Curbside Classic: 1977-80 HZ Holden One Tonner – A Genuine Grandpa’s Axe

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The conundrum of Grandpa’s Axe, sometimes known as Lincoln’s Axe, is a simple one. The handle gets worn or broken and replaced. Then the head for whatever reason needs replacing. Over time and generations of owners, each component is replaced and replaced again, leading to the question – is it still the same axe?

Holden HK Ute. (Australia)

Since the 1930s, Australia had a category of commercial vehicle based on passenger cars known initially as the coupe utility and which had subsequently morphed into shorter-cabin ‘utes’. The 1968 Holden HK (pictured above) was a typical example of these styleside-type utes from the big three, a body type that was also supplied by other manufacturers in varying sizes.

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When the shark-like 1971 HQ Holden was introduced, it came with two trim levels of ute and a panelvan. There was also a curious new commercial entry in the range, shown bottom right.

Holden One Tonner 1971

The Holden One Tonner was a cab-chassis vehicle, and defined a new sub-category for this type of arrangement.

GMH had not brought in the GMC/Chevrolet in any serious numbers allowing the Ford F-series to dominate the ‘relatively light’ cab-chassis market, and the Japanese were starting to make in-roads with their more diminutive offerings. The Holden One Tonner sat somewhere in the middle.

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The HQ passenger range was essentially a 3/4 length monocoque body with the front end supported by a short chassis terminating under the b-pillar (top illustration), comprising a 111” wheelbase sedan and coupe as well as 114” wagon and ‘Statesman’ luxury sedan.

The HQ commercials, on the other hand, were underpinned for their entire length by a perimeter-frame chassis.

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Sitting on the chassis was a unitary cabin and a front end arrangement shared with the rest of the range. The driver received the ergonomic benefits of the standard-setting HQ passenger cars; improved visibility and NVH, flow-through ventilation and a relatively generous seating position.

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The One Tonner had a 120.4” wheelbase whereas the ute and panel van sat on a 114” wheelbase. This extra length in the driveshaft initially precluded a V8. At first the 173 cu inch I6 was the only engine available, but it was followed by the option of the 202 cu inch I6 in November 1972, the 253 cu inch V8 in February 1973 and finally the 308 cu inch V8 in August 1975.

While the utes were Gross Vehicle Mass (or Weight) rated at 2,155 kg (4750 lbs) for the six cylinder models and 2,200 kg (4851 lbs) for the V8s, the One Tonner was allowed 2,600 kg (5732 lbs) for the 202 I6 and 2660 kg (5864 lbs) for the V8. The One Tonner came with a heavy duty Salisbury diff while the rest of the commercials had the banjo-type diff as standard. To cope with the heavier loads, wheels were seam-welded instead of the four-spot welding used for the rest of the HQs.

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Its exterior detailing made it perhaps the most removed from the rest of the HQ range. The cavity grille was replaced with a pressed steel ‘grate’, the crudely-shaped heavy duty bumpers had no integrated turning signals, which were instead mounted between the headlights and grille as blister units. The trim detailing was either in white or grey, but an optional ‘Styling Package’ (later renamed ‘Appearance Package’) emerged with the grille, bumper and Holden lettering being chromed along with Kingswood hubcaps.

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The One Tonner came delivered from the factory as a cab-chassis only, and pretty much every one I’ve seen in the metal has a flat or dropside metal tray. This above image was used in the brochure, but it’s an airbrush job. I don’t recall ever having seen this type of rear on a One Tonner; if you were needing something like this then the panel van would have been more than adequate. Unless you baked super-heavy bread.

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There was also an ambulance variant, initially an informal option from the factory. The front clip was replaced with the more refined passenger version (in this case the quad-headlight Premier) and interior appointments were also upgraded. I’m not sure, but I suspect these were supplied straight to the body-builder without the rear wall on the cabin; in some cases a third door was added at the factory for side ingress to the rear compartment. (Image: sv1ambo)

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Here we have a Kingswood (or Belmont) front clip, but with an aftermarket lazy axle. This is an Em-Care version built by Australian Bodycraft Sales in South Australia who specialised in this configuration. I’ve also seen a six-wheeler flat tray One Tonner in the past.

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In late 1974, the HQ was replaced with the HJ (top). A step backward in styling sophistication and more broughamified with its pronounced grille and squared off corners. 1976 saw the introduction of the HX series (bottom), with minor changes to trim and specification.

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The HJ and HX One Tonner retained the HQ front sheetmetal, but GMH formalised the ambulance version as the B06 package using the upgraded sheet metal from the Premier passenger cars. The B06 could be ordered for non-ambulance use, but given the One Tonner was the least appearance-conscious workhorse in the range, up-speccing was the preserve of the few. (Image: sv1ambo)

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I’ve been waiting for an original One Tonner to appear in front of my camera, and its been a while coming. These commercials were the proverbial Grandpa’s Axe; being put through heavy-duty use and with components and body panels easily replaced. Survivors are relatively numerous, but given their tradie custodians, they have mostly been customised by those good with their hands.

When I saw this example, I jumped out of the car for a few shots. The grille and lettering is original spec, but the bumper is – alas – taken from the passenger cars. And that centre-mounted Holden crest is an additional addition.

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This one was shot near home, but it has a Kingswood front clip in its entirety.

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These have the split grille from the top-of-the-line Statesman; a popular enhancement when those nose cones were still freely available at the scrap yards.

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And of course there are the GTS tributes.

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I got talking to the owner of this one. Stupidly, I can’t remember what it’s running, but as you can see from the photos he treats it very well.

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Then I saw this badge, and I thought he was putting me on. Nup; this is an HZ One Tonner with Radial Tuned Suspension.

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When the HQ was in development, Chief Engineer George Roberts decreed that the car would have a ‘boulevard ride’ much to the dismay of his colleagues. Formerly at Cadillac, Roberts’ inclinations veered towards cruising and away from performance. Hence the HQ suffered terminal understeer that was post-rationalised as a passive safety feature.

It was not until the 1977 HZ that this shortcoming was rectified. The entire front suspension was overhauled with, as Joe Kenwright describes it: ‘new front suspension upper control arms and location, new positive castor and negative camber front end geometry, uprated springs, bushes and shock absorbers all round and an anti-roll bar at the rear for all models’, and given the name ‘Radial Tuned Suspension’ – a term used in the US as well but I’m not sure if it denoted a similar configuration.

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Around Christmas I found what looked like an original One Tonner. Grille – check; correctly mounted turning signals (amberised in 1973) – check; Holden lettering – check; bumper bar – check. An ‘Appearance Package’ model.

And although the fender badges are not visible in this shot, this one’s an HZ as well.

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So here we have the best of the breed; HQ front sheet metal with RTS. As I was delighting in its presence, its guardian appeared out of the bottle shop. He’s the second owner of this recent acquisition and, although not subjected to a Pebble Beach Survivor Class appraisal, he thinks it’s all original and is pretty chuffed with it. He plans a respray and adding LPG to the 253 and that’s about it. I never thought to ask, but apparently the chassis is prone to cracking, so I wonder whether it might have been replaced. More likely repaired if at all.

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In 1978, Holden released the Commodore. This was a strange time for GMH; they had originally planned for this model to supplement the larger HQ-based passenger cars and the HZ continued until 1980. But ultimately plans for the HQ platform-replacing WA series were discarded, and the Commodore became the ‘fullsize’ range.

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But the Commodore was a downsized model, and the 1980-onwards WB series continued with the ute, panel van and One Tonner, as well as the Statesman at the prestige end. The One Tonner received WB sheet metal with a headlight, grille and bumper treatment shared with the panel van.

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Within a year the WB One Tonner was wearing the face of the ute. As you can see here, it was still differentiated from the WB Statesman shown on the trailer. For a look at the teardown and buildup of Tunner’s Holden 1 Tonner, click here.

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The WB One Tonner was the last of the line, finishing up in 1984. From 2003 to 2005, Holden briefly revived the One Tonner in VY II and VZ form. Ford belatedly introduced their own version for the 1999 AU which continues to this day.

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I remember the originals from my youth, the white detailing leaving a vivid impression. I don’t recall ever seeing the grey-trim version, so maybe that’s something to start searching for. But to be honest, after finding this example I’ve emerged quite satisfied from my quest for the elusive genuine Grandpa’s Axe Holden One Tonner.

Further Reading:

Joe Kenwright’s comprehensive overview of the One Tonner at Truck Jungle

Em-Care 6-wheeler ambulances

HQ Holden Analysis by Paul Niedermeyer

Capsule of Ford F-350 Cab-Chassis by Jim Grey