Holden Design Director, Richard Ferlazzo, says the company’s most iconic model line has forever been built on a mix of circumstances, innovation and versatility.
From the relatively small original models developed from German imports, to the increasingly larger and more uniquely Australian variants that have appeared in the decades since, the brief has remained the same: deliver the car people want, and the range they need, at a price to suit all.
Ferlazzo is no stranger to the Commodore’s heritage. Joining Holden in 1988, he contributed to the VN model’s design, led the interior styling of the VR, graduated to exterior design lead of the VT under Michael Simcoe, and later became overall Chief Designer for the VE and VF models.
Speaking with CarAdvice at Holden’s Port Melbourne headquarters, Ferlazzo described the Commodore and all of its derivatives as a “triumph of design” - forged from local and global components to meet a seemingly overwhelming set of requirements and conditions.
“That you can make so many products from one architecture, I can't think of too many other cars that...well, they may have the same underbody architecture with a reskinned top part, but this [Commodore] is where many components, like the front door, windscreen, instrument panel is shared, in relatively small volumes,” Ferlazzo says.
That complex relationship of shared puzzle pieces currently includes the Commodore sedan, Sportwagon, Ute and long-wheelbase Caprice, but in the past it has also included the Monaro coupe, four-wheel-drive Adventra wagon, a dual-cab Crewman version of Holden’s famous ute, and a host of Holden Special Vehicles variants.
“What people probably don't understand is... it's not one car, it's a range of cars. So the one donor architecture, and therefore some of the common components, need to service a utility, a sedan, a wagon, a limousine, any other derivative.”
“In many other countries, they wouldn't kick the doona off in the morning for the kind of volumes that we have [across the variants offered],” Ferlazzo added.
“You know… 'under 10,000 utes, are you serious?' It's very unique here. We made that work, through improvisation - there's compromises, but yes it's improvising - and that's what we've had to do because of our population, and penetration into a small market.”
Ferlazzo calls this approach a “flexible architecture”, but he’s not talking about the modular platforms that are becoming more and more common. Certainly the adaptable structure beneath each generation of Commodore is a key ingredient, but it was engineering and design creativity that gave us decades of locally-built sedans, wagons, limousines, utes and coupes.
"It's what we call, well used to call, our flexible architecture, both in design - in the cleverness of how you do that - and in the engineering. The hidden stuff that accommodates different wheelbases, different structures, different alignments. Every Commodore is probably stronger than it needs to be, because it's also strong on a longer wheelbase,” he said. “Who's going to complain about a stronger car?”
“It's very clever, the way we style it. For example, we need to make the front door such that there's a mutual point at the top of the B-pillar for where the front door can be used better for a ute, a wagon, for long wheelbases... and just a subtle change there can make a lot of difference.”
Clearly proud of the work achieved in the Holden design offices, both before and since the ‘billion-dollar baby’ VE - where he worked as Chief Designer on the company's first 'clean-sheet' Commodore - Ferlazzo noted that those accomplishments are often not matched elsewhere.
“There are cars on the road that share parts with an unsuccessful derivative because it wasn't properly considered at the time [of the early development stages],” he said.
“So we actually style our cars with these derivatives [included], if only roughly, at the very beginning of the portfolio, and then park it and finish the ones we need to focus on - and hopefully come back to it.”
The Commodore is certainly not the first of General Motors’ development and production accomplishments in Australia, but by the time local manufacturing winds up late next year, it will have been the last project to have so wholly occupied the minds and resources of every planner, designer, engineer, accountant and marketer at Holden.