This barn-find VN Commodore shows why old Holdens were ideal for Aussie roads

This base-spec VN time capsule is an oddity to have found in such good condition, and a reminder of just how perfect Holdens were for Aussie roads.

On December 10, 2019, Holden Australia announced that it was finally pulling the pin on its incredibly poorly-selling German-made ZB Commodore which had attempted to replace the glorious VF after the closure of its plant in Elizabeth, South Australia in 2017 which had sadly marked the end of full-scale Australian car manufacturing.

If an alien were to land in Australia and pop down to a Holden showroom to get themselves a set of wheels that didn't run on the sort of stuff kept in Area 51, the Commodore they'd be confronted with today is nothing like what it used to be. Best known for being a big, softly-sprung, rear-wheel drive sedan built from the ground up for Australian conditions, the badge-engineered Opel that replaced it is none of those things, even if it isn't a bad car.

By absolute coincidence, the very same morning that this perhaps inevitable news broke, I had been out driving what was, indeed, a prime example of the Commodore breed – the infamous VN, and one in the sort of condition you simply don't normally see.

When people think of a barn-find, what they're likely hoping they'll find tucked up in a shed somewhere will be an immaculate iconic car bearing a prancing horse or a three-pointed star on the front, but for me personally, I don't get as excited about something like that being found stored away in perfect condition as I do something as mundane as this.

Why? Well, expensive cars are simply more likely to be kept in such quarters due to their value, whereas something like this base-model Commodore was simply never meant to be kept in such condition as this one has been. It was meant to be a workhorse, and most were run into the ground as a result, which is why it's such an astonishingly rare occurrence to see one in this sort of nick.

With the current second owner – the son of whom is its current caretaker – having possessed it since the mid-90s, its history is well documented, especially since all the original books are still with the car. Just over 77,000km is showing on the odometer, and you can really tell that's all it's ever covered as this example is in showroom-fresh condition with the sole exception of the unsurprisingly flakey pinstripes on the bumpers. Even the original tape deck is in the dash, the original Holden motto sticker is in the rear window, and the never-used spare tyre still sits in its massive boot.

Although called the Executive, which sounds rather high-brow, this poverty-pack Commodore was intended for the sales reps and everyday Joes of Australia, as the actual company executives out there would more likely be found behind the wheel of a Calais.

Priced from $20,014 when the VN first launched in 1988 – equivalent to a whopping $48,039 today accounting for inflation, which is as much as a Calais Tourer V6 in the current, soon-to-be-dumped lineup – the options list included features simply taken for granted these days. Air conditioning was one such optional feature fitted to this particular example – and it's still freezing cold today as it runs on older R12 refrigerant – while the popular automatic transmission was the only other box on the options list ticked.

As such, the Executive, despite its name, was very basic and not afraid to let you know it. Black plastic bumpers were fitted – colour-coded ones didn't come in until the VP's introduction at the end of '91 – as were tiny 14-inch steel wheels with plastic hubcaps, while inside, the manually-wound windows, lack of a tachometer, and visible lack of door pockets due to the indentation in the mould where they'd have been on higher-spec variants clearly remind you that you were in the cheap-seats here.

But in saying that, the interior wasn't all that bad, even if basic and bland. With acres of space for both front and rear occupants, comfortable cloth-trimmed seats, an odd total of six air vents across the dashboard, and a surprisingly driver-focused gauge cluster layout with all the common controls you'd need attached around it that's similar to that of a Z32 Nissan 300ZX, it's a perfectly pleasant place to spend time for those not bothered by a lack of heated massage seats or the twenty touchscreens cars seem to have nowadays.

For me, just sitting in the driver's seat alone was a real flashback as while the car I racked up the vast majority of my hours for my Learner's Permit in when getting my license was a Subaru Liberty that I still have today, the very first car I ever actually drove was my mother's 1992 VP Executive – the almost identical facelifted version of this with the revised and slightly more powerful TPI engine.

With the view of that worryingly flexible two-spoke steering wheel and distinct tacho-free gauge cluster, the relaxed seating position in which you could really get comfortable, and the distinct interior smell that's second only to that of an E60 BMW 5 Series for me, it was a total blast from the past that really reminded me of where I first learnt to love driving. Sure, this being a VN it looks a lot different to the VP I remember so fondly – the silver grille, non-colour matched bumpers, and lack of wire wheels meant it was visually a lot different – but as soon as I turned the key and threw it into Drive, the memory of the full experience all came back to me like it was just yesterday.

Being a very late Series I build, this VN was still fitted with the standard Buick V6 engine, also known as the 3800 LN3 – a 3.8-litre unit with 12 valves and electronic multi-point fuel injection that made only a mere 125kW of power but a solid 285Nm of torque.

Backed by the optional Turbo-Hydramatic 700R4 four-speed automatic transmission – the predecessor to the 4L60-E used in Commodores all the way up until 2006 – and rear-wheel drive with a live rear axle, it's not exactly what you'd call the most sophisticated powertrain in existence.

But then, the VN isn't exactly what you'd call the most sophisticated car in existence in the first place as while a bigger Commodore needed to be made to keep fleet buyers happy, General Motors' imposed budgetary limitations meant it needed to be built from whatever was lying around. This meant using a stretched and widened VL floorpan derived from the German Opel Senator, and more Opel parts in the way of the doors from the newer Omega A. Even the US-sourced engine was a last-minute decision, as plans to locally build a larger 3.3-litre version of the Nissan RB30 engine used in the VL were scrapped by the marketing team who deemed that an even bigger engine was needed for this new, big Commodore.

But despite the chunky engine, it's certainly not what anyone would call quick, as the V6 was never really known for being a particularly strong performer – even if its performance was praised at the time of the VN's launch in 1988 given just how lethargic the miserly 90kW entry-level EA Ford Falcon of the time was – but it's an engine that certainly has its merits.

While acceleration is far from enthralling, its strong torque figure does help it pull strongly, even if it isn't quickly, and its an engine that handles consistent high-speeds with a German level of calm. Do remember that at this time, many roads through central Australia were still derestricted, and so with the Commodore's built-for-Australia mantra, its ability to sit at 130km/h or above for hours on end is not a mere coincidence.

More importantly, however, this is an engine renowned for reliability. Whether in its longitudinally-mounted configuration as seen in the Commodore or transversely-mounted as in many GM products reserved for the US from the likes of Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac, its reputation as being largely unkillable is clearly proven – if anything is to ever kill one, it'll usually be something outside of the engine itself such as the radiator letting go.

That primarily comes down to it being such a relatively high-displacement engine and completely under-stressed driveline. With only around 77,000km on this particular example, it barely feels broken in and runs just as well as the day it left the showroom 29 years ago as it's an incredibly smooth operator from behind the wheel, even if there's no escaping the fact that it does feel particularly lazy by modern standards due to its low power output and slushmatic transmission, but when you consider that this has all been deliberately done for reliability's sake, it puts into context the many drawbacks of the zingy downsized engines we're used to today, even if they do offer many positives as well.

The fact the V6-powered Commodore isn't much of a performer in a straight line also isn't exactly a bad thing because it's not what you'd call amazing through the bends either. While far from the worst handling you'll ever come across, the body roll through the corners is pretty dramatic, particularly from that live rear end, while the steering is incredibly light and vague on centre as you'd likely expect for the period. So much for bragging about its 'Radial Tuned Suspension' on the dashboard, then.

Except that badge isn't there to brag about handling – as it would be unreasonable for anyone to expect a land yacht like this to handle with a similar-vintage BMW's precision – but is instead there to brag about ride quality, that often-forgotten attribute in today's day. Those who've ever driven one of these will know just how excellent its bump absorption is, as the way it soaks up the horrendous quality of Australian roads – be it tarmac or gravel – is truly uncanny.

Few cars on sale today offer this sort of a ride, and if comfort is all you're after, this is about the best you could ever hope for – something only amplified further by the ultra-easy single-finger power steering. Without wanting to throw even more salt in the wounds of the canned ZB, it could never even dream of coming close to being this suitable for Aussie conditions.

It might have been cobbled together from leftover GM parts in cost-cutting efforts that are the new norm today, and it may have come from a period of otherwise decidedly rubbish cars, but the VN managed to triumph over all the factors it had against it. In 1988, it took out the Wheels Car of the Year gong and was a certified hit.

Given my personal connection to this platform, it was a truly joyous trip down memory lane being able to drive this VN, even if its far from the best thing since sliced bread. There's no doubt it was a darn fine car for the period, though, and this particularly perfect example is something truly special. Though the failed attempt to keep the name alive may have tarnished its reputation slightly, this is what I'll always think of when I hear the Commodore name and consider what it stood for – a car built by Australians, for Australians.

This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on December 27, 2019. A massive thank you to Chris for giving me the opportunity to document this beauty. If you're an Adelaidean with a classic or otherwise interesting car tucked away in the garage, be sure to reach out if you'd like me to put a piece together on it much like this.

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Comments (10)

  • Oh man. I wiped a tear. I had a VN! It was my first car, I loved that car. Re-did the interior, cleanskinned the exterior, put some mags on it, lowered it a bit and tuned it... beautiful car.

      9 months ago
    • What a great first car to have had, and with all the right mods done to it as well! Was definitely a very emotional nostalgia trip for me and I certainly had to wipe a tear from my eye driving it given my own connections to the platform.

        9 months ago
  • Long term durability, towing capacity, and fuel efficiency, for it's size, of the 1950s sourced Buick V6, is one of the reasons Australia is in not bad shape. I remember when I saw my first one, and drove it.

    It was 1989, the economy had nose dived as incredibly stressed out airline pilots went on strike.

    People stopped going to fancy restaurants, and instead bought pizza and / or fish n chips.

    My cousin walked 100 yards down the street from his house to work in a fish n chip shop.

    All my uni friends had jobs making, taking phone orders for, chopping ingredients, making or , delivering pizzas.

    Or fixing broken down pizza delivery cars.

    The famous " Pizza Oven " , on top of the hill in Holland park, on Brisbanes south side, long gone and seemingly forgotten, ( try googling it , apparently it were a figment of my and quite a few friends imagination )

    was a special year, where fuel efficiency and car running costs was everything.

    The most popular delivery car was the miserly Ford Laser, followed by the Mazda 323, and Mazda 626.

    I had a 1974 Datsun 180B 4 speed, nicknamed " Exxon Valdez ".

    I had bought it for $200, and got it registered...just.

    But one of the pizza drivers had a full time day job as a sales rep, selling stress management books, probably , and drove a brand new VN wagon, hydramatic and power steer.

    He and I compared MPG notes.

    Turns out a 1 ton, 1.8 litre 4 speed Exxon Valdez, sorry, um, Datsun 180B , uses more petrol on the Kessel Run, sorry , I mean the drive down the south east freeway from Holland Park, to the southern pizza customer suburbs like Springwood, or Springfield, or Radiator Springs, or som'thun',

    than the 1.3 odd ton 225 cu in Holden V6 .

    My cousin and I discussed this odd observation,at length , over 3 day old pizza , and chips, usually whilst listening to Pink Floyd on low, subliminal volume.

    Apres '89 economic slide budget cuts limited the pecuniary available for the electricity bills that were slightly amped by the old low efficiency amps that we had attached to the stereo speakers that we had found on a kerbside clean up day.

    Theories on power to weight ratios, gear box and diff ratios, aerodynamics, EFI , and constantly fouled plugs in the 180B , were tossed back and forth like pizza boxes sliding around inside the cheap vinyl wrap around pouches that we used to keep them warm on chilly Brisbane nights.

    We failed to draw any conclusions, because a friends Ford Laser, 1.3 litre 5 speed manual trounced the lot, in terms of suburban and highway mileage.

    But it mattered not, for the sensible cast iron V6 Holden, quietly and resiliently lumbered on, that deep slow heart, patiently and faithfully supplying.

    Over time the Holden V6 became a little respected for it's slow, perhaps reserved demeanour.

    You'll see them at lawn bowls clubs, or at the shops, waiting, like the family dog, for a pat and a biscuit.

    Sense and Sensibility on 4 wheels, perhaps.

    I don't mind the ZB , as I think of it as Holdens answer to the 1886 Ford Telstar Ghia hatchback, which was a very decent car, well suited to the ski holiday , tennis, and barefoot bowls set, and which paved the way for the future, for fuel efficient mid sized family hatchbacks .

    I like the ZB with it's thoughtful use of interior space, and neatly curved hatchback, because it reminds me of pleasant evenings in 1989 serving the mostly professional person demographic of Holland Park customers at the pizza shop.

    The ZB is the modern young upwardly mobile professional persons thrifty conveyance.

    The ZB is a time machine, or a time capsule, taking me back to 1989.

    Where , using my stock market knowledge from the future, I would buy a VN and drive it carefully, so as not to scuff those pleasant looking plastic wheel covers.

    Is there anyone else who misses the days of the comfy ride quality of the 14 " steel rims with 75 profile factory tyres ?

    If only the ZB had come from t' factory with, say, 15 " rims and 75 profile tyres.

    If.

      9 months ago
  • The early VNs particularly were renown for heaps of power down low - I remember Wheels mag reporting 90% of the torque cane in just above idle. That’s why they felt so grumpy - later versions they toned it down (so those who couldn’t take off properly didn’t spin the wheels) but still were quick in their day. The model got better and better as it progressed - air bags independent rear and the later Ecotec but these were good cars

      9 months ago
    • Yes, the series 1 VN were very snappy off the line and a powerhouse in a straight line. A heap of fun as a young P plater. The series 2 and VP models were more reserved.

        9 months ago
  • I have a soft spot for these as well. one of my first jobs was with Budget rent a car in 1989 - 1990 and they had heaps of them. On those skinny tyres you could do easy smoky burnouts. Just stomp on the brake and accelerator at the same time and your away.

      9 months ago

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