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French Customs threatens to crush man’s Holden ute over factory-standard “secret compartment”

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Travis McKimmie.

It’s merely a fluke of the design and manufacturing process for the HG Holden ute: a gap between floorpans not present in sedan or station wagon versions. However, French Customs officials are threatening to crush one man’s dream ute after discovering the feature in the nearly 50-year-old Australian vehicle.

Because Holden built its utes and panel vans on station wagon floorpans from about 1956 through 1971, achieving a flat bed floor meant enclosing a small space behind the cab and ahead of the rear axle, where the station wagon had its footwells, as well as a space behind the rear axle, where the utes keep their spare wheel and tire. Typically, as Australia’s Street Machine magazine pointed out, that underfloor space went unnoticed until rust started to accumulate there.

Fortunately for Travis McKimmie, an Australian living in the United Kingdom, the 1970 HG ute he bought from out of the Netherlands was run down and in need of a restoration but showed no signs of rust in the floor gap. The ute, which Holden built and originally sold in New Zealand, had spent the prior 12 years in storage in the Netherlands, and McKimmie decided to have it transported to the U.K. via truck, which meant that it would have to travel through France to get to the Channel Tunnel.

McKimmie, who sold another HG ute when he moved to the U.K. and has since found a Holden HK Brougham, told Street Machine he already pulled the 307-cu.in. V-8 and Powerglide automatic transmission from the HK in anticipation of swapping the drivetrain into the six-cylinder ute.

However, when the ute reached Calais last month, French drug-sniffing dogs found what he described as a 30-year-old joint in the ute’s spare wheel. That, in turn, led French Customs officials to conduct a more intensive search of the ute, during which they came across the ute’s floor gap. Declaring the gap a “secret compartment” that could be used to smuggle more drugs, Customs officials seized the ute and informed McKimmie they will destroy the vehicle.

“Their issue wasn’t so much finding the cannabis, it was that these ‘hidden compartments’, as they call them, could be used for smuggling,” McKimmie told Street Machine. “I’ve tried to explain that this is a standard ute, but they don’t seem to care about that. I’ve sent them photos of other Holden utes to show that this is how they are put together. But it’s been two weeks now and I have no idea when I might get an answer.”

McKimmie said he has appealed the decision via a lengthy letter to French Customs officials and that, after reaching officials by phone this week, was informed that Customs officials will not make a decision on the ute’s ultimate fate until sometime next week.

HK Holden ute under restoration. Photo courtesy Lindsay Wilson.

In the meantime, McKimmie and his brother have been trying to assemble documentation from fellow Holden ute owners and from Holden itself to prove that the floor gap was merely a cost-saving measure on Holden’s part and not a drug-smuggling secret compartment.

French Customs officials declined to comment on the matter due to “professional secrecy.”