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 functionality of a car and a truck.