Aussie legend: John Zeigler’s HJ ute

John Zeigler's groundbreaking Holden HJ ute lit a fire under the late-70s/early-80s Aussie custom scene. Now it re-emerges as Black Magic, proving that true style is timeless

Photographers: Nathan Jacobs

This article on John Zeigler’s HJ ute was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Street Machine

LEGEND. It’s a descriptor bandied about so often these days that its true meaning has been softened. Once, to be labelled a legend was a term of respect, earned from a number of achievements accomplished over a period of time – not a tag of instant gratification fuelled by our social-media obsessed society. Sure, your 18-year-old mate who wheelstands a bike while skulling a beer up his nose has #madskillz, but that doesn’t make him a legend – not yet, anyway.

So cast your eyes over this; it’s time for a session of Old-School 101. Those in the know will immediately recognise John Zeigler’s HJ Holden ute from the Fat Nancy’s scene in Mad Max and appreciate its heart-warming history, while the uneducated purists will probably moan that it’s a ‘ruined classic’. For me, there are a number of more applicable terms that spring to mind: innovator; showstopper; movie star, survivor, and yes, legend.

The new DNA Jet Black paintwork is adorned by red and gold true-candy highlights, painstakingly recreated from old photos by Sasha and the Delux Kustoms team. “These graphics featured in green and yellow on the Techno build, but those colours weren’t going to complement the current red interior and detailing, so we chose red and gold instead,” Sasha says. “But there’s still touches of green in the front spoilers, rear pan and amongst the sail-panel murals”

This Holden was destined for the star treatment from the moment it rolled off the showroom floor in 1975. John’s father, also called John, bought it to use as a shop ute for his Shell service station, but his passion for both hot rods and customs left little chance that the HJ would be left untouched.

The frontal styling is unmistakable as the ‘Mad Max ute’ and uses Mercedes-Benz headlights with a custom grille. The reformation of the split front spoilers is a welcome throwback to the aggressive looks of the ute’s green Techno guise, while the chromed rims are custom items John Sr brought back while holidaying in the US

The Holden was soon sporting a prototype custom rear wing along with a set of ROH Wildfire mags, while a spankers HJ Statesman front helped make it a standout from the get-go. But it didn’t take long for these modifications to become commonplace, and John Sr was keen for his ute to be truly in a league of its own.

The double-ended tail-lights, wing and custom rear pan remain from the green Techno build, while the Jag rear was slotted under during the 80s refurb. “I had the Jag diff earmarked for a ’33 Dodge hot rod I was building at the time,” John explains. “Dad said he ‘knew a guy’ who was looking for one, so I decided to sell it using Dad as the middle man. Next thing you know it turns up under his ute; he
wanted it all along!”

The second makeover was extreme – remembering that the ute was barely two years old at the time – and neatly transferred the influence of early Aussie rod and custom styling cues to the panel van scene, which was on the cusp of exploding locally. Full custom bodywork included the fitment of then-new (and thus pricy) Mercedes-Benz headlamps, cool split chin spoilers and an asymmetrically biased tube grille at the front, while tapering flared guards and sail panels altered the side view. The new rear end treatment retained the previous wing – albeit repositioned further back and blended to the quarters – while two pairs of tail-lights, joined through the indicators, were matched to a custom rear pan. The rear bumperettes were stacked next to the front bumper on the cutting room floor, while an uncharacteristically subtle yet perfect bonnet scoop was formed in steel.

The factory Jade Green metallic made a return, sprayed by Greg Bullivant and bordered by custom yellow and green highlights added by hot car legend Daryl Withers, who also applied his talents to many other aspects of the build. A whopping set of Hotwires and Mickey Thompson treads were chosen to fill the ample flares.

The interior was treated to an equally vibrant retrim in yellow and green cloth by Bill Ditchfield, accompanied by a portable TV and a smattering of GTS componentry. The tray area was completely removed from its commercial roots, with a second television mounted front and centre, bordered by mirrors, headphones and a glass hard lid.

The HJ was well-specced by the elder John when he originally ticked the boxes at his local Holden dealer, so the 308, Turbo 400 and Salisbury drivetrain were retained but detailed to the max with lashings of chrome and paint. However, its workhorse days weren’t completely over; John would use and display the ute – dubbed Techno – at his Shell workshop and attend numerous rod runs and car shows, often with one of his hot rods in tow.

Chev 350 power replaced the 308 in the early 80s, making for the correct use of the ‘JZ 350’ number plates the ute had long sported. The paint and chrome detailing of the new build remains eracorrect, as does the Ram-Flo air cleaner!

Not one to sit idle, John Sr made further changes to the green Techno, which included shaving the door handles and a more extensive T-top conversion that involved de-framing the doors.

Techno in rare fullcolour glory as featured in Custom Vans & Trucks #6 in 1977; it was immortalised in Mad Max soon after. “The film’s producers Kennedy- Miller were looking for cars that complemented the futuristic theme of the film,” John explains. “They thought Dad’s ute perfectly embodied this vision and rode the edge of ‘the now and the later’”

By the early-to-mid 1980s and with a number of years and plenty of road miles under the HJ’s belt, John felt it was time to give the ute its third makeover. It was reborn as The Sorcerer to tackle the burgeoning street machine scene; we featured the revamp in SM, Jul/Aug ’86.

The most noticeable visual changes were the shaving of both front spoilers, minor grille mods and the opening up of the sail panels, while a colour change to plain black and a new set of chromed custom wheels firmly stamped a fresh identity. However, the main action surrounded a drivetrain swap and significant undercarriage detailing. A 350 Chev replaced the 308, while the Salisbury diff made way for a full chromed and detailed Jag unit.

The black body was highlighted with red for the chassis and driveline, while the 70s-spec green interior made way for then-current bright red vinyl and velour, again stitched by Bill Ditchfield.

T-tops were all the rage in the late 70s and early 80s thanks to Smokey & The Bandit and the Pontiac Trans Am, and John’s HJ was likely the first local car to score this type of conversion. The interior retains the bones of factory-specced GTS appointments, but was redone in a mix of red velour and vinyl back in the 1980s. Still in near-perfect condition, it’s a snapshot of the styles and trends used for many cars of that era

These updates kept the ute in the mix for the ensuing years, while a flame job and other minor changes were added through the 90s. Then in 2008, with the years passing by and his interests leaning towards other areas, John Sr moved the HJ on to his son John, who tucked it away safely for a rainy day.

“Dad was an active and passionate member of Banzai Rodders for many years and his club plate remains proudly front and centre in the ute’s tray,” John Jr says. The club’s logo also adorns the gold-plated centre caps on the wheels

That day came in 2017, when John felt it was time to give his dad’s old ute a freshen-up, and tasked master builder Sasha Hollenbach and his team from Delux Kustoms in Dandenong with revamp number four.

The build mission statement was simple: Combine the best of the green and black guises of the ute into one final incarnation. Sasha and David Boi busied themselves recreating the steel chin spoilers and filling the outer surfaces of the sail panels – the inner surfaces were left ‘open’ as a styling nod to the later guise – before prepping the body for a fresh coat of DNA Jet Black.

The tray’s diamond-tuft red vinyl, mirrors and carpet flank a second television, all protected by a clear glass hard lid. “Sasha at Delux couldn’t believe it when he saw the strips of 1970s-fitted LEDs that frame both sides of the tray,” John says. “He said: ‘Where on earth did he find those?’ But that was my father to a T; always innovative and craving new technologies”

The old adage ‘red and green should never be seen’ rang true when John and Sasha nutted out the final primary paint choice; with the red interior and undercarriage detailing still in near-perfect condition, black was deemed the only logical choice. With the fresh hue baking off in the Delux oven, Sasha busied himself studying photos of the paint effects used on the ute’s green incarnation, readying himself for the build’s finale.

Some serious masking was undertaken before Paul Coleman laid down the DNA true candy red and gold detailing over different bases in lieu of green and yellow, mirroring the custom paint used for the Techno build while considering the aforementioned red interior and driveline colourings. The Delux boys then rubbed, flow-coated, rubbed and polished it all to perfection.

With the makeover now complete, the remaining areas of the HJ – now dubbed Black Magic – were thoroughly detailed before it was debuted at Meguiar’s MotorEx 2018, earning a well-deserved spot on the Street Machine Hall Of Fame display.

And what does John’s dad think of his old ute’s new look? “The smile on his face was incredible,” says John Jr. “I took him to see it at Sasha’s workshop and it was an emotional reunion. This car is so important to my family. It forms part of Dad’s identity and is an expression of the creativity and passion that makes him tick, but is also a vital piece of our Australian motoring heritage. I can’t wait to get the ute back into the public eye and share it with a new generation of car fans.”

1. John’s ute is widely regarded as the first HJ-era commercial to sport a Statesman front, and was soon outfitted with a set of ROH Wildfire rims and a GM-H prototype rear wing. “I still have that exhaust raiser!” John Jr says. “Dad used to show it using the lifter, as he could easily raise the car without scratching the paint and also use it on any surface.”

2. The Sorcerer guise took John’s already-wild creation to the next level. A 350 Chev, Jag rear, custom rims and red detailing brought the ute firmly into the 1980s, while fresh black Acran paint was applied over further body changes – the most noticeable being the removal of the front chin spoilers and opening of the sail panels behind the cabin.

3. Pictured in 2002, here is John Sr – then in his 60s – with The Sorcerer while it was receiving some body repairs.


Colour: DNA Jet Black

Make: Chevrolet 350ci
Block: Factory cast
Crank: Standard
Rods: Standard
Camshaft: Sig Erson mild-grind
Heads: Fuellie cast, ported and polished
Carb: Holley
Ignition: Electronic
Exhaust: Pacemaker extractors, custom twin system

Gearbox: Turbo 400
Converter: Stock
Diff: Jaguar E-Type IRS

Front: Factory Holden double wishbone
Rear: Jaguar twin coil-overs
Brakes: HJ Holden discs (f), Jaguar inboard discs (r); Holden master cylinder

Rims: Custom-made chrome steel; 15×10 (f & r)
Tyres: Mickey Thompson Indy Profile (f & r)