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Holden Monaro (2001-2005)


Article by Joe Kenwright
First published December 2005​


As Monaro production draws to a close at the end of 2005, its loss has generated more emotion than any recent production model in Australia. Joe Kenwright looks at what made the Monaro so special and assesses its future prospects…

Bottom line: The reborn Holden Monaro defied the odds in making it into production and soared way beyond expectations as exports took off. Although its 12,000 local sales and soft early drivetrains limit short term collectibility, a good used Monaro will always excite more emotion and a higher price than any equivalent Commodore model.

HISTORY

The sight of the first Coupe concept car at the 1998 Sydney Motor Show tapped into something deep across Australia. The fact that it appeared at all when local resources are always limited might explain some of this but there was more to it. It actually looked good. Make that more than good, it was exciting. It marked a point where the recession was a memory and Australians could afford to indulge. It was also a popular variation of the VT Commodore shape that had been embraced like no other Commodore before it.
Holden's design team never intended to revive the Monaro name nor build it. Instead, it was a design exercise intended to highlight the rightness of the Commodore family car range and in the process distract Australians from the launch of Ford's first all new Falcon in a decade. It was devastatingly effective on both scores when the AU Falcon struggled for widespread acceptance.

The secret to the Coupe's svelte looks were the 84 new body panels. The windscreen was raked back by two degrees and roofline lowered by 40 mm. The whole B-pillar section was moved rearwards to match new doors that were extended by 150 mm. Rear overhang was cut by 100 mm and there was a myriad of subtle yet masterful styling tweaks around the rear section including an integrated spoiler in the bootlid. The only regret was the lack of time and budget to add a chrome spear around the side window line to highlight the coupe roof line like the original Monaro.

Against these striking looks, the VT Commodore's dynamics and suspension were heavily compromised for a cost-conscious, recession market and not good enough for a performance coupe. Public reaction saw this stunning Coupe tooled up at breakneck speed, 22 months in fact, under the SMBP process or Simultaneous Math Based Process. Yet Holden always feared that the peak of excitement may have passed by the time it reached production. The concept car was hidden away but in the meantime a public campaign effectively forced Holden to revive the once hallowed Monaro name.

This created some challenges when Monaro expectations would demand more than a two door version of an existing Commodore. After his earlier 1970s stint as a gun suspension engineer for Holden, the return of Peter Hannenberger as Holden's new Chairman and Managing Director was perfect timing. He was soon on a mission to reverse the cost cutting that compromised roadholding and handling in the VT range and dramatically improve quality.

In fact, some clever suspension developments for the Monaro were later added to the Commodore range. Hannenberger worked hard to get the extra rear suspension toe control links built into the Commodore so they would be ready for the first Monaros. The VXII Commodore arrived only months before the Monaro's release with these vital control links installed and in conjunction with the Monaro's special suspension tweaks, the production Monaro drove better than anyone could have expected. Hannenberger's insistence that the Monaro's dynamics match the looks saw the Monaro released only in two specifications: the CV6 with supercharged V6 and auto only and the CV8 with the Gen III V8 with a choice of 6 speed manual or auto.

Launched late in 2001, most Monaro customer deliveries didn't flow until well into 2002 as Holden battled with supply and componentry issues.

Sadly for Holden and Monaro buyers, GM's US driveline operations were already in decline and the US componentry in these first Monaros left a lot to be desired. The four speed auto was dreadful in the way it would change without warning and slip and bang through its changes. The six speed manual was little better with its variable and often poor manufacturing standards and vague linkages.

The imported V8 was also in a soft state of tune, good for economy and low octane unleaded but a bland and soggy drive until it really got moving. As cynical US executives refused to acknowledge the chronic oil consumption and piston slap issues that also affected US owners, it drove many Monaro CV8 owners to despair.

After an initial suggestion that Australian owners were fussier than US owners, it soon reached a point where Holden could no longer avoid the issue. Not easily rectified, offers were made to owners for ongoing oil top-ups but in a prized Monaro, this was not acceptable for those owners who had to live with a rattly engine that sounded like it was about to blow up. Because the problem was not consistent in each cylinder, the only way to rectify it in many cases was a total replacement.

When buying a used example from this early period, a new engine may in fact be a real advantage, providing it has been swapped under warranty and officially recorded as a genuine factory changeover. Retaining full documentation for this could be critical in confirming the car's provenance and value as a future collector's item. When this was not a one-off process, it should not be an obstacle in a sale providing it is documented. In fact, it should allay fears that the problem was addressed properly.

The final styling for the first production Monaro placed Holden in a real quandary. Because Holden was in the process of restyling the rear section of its Commodore range for the VY facelift to act as a styling bridge to the all new VE, now delayed well into 2006, it could no longer share the concept car's detailing.

Because the abrupt and angular VY tail was not compatible with the Coupe styling, the Monaro was launched with the base level VX rear and a variation of the coming VY front. In the process, it lost some of the cohesion of the original concept and looked like a plainer base model in some colours. Holden also had to launch it as the V2 series as it could not follow the mainstream Commodore facelifts.

The initial costings allowed for a short model life with three relatively minor freshen-ups for a model run under 10,000. Ross McKenzie, Holden's marketing guru charged with making it a sales success, knew that coupes had a finite life in Australia. He was never going to allow the Monaro to sink into a mire of heavy discounting long after its use-by date. He intended it to quietly fade away at the VZ facelift when styling of the Commodore range would further isolate the Monaro. Even though the Monaro has since gone way beyond that, McKenzie remained resolute that it would always leave on a high, a promise he has maintained. In a rather fitting parallel, both McKenzie and the Holden version of this hugely successful Monaro end their time at Holden together.

Holden's plans did not allow for the impact of a certain Bob Lutz, GM's corporate product wizard, who identified the Monaro as the sort of car he needed to help lift the parent corporation out of its inertia and doldrums. His plan was to market it as a Pontiac GTO in the US but as Peter Hannenberger expected, the Americans wanted to change it and they were no happier with the driveline than Australians were. Not unexpectedly, the Americans found the whole presentation too subtle and soft. While addressing these shortfalls caused some disruption at Holden, it finally delivered a local Monaro worthy of the name.

This in fact has led to two distinct Monaros. The V2 in Series I, II and III guises which was where it was meant to begin and end and the wild new 2004 VZ series which incorporated a combination of various US changes for the Pontiac GTO. The ultimate US version with the LS2 engine was reserved for HSV only in Australia.

Because the VZ Monaro was effectively based on the first phase of Pontiac GTO upgrades, it featured the original Gen III engine with a much harder edge and a power boost up to 260 kW, a vastly improved six-speed manual transmission and a re-engineered auto that earlier Monaro drivers would not recognize and the biggest brakes ever fitted to a production Holden. Because it also featured the US fuel tank in the boot, it is also the only factory Commodore passenger car derivative (apart from the ute) that could offer a dual exhaust system.

Even if it wasn't for the Monaro's outstanding looks, these stand alone specifications would be enough on their own to make even a four door model a collector's item. Yet this VZ Monaro also featured the GTO's bonnet scoops, a wild set of wheels, several great new colours, some neat interior upgrades and subtle front and rear styling tweaks that added extra attitude. It also had a touch of mongrel in the way it drove.

Not everyone can live with the VZ's heavily restricted boot room and its rortier nature which is why the used market will splinter into two groups of buyers. There are those who will always seek the softer, more subtle approach of the original V2 series as a family car alternative with full four seat capacity and a proper boot to match.

The V2 series was renowned in the trade as a gender neutral model with equal appeal to well-heeled men and women who remembered the original. These buyers wanted the best of everything which is why the CV6 was overlooked and later dropped when its price advantage was not enough to sway buyers. Holden's concern was always that the Monaro's high price made it difficult for younger buyers to get on board and contribute to a more youthful image for Holden and the Commodore. This will change as the earlier cars reach the used market.

The VZ series, especially the final 1200 examples of the CV8-Z limited edition, will always be the muscle car choice and its compromises will be perceived as part of its global pedigree. Not surprisingly, this is the model that younger buyers aspire to ensuring a stronger future as they enter the market as buyers of a used example.

In short, there will be a market for both versions. Only the relatively high production numbers will limit the Monaro's future value as a collector's item but all models should always stay in front of a comparable four door Holden factory model.

There is also another consideration. Australia's roads are currently crowded with ageing VT Commodores and subsequent models. The Monaro tends to get lost in this flotsam but once they disappear and cosseted Monaro examples have the roads to themselves, you can imagine the impact that each one will have, regardless of model.

There are precedents for this. Against the rusty old HK Kingswoods that littered Australian roads in the 1970s, the original Monaro struggled to stand out. Yet look at the impact that a well-preserved early Monaro even in base spec has today, away from the context of the tired sedan versions. Today's Monaro will only really start to look its best when the VE and its facelifts have forced the VT sedans and related models off the roads. Monaro prices will then have their best chance of fetching beyond the original purchase price.

It now appears that Holden may do something totally different for the next Monaro, a model that is now looking increasingly likely. Holden insiders suggest it could reach the market as a cheaper, more compact model and therefore more accessible to all age groups than this series. If that happens, this model will retain its unique positioning as a semi-luxury, semi-sporty prestige coupe. Regardless of what happens with future values, the big improvements in dynamics, quality and braking that the Monaro forced onto Holden will ensure that you will enjoy the ride along the way!

Key Monaro Changes

Dec 2001: Original V2 series launched as 171 kW supercharged auto-only CV6 with 17 inch wheels and 225 kW CV8 with HSV-style 18 inch wheels. CV6 has plainer interior. CV8 has piano black dash insert and colour coded instruments.

Dec 2002: V2 Series II facelift. New five spoke alloys in CV6 17 inch and CV8 18 inch sizes. CV8 gains tuned exhaust and twin tail pipes. Dash revised to match latest Commodore. V8 boosted to 235 kW. Body stiffness optimized.

Jun 2003: Limited edition 350 build CV8-R. Special wheels, Turbine mica paint. CV6 discontinued.

Aug 2003: V2 Series III facelift. CV8 boosted to 245 kW.

May 2004: Limited edition 350 build CV8-R. Pulse red.

Sep 2004: VZ CV8 new model with Pontiac GTO bonnet vents, revised cabin and styling upgrades. V8 upgraded to 260 kW/500Nm. New M12 six-speed manual with shorter close ratios, re-worked 4L65 auto, split exhaust system, cross flow radiator, 320 mm front discs with C6 calipers.

Aug 2005: Final 1200 limited build CV8-Z. Special badging, HBD sunroof. New Fusion colour but also available in other colours.

Dec 2005: Local Monaro production scheduled to end but export and HSV models continue into 2006.

Specific Monaro Checkpoints

Even the first Monaro V2 models have just come out of warranty so most should be at their best in fully-sorted and well-serviced condition.
Check that the service history lines up with dealer records. Make sure that any warranty work or concerns are documented and dealt with in case they show up again during your ownership. Check that all records and numbers on the car line up.
Although not all V8 engines were affected by US production faults, this is one engine that should be given a full compression test and detailed examination by an expert before purchase.
The 6 speed manual can often come with noises and resonances not acceptable in other gearboxes but it is a matter of determining whether you can wear it and how much of it can be removed under warranty. Poor shift quality can be improved in some cases but a certain amount of it is inherent in the design before it was further addressed with the VZ update. Check the auto's operation carefully especially in an early car as problems can show up over distance.
There is a tendency to modify the drivetrain and body to individualise the Monaro especially a retro-fit VZ bonnet with vents. If it's exactly what you want then it might be worth more to you but if the car is no longer factory original, it might matter to someone else further down the track.
Optimum tyres and brakes can make or break a Monaro from a driving perspective so make sure they are both up to original spec or better.
Check all leather for damage or premature wear. Some of the Monaro's wild colours are not so easily matched if they change shade with age. Make sure the leather is kept supple with routine applications of a conditioner with UV protection if it sits outside often.
Upgraded exhausts and intake systems are acceptable if they are factory quality but keeping the original items might be useful if confronted with an EPA "please explain".
Not all ECU upgrades are successful.
Check for scrapes on lower body additions front and rear.
Check for oil leaks in the driveline. The car is new enough to warrant special consideration even if out of warranty.
All switchgear and accessories should be checked for correct operation.
Has the car been subject to a major body repair? Get to know the paint finish and panel fit. If you are concerned, get an experienced panel beater to run a micron paint depth indicator over the panels.
Establish that the car has not been stolen and rebirthed. Any discrepancy in specification, history, keys, number plates, vehicle ID etc should be investigated.
If you intend to hang onto it as many Monaro second owners intend to do, look for the prized, one owner car just coming off lease or traded for a legitimate reason.
 
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