My dad has always said that "youth is wasted on the young". But then, he also says "you have to be young and stupid before you're old and wise". I kind of float between each mantra as I reflect on what was (and still is) my favourite car I've owned.
I grew up in a Holden household. Our family car for many years was a 1980 HZ Kingswood wagon that dad spent hours and hours with, changing bits and pieces to make it just the way he wanted. Dad loves V8s and still drives a WM Caprice with headers and a loud exhaust. My brother is Bathurst mad and can name every winner in every year, including co-drivers and runners-up. He drives a WK Statesman with the Gen III LS1 and it's his pride and joy. This passion for Holden was ingrained in my youth, so it was only natural (almost inevitable) that I would find myself in one when the time came.
When I started working full-time at the tender age of 18, I started saving every penny. I scrimped and saved for a few years – every cent I could spare. I was going to buy the car that I wanted and it was going to be a V8 Holden... Which model? I wasn't quite sure. At the time, the Monaro had my eye. But as many of you will know, being a young guy trying to get insurance with zero driving history is not easy. Throw into the mix a coupe and a V8? They hang up before you've even had finished saying "born in 198-". It looked like I would have to set my sights on an SS.
A close friend had a VY Series II SS and I loved it. A manual, bright red and basic cloth interior. After a few drives with him, I decided I was going to buy a VY Series II. Then – the VZ Commodore landed. Isn't it funny that when you're young, the smallest details mean the biggest things to you? Ostensibly, this was the same car. The same motor. The same badging. A few small details on the skirts and trim – but it had a (albeit fake) vent over the front fender that was ice cool. It had me sold as soon as I saw it.
Our neighbour worked in the service department of a local Holden dealer, and mentioned to me that the dealer principal was piloting the new VZ SS Commodore and it was for sale. As soon as he told me it was black, a manual, leather interior and a demo, I got in touch for a look. I distinctly remember this poster in the sales centre when I arrived: this huge picture of the Gen III LS1 V8 and the caption “the scariest thing the Germans have seen in years” – and boy did I believe the hype. If you know my previous review, it’s even funnier now that I ended up with a German V8.
So, the sales process. This is where it gets 'interesting'. We grew up on a property and had cars in our back paddock when I was younger. These were all stick shift and dad always wanted to make sure that we would learn how to drive a car that was a manual and how to control a car when things came unstuck. Bless him; his intentions were just.
As it turns out, I learnt how to drive a manual only one way, though... Drop the clutch and stomp the gas! While those years in the paddock bashers helped me immensely in being able to keep a car under control when the nose was pointing one way and the wheels were pointing another, it did little to teach me how to drive sensibly when it came to common-day scenarios, such as hill starts, or even just pulling away at an intersection.
So, when it came to the test drive, I knew in the back of my mind that this wasn't a smart choice. Although I had my P2 provisional licence, I'd passed my initial tests in an auto and hadn't driven a manual in about five years. This was not going to stop me buying the car, but (much to the confusion of the salesman) it did stop me from taking up the offer of a test drive. In any case, I saw the car and fell in love with it immediately. When I signed the paperwork, the dealer principal said "My wife is going to be so upset. She loves that car". I thought to myself, "not as much as me, mate".
So, there it was in the driveway: a VZ Series I SS Commodore, with 1100km on the clock, sold 'as new' to an eager 22-year-old who'd waited nearly his whole life for that day.
My first few weeks with the car were comical. Learning the clutch and bunny-hopping away at sets of lights in what was the newest and greatest SS on the road at the time. I think back now and shake my head at the thought. But then, the feelings I had at the time were priceless and I've yet to replicate them since. The police in the area made sure they knew who I was; this young guy who was obviously in "dad's car", with green P-plates prominently displayed. I think it was simply that their highway patrol car was the VY II and they too wanted a closer look.
Once I found my feet in the SS, it truly became my best friend. With prodigious torque and smooth acceleration, I came to terms with what I was driving and began to trust the car more and more. I make no excuses for what the Commodore was and I am not disillusioned; it was a big boat of a thing. The brakes were not great, the transmission had a long, agricultural throw, and the clutch was not the easiest to step straight into, but what the Commodore did well it did extremely well.
I spent 12 years and 190,000km with 'Black Betty'. In that time, I moved interstate to QLD and loaded everything I owned into the back of the car. She got me there safely and swiftly. A few years later, I moved back south to NSW and again, she never skipped a beat. Then, when I moved again a few years after that to the ACT, she was there to do the job again.
Visibility in the cabin was pretty good. The A-pillars were not too obtrusive. I did find parking the Commodore difficult at times, which is something I don't like to admit to. I own a bigger car now and I can park and place it anywhere with minimal fuss. I just remember struggling to 'feel' where the corners of the car were when parking it in tight spots. But, I never felt intimidated or worried, even with a lack of parking sensors or reverse camera.
The brakes in the SS were dreadful. There's no dodging this point. Holden were all about go and not about whoa! And, when you're young, you only think about how fast it goes and not how fast it stops. I took the car to Mt Panorama in Bathurst with my brother when I first had it and was convinced I was Peter Brock coming down through the Dipper. Hard on the brakes, the SS didn't want to slow. I dropped two cogs and compression-locked straight towards a concrete wall. The SS found grip at the last possible moment and we pulled away hard to the left from what would've been a certain write-off. Here, I lean towards dad's "young and stupid" mantra.
The SS was prone to tyre wear on the rears, due to the squat of the IRS on the VT-line Commodore that the VZ inherited. I did spend a lot of money on high-performance tyres at one stage, particularly when the Aussie dollar was booming and purchasing from the States was a steal. I remember, in particular, purchasing some high-performance Continentals and was astounded that I could dump the clutch from first to second and only the slightest tyre squeal would occur. I had something I'd not experienced before in the VZ – grip!
Unsurprisingly, those tyres lasted me less than 6000km and burnt a hole in my wallet and pride. Towards the end of my time with her, I would fit hard-wearing rubber as she spent all her life on the highway.
Over the course of ownership, I had a cat-back exhaust fitted and small tune carried out, as the factory exhaust was disappointing at best. This small boost in power also gave the car a new lease of life for me, and it finally sounded like it was meant to sound.
The clutch and diff were noisy units, the diff in particular. I was lucky enough to live next door to a diff specialist who took a look for me, when at eight years of age I'd noticed a slight vibration and noise. He assured me (having worked on some pretty serious street cars and race cars) that it was nothing to be concerned with and just something that these cars do over time.
I did have to replace my clutch at 150,000km, and that was the only real time I felt let down by the Commodore. But in all reality, I did drive this car hard when I had my weekends off and nothing lasts forever. And, try to find another modern car today where you can visit your mechanic, he says you need a new clutch, and you can buy an aftermarket unit and have it fitted to a high-powered V8 for under $1600. Those days are dwindling.
The rear main seal on the LS1 had to be replaced twice in the 12 years I owned her. Again, not an uncommon problem at all. Anyone with an LS1 knows about this and has experienced it, I'm sure. Lucky for me, I had the second seal replaced at the same time the clutch was done, so I didn't have to drop the transmission yet again for the seal to be fixed.
Fuel economy for Black Betty was pretty good, I think. In one of my previous jobs, I did have to drive around Sydney and you could watch the fuel needle drop in traffic. I would be getting somewhere around 17.5/18L per 100km around town. And the LS1 required a good rev to extract the most out of it, so the start/stop would destroy any sense of 'fuel efficiency'.
On the open road, however, the SS truly showed it was a car for the Australian conditions. Eating up kilometre after kilometre on the highway, I would see usage as long as 8.7L per 100km and easily fit 700km into a 65L tank.
The suspension was decent in the VZ. It had a 'sporty' feel about it, but it was by no means capable of matching the HSVs of the era, or any of the modern hardcore sports sedans. What the SS gave you in return was a comfortable and competent cruiser. It would absorb most of the bumps, but really, nothing this side of a hovercraft can hide the awful roads in Sydney.
The SS also gave you big, soft seats for the driver and passenger, and an acre of room in the back for whoever was joining you. The air-conditioning was excellent, and it needed to be in western Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. The SS also came with a six-stack CD head unit by Blaupunkt, which sadly died on me in my last year of ownership. Thankfully, it was only the CD changer that failed and I was able to find a second-hand unit on Gumtree and removed and replaced all the bits myself. Again, try doing that on a modern car without crying at your bank balance.
Servicing was cheap and easy. I did see my local mechanic more often in the last few years due to the amount of kilometres I was putting on the SS with the heavy work commute, but I was very diligent about servicing Black Betty. I'm a big believer that if you look after your car, your car will look after you. A service would cost me anywhere from $140–$220 at a time, depending on what needed to be done.
I spent a few months for work in Melbourne in my last year of ownership, and drove Black Betty down so that I had a way of getting out and about on the weekends. I’m so glad I was able to drive the Great Ocean Road in the SS and it was mostly deserted that day. I drove Black Betty up through the Yarra mountain ranges and finished my stay there with a romantic weekend away with my wife in country Victoria. The SS truly was capable of everything I threw at her and brought us back to Sydney without skipping a beat.
All good things must come to an end. Even now, as I sit and write this review, I have a smile on my face thinking about this car. When I decided on what I would buy next, and the rumour circled in the family that 'Dan was selling the SS!', my sister called me within 10 minutes of telling dad. Her husband had loved Black Betty for years and had always wanted to own her. I'm actually very grateful that this is where she ended up. Every family get-together, or Christmas, I get to park at mum and dad's and put my hand on the bonnet of what was my youth.
Youth may be wasted on the young, but glory days have to come from somewhere.