Curbside Classic: Holden WB Ute – The Enduring Machine

(first posted 11/17/2017)        The WB Holden occupies a unique place in the Australian automotive landscape, having been the last ute produced by “Australia’s Own” car maker for many years.  While the number has been reduced, there are still a lot of WB Holdens out there earning a living and it was a pretty unique case.

To tell the story of the WB, we need to backtrack to 1978, when the Commodore was released in Australia.  The Commodore was smaller than the Holden it had replaced in a reaction to the fuel crises of the 1970s; you could liken it to GM’s 1977 downsizing in North America, but the Commodore was a much more dramatic change.  This was because it lost much more size (in width, if not total length) as well as being only built as a sedan and wagon, dropping 3 body styles or 4 if you count the Monaro coupe that had stopped production in 1976.

While keeping HZ Holden in production as a hedge against the acceptance of the new model was not unusual, I don’t imagine there are many cases where there has been a facelift/update of that holdover model after two years that remained in production for 4 more years!  This was necessary to continue the long-wheelbase luxury sedan, and the commercial utility, one-tonner and panel van, which were the missing members of the Holden family not included with Commodore.

Things could have been quite different, because there had been a proposed WA/WB model that was cancelled, which would have maintained the mainstream sedan (using the previous long-wheelbase Statesman body) and wagon, but as William Stopford pointed out in his article on the Statesman that was not realistic.

The WB Holden was released in 1980, with the range narrowed to just the long-wheelbase luxury sedan, and the commercial utility, one-tonner and panel van.  The Statesman and Caprice had a dramatically-changed and typically GM for the era squared-off rear roofline and boot.

The commercial WB’s had a much more typical light makeover, with the main changes being new front styling and tail lights.  The range started with a pretty spartan base model that featured such luxury features such as a heater, seats, mirrors and so forth.

The interior features plenty of vinyl and the dashboard has vacant real estate.  Note the inside of the door pillar is bare painted metal.

If you wanted more comforts, there was the Kingswood trim.  There was a better-looking front end, with painted mirrors and larger body side mouldings, although I think the alloy wheels were an option.

Inside was where you noticed the difference, starting with cloth trim for the doors and seats, hiding under sheepskin seat covers here.  This ute has the optional sports instrumentation full gauge package, that would have originated with the Monaro GTS.  The bucket seats, four speed floor shifter and console are obviously a lot less utilitarian than a bench seat.

This red ute has the 253 ci (4.2-litre) V8 that was optional instead of the 173 or 202 ci (2.8-3.3 L) inline sixes.  The 308 (5.0) was not available in the commercials for some reason, perhaps due to the change from TH350/400 to Trimatic (aka TH180) automatic transmission.  The standard gearbox was a column-shift 3-speed with a 4-speed also available.  Front suspension was typical GM A-arms at the front, but leaf spring at the rear – and that was the last for an Australian Holden for 20 years.

The panel van continued with the WB but was overshadowed just by pure weight of numbers, likely making up less than 20% of production.  The “sin bin” vanning era was fading, which would have some impact.

Holdens were used for many different applications because they were so much more economical than full-size pickups, which GM was still assembling in Australia at this time.  The ambulance trade had taken advantage of the flexibility afforded by the cab-chassis One Tonner to produce a unit suited for rural use where long distances made a sleeker sized vehicle better than larger options.  There are stories of ambulances with ‘healthy’ V8 engines making some pretty high-speed runs to take urgent patients to the larger hospitals.

Another surprising use was as a tow truck, because the Holden was really a bit small and light ( kg/lb gross mass) but did find a niche in retrieving cars from multi-level car parks that larger trucks could not access.

A more common aftermarket conversion was adding a third ‘lazy’ axle (ie not driven) to create what was usually known as the “2 tonner” even though the payload didn’t actually double.  These had a following probably most frequently among transport operators who wanted to use cheaper local Holden mechanicals.

There was a Series II update in 1983, which featured the updated ‘blue’ engines to address tighter emissions regs plus the usual minor tweaks and upgrades.  The engine name came from the new paint colour, replacing the previous red motors and earlier grey motor.  Guess what colour they were painted?

Note this ute has a full-width station wagon rear bumper instead of the normal corner bumperettes

After 1984 production of the WB Holden was ceased, but with no direct replacement from Holden a great number of customers simply didn’t replace them.  Considering the options were less powerful 4-cylinder Japanese pickups, including Holden’s Isuzu-based Rodeo, which were still rather crude, or changing ‘tribe’ to the Ford Falcon ute and panel van.  To replace a One Tonner you might look at a much larger and more expensive full-size pickup, but these were becoming more expensive.

Holden created a Commodore Ute based on the larger second generation car, but with Macpherson struts and a coil-sprung rear axle taken from the station wagon it wasn’t taken as seriously, and in reality was not as robust as the old bangers.

The AU model Falcon ute in 1999 with its separate bed also brought in a new one tonner option as a modern equivalent of the old HQ-WB One Tonner, and many owners finally upgraded their 15-year old utes.  Having the strong inline six cylinder engine and leaf springs helped.

A surprising factor that drove some owners out of their old Holdens was insurance premiums, which went up dramatically as the parts supply dried up.  If you want a WB headlight, you will have a search on your hands.

But there are still quite a few of these old Holdens on the road earning a living every day, and I can’t see that stopping for many years yet.


Further Reading:

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

Curbside Classic: 1980-85 Statesman WB by General Motors-Holden – What a Beaut