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Inside Outsider

How the Holden VL Taught Me to Love

Growing up in migrant suburbia, a Commodore with a Japanese engine made sense.

In our latest series, Australiana, VICE is exploring national identity beyond the stereotypes. There are no cork hats or shrimps on the barbie here, we're letting Australians tell their own stories, free of national myth or propaganda.

When I was nine my uncle offered to show me something that'd change my life. I agreed, and we headed to the local carwash on Bell St where every second Thursday, his best friend washed his Holden VL SS Walkinshaw. I remember spilling the sauce from my sausage roll onto my Richmond jersey while shuffling through a crowd of people pointing at popped bonnets, chrome superchargers, and rumbling exhausts that sounded like your spirit was being exorcised every time someone revved. I vividly remember my uncle yelling "Oi! Over here!" and seeing a bunch of people in front of what looked like a sky-blue space ship, shaped like the batmobile. At this stage I couldn't see it properly, only the long drag-car spoiler and shadows across the side-skirts of awe-struck fans. But then I saw it and heard the roar of the engine, and I asked my uncle if that's what space ships sounded like. "Nah buddy," he said. "That's god breathing." This was an era before cosmetic modifications were a thing. This was a time when everyone at the carwash was concerned with the performative power of their car, and how the note of your exhaust reflected your lifestyle.


Just look at them. Photo by Daniel Casey

Much later, around 2005, I remember spotting VLs in suburban back streets where they were the pride and joy of young hoodlums smoking darts and popping monos on their mongooses. The VL interior was moulded and owned by suburban Australiana: smelling like pre-drunk frothies before the footy at Waverley Park, festooned with fluffy dice dangling from the rear view or maybe a pine tree air freshener. The whole lot was iced off with the iconic swoosh from the turbo, a sound which today seems to encapsulate my entire adolescent rite of passage.

I remember one day watching a girl named Jess from Ringwood smoking a winfield blue cigarette while laying across the bonnet of her boyfriend's sky-blue VL Turbo. I asked her what she loved about the car. "Well it's an Aussie classic, isn't it?" she replied, blowing smoke. "My uncle used to drive one and on weekends he would wake up really early, pick me and my sister up and take us for a drive to Phillip Island for fish n chips. Those long smooth rides down the coast were some of our fondest memories. I'll never forget the day someone T-boned him on the corner of Springvale and Burwood highway, he didn't speak to anyone for weeks. He was gutted. The car meant the world to our family because it brought us all together. We never really went for Saturday rides with him again, it wasn't the same."

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VL Commodores were produced from 1986 to 1988. The VL basically came about with the phaseout of leaded fuel, forcing manufacturers to build engines that could run on on unleaded 91-octane fuel. It was for this reason that Holden had to drop the signature VK V8 Black engine and replace it with an imported straight-six unit designed and manufactured by Nissan. Holden almost discontinued their V8 engine entirely; partly as a response to a similar move by Ford when they decided to drop the V8 from their Falcons. But when Holden fans heard the news they weren't happy, at all. Public outcry generated a media campaign titled "V8s 'til 98" which eventually persuaded Holden to continue the production of it's boisterous V8. Also, for an extra $3,000 Holden offered an inbuilt fax machine. A fucking fax machine ladies and gentlemen. Holden executives might have been initially worried about how a Nissan engine would be received, but what they didn't anticipate was how it would be enthusiastically absorbed by the diverse communities in the suburbs. The fact it was could be seen as a nod to the multiculturalism that makes Australia so fucking sick. And in any case it was the first time the V8 vs Riceburner rivalry had come to a standstill. Be it Melbourne, Sydney, Perth or Brisbane, the colloquial VL narrative united a wide range of personalities and cultures. There were Asians adding blow-off valves to their VLs, Aussies organising cruises, Greeks adjusting the rear window venetian blinds, and Middle-Easterners posing with their bonnets popped as the flash from their disposable camera lit up their custom interiors.

Photo by Daniel Casey

It was this sense of being our car, that made the VL great. But it was the feeling of riding in one that initially hooked us all. I still remember my uncle whispering something into the VL owner's ear, all those years ago at the car wash. He looked at me, nodded, and moved his head slightly to the left, gesturing for me to quickly get in before my chance slipped away. Then he strapped me in and said, "you ready?" I wasn't. To give you some context, I was one of those kids that preferred to watch the roller coasters and swim in the shallow end. To say the least, I was nervous, but I nodded anyway.

The way the car shook and glued my head to the back of the headrest as he dipped through traffic was like a drug. Like there was just no better way to go out. In fact this car is exactly how I wanted to go out, overwhelmed and with adrenaline and butterflies in my gut, as literally every person watched from the curb in awe. When the ride was over, I felt like I was drained from sheer thrills, fear, and I felt a desperate craving for more.

Fast forward 15 years and I now own my very own VE SS. To reignite the nostalgic catharsis of my childhood ride, I tuned the car with a Walkinshaw PowerPack, which gave my whip an added snarl and stomach-swirling bass tone. The first few months I drove it around the suburbs with literally no music, like a conversation you hold with someone you have a crush on, the noise from the world's traffic drains away with every floored pedal. While hanging around an SS meet up at the Carribean Gardens, a bearded bloke with a Cocaine & Caviar hoody recently imposed on my conversation with a quick smirk and shoved his phone at me. His name was Abdul and he went "you heard this cuz?" I looked at his phone, which was flashing a YouTube video titled DIXIE—UNLEASH THE MUZZAS. The track built with a cacophony of VL blow-off valves whooshing into an abrupt stuuu tuu tu that exploded into a euphoric trance rhythm that would naturally bring on shakes to the TNs of the hardest Lebos you know. A truly classic suburban Australian anthem. When the futurist Marinetti famously said "We declare…a new beauty, the beauty of speed. A racing motor car…is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace," those of us who have had the out-of-body experience associated with the thrill of horsepower, gears and pistons, wholeheartedly get it. The VL was special because if you get in one now, you simultaneously experience an addictive rush of centrifugal gravity, while being drowned in the sounds and nostalgia of your adolescence. Just dose it brah. Follow Mahmood on Twitter and Instagram