What’s the most desirable car in the world? For most car lovers, most of the time, words like 'Veyron' or 'E-type' feature in the answer, with the rest of us looking on and nodding sagely at the wisdom of the choice.
However, as a result of a recent email from my old Australian mate Peter Robinson (former Autocar European editor and doyen of motoring journalists everywhere), my answer to the question has changed. Today I desire a Holden ute.
As is well known, a 90-year history of car manufacturing in Australia will die soon because product for the country’s thriving market can be more economically produced in places like Japan and Korea. The variety of models offered in Australia will rise, say manufacturers, and so will production efficiencies.
However, as Robbo has eloquently pointed out, one vehicle type will disappear forever: the classic Australian 'ute'. The word is short for 'utility', a unique breed of car-based pick-up that sold in huge numbers for 30 years after the war. 'Car-based' is the important bit: a proper ute is a lower, quicker, wholly more capable creation than the 'world' pick-ups we all know, like the Toyota Hiace, Ford Ranger and Mitsubishi L200. And it’s far, far cooler.
To me, the best ute was always made by Holden. In my childhood in the Australian bush this vehicle (although I didn’t realise it at the time) was a kind of antidote to the Heath & Safety culture; your old man invariably had a friend with one and would borrow it regularly to cart stuff to the dump. No trip could be contemplated without a bunch of kids in the back, sitting on top of the load.
Many’s the time my friends and I bumped enjoyably to the local tip on top of a pile of junk, with my old man (or someone else’s) bellowing at us from the driver’s window to hold onto those sheets of rusty corrugated iron to stop the slipstream blowing them off the back. Tetanus jabs could come later.
About the time I started to drive, the ute began to transform itself into a unique kind of sports vehicle, strong as a brick dunny yet lighter than saloon models and now available with big engine options, rear axle ratio options and even slippery diffs. Hell, you even got power-assisted front disc brakes.
For a few glorious years you could buy a Holden ute with a GM small-block V8 and a three-speed column change transmission ('three-on-the-tree' we called it — as opposed to 'four-on-the-floor') which was seriously fast, at least in a straight line. Too bad the lightly loaded live rear axle was located only by semi-elliptic springs; axle tramp was simply something to be coped with. Bung a couple of sandbags in the rear and get back to drawing black lines on the road.
In latter years, the Aussie ute became a proper GT, instrumented and done up inside like a proper sports saloon. Last year at Shelsley Walsh hillclimb I set an unofficial course record for commercial vehicles in a yellow, Corvette-engined, six-speed Holden ute called the Maloo. It even had a Ferrari-style launch control. This was the ultimate load carrier – except that no-one would have wanted to sully its pristine loading bay with something as low-rent as payload.