Modern Classic Review – the CarAdvice team take time away from Australia’s new car landscape to look at machines we consider true modern classics.
What’s more, we’ll try to turn our focus to cars that haven’t quite fallen out of reach in terms of scarcity and affordability. Is there something on your radar? Let us know what modern classics you would like to see the team review.
Modern Classic: 1991-1993 Holden Commodore SS (VP)
Given the scale of 2020, we’re not surprised that Holden’s demise has fallen to the wayside. Likely so, too, as on the grand scale of things, it isn’t of the utmost importance.
But, we’re a motoring website. As a fitting tribute, we’ve decided to sign off on 2020 with an ode to an Aussie hero.
I was introduced to the lion brand differently when compared to a native Australian. Unlike some of you, I spent the first 15 years of my life living in the United Kingdom. My family was involved in the automotive industry, which meant cars were a big part of our lives – hobbies, work, extracurricular activities, et cetera.
As a result of my parent’s desire to relocate to Australia, I’d visited many times, even for extended periods of time. Sightseeing for me was cars, not buildings or places – despite regretting that notion now. Airport runs, the car choices of my international family members, and rental cars, were things that excited me about travel at such an age.
The first Holden I can recall riding in was 1996 VR Caprice, which belonged to my uncle. On that particular trip, it was just my father and I travelling, which gave us bandwidth for car stuff. The Caprice’s huge rear quarter windows, and size of its second row relative to my seven-year-old frame, both etched my mind.
Another big moment occurred much later in 1999, when I first saw a Holden ‘VT’ Commodore SS Series 2. Five point seven, tiger mica, six-speed. It was brand new at the time and shattered what I knew about cars.
Five point seven! As a nine-year-old, I couldn’t believe such fantasy, and was utterly in love.
That wasn’t all. V8 too, mentioned my father, with an undertone of infatuation. He spent the best part of his youth growing up near Australia, where such cars once roamed free. In fact, He completed his apprenticeship working on old Aussie Holdens and Fords. Far less naive he was, than I, at this time.
As you can imagine, we were both upset when General Motors announced in February 2020 it was the end of the line for Holden. Barely three years after shutting its Australian car assembly line, the brand was about to be axed altogether.
However, none would be more so than the owner of today’s modern classic, Tyson. Growing up in south-western Sydney as a staunch Holden boy, and witnessing the shift from Group A to V8 Supercars, were both crucial to his upbringing.
His father owned numerous Holdens. In fact, his first Holden experience was the family SLR Torana, which plied the family to and from school. Later on, an array of 1990-era commodores shuttled him to the annual get-together at the mountain, where he’d watch, and later meet, his hero, Peter Brock. So inspiring this was, that he ended up working in the automotive industry.
“Bathurst was where my infatuation with cars really began, we had a relative who lived walking distance to the track and being attached to locals meant many a door was opened to experiences that others my age weren’t afforded.”
From walking the pits scouring for drivers and their signatures, to later working on a race team during the Bathurst 1000 and the 24 hour, such experiences pushed him into the automotive industry. He went on to have an illustrious career working for Australia’s largest car brands.
Well known and respected amongst his peers, Tyson is an anorak – absolutely packed-full of local industry knowledge, and more importantly, the personalities which defined it.
Whilst on his journey, he rustled up a few bucks to buy his 15-year old self’s ideal motor – a 1993 Holden ‘VP series 2’ Commodore SS. Despite being produced between September 1991 and July 1993, the ‘VP’ generation's genes actually run longer. You can trace its roots back to the first-ever Commodore, of 1978.
Here's a condensed version of the Commodore’s inception: Australian engineers started with a German-produced Opel Rekord, which was a medium sedan built on General Motors’ rear-wheel-drive ‘V’ platform.
Aussie engineers embarked on a vicious cycle of breaking, and fixing the Rekord, until it was deemed suitable for our conditions. Over the years, the architecture was further refined and improved. By the time of the ‘VP’ generation, despite still featuring the same ‘V’ platform underneath, the Commodore had evolved enough to become an Australian product.
As some pub fodder, the General Motors ‘V’ platform endured 41-years of hard yakka, from 1966 till 2007. The platform’s swan-song was only offered here on Australian soil, where it underpinned the last Australian made Holden ‘VZ’ Commodore utes.
The current owner of the car purchased it a decade ago, back when decent examples were actually feasible. Even then, he mentioned it was still a slog to find something up to his exacting standards.
|1993 Holden Commodore SS (VP)with HSV enhancement pack|
|Engine configuration||Naturally aspirated V8|
|Power||180kW @ 4600rpm|
|Price as teseted, when new (MSRP)||$38,823|
“Low mileage, white, paint still attached to preferably, and as close to standard”, were such stipulations.
One such car was listed for sale way back when. Delivered originally by Zupps motor group in Queensland in March of 1993, its list price was for $38,823, some $4592 over the recommended retail price of the time.
Options were the culprits – Air conditioning ($1902), cruise control ($381), front power windows ($491), rear power windows ($318), and the 180kW HSV enhancement pack ($1500).
Strangely, ABS ($990) was omitted from this car’s configuration, and the dealer-fit leather interior was not on-charged, despite being fitted.
The most important box ticked, aside from air conditioning, introduced the HSV enhancement pack. It was only offered on vehicles fitted with the prerequisites: a V8, independent rear end, and FE2 suspension package.
It was also the first time you could walk into a Holden dealer and have your SS factory-enhanced by HSV. The package introduced an engine knock sensor, an upgraded engine computer, a pair of high-performance exhaust manifolds, and an improved air intake system.
It resulted in a modest bump – power went from 165kW at 4400rpm, to 180kW at 4600rpm, and torque shifted from 385Nm at 3600rpm, to 400Nm at a later 3800. For $1500 contemporary 1993 dollars, I’d have done the same. The original owner palmed it off sometime in the early 2000s. Under the second owner’s tenure, it received a 2.5-inch stainless steel exhaust, whilst retaining the original HSV headers.
With its odometer now reading 120,000, it was seeking a new custodian. After an initial inspection, and citing the original documentation, new car delivery paperwork, and correspondence with the selling Holden dealer, it was swifty deemed of purchasable quality.
“Critically, it had not been ripped apart to fit a big stereo, lowered, or subject to abuse and the favourite pastime of impressionable Commodore owners – burnouts”.
The deal was finalised, and the car made its way into the mits of its third, and current owner, who had just handed me the keys.
I often refer to old cars as palate cleansers. Getting stuck into one reveals many of the modern marvels of new cars – the things us motoring writers become inappropriately accustomed to.
It wasn’t too long ago that cars were utterly dangerous, smelly, and crude. We now complain about trivial things in comparison; as cars of this era are just unfathomably different to what’s current.
Take structural rigidity, as an example. After spending my time browsing the first row, second and cargo area, as you do with any car, I noticed two, huge bars, which braced the boot floor.
“What are those?” I enquired.
“A tow bar had been fitted at some point in its life, and those bars you see are part of the genuine towing kit. It stops the rear of the car folding in half,” he chuckled.
Part Aussie steel, part Papier-mâché? Maybe paper-mashay is more fitting.
It highlighted to me that the structural cell of this car is far different to a modern car. I don't think there’s much of a cell at all, instead four large chassis legs, and some thin metal forming a basic monocoque.
Another is the tactility of interaction points. Once inside, the variation of switchgear, typeface, material selection, is truly marvelous. Some local, some international, primarily European, it’s fittingly as diverse as Australia’s beautiful culture.
As is the case with old cars, tactility can also mean good things. Chinking the key over twice to fire-up the all-Aussie five-litre, is one such joy. This engine is such a sweetheart – more rich in character, and far more crude than the American-spec LS motors that replaced it.
It’s a 304 cubic-inch (5.0L) all-Aussie affair. In the late 1960’s, a pair of Holden engineers, Fred James and Ed Silins, pushed ahead development for an all-Aussie V8. With some clever forecasting, and other white collar malarkey fairly well managed, they marched ahead with full support.
This engine claimed more than 10 wins at Bathurst, and powered more than half a million Aussie-made beasts. It was even subjected to the magic dust of homologation; with the Holden VN SS Group A, which sought to legalise performance enhancements for motorsport use.
Such improvements included a high-compression version of the mighty five-litre, which was fed by a mean, dual-throttle body setup, and a six-speed manual pilfered from the Chevrolet Corvette.
The VN SS Group A also represented Holden’s last-ever homologation special, so only fitting it was to be powered by an engine block, proudly cast with “made in Australia” across its guts.
Factory performance mods aside, it’s same powertrain is found in this ‘VP’ SS Commodore. The sound it makes is simply best described as tough. There’s no other word more apt for the tune it makes.
It’s a meaty, chunky sound, that makes a regular LS-powered Commodore sound hollow. Once you’ve gotten your jollies from the sound, you can then drop the hilariously long, inconsistently feeling cable-driven handbrake, and set off.
This particular variety of Commodore SS featured a vacuum controlled, aussie-built, four-speed auto. Even in our stellar example, it shifted quite firmly when cold. Once up to temp, it worked itself out.
Old car things, you know? In the generation after, Holden moved to electronic gearbox control.
The steering is brutishly heavy, but hydraulically assisted – so laden with feel. Speaking of palate cleansers, jumping into something with a hydraulic steering rack, regardless of its calibre, is always wonderful.
Let’s address an obvious one – what’s it like to kick in the guts? Hilariously, the throttle pedal after 2/3rds of travel becomes nothing more than a sound pedal. The engine does not seem to respond any further, other than in terms of making an even-sweeter noise.
Only once halfway up its stairway-to-heaven-length second gear ratio, does it come alive. At higher speeds, it piles on pace more obviously, and begins to shake off its near-on 1400kg kerb weight. Considering its size, and the fact its cast-iron engine and transmission combo make up 15 per cent, or 220kgs of its overall weight, the frame itself is quite light.
Is it fast? Nah, not really.
Where does speed sit on a theoretical, hierarchical list of priorities for someone interested in this metal? Likely at the bottom.
The experience in itself, the smells, the sounds, are all good reasons to buy any old car. I need no more reasons than that to buy an old crappy car I don’t need.
However, The ‘VP’ Commodore SS is all of that, topped with a heavy serving of true-blue Motorsport pedigree. Put down your long bows, and engage with me for a second.
As someone who only watched Bathurst in retrospect, I can’t truly understand what it would’ve been like growing up to the backdrop of Mount Panorama. That’s regardless of whether you consumed it via television, in person, or even through magazines.
Between driving this Aussie V8 powered Commodore, and previously owning a 'VY' generation HSV Clubsport myself, I can begin to understand.
The V8 in this car is a sign of this country’s best efforts, when superseded or not. Couple this with some fantastically 1990s Australian styling, and some aero-themed 15-inch alloy wheels, mints it as something important, and worth remembering.
As it is, it’s a time machine. The perfect way to experience a true slice of Australian culture – something far bigger than car culture.
Is this modern classic for you?
Buying a 1991–1993 Holden Commodore SS (VP).
Trust me when I say this, the cars you want are either located at auction houses fetching top dollar, or found through circles of Holden aficionado.
Private listings are of such varying quality. Given the continual demand, and dwindling of quality stock, finding good value remains incredibly difficult.
If you have the budget however, you will find one. Expect to pay upward of $30,000 for a car of the quality we tested. Its paint is original, history file thick, and areas of neglect close to none.
Our example's saving grace is its white paint. If it were some variety of black, grey or blue, the original paint would be thin, and tatty. Expect most darker coloured examples to have been repainted.
If not, the price will rise again. In terms of quality Aussie five-litre V8 motoring, the VP Commodore SS is on the affordable side.
As usual, look for two to three owner cars, with history, and low mileage.
Modern Classic Rating: 8.6
Thanks to the generous owner, Tyson, for supplying the car, and his humour, to test and review.