When the sad but not unforeseen news of General Motors retiring the Holden brand broke out back in February, the journalist in me knew straight away I needed to get my hands on a car for a send-off piece to the only truly Australian mainstream carmaker.
What I thought would be an easy task, however – I book stacks of press cars every year, quite a few of which, since I started out as a journalist, have been Holdens – turned out to be a bit of a logistical nightmare.
After a call to Holden’s PR department revealed they weren’t handing out cars to anyone – despite its arm in neighbouring New Zealand still doing so – I moved onto calling dealerships in the hope that at least one would lend me a demo model for a couple of hours, specifically an Acadia as it was not only the last new Holden model released, but basically the only current model I hadn’t yet tested at some point. Spoiler alert – none of those I contacted did end up handing me the keys to anything.
Figuring that getting my hands on a 2020 model Holden, then, wouldn’t be quite as easily doable as I thought, I decided to look in the complete opposite direction and take it back to where one of Holden’s most iconic and prolific nameplates started out – that, of course, being the Commodore, of which 2.3 million were built and sold in Australia.
Except, even then, it’s still a story of failure, as while I managed to get my hands on a first-generation Commodore, this VC model was the second iteration of it, with the VB being where it started out. Look, I tried, but after months of constantly trying to muster up something to no avail, close enough at this point is good enough for me.
Right off the bat, the trainspotters out there will note that although the car you see here is only the base L variant, in some shots it’s wearing a much nicer set of wheels from a top spec SL/E. Due to rain, the original photoshoot date had to be changed to the same day my friend – this car’s current owner who has some plans to freshen it up after buying it from the first owner who kept it in storage in essentially all-original condition until just under two years ago – had it booked in for the wheels to be changed over and fitted with new tyres. As such, I figured it was worthwhile grabbing some before and after shots to show just how much of a transformation it makes for the better, although it is why you’ll notice some slight inconsistency in the shots.
The first-generation Commodore originally launched back in 1978 with the aforementioned VB and hung around until 1988 when the final iteration of it – the VL, which was the only one to differ its looks dramatically from those of the original – was replaced by the VN.
It was in 1980 that the VC you see here first launched, with this one being from the first of the mere two years it was on sale. Visually, at least, changes over the VB were fairly limited, with its distinctive ‘eggcrate’ grille the most notable one along with some badging changes, but that’s only because the real changes were focused on what’s going on under its squared-off skin.
The range of Red engines – named such because of the colour the engine block was painted – were replaced by a range of Blue units of equal displacement that featured changes all aimed towards improving fuel economy due to the rising price of oil at the time, with all-new 12 port cylinder heads, redesigned inlet and exhaust manifolds, and a two-barrel carburettor for straight-six engines; and a revised cylinder head, the addition of electronic ignition, and a four-barrel carby for 4.2-litre models. A wheezy four-cylinder engine was also added to the lineup, but with how badly its performance tarnished the VC’s reputation, I won’t even go there.
Further evidence of the Commodore’s economy push, a largely incomprehensible fuel economy vacuum gauge measured in mmHg replaced the tachometer on all models, although a tacho could be optioned back on. The car you see here featured the economy gauge though, which essentially reads backwards from what I could figure – the higher up it is, the more economically it’s running.
On the whole, the VC’s interior is best described as basic, but with this thing originating in the late 70s, it’s not like you can really expect much in the way of gadgetry – even the air conditioning system mounted below the dashboard is only a period-correct aftermarket unit, although as it needed a re-gas, rolling down the hand-crank windows was the closest I’d be getting to air conditioning on the thankfully cool day I spent with it.
But basic, affordable transportation for families or sales reps is what the Commodore L was all about – hence why despite the first-generation Commodore models’ size shrinking considerably compared to the Kingswood it replaced, retaining 96 percent of its interior space was of great importance.
Although a basic Commodore like this itself might have been affordable to buy, it wasn’t affordable to build. Cobbled together from the shell of an Opel Rekord E with the front of a Senator A, the fact initial prototypes essentially snapped at the firewall when pitted against Australia’s rubbish roads – with how bad they are now, imagine what they were like back in the ’70s – which led to Holden spending a claimed $110 million trying to make it work.
Not only was that enough to prevent the proper development of a wagon variant, forcing Holden into doing a cut and shut job of grafting the Commodore’s nose onto imported Rekord E wagon bodies, but it would have been nearly enough to develop the Commodore from the ground up without using Opel’s leftovers – it wasn’t until the VE came along in 2006 that there would be a Commodore built freely of any Opel association.
If there’s one thing Holden always knew how to do, however, that was to tailor a car to Australian conditions, which is perhaps why driving this base VC today, 40 years later, it still feels perfectly adept on Aussie roads.
This particular VC is powered by the larger 3.3-litre straight-six which, despite only producing 83kW at 4000rpm and 231Nm at a fairly low 2400rpm, is enough to help it keep up with modern traffic, even if it does feel a bit wanton when you pin it. A four-speed manual was available, but the more common three-speed torque converter automatic was fitted to this example, with it being rear-wheel drive like all Commodores bar the ZB.
Smooth and relaxed is the best way to describe the driveline, with truly seamless gear changes and a total lack of harshness from the engine at all. This isn’t a car for hustling, but rather for cruising.
Compared to the VB, the VC received heavier steering that certainly feels fairly deliberate, while the suspension was softened to increase bump absorption, and the ride quality, it must be said, still feels truly spot-on here on pothole-laden and tree-lined Aussie roads today.
Of course, with only 94,000km on the clock for a car of its age and it only now on its second owner, it’s certainly not feeling too tired, which is certainly evidenced by how decently it still handles. Sure, it’s no BMW 3 Series, understeering when you even think of pushing it, but taking things at a sensible pace, it honestly leant through the corners far less than I was expecting, in fact feeling surprisingly evenly balanced, although the brakes, it must be said, failed to inspire any such level of confidence due to the pedal’s spongey and vague feel.
Is it in any way riveting or exciting? No, not really, but that’s kind of the whole point – all this ever needed to be was a basic but totally capable car, and that’s still what it feels like today.
Of course, over the years the Commodore has since become a symbol of performance as much as its been a sales rep-mobile or taxi cab staple, with rebadged exports in the noughties and past decade showing those in other parts of the world just how competent Aussie cars could be, but at the nameplate’s origins, it was merely what you see here – basic transportation that simply gets the job done.
If this VC tells us anything, it’s that even going back well before I or this car’s owner were born, Holden was building cars that just worked here in Australia. They weren’t flashy, nor were they terribly special in a spec like this, but there was nothing built so purposefully for this country’s brutal conditions – even if it wasn’t an entirely original effort.
As sad as I am to see Holden go for good, the writing was on the wall for a long time – I could delve into my own conspiracies of why here, but I won’t – and with the end of the VF Commodore and Australian production, there simply was no point to flogging this dead horse, or rather lion, any longer.
Just know that while the brand may no longer exist by the time the remaining few cars it has available are all sold off, there will forever be traces of Holden here, and they won’t all be in scrapheaps – like this VC, they’ll still be on our roads, forever proving nothing will be as well suited to them as a proper Holden.
My thanks to Matt from MPF Detailing and Paul from clini-clean for lending me this time capsule car for the day. If you have a well-maintained classic that you think would be worth us documenting, drop us a line on the Drive Section Facebook or Instagram accounts as we’d love to feature anything noteworthy from across the automotive spectrum, including cars like this VC Commodore.