The hoonalicious Australian car-trucks known as "utes" Down Under are slowly starting to proliferate in the US, thanks to a Colorado outfit dramatically underselling them as "modern-day El Caminos." This is how they're making dreams come true.
As many of you know, utes are basically the mullet of motor vehicles and a mainstay of Australian transportation— sedan in the front, pickup truck in the back.
The bodystyle met its demise in America when the El Camino was put down in 1987, but it popularity continued to soar Down Under, making would-be utility car drivers in the States some fierce kinda jealous.
That's where Randy Reese comes in. He's has been operating "Left Hand Utes" in Denver for the last two years, shipping in Holden ute bodies from Australia as "parts only" vehicles and combining them with just enough American car parts to get them legally titled and registered here in the homeland.
On the phone, Reese was adamant to reiterate that his conversions are not "chop and weld" jobs. He makes sure all of the ute's original safety equipment, including air bags, ABS, traction control, and the rest are fully functional.
"90% of the original ute wiring harness gets used," he says.
The vehicles he creates get their own VIN, like a kit car, allowing them to be legally titled.
To create utes from 2011 and later, Reese uses a Malibu cop car platform. For models older than that a Pontiac G8 provides the base. He's also used a Pontiac GTO for a high-horsepower application.
"I don't make any guarantees until [the ute parts] get into the United States, because you never know what's gonna happen on the boat," explained Reese.
I guess automotive documentation can get a little messy in Australia; many states down there use electronic titles and registrations. Reese cites a lack of physical paperwork as hassle on the American side of the importation equation, and a big contributor to car theft issues.
"And I once tried to ship a body and an engine in the same container, US Customs didn't like that too much." But at this point, he's got his transportation process pretty well dialed in.
He's built eleven utes so far, and it usually takes him about two and half months to bring one from a pile of pieces fresh off the boat to a running, road-legal product. A month and a half of that is doing paperwork.
Apparently the next hardest part of the process is the wiring. Reese has trouble getting electrical diagrams for the utes, and some have pretty advanced accessories. But the cars he builds are built to run, and run hard. Reese favors the hilariously-named high performance variant called the "Maloo."
"There was a 2012 Maloo which had something called the Enhanced Driver Interface (EDI) made by MoTec. It monitors the track, tells you if you're oversteering or understeering, over braking or under braking. Basically the same setup as the GT-R... that took a LOT of work to set up."
"On another one, I had to open my big mouth and tell a customer I could hook up the heated seats. That actually wasn't easy either."
Reese brought one of his Maloos to SEMA last year at the behest of a wheel company, who used it to get some extra attention on their products.
Right now he's wrapping up a 2010 Maloo in "Ivy Green," which he was excited to report was being blessed with a 6.2 engine and manual transmission. After that's done four more builds are in the hopper— two Maloos, and two "Thunders," which he'll put on a Chevy Malibu platform.
While Left Hand Utes has focused on recreating GM's Holden cars, Reese has a 2005 Ford XR6 on its way across the ocean that he's excited about for one feature in particular: a push-button electronically locking rear differential. "I think that's gonna stir up some things," he told me. Indeed, that sounds like a recipe for a lot of tire slaying.
But Reese isn't looking forward to sourcing parts for the XR6, he says they share the most commonalities with "British Jaguars" and the closest thing he knows of in the states is the Lincoln LS.
Guess we'll have to check in with him in a couple weeks to see how it turns out.
Reese's business model is something of a hybrid between building on speculation and customer specifications. He basically finds utes on eBay in Australia, ships over ones he likes, and starts drumming up interest as they arrive in parts. He says he's never had a problem getting a buyer before a car's completion, and makes minor adjustments if so requested. But he's not running a full-service customization shop. "The color we get is the color you get. It's too complicated to get a factory-quality paint job."
So how does one get into the ute-converting business in the first place?
Surprisingly there wasn't much to that story. As Reese explained it, he was working in engineering and built the first supercharger kit for the Hummer H3 in 2007. "I went through a bad divorce, and the only thing I kept was that damn supercharger kit."
Fortunately for Mr. Reese, somebody in Australia desperately wanted to boost a fleet of H3s, and offered to fly him Down Under where he'd be paid and put up for free.
When he told his friends back in the states about the glory that is the Australian ute, somebody convinced him they could be sold stateside.
"Well, let's figure it out."
Reese still pulls in a strong portion of his livelihood building engines for cars more more commonly seen in America and doing the occasional repair job for Denver car dealers, but so far he's never finished a ute without having it bought and paid for by a customer.
As for his future supply as the Australian auto industry shuts down, he's not too concerned. "Ford going down this year or next year, but Holden is gonna keep making 'em through 2017. Between unions and government subsidies, Aussie auto production getting milked dry. But the bottom line is there will be plenty of utes, I'm not gonna have trouble getting parts any time soon."
Reese seems pretty happy with his present level of volume; building precisely a handful of cars every year. But if you're still crying about being denied the El Camino-style car-trucks of Australia, now you've got the chance to cough up about thirty grand and get yourself one: his website is simply "lefthandutes.com" if you want to get in touch with him and open a dialogue about your own build.
You could always take a crack at building your own, but if I could afford it I think I'd be all over letting someone else jump through the hoops at the US Customs office.