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Gallery: Aussie ute shoot-out

  1. It’s hard to accurately describe the noise a baby cow makes when it lands on the swollen bonnet bulge of a spanking-new Ford special-edition ute. It’s a strange cacophony of human gasps, weird bovine squawks and a kind of audible dread of just how badly it’s all going to end. Time slows, faces stretch in shock, hands fly to mouths. Then the crashing crescendo arrives with a bass-heavy thump as 450 kilograms of surprised beef bends the bonnet of a one-of-only-75-ever ute in on itself like it’s made out of papier mâché.

    The calf in question had just been head-butted into the air by a large and angry bull. Ford’s FPV Pursuit cushioned what might have otherwise been a nasty fall. Good news for the cow, less so for the guy who has to call Ford.

    Photos: Thomas Wielecki

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. It was unexpected. Minutes earlier, I’d been delicately parking the monstrous ute opposite its Holden HSV Maloo counterpart in a mud-filled paddock about five hours out of Sydney, New South Wales. As I scampered from the driver’s seat and scaled a nearby fence (they’re huge when you’re surrounded, those cows), I called to cattle-owner Chris Caine, asking if the cars were safe. “I’ve never seen them damage one of ours,” he answered.

    Fast-forward three minutes, and a small cow is writhing on the FPV’s bonnet, leaving a slick of slimy beef goo and a sequence of huge dents behind it.

  3. Chris appears largely unmoved by the whole cow-flying episode. He casually glances at the bonnet. “Well, I’ve never seen one do that before. Lucky it was only the Ford,” he says, with a finality that suggests the conversation has definitely reached its conclusion.

    Only the Ford. Here’s a man who’s just witnessed possibly the world’s first-ever car/flying cow collision, and his only thought is relief it wasn’t the Holden. Not his Holden, but the Holden. Any Holden. If a car had to be crushed by flailing beef, then thank God it landed on a Ford.

  4. In Chris’s final sentence is the clue as to why we’re here, to the sunburnt centre of New South Wales - the living, breathing, dusty encapsulation of the middle of nowhere. We were actually aiming for a spot about five hours further into the outback abyss, but our plans were scuppered by Australia’s maniacal weather patterns. Bushfires are burning across half the state, with an area three times the size of Greater Manchester on fire in this area alone. The other half is under water, with a cyclone-powered storm battering the coast and sending a surge of floodwater inland, leaving 41,000 people stranded in their homes.

  5. And then there’s TopGear, picking its way gingerly through the middle of it all, heading for a map-speck town named Ootha. Population: 94. It’s beef country. Grain country. Dust country. All wide, wild plains and sun-damaged shrubbery. It’s Ford country. Holden country. But, above all else, it’s ute country.

    Which brings us to the point of this adventure: we’re here to honour an icon. Before it’s too late.

  6. The stories have become legends. There’s the Holden-mad bride-to-be who dragged her Ford-loving husband to an HSV dealership and made him buy one before she said yes. The thousands - thousands - of Australians with Ford or Holden logos permanently inked on their skin. The thousands more who instead opted to have the face of their favourite race driver tattooed on their necks. Which probably explains why, when V8 Supercar driver Craig Lowndes switched sides from Holden to Ford in 2001, he received countless death threats - real, serious, police-investigated death threats - from the same people who’d spent a lifetime cheering for him. There was a time when drivers had to remove their team uniforms before entering crowd areas, or risk being knocked out by a flying beer bottle. There are the Commodores or Falcons burnt to the ground after mistakenly driving into the wrong supporter area at race meetings. Even the parents who threaten to disown their own children if they switch allegiances.

  7. The Aussie motoring landscape is littered with these tales, every one of them told and retold with an air of respect for the characters who have shown such commitment to either camp.

    Australian HSV (Holden Special Vehicles) Club vice-president Sam Mangiapane puts it like this: “A lot of it comes from your family heritage. You’re born and raised with it. My dad was a Holden fan, and my favourite racing-car driver was a Holden driver. It stems from that. There has always - always - been a rivalry between the two tribes. I remember once I considered buying a Ford F6 Typhoon because it was a steal. I rang my missus, and she said: ‘Don’t you even think about buying a Ford. If you bring that thing home, I’ll leave you.’ She wasn’t joking. I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on every new HSV that’s released, but just considering a Ford was enough for her to threaten to divorce me.”

  8. The divide was forged in the epic motorsport battles of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties in Australia’s answer to the British Touring Car Championships. It was loose, aggressive racing in cars that were in no way suited to the kind of pain they were being forced to endure. And the kicker? Early rules ensured that, to qualify to race, the manufacturers had to sell the same V8-engined car in showrooms. Here, then, were drivers battling with each other in the same cars the fans had on their driveways. As a result, things got a little heated. People fought. Spectators rolled huge rocks onto the track mid-race to sabotage the leaders. People crashed. It was mental. Race officials eventually kicked out all other manufacturers, making the Aussie V8 series a two-make competition.

  9. It’s a brand-loyal passion unmatched anywhere else in the motoring world. But it’s under threat. That passion is fading, the tribes disbanding.

    The once-mighty Commodores and Falcons have emerged as two broken and punch-drunk old boxers in their autumn years, endlessly recalling their former glories. Nobody buys them. The cars that topped Australian sales charts for decades (in the Fifties, four out of 10 cars sold in Australia wore a Holden badge) are now routinely toppled by Mazdas or Toyotas. Even the working utes are being replaced by Nissans, Toyotas or, gasp, Great Walls. Driving a V8 is frowned upon. Diesel is in. Efficiency is in. Displacement is out.

  10. A near-fatal blow landed last year, when the V8 Supercars organisation announced they’d be ending the two-car domination of the competition, and throwing it open to Nissan in 2013, and Mercedes the year after.

    The long-term future of the Commodore and the Falcon is dark. The next Commodore will almost certainly be the last one we ever see. Ford receives government handouts to build the Falcon, which stop in 2016. That, along with the company’s ‘One Ford’ policy - a cost-saving push to focus on universal models for all markets - means an almost-certain end to the Falcon.

  11. The Australian dream is undoubtedly dying. So we hit the road to ensure it wasn’t already dead.

    There is something beautiful and raw and pure about a big V8 engine. It might be analogue when compared with the twin-charging antics that squeeze power out of smaller, smarter engines, but it’s loud, obnoxious, uncouth power at its Australian best. Ford’s FPV Pursuit is hiding a 5.0-litre supercharged V8 under that now-crumpled bonnet bulge, which spits out 422bhp and 401lb ft of torque. Holden’s HSV Maloo R8’s is even bigger: a massive 6.2-litre V8 generates 435bhp and 405lb ft. And they’re built for the straight-line hauls of the Aussie outback - all brute force, air-splitting momentum and joyous exhaust. They’re old-fashioned, unfeasible and have been force-fed altogether too much power to ever actually use. They chew through petrol like an A380 Airbus and don’t so much accelerate as bludgeon the road ahead to death. They’re utterly suicidal in the wet, even with all traction options engaged. In short, they’re wonderful.

  12. They also attract a lot of attention. We rumble to a stop outside Cargo - a one-street, one-pub town surrounded by a brown-and-yellow patchwork of drought-stricken farmland. Population: 200. And it seems every single one of them is crowded into the only pub.

    The bar empties onto the verandah as we rumble to a stop. We arrive at 5pm. The boys have been drinking since noon.

  13. “Oh. My. God. That’s the new HSV. You’ve got to take a photo of me in it,” yells Marco Morrol, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. Then he spots the FPV.

    “What the hell is that doing here? And what the hell happened to the bonnet?” he asks. I tell him a cow fell on it. “Fair enough, then,” he replies, as if I somehow did it on purpose to punish the Ford.

    TopGear snapper Thomas begins negotiations to have the pub’s crowd star in a photo. It’s not easy. “I’ll stand in front of the Holden, but I ain’t standing anywhere near that Ford,” someone yells.

  14. A clammy hand grips my arm. It belongs to the biblically drunk Gerrard ‘Racky’ Rack. He leads me quietly away from the rest of the group. It seems all the anti-Ford sentiment has upset him a little.

    “I’m a Ford man. And you know why? Because they’re outnumbered on Aussie roads 10 to one. They don’t deserve that. They just don’t deserve that,” he tells me, with the air of a man who’s talking about a loved one’s terminal illness. “It’s unfair. They deserve better.”

    The offer of a burnout competition finally convinces the crowd to pose for a photo. They jostle into position. It’s hard to spot Racky, but you can hear him - he’s taken to screaming “FORD, FORD, FORD” at approximately 15-second intervals. We keep our promise, leaving Cargo in a cloud of acrid tyre smoke

  15. It’s a scene repeated with different actors at every stop we make. Like Luke Johns, the 18-year-old from outside Sydney, who pulls over on the freeway just to have a look at the Maloo: “You’re born with it. I was raised this way. My dad would kill me if I bought a Ford. Honestly. Not disown me. He’d kill me”.

    Or our stop in Spring Hill, another tiny town with a single pub called the Railway Hotel. In it, we find a lady called Jade Williams. We’re the first people she’s seen all day - it’s 4.30 in the afternoon.
    Jade’s parked her ‘82 Holden Kingswood out the front. With a V8, of course, a 308. “There is no way I would ever own anything else,” she says. “It’s a way of life out here. You’re either Ford or Holden, and that’s that.”

    She looks at her ute, which she’s personalised with bumper stickers and named ‘Thumper’: “I got that one for $4,000. I’ve gone through six difs, a couple of gearboxes and I’m onto my third motor. But you wouldn’t catch me in anything else.”
    It’s a scene repeated with different actors at every stop we make. Like Luke Johns, the 18-year-old from outside Sydney, who pulls over on the freeway just to have a look at the Maloo: “You’re born with it. I was raised this way. My dad would kill me if I bought a Ford. Honestly. Not disown me. He’d kill me”.

    Or our stop in Spring Hill, another tiny town with a single pub called the Railway Hotel. In it, we find a lady called Jade Williams. We’re the first people she’s seen all day - it’s 4.30 in the afternoon.
    Jade’s parked her ‘82 Holden Kingswood out the front. With a V8, of course, a 308. “There is no way I would ever own anything else,” she says. “It’s a way of life out here. You’re either Ford or Holden, and that’s that.”

    She looks at her ute, which she’s personalised with bumper stickers and named ‘Thumper’: “I got that one for $4,000. I’ve gone through six difs, a couple of gearboxes and I’m onto my third motor. But you wouldn’t catch me in anything else.”

  16. “It’s a 1975 HJ Monaro,” she tells me. “We actually bought it new. It’s the Bathurst Edition and everything.” It’s a classic, and worth a fortune. And it’s sitting here under a dusty tarp.

    But we have to push on. There’s one last stop to make.

    Hidden on a country backroad about two miles outside Ootha - a town so small most maps ignore it completely - is an Aussie attraction that few have ever heard of. In a sheep-filled paddock and burning in the midday sun, 15 Holden utes are propped up on their tray-tops looking like an army of past-it Transformers. Each has been painted by an outback painter, or transformed into a slice of Australiana by a bush artist. There’s UteZilla, a 1957 FE ute transformed into a hulking kangaroo-shaped monster. Or the Emute, a 1975 HJ ute, which looks like it’s been crashed nose-first into the dirt, the angry eye of an emu staring out from below the passenger window. It goes on: the Ute of Arms (Holden’s first ute, the FX, adorned with a giant emu and kangaroo), or Ute-topia (a rusty old Holden speared by three gigantic metal grass trees) or Trib-ute (a 1964 EH ute covered with the traditional Dreamtime paintings of Australia’s aboriginal people). Local farmers Graham and Jana Pickles created it, appealing for out-of-use utes and asking the artists to donate their talents. It’s a breathtaking celebration of Australia’s motoring history that couldn’t, and shouldn’t, exist anywhere but these sun-ravaged fields in the middle of the outback.

  17. But, more than that, it’s proof that the passion is alive and well in Australia. And evidence that the memory will live forever, even if the Commodore and Falcon don’t.

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