PRETTY much all of us have had a moment where we wistfully look back and wish we’d kept our first car; after all, you never forget your first time. Renato Rillotta is smarter than most of us in that regard, having not only kept his first pride and joy but spent years crafting it into his ultimate dream machine.
This article was first published in the November 2020 issue of Street Machine
Renato’s love affair with his VH SL/E Commodore began as a young bloke working at a restaurant, where one of his older co-workers paraded it in front of him before Renato eventually cracked and started asking for a price. “I had been admiring it for a while,” he says. “It was in pretty good nick overall; it needed a restoration, but it’d been looked after, and eventually the guy sold it to me.”
The VH was given a fresh lick of paint in the original colours, but this time with some added metallic. Renato wanted to simply improve on the standard offering, so exterior mods don’t go far beyond the reverse-cowl bonnet and wheels, with all the factory chrome and trim retained
He drove it around for a few years in standard V8 form, before pulling it off the road for what was originally just supposed to be a simple respray and a beefier engine. “As we went through the process over the years, things just got a bit out of control, which is why the build took nine years,” he says.
Wilwood stoppers are used front and rear to keep the VH in check, wrapped in 20×8 and 20×9.5 Simmons FRs to complete the look Renato was after
Renato pulled the car apart himself, but the ensuing build proved to be a bit of a challenge due to setbacks with work not being up to snuff. “A good example is the engine bay,” he says. “I never intended to go to the level I did, but when we decided to go with underdash brake reservoirs and the workshop drilled unnecessary holes, it wasn’t up to my standard, so it had to be redone, and the engine bay ended up getting modified and painted as well.”
The engine itself was a slightly less arduous undertaking. Renato wasn’t interested in running with the herd and dropping a new-age LS into the SL/E, opting to stay true to the car’s factory V8 roots with an angry five-litre Holden. “I just had an image of a carburetted, stroker five-litre for this car; it’s part of what makes it for me,” he says.
Renato spoke to Dino Cecere at Cecere Performance, who gave him some tasty options. “He gave me three basic packages, starting at 400hp and going up to a 700hp race engine, and I wanted around 500hp, so I went with the middle option,” he says.
The engine bay ended up being a big focus for Renato, as he didn’t want anything to distract from the angry 355ci Holden sitting pretty in the middle. The Wilwood brake master cylinder and reservoirs were moved under the dash, along with the remote power steering. A flattened-off firewall and smoothed bay finish things off perfectly
A 5.0-litre block from a VN Commodore was stroked out to 355ci with a COME modular crank, Scat rods and JE flat-top pistons, sealed in with an ASR high-volume wet sump. The top end comprises VN cast-iron heads with Crane valve springs and lifters and Jet Engineering pushrods, all topped with a Torque Power single-plane intake manifold and Quick Fuel 750cfm carby. Using a custom-grind solid cam to control the breathing, the package pumped out 558hp at the flywheel at 6600rpm on PULP 98.
Backing up the angry Holden is a Turbo 350 ’box with a manual valvebody, transbrake and TCE 4000rpm converter. A 31-spline nine-inch diff with aggressive 4.56:1 gears takes the 500hp pounding to the rear treads on the 20-inch Simmons rims. “I originally had 3.9s in the diff, but we went to the 4.56s and it really woke the thing up – I just can’t cruise it at more than 70km/h!” Renato laughs.
Renato had the interior freshly trimmed in the factory Claret velour, Dynamatting the entire cabin first to keep the thing as comfortable on the street as possible. “I have three young kids, so I also put a quieter exhaust on it just to help tone it down a bit,” he says
Once it became clear to Renato that he didn’t have the capability to assemble the VH to the level and standard he wanted on his own, he was put in touch with Pep and the crew from Elite Street Cars. “I was introduced by a mutual friend, and without him taking over with his passion and attention to detail, the car would not be what it is today,” he says. “I can’t thank him enough for spending all the time chasing parts and putting all the extra effort in.”
Before heading over to Elite Street Cars, the car copped a fresh coat of paint in the original burgundy-over-silver combo, albeit with more of a metallic look than what Holden laid down in the 80s. The interior was also given a retrim in the factory Claret velour, and the car was finished in November of last year – the night before its debut at Extreme Auto Expo 2019. The rush was well worth the effort, Renato’s VH taking out the Best Aussie-Built Street Car title at the event. “It speaks to the high standard the car was built to, and I’m absolutely stoked with it – it’s everything I could have asked for,” he says.
Renato’s goal for the build was to improve the VH while still retaining as much Holden identity as possible. “I wanted a really tough, 10-second street car with 500hp,” he says. “I’ll take it to the track one day to see what it can do as-is, and I’ll enjoy it as much as I can with my kids when COVID is over,” he says. “It’s very sentimental to me, being my first car, which is why I’m so happy I stuck with it and got the car I have now.”
1982 HOLDEN VH COMMODORE SL/E
Paint: Custom burgundy over silver
Brand: Holden 355ci
Induction: Torque Power single-plane intake
Carby: Quick Fuel 750cfm
Heads: VN cast-iron
Camshaft: Custom-grind flat-tappet
Pistons: JE flat-top
Oil pump: Chrysler
Fuel system: Aeromotive Stealth 340 pump
Cooling: PWR radiator, 12in thermo fans
Exhaust: Pacemaker extractors, 2.5in stainless-steel system
Ignition: MSD coil, FAST ignition
Gearbox: Turbo 350
Converter: TCE 4000rpm
Diff: 9in, 31-spline, 4.56:1 gears
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Springs: Pedders Touring (f & r)
Shocks: Pedders GSR short-stroke (f & r)
Brakes: Wilwood discs and calipers (f & r)
Master cyilnder: Wilwood
WHEELS & TYRES
Rims: Simmons FR20; 20×8 (f), 20×9.5 (r)
Rubber: 235/35R20 (f), 255/40R20 (r)
Pep from Elite Street Cars who guided me through the build process from start to finish; my lovely wife Tuba for her support