This Commodore prototype honors Holden’s big-dollar Brickhouse
Much like the problems facing their American Corporate Mothership at height of the Malaise Era, Australia’s Holden had a B-Body moment that required significant downsizing of its popular full-size sedan, the Kingswood. The goal was to deliver a car with similar amounts of space but greater fuel efficiency, meaning this new vehicle had to be smaller, lighter, and more aerodynamic. Here in the USA, Holden counterparts at GM created Project 77 to inspire what would become the 1977 Chevrolet Impala (and every other GM B-body sedan and wagon); Holden raided Opel’s parts bin and created a legend in the making: the 1978 Commodore.
For those of us old enough to remember the U.S. energy crises of the 1970s and subsequent engineering of the Malaise Era, making more from less was the order of the day. Other countries were under the same crunch. These cars were long-derided in the collector marketplace, but the B-body Chevrolets of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s (especially the 1994–96 Impala SS) are rising stars in the classic car market.
Meanwhile, last month, one very special example of Holden’s Commodore sedan changed hands at Lloyd’s Auctions in Australia, to the tune of 108,000 Aussie dollars ($80,360 USD). The car is the only surviving example of three 1979 prototypes built for the VH SL/E, after the other two were crushed by GM Holden. According to the auction house’s listing, it sports a hand-crafted body, has never been driven, and was unearthed in a rural garage in Victoria. (And to those skeptics who think a big GM prototype sedan has never be worth so much money, keep in mind that the original Impala SS prototype sold for $75,900 with Barrett-Jackson in 2009, or about $100,375 in 2022 dollars.)
Let’s explore a little Holden history to better understand this sale. That first 1978 Holden Commodore wasn’t all-new, but it was close being so. While Holden eventually scrapped its clean-sheet designs and tapped their German counterpart for lower-cost engineering, making it all work for the rough and tumble roads of Australia ensured development costs rivaled that of a clean-sheet redesign. The end result was the VB Commodore, a perfectly proportioned vehicle ideally suited for the upcoming energy crisis of 1979. To wit, the VB Commodore had 96 percent of the prior Kingswood’s interior dimensions, despite being 14 percent smaller externally. It was right out fo the Project 77 playbook, and unlike the radical B-body Chevrolet Impala/Caprice of 1977, the Commodore was so good that Opel added it to its fleet.
The VB Commodore was something of a revelation in downsized vehicles of the era, as it still had the space for a small-block V-8 engine. The “big engine for the small flagship” theme continued to the VH Holden Commodore (1981–84), and Holden’s marketing at the time ensured the public knew one very good, eight-cylinder reason to buy this machine.
Of course, muscle-car-worthy performance isn’t enough to explain why the Commodore from Lloyd’s commanded such a premium. For that we can point to its historical pedigree, rarity, low miles, and supposed barn-find story of discovery.
A car like this, presented in untouched condition, is a window into a bygone era, allowing the viewer to ponder what life was like back then. It encourages us to consider a world where access to oil was restricted enough to shake up even GM, the largest automaker in the world. To weigh the forces of history and consider how history has a way of repeating itself.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt when said museum-quality piece of sedan history is also finished in glorious shades of brown (as it is the preferred hue of many automotive journalists of a certain age). This is a time capsule of the highest order, a sedan worthy of admiration, and it’s thrilling to see that Australians appreciate such rare metal just as much as we Americans do.
This sale also brings up an interesting question. What if that prototype Impala SS, pictured above, went across the auction block today? We’d wager the hammer price would be far more than what this VH Commodore is worth to its new owner.