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French authorities return seized ute after owner points out it wasn’t built for smuggling

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Photo via Travis McKimmie.

A little more than a year after threatening to crush one ute enthusiasts’s dream vehicle and throw him in jail for as long as a decade, French Customs authorities instead returned the seized ute after a little automotive history lesson.

“I finally got the end of the story that I wanted,” Travis McKimmie wrote on Facebook late last month after making an 800-mile round trip to retrieve the faded yellow New Zealand-built 1970 Holden HG ute. “People in the UK don’t get it they just think it’s a old pick up as they call them over here but to me it’s a bit of Aussie history.”

McKimmie’s ordeal with the ute began in March 2018, shortly after he found the rust-free HG in the Netherlands, bought it, and arranged to have it shipped by truck from there to England, where the Australian native now lives. However, once the truck carrying the ute made it to Calais in preparation for leaving France and heading into England, a French Customs drug-sniffing dog found a decades-old joint in the ute’s spare wheel. That discovery led French Customs authorities to conduct a more thorough search of the ute, which turned up what the Customs officers described as a pair of “secret compartments” or “hiding places.”

As McKimmie pointed out, many an Australian ute – including the Holden HG – was built on a sedan or station wagon floorpan with a flat steel panel covering the floorpan’s rear passenger footwells to create the floor of the ute’s bed. While some ute owners turned the resulting voids between the floorpan and the bed floor into ice boxes, many others simply went unawares of the spaces until they rusted out.

Believing the spaces – which each measured 40 by 20 centimeters – weren’t so innocuous and were, instead, created for the purpose of smuggling drugs, the French Customs officers first fined McKimmie €70 for the joint then impounded the ute and the truck used to carry it, citing Article 323.2 of the French Customs Code. They then informed McKimmie that they intended to crush the ute, a decision they later reversed in lieu of keeping the ute as an instructional tool to show how smugglers hide their drugs.

McKimmie insisted it was the Customs officials who needed to study up on automotive construction methods, however. He and his brother, Dean, began to solicit photos and documentation from other ute owners to show that the under-floor spaces were standard cost-saving measures on Holdens of that era and that nobody intended them for smuggling.

While French Customs authorities had initially sent McKimmie a letter noting that if he were to challenge their decision they “would be obliged to bring legal action… for the offence and to request a fine accompanied by a prison sentence of up to ten years,” earlier this April they decided to return the ute to McKimmie. According to McKimmie, the authorities made a special exception “due to the evidence that had been supplied.”

“They probably just got sick of me emailing them every week,” he said. “Never thought I would see it again so as you can imagine I’m over the moon.”

For the year in impound, the French Customs officials charged McKimmie a €280 storage fee.

McKimmie’s plans for the ute call for replacing the stock six-cylinder and four-speed with a V-8 and Powerglide automatic transmission from a Holden HK Brougham as part of the vehicle’s restoration.