championship. You can spot these special models by their body kits and bespoke wheels, which set them apart from the regular Commodore. Early Group A models were available only in blue, and later models only in red. Just 502 of the VK models in blue were built, and 500 of the VL in red, so you'll be very lucky if you get the chance to spot one of these in person.

The regular Commodore at this time had several available engines, with the most powerful being a 237-horsepower 5.0-liter V8. This was a fine engine (for 1985) but Holden opted to go with a 4.9-liter 263-horsepower V8 for the racing and homologation cars. The car did reasonably well in racing, and HSV was born as a proper division of Holden shortly thereafter. Starting in 1990, HSV starting putting out the Clubsport, a more mainstream performance Commodore which is still in production. These didn't offer a huge upgrade in power until 1999, when a Chevrolet-sourced LS1 V8 producing 335 horsepower replaced the old 5.0-liter V8.

The latter engine produced 261 horsepower in the Clubsport. Power continued to increase over the years, and the current Clubsport makes 432 horsepower from its 6.2-liter LS3 V8. There is even an optional supercharger kit which raises power to 530hp. The Clubsport was sold in the UK as the Vauxhall VXR8, and in the US as the Pontiac G8. The Pontiac is obviously no longer sold, and the Commodore GTS is now badged as the VXR8 for the UK. Also debuting in 1990 was the Commodore-derived Maloo. This is a "ute", a popular vehicle type in Australia which we've seen in America as well, most famously in the form of the Chevy El Camino.

Following the engine switch for HSV's Commodore-based vehicles, the Maloo (Aboriginal for "thunder") got its first big bump in power in 2000. The current model uses the same LS3 V8 engine as the Clubsport, and the supercharger kit is available as well. Starting in 1992, HSV also began offering the GTS and Senator, Commodore-based cars which used the same power plant as the Clubsport, but which also offered a bit more luxury to go with it. This is more true of the Senator, which is slightly more toned-down, while the GT3 makes no effort to hide its performance credentials. The GTS has big hood scoops, wheels and gaping vents in the fenders.

In stark contrast to this is the Grange, a newer model from HSV which is the most restrained of all of their Commodores, and could be thought of as a sort of cheaper alternative to the BMW M5. The Commodore is built on GM's Zeta platform, which is essentially GM's most important front-engine and rear-wheel-drive platform. It is even referred to by GM as their "global RWD architecture". It is also almost exclusively Australian, with the obvious exception of the Camaro. This really shows the importance of not only the Commodore or even Holden, but of the Australian market as a whole.

As American carmakers work to reintroduce many of the things which made their cars American cars a few decades ago, they are increasingly turning to their Australian divisions for help in the implementation of this technology. In today's market, if you want a neo-classical American car, chances are that it'll have some Australian in it.

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