The demon from Down Under

30 October 2011 - 03:13 By Thomas Falkiner
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now

It's a bakkie - with a V8 under its hood

To the average South African citizen, Australia is not a country that you automatically associate with motorcars. This is because its not-too-distant neighbour - Japan - has been dominating the Eastern auto front since Mr Dinosaur went extinct back in the late Cretaceous. Living in the shadow of great brands such as Nissan, Toyota and Honda, Australia has instead built up a reputation as being The Last Outpost. A supposed "safe haven" for only the most desperate and disillusioned members of the Rainbow Nation.

And I say "supposed" because, from what I've seen and heard, it seems like an appalling place in which to live. Well, that's if you're lucky enough to even get through Sydney airport what with their customs Gestapo roaming the halls. I've watched enough episodes of Border Patrol to know that arriving in Australia with one too many peanuts stuck inside your Snickers bar is a crime punishable by public humiliation and immediate deportation.

Of course, should you successfully slide past Bruce and his keen-nosed Dingo, you will soon be facing a whole new set of problems. In a country of bureaucrats and the inventors of the Nanny State, nothing goes unnoticed. And should you step out of line, dare to do anything even remotely rebellious, there will be serious consequences. Yep, in Australia every action has a reaction, and for the regulated public it usually involves the handing over of some hard currency. Ride a bike without a helmet on? Fine. Have the audacity to break the speed limit? Fine. Don't use a pedestrian crossing? You guessed it.

You can't even play R-rated computer games filled with guts and gore because some anal-retentive official has banned them all. The same goes for booze. South Africans love all-night pub-crawls but in Oz everything closes as the clock strikes midnight. Fun over.

But the general Fear and Loathing doesn't end here. No sir, even when you manage to give Big Brother the slip, Australia has another stress hidden up its sleeve. For unlike in the UK, where the most threatening living thing takes the form of a honeybee, the rock down under is crawling with some of the most lethal animal species known to man.

The taipan snake. The funnelweb spider. The box jellyfish. The great white shark. Every one of them has a licence to kill and none - believe you me - are loath to use it.

All of this - not forgetting that annoyingly good rugby team and some of the worst suburban architecture you'll see this side of Wilgeheuwel - is reason enough for any person with half a brain cell to stay as far away from Australia as humanly possible.

The bizarre thing is though, despite its many shortcomings, this strange and terrible land of weak beer and sunburn is responsible for making one of the best cars I've ever driven.

Well I guess you can't really call the Chevrolet (down there it's called a Holden) Lumina SS a car, because that implies it has four doors and a boot. It doesn't. Instead you get two doors from a coupé and an enormous loading bed for putting stuff in.

On paper this sounds like some Frankenstein experiment gone wrong, but in reality it represents the pinnacle of what the Australians call a "ute" (utility vehicle). Yes, the thing you and I know as a bakkie is largely an Aussie invention; one was put into production during the 1930s after a farmer's wife wrote into Ford asking for a "vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays". Ah yes, the colony of convicts had simple tastes.

But unlike its primitive ancestors, which were made for the rough-and-tough rigours of outback living, the Lumina Ute SS you see here is designed to be a slick urban sports car. It wears a low roofline. It sits atop enormous alloy wheels. It lays claim to four exhaust tailpipes. It is, from every angle, the physical manifestation of the word testosterone.

Unfortunately, outside the realms of Australia, this weird marketing dichotomy means that the Lumina Ute SS will only ever appeal to power-crazed men with mullets and wife-beater vests. You know, the sort of Neanderthals that stomp around southern-suburb drinking holes on weekends looking for trouble. Consequently, it has developed something of a fearsome reputation with those who don't live in Boksburg, Germiston and Bellville.

And this is one of the reasons why I like it so much. Call me perverse, dark or twisted but there's nothing better than commandeering an automobile that 90% of the populous loves to hate. Every street you rumble down, every pretentious roadside bistro that blurs past your window, the looks of utter disdain - those faces contorted in the disbelief that anybody could actually consider buying such a vehicle - never fail to give me a rush of deviant pleasure. Piloting the Lumina Ute SS is like riding around in Bryce Lawrence.

Rampant anti-socialism aside, the greatest thing about this machine is what lurks beneath its bonnet. Being a country that looks down upon vehicular exhibitionism (remember that F1 ace Lewis Hamilton was once arrested after he smoked the tyres of his C63AMG in the middle of a Melbourne street) the Australians decided to give the ute a "sensible" engine. You know, something that wouldn't encourage your inner anarchist. So they fitted a V8 not dissimilar to the one found inside its distant American cousin, the Chevrolet Corvette.

The result is a rear-wheel-drive demon that lights up rubber like a Chicago mobster lights up cigars. No stranger to flaming burnouts, all this horsepower in a car with no weight above the rear axle means that every traffic circle, intersection and car-park exit ramp becomes an excuse to slam the throttle and go sideways in a cloud of smoke. Yes it's juvenile and irresponsible and asking for a verbal beat down from Mr Metro, but my goodness, is it fun!

So much fun, in fact, that when it finally came time to wave goodbye, I couldn't help but get all misty eyed and emotional. Yeah, go ahead, judge away, but if the lottery gods were to smile upon me, the Chevrolet Lumina Ute SS would be the first thing I would go out and buy. A bloody Australian no less - who would have thought it?

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now