The cars we loved.
Today we take front wheel drive cars for granted. There was a time 30 or 40 years ago when the public was skeptical to the ideal of being pulled instead of being pushed. Slowly but surely car buyers were swayed over, especially in places where it snowed a lot. In Australia, where cities covered in deep snow is not the norm, the move to front wheel drive was met with the same skepticism as in other parts of the world.
For companies like Holden, who were known for front engine, rear wheel drive setups, it took a big leap of faith to replace the beloved Sunbird/Torana with a newfangled J car replacement. That car called the Camira was built on the same underpinnings as underachievers like the Chevy Cavalier, Opel Ascona C and Isuzu Aska.
That’s not exactly stellar company, considering that the J car is seen today as lacking compared to the Civics and Corollas of the day. But like its global comrades, the Camira was asked to fill big shoes and meet the high expectations for a modern efficient compact car. It was also a big deal for Holden because it was its first crack at a front wheel drive compact car.
Where various J cars are concerned the US may have actually come out on the winning end – at least in the looks department. The Cavalier/ Sunbird were more interesting to look at than the Camira. In fact, Australia’s J clone may have been the most conservative of all of them. Not something you expect from the land that gave us Mad Max and INXS.
Although the Camira was a compact car by US standards, it was marketed in Australia as a mid-sized sedan when it made its debut in 1982. In typical Holden fashion, model years were referred to by letter designations. The first wave of the Camira was called JB (1982-84). A Year later a wagon followed.
Both variants resembled a scaled down version of the larger Commodore. Like the Commodore it was a very conservative design with no sporting aspirations what so ever. Despite its outward appearance it could provide acceptable performance when it’s 1.6 liter four cylinder engine was mated to the standard 4 speed manual transmission.
With just under 90 hp, all variants of the Camira offered better performance than most base Commodores with larger engines, even if they were equipped with the archaic 3 speed automatic. Once this fact was revealed by the automotive press, Holden would later capitalize on the Camira’s sporting potential with an appearance package.
Called the “Formula Package”, the optional kit added subtle ground effects, spoilers and blackout trim to the otherwise homely looking Camira. No mention of suspension or enhancements horsepower boosts were made in advertising, as Formula models were all about looks. A few other Holden cars were subjected to this treatment, even the captive import otherwise known as the Isuzu Impuse/Pizzaz (the ad nearly suggests that nearly all Holden small cars were captive imports or some sort).
The Camira had its share of problems, most notably engines over heating. Presumed to be a design flaw from its Opel sourced engine, it didn’t stop publications like Wheels from proclaiming the Camira its Car of the Year in 1982. Of course at that time it was too new for problems to mount, but the Camira’s good handling and efficient packaging would help win Australia over to front wheel drive.
The move was already on as Ford was already peddling re-skinned briskly selling versions of the Mazada 626 as the Telstar. Meanwhile things seemed to be going well for the Camira. The wagon version was being exported to the UK and sold as the Vauxhall Cavalier Wagon. And sales were acceptable.
In the trend of the day, commercials featured laser grids and other high tech imagery in an attempt to place the Camira in the same league with Japanese imports that were known for new technology and front wheel drive.
Despite the Camira holding its own sales wise, GM had other plans for it. In Australia there would be only two generations with the JD series appearing in 1984 and lasting up through the 1987 model year. The car continued in New Zealand, a country that had become a kind of dumping ground for failed experiments and weird design hybrids of Holden and Ford Australian models. The New Zealand series called JE went on to 1989.
Toyota was in the process of completing a deal with GM that would see it building small and compact cars under various GM brand names. In America one of the cars we got was the GEO Prisim. In Australia they got the Holden Apollo. The Apollo was a Camry clone that would replace the Camira in the role of a true mid-sized alternative to the Commodore.
While the Apollo was a better built car than the Camira, the Camira had fulfilled its role in changing the minds of the Holden faithful to the benefits of being pulled by the front wheels. Thanks in part to cars like the Camira, Australians would come to think of front wheel drive cars in much the same way everyone else did: boring econoboxes while their rear wheel drive counterparts were reserved for more spirited driving tasks (or truck/ute duty). At least the commercial below was exciting.