Vauxhall Monaro | The Brave Pill

Everybody loves a good Australian joke. Well, apart from the Aussies themselves, who seem remarkably unappreciative when it comes to such humour. The Ashes has provided the chance to wheel out some old favourites about the Antipodean enthusiasm for combining cricket with woodworking and the national team's use of 60-grit sports tape. But, of course, Pill remains far too classy for such gags. Instead this week will be a celebration of one of the things that links our two great nations - beyond those Aussie soap operas where the scenery out-acts the human cast - in the chunky form of the Vauxhall Monaro.

This is a car that Pill has wanted to celebrate since the column started. It's taken more than six months of waiting for a sufficiently right-looking one to turn up: a 2006 car with an attractive (and negotiable) Β£8,995 price tag, plus a near six-figure mileage and list of mods that give it enough brave points to feature here. For many it won't be courageous enough, it's not long since the brawnier and more exotic Corvette ZR-1 was reckoned to be Fiesta-sensible by some of the loudly clanking commentariat. But there are absolutely no apologies for picking the Monaro.

The bravest part of the Monaro story was arguably that written by the determined Vauxhall and Holden executives who went to war with the internal GM system to get it brought to Britain. While it might seem entirely obvious that two right-hand drive markets at opposite ends of the world should want to share the same car, many of GM Europe's then high-ups seemed to regard the idea of importing a car that would be a Vauxhall but not an Opel as a personal insult which they actively tried to prevent happening. When sales began, a Vauxhall insider admitted that the Monaro had arrived despite the company's German management, and not because of it.

Yet the Monaro owed much of its existence to a former Opel boss. Peter Hanenberger was the German who had worked for Holden in the 'eighties - when he had earned the nickname "Handlingberger" due to his emphasis on dynamics - and returned to Australia in 1999 after leading chassis development in Germany. He immediately discovered a team of engineers had been working on a coupe version of the VX-series Commodore saloon as an after-hours project. This wasn't part of the official plan, but was such an obviously good idea that Hanenberger scared up the modest A$60m to make it happen; little more than the sandwich budget for most new car programmes.

Aussie sales began in 2001, and a plan soon evolved to use the Monaro as the basis for a new Pontiac GTO in the 'States - there were also a small number of left-hook Chevrolet Lumina versions sold in the Middle East. But Britain was the export market that required fewest changes beyond lights, badges and an MPH speedometer, although it took three years to get it here. While Australian cars were split between Holden and HSV versions, the latter branded as Coupe, all UK-bound versions were Monaros. Sales began in 2004 with the simple recipe of a 330hp 5.7-litre V8 engine, rear-wheel drive and a sub-Β£30k price tag turning it into a hit and vindicating Vauxhall's decision to bring it in - the first wave of 600 sold out within three months.

Buyers got a huge amount of simple fun for the money. The Monaro was more about brawn than brain, the muscular V8 delivering solid performance and a bristly soundtrack, the chassis' rear-wheel driveness never in doubt. Refinement wasn't great - get caught travelling at more than 104km/h in Australia and they pretty much beat you with rubber hoses and throw away the key - and whoever supplied the interior seemed to have quoted by the acre of grey plastic, but it was a huge amount of car for the money.

Our Pill comes from the second wave of imports, which got various tweaks and were visually distinguished by big bonnet vents and an exhaust tailpipe on each side at the back. Both regular CV8 and VXR versions were sold, and although this car has started life as one of the less powerful ones it has subsequently been modified to a claimed power output pretty much identical to that of the later LS2 equipped VXR.

When that car was launched, with a 403hp 6.0-litre engine, Vauxhall was determined to prove that it was indeed faster than the Lotus Carlton which previously won most hands in the company's Top Trump deck. To do so they booked Elvington airfield near York - subsequently the scene of Richard Hammond's rocket car crash - and laid on a pack of brand new Monaro VXRs and the carefully preserved LoCarl from the heritage collection. The Lotus was used to set a bogey time and then a pack of journalists were encouraged to head out and try and beat it in the new car. PR was pretty brave in those days, too.

There were a couple of issues. Firstly, the speed of the twin-turbocharged Carlton, which was down on power but up on torque and had managed to puff itself to an impressive 159.4mph on the two-mile runway. Secondly, and more significantly, the fact it was raining hard on the day of the event. The result was near chaos as macho journalists got increasingly silly on the slippery access road that led to the main runway, then took increasing liberties with the "must brake by here" board that had been set up to try and ensure the event finished with as many cars as it began with.

It nearly didn't; one of my more impressive spins saw the telemetry reporting minus 45mph and at least one Monaro went lawn mowing through the slippery outfield, stopping barely short of the perimeter fence. By the end of the day several of us had (just) managed to creep beyond 160mph, proving the Monaro was the fastest road-legal Vauxhall at that point. Strangely, after the success of the first wave of cars, these phase two Monaros didn't sell anything like as quickly, some hanging around until 2007 before finding buyers.

While quick in standard form, an off-the-shelf Monaro always felt like a half-finished painting given the ease with which extra performance could be unlocked from the pushrod V8. At the outer edge supercharger upgrades are popular, although from memory of a 600hp set-up, these can start to ask questions that even a reworked chassis struggles to answer. The owner of our Pill seems to have concentrated more on improving responses and soundtrack than straight line performance, in addition to a remap and new intake manifold it has been given coil overs and some strategically applied polybushes as well as a stainless sports exhaust which should give the engine the soundtrack it deserves. AP racing brakes are a sensible upgrade too; the Monaro takes some stopping.

Our Pill has two owners from new, the current one for 11 of its 13 years, and boasts both a full main dealer service history and an MOT record that suggests both regular use and that minor faults have been resolved quickly. Everyday costs are impressively low and the manual Monaro's tall sixth gear makes it an impressively frugal cruiser: mid-20s consumption is possible under gentle use. The actual risk of expensive mechanical failure is probably as low as it has been on any of our Pills, and the Monaro remains a simple beast at heart. But it still requires a pioneering spirit to own one. That and a tolerance for Australian jokes: heard any good ones lately?

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Comments (95) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Arsecati 24 Aug 2019

    'Loudly clanking commentariat'? That's nice - lovely way to speak to your readership, the ones who actually keep the comment section and forums alive!

  • humphra 24 Aug 2019

    Probably my naivety, but this didn't strike me as a brave pill?

    As for the comment on the commentariat.... just made me smile 😂

  • Bill 24 Aug 2019

    Arsecati said:
    'Loudly clanking commentariat'? That's nice - lovely way to speak to your readership, the ones who actually keep the comment section and forums alive!
    He forgot "humourless". hehe

    This pill... It's not very brave is it?biggrin

  • Johnspex 24 Aug 2019

    I thought it referred to journalists of the time.

    The ad says manual but it looks like an auto.

  • carl_w 24 Aug 2019

    Johnspex said:
    I thought it referred to journalists of the time.

    The ad says manual but it looks like an auto.
    Definitely a manual -- I can see three pedals and a footrest.

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