Outdated Scavenger - 1987 Holden VL Commodore SS Group A

PICKING UP THE PIECES IN A POST-APOCALYPTIC WORLD

Since 1973, Australian Touring Car Championship had traditionally been all about domestically made big, high-powered, shouting V8 sedans making mincemeat of each other. Everything made abroad and powered by different engines was expected to compete for lower class victories, and leave the Aussies to divide the big prizes. Despite threats from Mazda and Nissan, this outlook was left largely unchallenged.

The wide-body higly modified CAMS Group C cars ruled the roost in the early 1980's.

The wide-body higly modified CAMS Group C cars ruled the roost in the early 1980's.

During the 1980’s this rosy chauvinistic outlook was brutally disrupted with an unexpected change of scenery. A change for the 1985 season from CAMS Group C to the more international FIA Group A regulations was not positively received. Compared to the highly modified cars used in the Group C years the Group A machines were irritatingly slow.

The stringent homologation rules of Group A made fitting giant wheel arch extensions and spoilers impossible, as the body of the race car had to be the same as on the road car. The exotic high power engine designs of the Group C generation were also banned for competing, which lost the cars as much as 100 horsepower.

The neutered Group A machine paled in comparison.

The neutered Group A machine paled in comparison.

The massive changes brought by Group A caused Ford Australia to withdraw from the ATCC entirely. This forced the Ford-running teams to select another brand, or be condemned to driving the woeful Group A version of the American Fox-body Mustang.

Holden continued to field a works effort in the championship, but had to fight hard to make their new machines competitive. The influx of honed European precision instruments like the BMW 635 CSi, Rover 3500, Volvo 240T and Jaguar XJ-S with years worth of extra development time further complicated their struggle.

The legendary Peter Brock spearheaded the VL's development through his Holden Dealer Team organization

The legendary Peter Brock spearheaded the VL's development through his Holden Dealer Team organization

After losing out to the BMW 635 CSi in 1985, and the Volvo 240T in 1986 it was time for a change. Holden had been using the VK model of the Commodore, which was by then two years old. The VK had managed to win the coveted James Hardie 1000 on the spectacular Mount Panorama Bathurst track in 1986, but it was due to be replaced by the newer VL.

With the VL, Peter Brock’s specialized Holden Dealer Team could finally implement a more aggressive and efficient aerodynamics package. They took the lessons learned from the first VK-based SS Group A homologation special and turned them up to 11.

The basic bodyshell of the VL was already far more aerodynamic, leading to way less drag. Front and rear spoilers much bigger than those on the VK were added, as well as a ram-air hood scoop to feed the still carburetted 5L V8. The Holden V8 produced around 430 horsepower through a Borg Warner T-54-speed manual transmission. Weight was still relatively high, at 1325 kg (2921 lbs).

The Mobil HDT Racing team.

The Mobil HDT Racing team.

Even though the VL was a major improvement over the VK, it still hadn’t made up any ground. The European competition was reaching its zenith with the introduction of the fearsome Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. The turbocharged beast produced nearly 550 horsepower and weighed only 1100 kg (2425 lbs). In terms of both power and light weight, the VL seemed to be outclassed from the start. Another headache was the new smaller capacity BMW E30 M3, which was a real weapon on the tighter, more demanding club circuits that littered the Australian landscape.

Meanwhile a falling out just before the start of the 1983 season between Holden and Peter Brock’s HDT outfit saw the two part ways. Brock had been the main force behind Holden’s racing successes, winning the famous race at Bathurst a record 8 times and securing 3 driver’s titles. Lately however, he was beginning to entertain some very questionable ideas. He had fitted a device called an “Energy Polarizer” to the HDT-built VK SS Group A, which was nothing more than a box of crystals and magnets. He claimed it aligned the molecules around the car and would “make a sh’thouse car good“.

The resulting public backlash and his refusal to lend a prototype using independent rear suspension to Holden for testing caused the manufacturer to cease its official support of his team. Brock then had to sell one of his completed VL’s at auction to help pay for the season, which reduced his team to a two car effort.

Allan Moffat/John Harvey Commodore in the gorgeous Rothmans colors.

Allan Moffat/John Harvey Commodore in the gorgeous Rothmans colors.

The VL Commodore ironically made its race debut outside of Australia in the inaugural World Touring Car Championship. It was driven by ATCC legends Allan Moffat (CAN) and John Harvey (AUS). The first round took place at Monza, which saw the Commodore finish strongly in 7th place behind six factory BMW Motorsport M3’s.

Post race it was revealed that the BMW Motorsport squad had fitted highly illegal carbon fiber and kevlar body panels, which made the cars a whopping 80 kg (176 lbs) underweight. As a result every single BMW was disqualified, which gave the Commodore a win on its debut.

WTCC Round 2, Jarama, 1987.

WTCC Round 2, Jarama, 1987.

In the ATCC the new Commodore would not show up until Round 3 at Lakeside Raceway. Newly factory backed Allan Grice (AUS) of Roadways Racing would be the first to drive the car. His arch rival Peter Brock was left to race the older VK, as his VL was not yet ready.

The VL fared reasonably well on its debut Down Under, but had to settle for 6th place. The VK’s of Peter Brock and Larry Perkins (AUS) were able to keep it behind. The podium was dominated by BMW with Jim Richards (NZ) 1st and Tony Longhurst (AUS) 3rd. Nissan’s Glenn Seton completed the top three by scoring 2nd in his Skyline DR30 RS Turbo.

The 4th round at Wanneroo Park was no different for Grice. Again a 6th place was all he could muster. At the front of the pack Glenn Seton’s winning Nissan had gained company in the form of D*ck Johnson (AUS) and his new Ford Sierra RS Cosworth (2nd), and the VK Commodore of Larry Perkins (3rd).

Allan Grice showed progress during the next round at Adelaide. A frantic race with a rolling start saw him in a fierce battle with Larry Perkins and both BMW drivers. Grice showed he understood the ancient proverb of “Rubbing’s racing“ and bumped Perkins out of the way late in the race.

With 3rd place secured he went on to hunt for George Fury (AUS) and his Nissan, but he came up short. The fantastic podium position was somewhat overshadowed by the dominant first victory of the Sierra RS Cosworth by D*ck Johnson, which painted an ominous picture of things to come.

For the 6th round at the soon to be demolished Surfers Paradise Raceway Peter Brock finally had the VL Commodore at his disposal. Because Allan Grice had conflicting NASCAR commitments, Brock’s car was now the only VL in the field. Sadly he failed to make an impression and finished down in 9th, behind his teammate Gary Scott (AUS) in the older VK. At Sandown it was a similar story. Brock again came in 9th behind his VK-driving teammate David “Skippy” Parsons (AUS).

Allan Grice returned with his VL at the tiny Amaroo Park circuit. Tight, twisty and only 1.9 km (1.2 mile) long, it clearly favored the light and precise BMW’s. As expected the two JPS Team BMW entries dominated the race followed by the Nissan’s. The lardy Commodore’s were whales out of the water at the Mickey Mouse track, and could not keep close. Peter Brock was best of the VL’s with 7th, while Allan Grice lagged behind in 9th.

Peter Brock, Oran Park 1987.

Peter Brock, Oran Park 1987.

The final round of the ATCC took place at Oran Park Raceway. With another 7th place Peter Brock found his driving prowess to be insufficient to make up for the car’s glaringly obvious flaws.

With Allan Grice’s machine overheating and dropping out of the race, and Larry Perkins finishing a stellar 4th with the older VK, the VL’s future seemed bleak. It was consistently being outperformed and outmaneuvered by smaller, more sophisticated machinery and the old VK. Clearly something had to be done to make up for the deficit.

The uniquel layout at Calder Park Raceway.

The uniquel layout at Calder Park Raceway.

With the championship decided in favor of Jim Richards’ JPS BMW M3, and Peter Brock (7th) and Allan Grice (8th) far behind, it was time for the teams to focus on the Australian Endurance season. As opposed to the ATCC this series of five races put less emphasis on outright speed, and more on rugged dependability. This factor favored the lazy V8 and relatively simple engineering of the Holden and put it within a good shout of the podium.

Three VL Commodore’s were entered for the first round, the Bob Jane T-Marts 300 at Calder Park Raceway. The track featured a combined layout using both the 2.3 km (1.43 mile) road course and the newly built Thunderdome 1.79 km (1.1 mile) NASCAR-style oval track for a total length of 4.11 km (2.55 miles). The entry of Larry Perkins/Bill O’Brien scored an impressive 2nd place behind the Nissan of George Fury/Terry Shiel (AUS). The other two cars of Allan Grice/Graeme Crosby and Graham Lusty/John Lusty (AUS) failed to finish.

Neil Crompton/Jon Crooke (AUS) alongside Murray Carter/Denis Horley (AUS), Sandown 1987.

Neil Crompton/Jon Crooke (AUS) alongside Murray Carter/Denis Horley (AUS), Sandown 1987.

Peter Brock’s HDT Racing outfit was now in full force with two well sorted cars, and lined up for the Pepsi 250 at Oran Park Raceway. Brock was this time thoroughly on the pace and looked set for a win, but a bad pit stop and driver change gave the race away to Richards/Longhurst in the BMW M3. Brock came tantalizingly close, but had to settle for 2nd. The sister car of current V8 Supercar commentator Neil Crompton and Jon Crooke finished in a more familiar 9th position. The Lansvale Smash Repairs VL Commodore of Steve Reed/Trevor Ashby was the last VL to finish in 10th.

At the Castrol 500 of Sandown, the paddock was in for a shock. Ford debuted its new and improved Sierra RS500 Cosworth, a 600 horsepower evolution of the already very potent base model. The car had no real challenge in terms of pace and blew everyone out of the water. Even so the massive boost levels put immense strain on the tiny 2L four cylinder engine, which made it a seemingly awful choice for endurance racing.

Sure enough the Sierra’s dropped out during the race, and the Commodores were left to pick up the pieces. The Nissan Skyline’s of Peter Jackson Racing and an old Perkins entered VK proved to be too strong however, which left the leading HDT car of Crooke/Crompton to take 4th. Brock/Parsons and Grice/Percy failed to finish

Mount Panorama Bathurst, 1987.

Mount Panorama Bathurst, 1987.

Finally it was October. The race that everyone in the Australian touring car scene had been working up to was there. The James Hardie 1000 at Mount Panorama Bathurst. For the first time the seemingly endless Conrod Straight had been shortened with the addition of the blisteringly fast Caltex Chase. The change was made in an effort to reduce speeds following Mike Burgmann’s horrifying fatal accident the year prior. The move was in vain however, as the new Sierra RS500 was reaching speeds of nearly 280 kph (173 mph) on even the shortened straight. This was more than 10 kmh (6.2 mph) faster than the fastest cars of 1986.

For the first and only time the race had an international flavor as Round 8 of the inaugural WTCC. This meant the factory teams from Ford and BMW were coming over to pick a fight with the local boys. Ford’s Texaco backed Sierra’s were a particular headache in this respect, with even better prepared cars than those already in service in the ATCC. As a result positions 1-6 were all occupied by Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth’s, with the Texaco cars on the front row.

Of the VL Commodore’s Allan Grice/Win Percy were fastest in the Roadways Racing entry, 7th on the grid. Peter Brock/David Parsons in the HDT Racing machine managed 11th, with the sister car of Peter McLeod/Jon Crooke down in 20th. Further VL Commodore entries took the 25th, 33rd, 38th, and 39 position.

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Peter Brock showcasing his record-breaking talent.

The 1987 edition of The Great Race proved to be quite the thriller. Peter Brock had found that his new engine was spewing metal fragments into its oil filter, which prompted him to use an engine two full endurance races old. The decision proved fatal for the #05 car as it slowed to a halt on lap 34. Undeterred, Brock hopped into the second #10 machine and soldiered on. Jon Crooke was denied a drive, while Peter McLeod and Brock’s partner David Parsons joined in.

The Ford Sierra’s reliability problem started to show as the race progressed. Various turbo and engine related issues slowed the cars down considerably. Another factor was the disastrously wet weather, which made sure the Sierra’s couldn’t exploit their explosive turbocharged power. This allowed Brock/Parsons/McLeod to quickly make up places. Eventually the Commodore made it to 3rd on slick tires in the rain. The two Texaco Sierra’s of Klaus Ludwig (GER)/Klaus Niedzwiedz (GER) and Steve Soper (GB)/Pierre Dieudonné (BEL) finished 1st and 2nd.

The 05 suffered an expected engine failure.

The 05 suffered an expected engine failure.

But then there was a problem. Post race the wheel arches of both Texaco Sierra’s were found to be slightly too wide. This had allowed the cars to run wider tires unnoticed, solving the major traction problem that the Sierra had suffered from. Eventually both cars were excluded from the results, which caused the VL Commodore SS Group A of Peter Brock, David Parsons and Peter McLeod to be declared the surprise winners.

Even this decision was not without controversy, as Peter Brock had actually qualified both cars himself. According to the rules any one driver could only set a valid qualifying time for a single car. If the officials had noticed the gaffe, the #10 car would have had to start from 27th on the grid based on Jon Crooke’s slower lap time. The mistake was however never corrected, and the win stood. This meant the car had won from the furthest position back on the grid in history.

The Holden VL Commodore SS Group A was born out of controversy and faced impossible fast opposition. It was too heavy and severely underpowered, but the perseverance of HDT made it into a formidable opponent in the endurance scene. Although it only ever won when the faster guys were cheating, it remains an impressive achievement against all odds.

The VL Commodore was the car in which Bathurst legend Peter Brock won his 9th and last Great Race. It was also the last car equipped with a carburetted engine to do so. For 1988 a fuel injected, big winged evolution of the car would be presented in the form of the VL Commodore SS Group A SV.

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