Despite Holden's demise in the United States, most of us are envious of the General Motors vehicles it sold there. At American car shows, you can frequently spot modified General Motors cars sporting Commodore front ends. Even though this swap is simple, the Holden Ute isn't one you see very often.
The modern LS-powered "El Camino" never made it to the United States. In 2009, Pontiac teased us by saying their sporty mini-truck/car was coming out in 2010. The American version of the UTE never made it off the assembly lines because General Motors went bankrupt. You could try to get a Holden imported, but doing so legally would be a huge hassle fraught with many dead ends due to government regulations. What other means do I have to acquire this awesome device in the United States?
It's not as difficult as you might think.
Forbidden fruit vehicles, also known as cars that aren't sold in the United States, are often discussed in various automotive publications and blogs. Vehicles not originally sold in the country must be at least 25 years old in order to be legally imported, making it impossible to bring in models like the Nissan Skyline R-34 or the newest Holden Ute.
Despite reports of Holden Commodore Utes on US public roads, it took some time for people to figure out that there is a workaround. The owner of Celebrity Machines, Travis Bell, explains in the video embedded below how easy it is to fix the problem.
You receive a Pontiac G8, which is really just a Holden Commodore under a different nameplate. The next step is to obtain an Australian-made Commodore Ute shell. Since they share a platform, the other body can be bolted onto the Pontiac G8 chassis (after some modification, of course) to create a street-legal Holden Commodore Ute in the USA.
Given that General Motors has discontinued the Holden brand in Australia, this is one way to get the complete Down Under experience stateside. Holdens are becoming increasingly valuable in that region, making it harder and costlier to import wrecked vehicles from overseas.
Late in the last decade, General Motors Company [NYSE: GM] nearly imported the Holden Commodore Ute (short for utility) as a Pontiac G8 Sport Truck, but were prevented from doing so by CAFE regulations and GM's own bankruptcy. However, all hope is not lost because several smaller companies, including Left-Hand Utes of Denver, Colorado, are importing the vehicles here on their own.
Left Hand Utes, as the name implies, imports Utes and converts them to left-hand drive. The best part is that Left Hand Utes is able to bring in all of the Holden Commodore Utes available in Australia, from the basic workhorses to the high-performance HSV variants like the Maloo.
Left Hand Utes brought two Maloos, a VE from the previous generation (shown above) and a VF from this year, both of which were on display at the SEMA show in Las Vegas this week. The VF is based on the Holden Commodore and shares its design cues with the Chevrolet SS.
Left Hand Utes co-founder and guitarist John Ehrlich has said, "General Motors is crazy." They missed a huge opportunity by not importing these as Chevrolets after the conversion to left-hand drive was complete.
In its 18 months of operation, Left Hand Utes has sold and delivered 16 Utes to happy customers. The process involves removing the right-hand-drive components from the cars and replacing them with original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts designed for a variety of utes, including the Pontiac GTO and G8, the Chevrolet Caprice PPV and SS, and the Ford Transit Connect.
There is a 2003 Commodore SS Ute for sale right now, and it has a 5.7-liter V-8 and either a six-speed manual or an automatic transmission, with prices starting at $30,000. The above Maloo is a 2010 model, and they start at $85,000. The 425-horsepower 6.2-liter LS3 V-8 and six-speed manual transmission allow it to reach 60 mph from a standstill in about 5.0 seconds.
Whoever gets their hands on the 580-horsepower GTS Maloo first in the United States might have the fastest truck in the world on their hands.
Travis Bell of Indiana reports on VinWiki that he successfully had a UTE titled, registered, and tagged in the United States.
Travis's first car was a 2009 Pontiac G8 that, he claims, had a terrible CarFax and was therefore available to him for the low price of $13,000. Travis never planned to turn the G8 into a UTE. On the other hand, Travis' pal Dave Lowe owned a lawful left-hand-drive UTE in the USA. Before importing and registering the UTE, Travis contacted Lowe to get more details. Lowe explained to Travis that they would have to ship an Australian UTE over and mate its body to his G8. Eventually, Travis said, "Let's do it." A truck with flood damage was just what Lowe needed for the trade.
After Travis's wrecked UTE arrived in the United States and made its way to North Carolina, where it was repaired by Lowe, he hit the road in a trailerless truck to claim his new toy. Upon discussing the conversion with Lowe and seeing the modifications required to join the two vehicles, Travis concluded that he was out of his depth. Then he made up his mind to have Lowe make the exchange on his behalf. He returned to Indiana with an empty trailer to retrieve his G8 and drop it off at Lowe's.
Dave Lowe spent only two months fusing the G8 and the UTE together. The UTE was not yet registered when Travis picked it up, so he had to turn around and head back to Indiana. In spite of what this point in the story might lead you to believe, the trouble really doesn't begin until much later. In Indiana, recreational vehicles must go through a process known as a "body transfer affidavit." With this affidavit, Travis was able to legally re-title his four-door Pontiac G8 as a two-door Holden UTE. To get the new Holden UTE title, he had to turn in the G8 title at the BMV.
Travis says it was much simpler than most people make it sound to get one registered in the United States, and he uses it frequently. Travis spent less than $40,000 on the endeavour, which included the purchase of his G8, the salvage value of a UTE, labour, and registration. An affordable price for a one-of-a-kind car that can be driven in any state. Do you agree?
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.
Even though Holden never made it to the States, there is still a way to acquire one. The chassis of a Pontiac G8 can be modified into a road-worthy Holden Ute. The rising demand for Holdens in Australia has made importation more challenging. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations and General Motors' own bankruptcy prevented GM from importing the Holden Commodore Ute as a Pontiac G8 Sport Truck. The Denver, Colorado company Left-Hand Utes is responsible for importing and modifying the utes for left-hand driving.
To transform his Pontiac G8, Travis spent fewer than $40,000. Dave Lowe, one of his friends, fused the body of an Australian UTE with his G8. Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) has introduced a new, highly sought-after sports car, the GTSR Maloo. This muscle car is destined to become a classic. Holden's Australian factory will cease operations in October 2017. The Australian ute market has largely been taken over by imported vehicles from Asia.
If you want a Ute, you can have Left Hand Utes construct one for you using an American donor vehicle and an Australian body. Components from the Chevrolet Caprice PPV and SS, as well as the Pontiac GTO and G8. Even though General Motors discontinued the Pontiac brand in 2016, Holden continued production of the Ute until 2017. In the last six years, Left Hand Utes has converted "a couple of dozen" automobiles, or about three to four vehicles per year. They don't make any of the parts themselves and instead use commercially available ones for everything. A Ute can be purchased for around $9,000 in Australia, with an additional $25,000 needed for the conversion, plus the cost of the donor vehicle.
- The next step is to obtain an Australian-made Commodore Ute shell.
- Since they share a platform, the other body can be bolted onto the Pontiac G8 chassis (after some modification, of course) to create a street-legal Holden Commodore Ute in the USA.
- Given that General Motors has discontinued the Holden brand in Australia, this is one way to get the complete Down Under experience stateside.
- Left Hand Utes, as the name implies, imports Utes and converts them to left-hand drive.
- In its 18 months of operation, Left Hand Utes has sold and delivered 16 Utes to happy customers.
- With this affidavit, Travis was able to legally re-title his four-door Pontiac G8 as a two-door Holden UTE.
- Holden will be closing its vehicle manufacturing plant in Australia in October 2017.What Asian imports are now dominating the market in Australia.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. "
- 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.