Happy Australia Day! James winds the clock back 30 years to drive one of the most iconic Australian cars of all time, the 1988 HSV VL Group A SS Walkinshaw.
Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars. A decades-old jingle that plucks the iconic strings of this great big musical melting pot we call Australia.
Of course, these days, it takes more than just four clichés to accurately describe our burgeoning nation, so sometimes it can be nice to wind the clock back to a simpler time.
Which is why, to celebrate Australia Day in 2017, we thought we’d grab the acid wash, pop in an INXS tape, and head 30 years into the past for the launch of one of the most iconic cars in Australian history.
The 1988 HSV VL SS Group A ‘Walkinshaw’ was built to homologate the Holden VL Commodore Group A race car. Following the dissolution of the Holden Dealer Team in 1987, it would be the first car to roll out of Tom Walkinshaw Racing's newly formed Holden Special Vehicles operation in Melbourne.
A series of 500 vehicles was commissioned by Holden, which rose to 750 to satisfy demand. All were finished in the now iconic Panorama Silver paint and our car, part of HSV’s own private collection, is number 555.
To say the ‘Walky was a unique take on the familiar four-door sedan is an understatement.
Featuring a specifically designed body kit, the ‘plastic fantastic’ was said to have aerodynamics that reduced drag by over 25 per cent from the 1987 HDT SS Group A Commodore.
From airflow channelling at the front, lift pressure extraction at the side and drag reduction at the rear, the unique design is pure function over form.
It wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, with some customers rumoured to have had HSV remove the aero package before delivery.
It was a $45,500 (in 1988 money, before options and on-road costs) performance halo for Australia. Arch rival Ford, didn’t even offer a V8-powered Falcon at this time, as the Group A campaign for the blue-oval, was fought by the European Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500, which wasn’t sold locally.
I was a car-mad teenager living in Frankston when the VL Walky was released, so there was certainly some buzz about them around the school grounds. It had replaced the Ford Fairmont ESP as the car that you wanted your cool dad to own. Mine didn't. (Sorry, Robert!)
It was a rare machine, and to be honest, I don’t remember ever seeing one on the roads back then, having to make do with those old printed magazine things and of course, any touring-car racing television coverage.
So to say there was an element of excitement when we arrived at HSV’s Clayton campus to drive the silver-blue muscle machine, is no less of an understatement than the car itself.
Time has changed car design, and the first thing that hit me about the VL is the size. Compared to the current, VF Commodore, it’s quite small.
Roughly 20cm smaller than a 2016 HSV GTS in each direction, and actually closer in size to a Holden Cruze sedan (the Cruze is wider and has a longer wheelbase) the VL’s ridiculous, ground-hugging aero kit, and comparatively small 16-inch wheels gives it the appearance of a brick, stuck to the road.
The higher glass turret and thin pillars show just how much things have progressed in terms of safety driven vehicle design too.
From the front, the enormous air dam and low splitter still give the VL a menacing look, a real hallmark to the 'win on Sunday, sell on Monday' heyday of the homologated race car.
The gaping front intake is there to shove cool air into the radiators, where the large ducts on each side funnel any remaining oxygen at the ventilated front brakes.
Perhaps the most wild of all the Walkinshaw body modification is the riser and spoiler on the boot, designed to help channel airflow and reduce the drag coefficient, but not exactly what you would call a hugely attractive piece of design.
It makes the boot lid itself quite heavy, and doesn’t do much to aid rearward vision - but this was never a car destined to handle the daily shopping.
Under the bonnet is a 5.0-litre V8, well just ‘less’ than five litres (4987cc) to conform to Group A rules. The engine was developed by HSV primarily for the race car, and then softened every so slightly to suit the Walkinshaw’s street usage.
The laundry list of changes to components in the engine reads like a full performance parts catalogue, and as its first project for Holden, it’s safe to say that HSV left no stone unturned.
This was also the first Holden V8 to feature electronic fuel injection, designed with a custom plenum and twin throttle-body intakes for better breathing and outright performance.
While this gave the VL Group A a distinctive, breathy, soundtrack, the hardware sat higher than the standard bonnet line, making the huge vented intake on the front of the Walky functional as well as distinctive.
Now while we would love to have taken the pristine VL for a long blast on some of our favourite touring roads, the ‘museum exhibit’ nature of car 555 kept us in and around the HSV plant in Clayton, under the watchful eye of our friendly chaperones.
This didn’t limit our excitement or ability to explore some of the performance of the VL, though, and the HSV team was visibly thrilled to see their premier creation out in the sunshine.
With its period Holden stickers still in place, the VL cranks lazily and fires to a relaxed idle. My last ‘toy’ car was a similar vintage, and the '80s signatures of whistling fans and lightly squealing belts are a far cry from the sewing machine-like smoothness of the modern HSV.
The cloth seats are comfortable and the extendable ‘pump’ handle to raise and lower the seat height is still a very convenient device.
The cabin itself is basic, but still very functional. There’s storage for all your AC/DC tapes in the centre console, an AM/FM radio with power antenna - even air conditioning for those hot, summer cruises along the Princes Highway.
Ergonomics aren’t bad either, with the wiper controls on top of the instrument binnacle rather than on a stalk, still working from an ‘eyes on the road’ perspective.
Sure there are no fancy gadgets, even the mirrors need manual adjustment and airbags, were still a few years from being standard equipment in a family car. But it works, and makes the Walky surprisingly drivable.
Power steering wasn’t everywhere in the VL’s day, and the system on the Walkinshaw, supported by the nice, three-spoke MOMO wheel, is responsive yet surprisingly light. It makes manoeuvring the classic muscle car an effortless task.
Even the uprated clutch is easy to feel, the five speed Borg-Warner gearbox a still light and direct throw. I would even say that the Walkinshaw is easier to drive than some of the more modern, manual transmission HSV cars we’ve had through the garage.
That race-tuned V8 is good for 180kW at 5200rpm and 380Nm at 4000rpm. Very conservative compared to the current 2016 GTS and its stonking 430kW and 750Nm output, but when you consider the period equivalent Mercedes-Benz 560SEC offered similar power for five-times the price.
Consider too that at 1415kg, the Walky weighs more than 400kg less than the current HSV, and that makes a lot of difference under foot.
At street speeds, power and noise build nicely from around 3000rpm. There’s no forced-induction delay, but the response feels good, even leading up to that 4000pm peak torque point.
There’s no hyperspace rush like we have become used to in modern super-sports cars, just a muscular squat as the HSV blasts away, a mixture of exhaust rumble, and mechanical air movement, through and around the car.
They say there is no replacement for displacement, but for mine it’s the old, race-bred induction experience. That sucking of air, which continues as a final gasp as you switch the ignition off, is where the feels are.
Bridgestone RE71 tyres, just 205mm wide at front and rear, don’t contain the 180kW very well, and despite the 10,000 days which have passed since the VL first rolled out of HSV’s old factory in Notting Hill, it still has the ability to spin up some smoking rubber from even a light launch.
Get off the line well, and the VL can run a sub seven-second sprint to 100km/h. That's a positively sedate pace compared to the 2- and 3-second claims these days - and at the time, not quite what was needed to keep pace with the turbocharged Sierras and Nissan Skyline GT-Rs on the race track - but it was enough for a win in the 1990 Bathurst 1000 race.
It can best be described as eager, rather than outright fast. A traditional muscle car if ever there was one.
Dynamically, there is a sense of ‘constant squat’ with the car, which the photos illustrate well.
We weren’t able to push the car through flowing, linked bends, but you get the feeling that drivers would need to have their game faces on if the pace picked up to even mildly spirited levels.
The feedback is there, but even with less than 200kW turning the Bridgestones, you can sense the back of the car is eager to move around.
Can I imagine pointing this thing, in full anger, down the tight and twisting Mount Panorama circuit at Bathurst? Not today.
Right now, there are creaks and groans befitting a car of this vintage, but even in full race prep, those drivers who wrestled the big VL up and over the mountain, were braver and more talented beyond any skill I can hope to have.
This car isn’t far removed from the competition version, so famously finished in the black and white Holden Racing Team livery, that, as it turned out, won more hearts than races.
When new, the HSV Group A cost $45,500, a solid $8500 more than the range-topping Holden of the time, the VL Calais V8 ($36,964).
Value has risen to see cars now attracting a six figure sum, cementing the VL as a part of an increasingly collectible Australian ‘garage’.
Yes, the VL is a significant car to remember in 2017. Three decades ago, it marked the start of Commodore-based tuning for HSV, where this year we see the final offering of what Clayton can do with the Australian-built sedan.
Love it or hate it, you can't deny its significance as a reminder that as a car-building nation, we were able to throw conservatism out the window with the best of them.
And as for the rating, we've given the 'Walky an 8.8, as a nod to that year which saw the birth of the car and of HSV as we know it, 1988. Nothing to do with that 1788 thing...
Happy 30th birthday, HSV, and most importantly, happy Australia Day to you all.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser and James Ward.
Thank you to HSV for allowing us to drive the prized VL.