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Can you buy a ute in the US?

Most American’s, including us, are jealous of some of the GM cars offered by Holden across the pond even though the brand is no longer available. The Commodore frontend is a hot-swap here in the States, and this conversion can usually be found on select GM vehicles at car shows. While this swap is fairly straightforward, one that is less common is the Holden Ute.

Unfortunately we never did get the modern-day LS-powered “El Camino” over here in the US. Pontiac did get our hopes up in 2009 with the announcement of the little sporty truck/car scheduled for 2010. Unfortunately, the GM brand went out of business before the American version of the UTE could roll down the production lines. And while you could try and get the Holden imported, due to government rules and regulations, the odds of it hitting the streets legally would be a huge undertaking and one with many dead ends. So are there any other options to get this cool machine in the States?

It’s not as difficult as you might think.

Plenty of car enthusiasts and different publications like to go on about “forbidden fruit” vehicles or cars which aren’t available in the United States. Thanks to our strict import laws, you can’t bring something like a Nissan Skyline R-34 or a newer Holden Ute into the country, since vehicles not originally sold here must be 25 years or older before they can be legally imported.

Well, there is a workaround people didn’t figure out for a while, despite reports of Holden Commodore Utes driving around US public roads. As Travis Bell, the owner of Celebrity Machines, tells us in the video below, the solution is surprisingly simple.

Basically, you get a Pontiac G8, which is a rebadged Holden Commodore sedan. Then you import a Commodore Ute body from Australia. Since they were made for the same platform, the other body will fit on the Pontiac G8 chassis, with some finessing of course, and after some wrenching, you have a Holden Commodore Ute that’s legal to drive in the United States.

Especially with the Holden brand being killed off in Australia by General Motors, this is one way to finally get that Down Under experience in full here. After all, values of many Holdens are skyrocketing, especially in that part of the world, so getting your hands on totalled bodies to import here is going to be more difficult and increasingly expensive.

General Motors Company [NYSE: GM] came close to importing the Holden Commodore Ute (short for utility) as a Pontiac G8 Sport Truck late last decade but was hampered by CAFE regulations and its own bankruptcy. That doesn’t mean all is lost as a number of smaller firms are independently importing the vehicles here, one of which is Left-Hand Utes of Denver, Colorado.

As its name suggests, Left Hand Utes not only imports the vehicles but converts them to left-hand drive. And the best part is that Left Hand Utes can import the complete range of Holden Commodore Utes on offer Down Under, from the barebones workhorses to high-performance HSV variants like the Maloo.

Left Hand Utes took two Maloos to this week’s SEMA show in Las Vegas—a previous-generation VE (pictured above) and the latest VF which shares its styling with the Holden Commodore-based Chevrolet SS—where they were able to speak with Carsguide.

“General Motors is crazy,” said Left Hand Utes co-founder John Ehrlich. “The work was done to make these into left-hand-drive, we can’t understand why they didn’t bring them in as Chevrolets—they missed a massive opportunity here.”

Left Hand Utes has been up and running for the past 18 months and so far has delivered 16 Utes to customers. The conversion requires the cars, which are usually second hand, to be stripped of their right-hand-drive components and then replaced using OEM parts designed for Pontiac’s GTO and G8 as well as Chevy’s Caprice PPV and SS, depending on which ute is being converted.

Currently up for sale is a 2003 Commodore SS Ute powered by a 5.7-litre V-8 and available with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, which is priced from $30,000. The Maloo pictured above is a 2010 model and is priced from $85,000. It features a 425-horsepower 6.2-litre LS3 V-8 paired with a six-speed manual transmission and will sprint to 60 mph from rest in around 5.0 seconds.

Now, we wonder who will be the first over here to get their hands on the 580-hp GTS Maloo, potentially the world’s fastest truck.

Travis Bell, an Indiana resident, tells VinWiki that he was able to get a UTE tagged, titled, and registered in the US legally.

Travis started with a 2009 Pontiac G8, which he claims had a horrible CarFax allowing him to purchase the vehicle at a reasonable price of $13,000. At the time, Travis had no intention of converting the G8 to a UTE. However, a friend of Travis’, Dave Lowe, had a left-hand-drive UTE in the States that was legal. Travis reached out to Lowe to get more information on importing the UTE and getting it registered. Lowe informed Travis about the process, which included bringing a UTE in from Australia and then mating the body of the UTE to Travis’ G8. Travis said, “Let’s do it.” Lowe was able to locate a truck that had flood damage that was perfect for the swap.

After the totalled UTE hit the States and made its way to Lowe’s shop in North Carolina, Travis loaded up with an empty trailer to go pick up his new project. After talking to Lowe and observing the modifications needed to put the two vehicles together, Travis decided this conversion was way out of his comfort zone. He then decided to get Lowe to perform the swap for him. He then headed back to Indiana with an empty trailer and fetched his G8, which he returned to Lowe’s shop.

In only two months time, Dave Lowe was able to take the G8 and the UTE and mate the two vehicles together perfectly. Travis retrieved his new ride and headed back to Indiana, but there was a problem, the UTE had not yet been registered. You might think that it’s this point of the story where the problems start; however, that’s not the case. Indiana has a process called a body transfer affidavit that is used for recreational vehicles. Travis was able to use this affidavit to retitle his 4-door Pontiac G8 as a 2-door Holden UTE legally. He went to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and surrendered his G8 title to receive his new Holden UTE title.

Travis says the process to get one registered in the US was a lot easier than most people claim and that he drives it every day. The total cost of this venture for Travis was less than $40,000, which included the purchase of his G8, a totalled UTE, labour, and the registration of the vehicle. With all things considered, this is a steal for a one of a kind vehicle that is legal to drive in all 50-states. Don’t you think?

Utes in Australia

The ute has always been a major part of Australian culture and has extended far beyond being a farm hand’s daily drive and a tradesman’s work vehicle. Utes are now in the collectable muscle car category where many never carry anything more than a few six-packs of beer and an ice cooler to the local cricket match.

HSV (Holden Special Vehicles) have released a desirable sports model, the GTSR Maloo. This has the supercharged LS Generation IV 6.2 litre engine with a massive 592 horsepower (425 kW) on 20-inch rims and fully independent suspension all around for maximum grip and handling on the road. This is a future classic collectable muscle car. There won’t be many of these on the road. The sorry USA, there won’t be any here, and production is finite. Holden will be closing its vehicle manufacturing plant in Australia in October 2017.

What is the future of utes in Australia?

Asian imports are now dominating the market in Australia. In 2016, the popular Toyota Hilux, a favourite for tradesmen, and now families, has become Australia’s top-selling vehicle. The Toyotas have a strong reputation for their reliability and strength in Australia. Luxury appointments, four-door models with turbo-diesel options, have offered a mix of good performance, reliability, functionality and economy.

Other popular uses include the Nissan Navara, Isuzu Dmax, and Holden Colorado, which is similar to the Chevrolet Colorado. They might not be Australia built, but the ute will continue to live on in Australia for a long time.

Will the Ranchero and El Camino make a comeback?

There are rumours for the Ford Ranchero, and there are concept images online of a Taurus similarity, but the anticipated release date of late 2016 has now passed by, so it looks like it’s still a wish.

The Chevrolet El Camino has been rumoured to be based on the Australian Commodore ute, but this is a long shot now that Holden will cease production this year. There are several concept images of a Camaro fronted lookalike, but release dates keep moving forward, so this too seems to be another wish. With the luxury, size and capacity of the traditional pickup trucks in the USA, I’m doubtful that a compact size pickup will be as successful. There are Toyota Tacomas, Ford Rangers, and Chevrolet Colorados that fill this compact range quite nicely.

The Chevrolet El Camino died in 1987, the Dodge Rampage’s dim light was extinguished in 1984, and the Ford Ranchero never got to the see the 1980s. For those who love the automotive mullet that is the car-based pickup, there aren’t many modern options aside from the short-lived 2003-2006 Subaru Baja. But there is a promised land where such car-truck chimeras run free. It is called Australia, a place where V-8s and rear-wheel drive still dominated well into the new millennium. Over there, they call these trucklets utes. One such version is called the Holden Ute (and its higher-performance sibling, the Maloo), made until 2017.

Import restrictions being what they are, you can’t just bring a ute (or ute) over from down under. That’s where John Ehrlich and Randy Reese of Left Hand Utes come into the picture. They’ll build you a Ute, from an Australian-sourced body and an American donor car, using parts from Holden-built cars sold stateside by General Motors: The Pontiac GTO and G8, and the Chevrolet Caprice PPV and SS, which share a common platform with the Holden Ute. (The G8 Sport Truck, a rebadged Ute, was headed to the United States at the exact time GM killed off Pontiac.) Left Hand Utes takes a Ute body from Australia, installs the running gear from the donor car, including the original street-legal powertrain, and converts it to left-hand drive.

The Denver, Colorado, shop used to start with salvage Utes, but Ehrlich says that those usually turned out to be more expensive when repairs were factored in. “Now we start with a good used car, but then you have to take two good cars to make one, and it ends up costing about twice as much as one car,” said Ehrlich.

Ehrlich makes it clear that Left Hand Utes doesn’t buy and sell either of the donor cars. They’ll help connect the steps together, including finding cars in Australia and working through the customs paperwork, but ultimately they see themselves as just the shop that does the work. They also don’t fabricate any parts – everything is done with off-the-shelf components. As for registration, Colorado will allow the VIN from the ute on a title and registration. Left Hand Utes doesn’t swap the VIN or mess with any other types of serial numbers, so for states with more strict rules, Ehrlich says that they’ve welded the Ute body onto the American donor car so that it can keep the original title and registration.

The other side of the operation is getting the electronics to play nice, which is Reese’s specialty. While it’s pretty straightforward to move a seatbelt from one car to another, getting computers to talk to new components – even just door locks – can get complicated. In the end, Left Hand Utes make sure everything works, from seatbelt reminders to check-engine lights. The demise of the El Camino has not resulted in pent up consumer demand. Left Hand Utes converts three to four cars a year, adding up to “a couple of dozen” in total over the last six years or so. “We’re just kind of small fish,” says Ehrlich. The low numbers are, in part, due to the steep price tag for the work. Once you source a Ute in Australia, it costs about $9,000 to strip the body and ship it to Left Hand Utes. The shop then charges $25,000 for the conversion, plus the cost of the donor car. For all that money, though, I will point out the obvious fact that you end up with the functionality of a car and a truck.

This story just shows that where there’s a will, there’s a way, at least for some things. Sure, there’s not the same kind of workaround for the R34 or some other dream vehicles which haven’t hit that magical age yet, but you might find some creative ways around the regulation. It sure beats just trying to import the car illegally, only for Homeland Security to raid your house later.

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