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Holden VL Commodore (1986-88)

words - Joe Kenwright
The 1986-88 Holden VL Commodore was a combination of German, Australian and Japanese engineering that turned out better than anyone expected. As the model approaches 20 years old, the compromises can catch a young buyer unawares. Joe Kenwright looks at th

HISTORY
It was during the long 1981-84 model run of the well-sorted VH Commodore that Holden had to confront the fact that any plans for this early Commodore series of becoming Australia's favourite family car were in tatters.

Holden would have folded if it wasn't for a Detroit rescue package that delivered the larger VN Commodore in 1988 which re-established Holden as Australia's foremost local manufacturer. The VL Commodore played a critical interim role in buying time for VN development and winning back Holden buyers. The following background explains the strengths and weaknesses of the VL Commodore (launched in March 1986 then replaced in August 1988 by the VN series) as age catches up with it.

WHAT IS A VL COMMODORE?
Idolised by young male drivers around Australia, the VL Commodore was a mongrel in the literal sense of the word. Although very little originated from Holden, it remains one of the best Commodores of all, as so often happens when you mix up the gene pool.

The VL Commodore started life as a mid-1970s Opel Rekord -- not the similar-looking and larger six-cylinder Opel Senator -- powered by a 2.0-litre four. All 1979-88 Commodores shared the four-cylinder Rekord's rear suspension and short wheelbase with stretched bonnets to house big six-cylinder engines like the first six-cylinder Toranas. Clever engineering disguised the nose-heavy weight bias so obvious in the similar Ford Cortina and Chrysler Centura sixes.

At 1722mm wide, these Commodores were only slightly bigger than the new breed of Japanese 2.0-litre models. Because the Commodore offered little improvement over the narrow cabins and four-cylinder performance of a typical Japanese 2.0-litre without the economy, the sales slump came quickly. The Australian family and fleet market polarized into medium four-cylinder cars and the full-size Ford Falcon. After failing to deliver a competitive four-cylinder Commodore, Holden had to quickly redevelop the VK and VL Commodore into a niche in-between model. Where the VK failed, the VL was a huge success even after it faced new competition from Mitsubishi's stretched Magna and a locally-built Nissan Skyline.

For the 1984 VK series, Holden stylists added the Opel Senator's extra C-pillar glass, bulked up the tail lights, grille and bumpers to create the illusion of a bigger car. Its sad 86kW 3.3-litre engine, crude transmissions and Opel Rekord cabin fooled no one. Under Australia's 1986 unleaded fuel requirements, Holden's engines from the 1963 EH series could only send the Commodore further backwards. Cash strapped, Holden searched the world for a suitable six-cylinder engine, even looking at Jaguar's new sixes. Then word came through that Nissan was redeveloping its 2.8-litre six from the 280ZX into a special 3.0-litre engine for a unique Australian version of the Nissan Skyline, due also in 1986.

As Holden was already rebadging the local Nissan Pulsar as the Holden Astra and would soon supply panels and Camira engines for the next shared Nissan Pulsar, a Nissan-powered VL Commodore made sense.

Nissan's 3.0-litre six was a jewel of an engine, engineered for a 400,000 km life and offering a third more power from 10 per cent less capacity while using 15 per cent less low octane unleaded, compared to Holden's old 3.3-litre six on high octane leaded fuel. It also brought a slick five-speed manual transmission and the first four-speed automatic in a six-cylinder Australian family car. The biggest disappointment about the new VZ Commodore is that its much anticipated new engines are still no match for the VL Commodore.

The fully-dressed Nissan engine with standard fuel injection was also heavier than the Holden six and its extra power pushed the basic live axle rear suspension, originally designed for the four-cylinder Rekord, to the limit. It had a single overhead camshaft with belt-drive and was Holden's first six with an alloy head: both of which generated special maintenance requirements unfamiliar to Commodore owners. There were also fundamental differences in engine architecture which Holden couldn't afford to rectify and are ready to cause component failure today.

To create the illusion of a bigger car, Holden stylist Phil Zmood gave it a longer needle nose and raised the bootlid's trailing edge to disguise the same cabin and wheelbase. It looked great but it wasn't long before talk-back shows were alive with listeners asking about the funny scraping noise as they drove into nose to kerb parking spots.

Holden also intended to offer the VL with a bench front seat, an idea later rejected as futile but not before heavier six-seater springs were locked into production. To provide a softer ride, softer front strut inserts and rear dampers were specified at the last minute. The VL Commodore was also 100kg lighter than the equivalent yet smaller Skyline, and much of its weight was ahead of the front wheels.

Last but not least, the Skyline engine had to be purchased and imported from Nissan Japan which left little for the rest of the car after the Aussie dollar went into freefall soon after the VL's release. Basic paint and interior plastics, rear drum brakes, live rear axle, poor rust-proofing and a soft rear body section were just some of the areas where the cost cutting was more obvious.

Having owned a Nissan Skyline and Holden VL Commodore from the same year, I was able to make a direct comparison and investigate why the same engine showed up with different problems in the Commodore. The V8 and Turbo models are different enough to warrant a special future section of their own.

BUYERS CHECKLIST
The VL was always a high theft risk and a good one is now even higher as expensive parts fail. Don't expect to hang onto it without a customised security system but even that won't protect it from removal on a flat-bed truck.

ENGINE

  • The VL Commodore's sleek styling and low bonnet dictated compromises not found under the taller Skyline engine bay. Unless you follow strict bleeding procedures using the special engine bleed screws when flushing or refilling the cooling system, a full radiator in a VL Commodore is no indication that the engine will contain the necessary coolant. Air locks can stop the radiator's contents from circulating and cook the engine.
  • The Nissan engine's inlet manifold and water jacket had to be lowered to fit under the Commodore bonnet. In the event of leaks or air locks, this causes the Commodore's head to drain into the inlet manifold leaving the empty head to cook and crack. Broken manifold studs and cracked heads are more likely as cooling system leaks increase with age.
  • The Nissan engine's main radiator hose positions were not compatible with the Commodore's cross-flow radiator when it placed radiator entry and exit points on the same side. An internal radiator baffle was used to force the coolant across the Commodore radiator core but if this baffle dislodges with age, hot coolant can enter and leave the radiator without being cooled. This can also crack the head and do so repeatedly until the cause is isolated.
  • The alloy head is sensitive to poor quality and dirty coolant. Unless routinely flushed and filled with fresh, high quality coolant, expect water pump and cylinder head problems. The hydraulic valve lifters are also sensitive to poor quality or dirty oil. The 10,000km oil change intervals under city usage are too long and sludge build-up will generate rattly lifters that require expensive replacement. The cam belt must be replaced every 100,000km. As Nissan didn't expect the engine to require a rebuild, some internal parts can be expensive and difficult to source.
MECHANICAL
  • Electric fuel pumps as fitted to the VL depend on plenty of fuel in the tank to keep them cool and free of dirt. Owners who run on empty or run out of fuel will quickly destroy them with many already noisy and on the way out.
  • The fuel injection system's expensive air-mass meter is now failing, causing rough idle and plenty of black exhaust smoke. A failed O2 sensor can also cause excessive fuel consumption. Cold start injection components and distributor electronics are now common failure points.
  • The VL auto is long lived but lack of servicing will cause failure, starting usually with a slipping overdrive clutch that breaks up and destroys the rest of the transmission. A rumble that shows up at 60-80km/h during a slight incline or any other hint of auto malfunction requires immediate attention before it turns into a $2500 repair. Non-genuine auto parts can save costs but are not always successful so check on warranty terms if the auto has been overhauled.
  • In manual VLs, the spigot bush can seize with age and will cause the gears to graunch and wear even with your foot on the clutch. The gearbox has to be removed to fix it.
  • The live rear axle depended on voided rubber bushes inside the locating arms to allow the suspension to move up and down but they can soon tear under the VL's power. Some aftermarket bushes that resist the grunt will also lock up the rear suspension and cause the wheels to leave the ground for lethal handling in the wet. Stiff rear dampers can also generate bump steer in the light rear end. Worn Panhard rod bushes are also common and generate unpredictable rear steering. A worn centre tail shaft bearing and broken suspension bushes can generate vibration under power.
  • Each Commodore has certain front suspension and steering parts specific to engine and model. Some aftermarket items that don't differentiate between these can generate serious handling and steering deterioration. Rattly steering racks, sloppy rack ends and worn front upper strut pads can cause the car to steer on its own.
  • Quality tyres are vital with the power and light rear end.
  • The VL's rear drum brakes are often filled with brake fluid from failed wheel cylinders caused by neglected fluid changes. Front disc rotors are often undersized and a soggy brake pedal usually means a master cylinder is ready to fail.
EXTERIOR
  • Superficially-repaired insurance write-offs and recycled stolen cars are a real trap. Some of the worst VL examples I have inspected are so bent that the bonnet has been kinked up to clear a strut tower that sits 50mm higher than it should. A vehicle security check won't be enough to uncover a stolen car that is wearing the identity of a wreck so look for any inconsistencies in specification and history.
  • Holden's old single-stage acrylic paint process may still be holding up in the solid colours but neglected metallics are now dull and porous, and ready for a respray. Watch out for repairers who have used modern two-pack paints generating a huge difference in shine between original and repaired panels. Replaced plastic bumper sections and side strips will not match in colour.
  • The VL Commodore's boot section, despite the big plastic bumpers, will collapse with surprisingly little impact and generate rust in the rear section around the boot opening and near the pillars. Unless a tow bar is reinforced up to the rear axle, even moderate towing can distort the rear bodywork. Look for a poorly-fitting bootlid or tailgate ready to generate lethal exhaust leaks and water leaks generating rust under the luggage mat.
  • Non-genuine lights and panels are rife. The genuine headlights and tail lights vital to the VL's appearance might be expensive but faded and water-logged replicas are no substitute especially if they fall apart internally and catch fire.
INTERIOR
  • The VL Commodore had bonded front and rear screens with poorly prepared metal underneath, a problem worsened by sloppy windscreen replacement. Breaches in the screen bonding can generate serious water leaks and rust which may require the metal supporting the screens to be cut out and replaced at substantial cost. Watch out for missing screen metal that has been bogged up for sale. The really bad ones will have rotted parcel shelves and floors.
  • Some cabin plastics and switch gear verged on the shoddy so check all interior fittings. Earlier square backed front seats were replaced by the VN's rounded seat backs late in 1987 as a running change. Odometers almost without exception failed between 70,000km and 110,000km so any assurances about a speedo reading need to be backed up by genuine records.

 

 

 

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Published : Monday, 1 November 2004


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