As an Australian bloke it doesn’t sit well with me that I never got around to owning a Holden Commodore. I prefer wagons to sedans (think surfboards) and my first car was a 1964 EH Holden station wagon. So was my second. I was amazed at how those things kept running even though they’d rolled off the factory floor four years before I did.
Due to good PR and market domination, I always considered the Holden Commodore to be the EH of the modern era: a reliable and affordable six-cylinder workhorse with hectares of room in the back. I’d muse about one day buying a Commodore wagon – maybe even a new one – but for one reason or another it just never happened. Now US parent company GM has axed Holden for good, it never will.
I did, however, once own another model of Holden station wagon – the unforgettable 1985 JD Camira.
After its launch three years earlier, the Camira was crowned Wheels magazine Car Of The Year. Not bad for a local ride!
Now, no-one really knows what the experts at Wheels were smoking that year, but it must have been potent stuff. History would show gonging the Camira was akin to handing Dougie the Pizza Boy the Oscar for best actor.
In late 1997 my then fiance Sarah and I knew none of this as we prepared to welcome a baby girl. Sarah had never learned to drive and, naturally, was keen to get her licence ahead of bub’s arrival. There was no way she was going to master the ‘three-on-the-tree’ manual gearbox of my beloved EH No.2, so I sold it and we went out shopping for a nice family automatic instead.
One Saturday morning we were checking out a Ford Laser hatchback at a Sydney second-hand dealership (I know, I know) when the owner sidled up to us.
“You like the Laser?” he chirped.
“Maybe,” we said, all non-committal.
“So, what, you don’t like the Camira?” he replied, palms upturned in surprise that we’d pass up such an opportunity.
Even though he kept it around the far back side of the lot, the dealer talked up the diminutive Holden wagon as if Ferdinand Porsche had designed it. Being a wagon fan, I was an easy sell. Besides, I figured the company that made EHs, FJs, Toranas, Kingswoods and a host of other Aussie classics had plenty of runs on the board. On top of that a tiny, pathetic voice in the back of my head kept squawking ‘It’s like a mini-Commodore!’
An hour later Sarah and I drove away in the Camira and into a never-ending nightmare. We soon deduced why Ol’ Mate had virtually kept it hidden. It was shame. Even used-car dealers cringed at the idea of having one on their property.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m no rev head or automotive expert so I will defer to motoring journalist Iain Kelly who said of the Camira:
‘There were issues with engines smoking like Aunt Doreen at Christmas after her 12th glass of Chateau D’Cardboard while the paint failed in the Aussie sun and then the air conditioning led to engine overheating and the doors rusted out thanks to the lack of drain holes.’
RACV senior vehicle engineer Nicholas Platt has some thoughts, too.
‘Mechanically one of the most unreliable cars of its era [the Camira was] engineered throughout to displease. The exterior fit and finish was so haphazard that you’d think it was drawn by Picasso. It didn’t get any better once you moved inside, thanks to acres of hideous, poor-quality, mismatched plastic that squeaked like the car was full of cicadas.’
I think Iain and Nicholas were being kind.
That summer was the worst. We lived in inner-Sydney and thus spent plenty of time in gridlock, half roasting to death inside our $3000 shit-heap because if we activated the air-con, steam would piss out from under the hood and we’d have to wait half an hour before refilling the radiator from an emergency two litre water bottle that lived in the rear footwell.
We always knew if it had rained heavily overnight because when we opened the car doors we could hear water sloshing around inside them. As a result, the Camira was perpetually damp and stank like, well…like a shit car with its doors full of fetid, rust-coloured water.
One could have overlooked some of its flaws if the Camira had had any get up and go but the thing was ‘powered’ by an insipid 1.6-litre engine. If there were four people on board it took twice as long to get up a hill.
Despite it ticking every single defect box, Sarah somehow managed to learn to drive in our poxy, stinky, rusty, gutless and useless Camira wagon. We got married the following year and divorced the year after that because some things just aren’t meant to be…like me and a Commodore wagon. RIP Holden.