BACK in the day, Holden’s VH-series Commodore SL/E was promoted as the “European-style luxury car that won’t upset your balance of payments”. More than 35 years later, the prices of these sharply styled top-line Aussies – notably the two-tone ‘Shadowtone’ SL/E, especially in V8-powered guise – are on the rise.
This article was first published in Street Machine Commodores magazine, 2018
Thankfully, Melbourne concreter Paul Bertuola isn’t too worried about all that. No figs given, actually. In traditional street-machiner style, he’s transformed this VH Commodore SL/E V8 into his vision of a classic factory-themed streeter with a stack of quality and detail – and of course, bulk grunt up front.
Early-Commodore purists or collectors – even the ones motivated only by money – can breathe easy, as Paul’s VH wasn’t the hallowed, dusty, gramps-spec stocker forgotten for years then found in a farm shed. Nope, it was an unfinished project bought from a mate of a mate
“My dad always had cool cars like Monaros and Toranas, and my uncle used to race in the 1980s, so it’s in the blood,” Paul begins. “To get me started I wanted to buy a car that was already done and improve it. The original plan was to own a car that could be worthy of shows – hopefully be a Summernats Top 60 car – and could run 10s.”
Paul spread the word of his ambitions, and soon enough, his good mate Scotty mentioned a bloke he knew who might be interested in selling a VH SL/E that had been freshly painted. “It was pretty much all there,” says Paul of the backyard ‘shed find’. “It looked good. It had 20-inch wheels on it and a few other bits and pieces that I could sell.” Although the car needed some TLC, with the hard work of paint and body already done, Paul figured it would be a worthwhile project. “It was a good car for the price.”
As a younger bloke, Paul owned and modified a few other cars – a hotted-up Holden WB ute and a few Commodores such as a VN SS and VS HSV ClubSport – so he knew all about the time, effort and money involved. He spent some time away from cars building his business and shoring up his finances, but now he’s happily ensconced behind the wheel of his VH
Although the exterior was fresh, the SL/E was soon disassembled to next to nothing. “The car was taken to a mate’s factory and put on a hoist and we stripped everything out of it, right down to the brake and fuel lines,” Paul says. “Then we put on goggles and helmets and wire-brushed the whole underside.”
Wilwood 320mm front rotors and calipers were sourced from Castlemaine Rod Shop, and are tucked in nicely behind 19in, three-piece Simmons wheels
Paul’s mate Tom Surrey is a mechanic, but he needed a break so he worked with Paul concreting for a while. “He said he wanted to help me build the car, so on our wet days we went home and worked on it,” Paul says. “The car wouldn’t be what it is without him being involved.”
Paul considered leather for the interior trim, but in a classic case of ‘everything old is cool again’, he decided to keep the original 1980s theme with a Sew Fine retrim in the rich burgundy shade these VHs are known for. Velour was used for the seats, with leather getting the nod for the dash and console. The cabin also received new headlining, carpet, door trims and rubbers. Many other parts, such as the door handles and latches, were either replaced, re-chromed, refreshed or repainted. “We’ve gone to town on the thing!” says Paul happily.
Plastic perfection – a 355ci homegrown Holden motor, topped with the hallowed Group A twin-throttle EFI intake manifold. It looks pretty spectacular, and it’s good for 575hp at the flywheel
In these days of LS transplants, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a traditional 355-stroked Holden V8 in the smoothed bay (read more below). Everything under the vehicle that could be unbolted and carried away was powdercoated.
The gearbox is even more of a surprise: a Holden Trimatic. Most people choose a TH350 or 400 – or the two-speed GM Powerglide – for a performance street trans, but this one was built to cop a hiding. In fact it was a spare Drag Challenge ’box for Todd Foley’s VH Commodore! It’s backed by a TCE 4700rpm converter, while a nine-inch with 3.9 diff gears spans the Commodore’s rear arches.
The factory VH SL/E interior oozes period style, so Paul overcame the desire to stray too far from standard issue in the cockpit. Sew Fine Interiors handled the makeover
Thankfully, the paint organised by the previous owner needed little more than a cut and buff to look like it now does, and pretty much the first time the just-completed VH was taken for a cruise – to last year’s All Holden Day at Dandenong along with Paul’s niece Courtney and uncle Lou – it was awarded first prize for modified VB-VL Commodore. “That was pretty good,” says Paul. “It won again this year, too!”
Now that a few problems have been sorted, Paul’s car is a handy performer, having run 11.20@126mph at Victoria’s rural Heathcote strip. “It’s crossing the line at 6400rpm and the motor runs to 7200, so we reckon a set of lower diff gears will put it into the 10s,” he says.
Show-quality appearance and a 10-second timeslip? That’ll be money well spent.
RUN OF THE MILL
PAUL initially bought an already-complete 383 stroker engine from Gumtree for his VH, to save some effort and money. “Apparently it made 490hp. I pulled off the sump and manifold and it all looked okay,” he says.
“We put it in the car under a carby, but I found a Group A manifold and full injection system – plus rocker covers and all the gear – for sale and I grabbed it straight away.”
The injection was installed before the carby combo even saw the street. “But we hurt a bearing,” says Paul of his second-hand, bargain-buy engine. “To cut a long story short, I went brand new instead. I got a cam and CNCed cast heads that were shipped down from Queensland, and had Dave from Frankston Engine Centre screw it all together. It was put in a new VT roller block with four-bolt mains, new COME 355 crank – the whole lot.”
Happily, the new Haltech-managed combo makes around 575hp.
1983 VH COMMODORE SL/E
Paint: Burgundy over silver
Brand: 355ci Holden V8
Induction: VL Walkinshaw twin-throttlebody EFI manifold
ECU: Haltech Elite 2500
Heads: CNC-ported VN heads
Camshaft: Custom-grind solid-roller
Conrods: Oliver I-beam
Crank: COME Racing
Fuel system: Bosch pump
Cooling: Aluminium Race radiator with twin AU thermos
Exhaust: Twin 2.5in custom system
Converter: 4700rpm TCE
Diff: 9in, 3.9:1 gears
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Front: Kings Springs lowered coils, standard shocks
Rear: King Springs lowered coils, standard shocks
Brakes: Wilwood discs and calipers (f & r)
Master cylinder: VT Commodore
WHEELS & TYRES
Rims: Simmons FR 19×8 (f & r)
Rubber: Kumho; 225/35/19 (f), 245/35/19 (r)
Tom at K&T Auto Garage; James at Prolectric; Tim and Trav; Stix; my wife Michelle for being so understanding and letting me build my dream; Dave from Frankston Engine Centre; Dale for the use of his hoist; Scott for putting me onto the car