After being in lock down for weeks and testing positive for cabin fever, I could not take avoiding ‘corona’ any longer. I figured it was time to go viral and spread some mental baggage about my all-time favourite ride. As a serial automotive polygamist, I’ve always bought, enjoyed and sold one or more cars to make room for others… a rinse and repeat that has spanned over thirty years of my life.
My favourite ownership experience came from this humble 5.7-litre LS1-powered V8 VT Series 2 Berlina. It was purchased in 2009 off a young mechanic who lived just north of the Melbourne CBD. He claimed to have tuned its engine himself as well as calibrated the automatic transmission to suit – impressive. It was also advertised as being immaculate and serviced regularly, which was coincidentally the way the car was presented.
When I first saw the Michael Simcoe-penned successor to the VS back in ‘97 I was immediately impressed by its appearance and useful increase in dimensions. The VT sported a curvy and buxom body with genuine thought shown to its design, both inside and out. Consequently, it also demonstrated a concern for our hydration levels and provided much needed cup holders that were missing in the VS. The VT was a hit the moment it was shown to the public and it represented a major step forward compared to the previous generation of Commodores despite sharing much in the way of mechanical componentry.
As I popped the bonnet during the inspection of this car, my eyes were instantly drawn to its aftermarket chrome intake manifold, sexy blue anodised fuel rail and high performance fuel pressure gauge. It certainly looked the goods as the engine idled away with a seductive rumble at its owner’s workshop. Moving around the flanks revealed staggered 19-inch alloy wheels sporting 245mm front and 265mm rear tyres, ahh… just the way I like it.
On the test drive the car felt like a typical Gen 3 powered Commodore; smooth and refined with no squeaks, rattles or odd noises. The wheel and tyre combo did not rub on the rolled guards, and the engine note was louder than stock, but not overtly intrusive or drone heavy. At 10 grand, with 160,000km under its belt I figured it still had some life left in it. Without over thinking the deal I shook the owner's hand, gave him the cash and started my new relationship.
Once at home, looking over my purchase in the driveway with its gleaming duco, shiny wheels and purring V8, I felt somewhat chuffed and satisfied with this acquisition. I had recently sold a stunning and vibrant Jaffa-coloured VT HSV 195i Clubsport and was looking forward to tinkering with the Berlina, as I could not bring myself to modify the iron lion in the Clubby. The sale of the Clubsport had bankrolled this one, leaving ample money in reserve for some enhancements. The Berlina was my little project, a toy to play with and modify in a manner to keep pace with mates who did not share a soft spot for local produce.
Moving to the inside, the interior colours present were a mix of light browns and cream hues which gave the car an air of a luxury vehicle. I was fond of this combination and felt it gave a much needed visual lift compared to the usual contrast of dark grey tones that most VT’s left the factory with. Being a Berlina, it had some Calais fruit - dual-zone climate control, plush velour seats, and fake wood plastic around the HVAC controls and radio - details that I imagine would have also warmed the heart of many an avid lawn bowler.
When the LS1 was first introduced into Commodores in 1999, I felt annoyed that Holden had turned its back on the cast iron 304. Holden marketed our VT as having 225kW with this motor and I wondered if they were truly bothered to detune it since it left stateside with more. Did Holden simply under quote its power? Or were they making room for their marketing teams to increase performance figures with each new and successive model to create an illusion of progress… surely car manufacturers don’t lie?
Despite all of its wonder, I took longer than most to warm to its many virtues. It had a 6 bolt mains, alloy construction, roller cam, individual coil per plug ignition and no distributor. It was more advanced than our injected 304 tapper. It had a higher rev limit and in stock trim could push a VT bodied Commodore to high 14’s/low 15’s down the quarter mile. It was better on fuel, had its own unique sound and carried less mass between the chassis rails to make overcoming inertia an easier affair.
As my car was ‘tuned’, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to explore what this meant. Was it genuinely faster than standard? After some back street passes I soon discovered this tune was simply a melody that was nothing more than a hum without lyrics. The glitz and glamour of its polished intake, dolled up fuel rails and what not was a unicorn costume dressing up old mutton as lamb.
Unperturbed, the car still represented good value at 10 grand and I decided to delve into the world of LS1 tuning. The mystics of this craft would promise an increased pulse of performance for a thousand or so sheckles. One swipe of your credit card combined with a sweaty wait in a showroom full of glossy parts was all that was needed to mutate your car from standard.
When looking to modify an LS1 back in 2009 the options were plentiful. I settled on the famous Peter Dichiera of Corsa Special Vehicles - the ‘Mildura Maverick’ who had obtained a government approved ADR compliance to operate as a secondary manufacturer. For me, Peter was an absolute legend. He was the underdog that took on the big boys of HSV at their own game and value added to the performance Commodore scene.
I can remember reading the articles that came out about Corsa Special Vehicles versus their equivalent HSV’s. CSV cars were always more outlandish, more powerful and performance focused. Surprisingly they were also more reliable under duress. They were not cheap and CSV eventually faded away. Regardless, I had to admire this bloke’s passion and enthusiasm for the Holden brand.
When I booked my car in for a tune at Pete’s workshop on the outskirts of Melbourne I was greeted to a modest factory filled with a dozen or so cars gracing its bays. He even had his own version of a W427 being put together for a customer - nice. Peter was different to how I imagined; he was a little rough around the edges, was very hands on and did not mince his words.
When he strapped my car to his dyno, the magic started to happen. First pull on the rolling road netted 160 rear wheel kilowatts. Hmmm, nothing special there I thought - so much for my ‘tune’ as I had earlier discovered. More dyno time revealed a proportional relationship had begun to develop between my car and the rollers. The longer it was strapped on, the more power he managed to find. After about an hour of tapping away on a keyboard, combined with relentless high RPM thrashing, including the exit of my drive belt from the engine bay a number of times, the car eventually left the smoke filled workshop transformed. And by smoke I mean my car blew out so much of it that the air within this premises resembled the atmosphere of Beijing prior to their Olympics bid.
Despite the fumes and loosened tensioner on the drive belt, my car emerged with almost 230rwkw. An impressive gain considering the 1200 buck outlay. My hard-earned cash had afforded me an over-the-radiator air box, K&N air filter and a tune that actually made a difference. The dollar per kilowatt ratio was outstanding and I was grinning like a fool whilst secretly praying that the numbers were not a lie.
Driving home from his workshop the first thing I noticed was how crisp and responsive the throttle was. Suddenly this car had real bottom end torque (from the factory they were quite weak in this area), and breaking traction was an effortless affair. The engine revved cleanly to redline with power building progressively from idle through to around 6000rpm. It felt like a new car despite being old. The transformation was significant in that it made driving the car far more rewarding, entertaining and pleasurable.
This Berlina now felt fast, and sorted many ‘hopefuls’ with ease. To keep the car tracking straight and increase its likelihood of not spearing me off the road, I upgraded the brakes and suspension.
A lowered diff ratio helped get the car out of the hole and a freshened LSD was added for good measure as the factory item did not enjoy my antics.
I opted for 330mm disc brakes on the front with larger 2-piston calipers. These were better at handling big hits compared to standard, but were far from track focused. A set of TEIN coilovers, a camber kit and some fresh bushes improved the cars ability to move between the bends. These changes, combined with a lower centre of gravity, gave the car far more agility when attacking corners at speed when compared to a standard Berlina.
Where its potential was truly stretched was when it came to encounters with some heavy Euro muscle. Some of my mates owned the likes of a BMW M6, Audi R8 and RS4, and AMG’s. In the interests of science, my car was ‘tested’ against members of this circle. Up to the legal ton, this local hero was never left far behind, and at times it was even a whisker ahead. The only time it got truly sorted was when the speedo needle was bending down from a north-east position. At that point I figured my race had already been won. For street use, this car ticked all my boxes and I did not continue to modify it any further as I was actually happy with how it performed.
For a total outlay of well south of $20,000, I had a car that could hold its own against many big name marques. It was brutally quick to 100km/h and did not cost the earth to own, run or maintain. It looked good (to me), made some great noises and it demonstrated to my peers that a local product could mix it with some off-the-shelf powerhouses. This car was driven for a number of years in this configuration, clocking up 80,000 trouble free kilometres before being sold to finance another project.
I found this car to be an immensely practical vehicle, comfortable and roomy with seating for five. It was able tow a decent load without strain, had a handy-sized boot and ran consistently well despite the irregularity of our weather patterns or fuels depending on the servo you rolled into.
On the highway this big Aussie bruiser excelled, holding the limit with ease whilst nibbling away gingerly on its hydrocarbon reserves. I was able to get 11-12 litres per 100 kilometres when cruising, despite the lowered gearing, weighty rims and performance software upgrade.
To stir up my peers with their six-digit rides I would service my car at home in the driveway - no ‘stealership’ visits here. Despite having a somewhat hard life, this car never broke down or needed a complex maintenance schedule to keep it alive and punching, unlike the cars owned by my peers.
Some would argue it liked a big drink… but for its capacity and mass I felt its efficiency was acceptable. When given a mouthful of unleaded the lumbering giant stretched its legs and showcased a good-hearted and playful nature. Always predictable, never threatening or unnerving to be around when enjoying some WOT action. I never grew tired of its bellow and surge when I extended my right foot to the floor.
As the kilometres racked up it began to leak oil and leave spots everywhere it went. Being grumpy from a cold start, it would carry on and make tinny sounds until thermal expansion subdued its mechanical banter. On the run, one could easily detect the aroma of some burnt 10W-30 if a window or sunroof was left open. At times, it even oiled up the intake manifold due to blow-by from its piston rings, but being a "cup half full" kind of guy, to me it was simply licking its lips as it moistened the K&N filter from behind.
Regardless of its foibles and the odd piston slap, the car just kept going, it did interstate trips confidently and held its own when being measured. Although it was a little on the nose and unsophisticated, it managed to win my heart because of its dependable nature. It was a loveable larrikin dressed in a black tuxedo. If you were not a brand snob, or someone from the blue corner, you may have admired its talents, forgiven its shortfalls and understood what this car represented to Holden tragics like myself. Having the capacity to steer from both ends depending on your mood or bravery made this ride a barrel of fun when no one was watching. I know that, to some, this was simply an over-powered taxi in tight undies, but to me, it was a car that worked well outside its brief.
Holden, you will be sorely missed.