Graham Cowley’s HR Holden ute – video

Graham Cowley’s HR ute is a genuine street machine survivor. Built over 30 years ago, it retains its signature features including the paint and the original screaming small-block Chev

Videographers: Scott TAYLOR

I love when a car becomes part of its owner’s persona, a symbol of their identity. It might be as subtle as your granddad’s HT Kinger being visible in three decades of family photos, or as exciting as an iconic build being thrust back into the spotlight after years on the down-low.

When El Telfo swung me this story, I have to admit to getting a little excited.

First published in the August 2015 issue of Street Machine

See, my teenage years were filled with 80s mags covering all the action I was missing at the ASMF Nats and early Summernats, and more often than not, there was Graham Cowley and this red HR ute, unmistakeable for its (often missing) flip front and ‘real’ HR tail-end.

Graham and the HR are a legendary part of our street machining heritage. Long, smoky burnouts with doughnuts in tight spaces were their thing back in the days when a tip-in was something done with a shovel and dirt. And we’re really firing up the DeLorean here – Graham has owned this ute since ’81!

“I was at a party and heard of a ute for sale,” he recalls. “It was a roller that looked pretty rooted, but the body was actually quite good with only minimal rust. When you think back, it was only 15 years old so time was on its side.”

Graham’s pretty handy on the tools, so he hatched a plan. The car was stripped, and in true 80s fashion, mods were undertaken to make it that little bit more personalised. “I like subtle changes but didn’t want it to date quickly either; the tilt front isn’t obvious when it’s closed and the rear end looks factory enough that it doesn’t slap you in the face.”

What’s this about the rear end? Well, back in the day good ol’ GM-H was keen to save a few bucks, hence why some of its commercials shared the same tail-end treatments – think FC to FB/EK; EJ and EH; HD and HR.

Graham rectified The General’s shortcut by grafting on just enough wagon sheet metal and a modified tailgate to create a ‘proper’ HR utility.

“It was far more involved than you may think,” he says. “The wagons and utes are completely different through that tail area. I even carefully removed the original metal just in case it went pear-shaped and I needed to put it back!”

Nearly a metre’s worth of donor metal was grafted to each side, with both quarters tied together using a wagon rear pan and bumper, pulling double-duty to replace the original spare wheel door. The tailgate was sorted using a ute frame wrapped in a wagon skin, to make easier work of the differing hinge arrangements. All body mods were done with a good old oxy welder in true old-school form.

Graham recessed a neat pair of rear pillar windows, before embarking on the removable tilt front. “I had an HR Premier that I used to drag race, so I started toying with fibreglass panels to save weight. Those plans found their way onto the ute, so I ripped a one-piece mould off an HR wreck I had in the backyard.” Graham made fibreglass skateboards back in his high school days, so tapped into that experience to create the front you see here.

Thirty-three years on, it is still in excellent shape and a testament to his handiwork. “I fabricated the tilt and slide mechanisms from scratch – it had to clear the doors and be able to be opened by only one person if required – and uses HR sedan boot latches to lock it into place.”

An HD front pan and two-inch-narrowed, free-floating grille rounded out the body mods, before the ute was lavished in Ford Hermitage red by Graham’s high school mate, Andrew Csaszar. Yes, that 1982 paintjob is still worn today.

A 283 Chev was chosen and breathed over to create a grunty little unit. The standard block was filled with a forged steel crank and a host of Speed Pro goodies, while a hydraulic Sig Erson cam makes good use of the factory-option ‘Power Pack’ cast heads. A 650 Holley carb and Edelbrock intake round out the top end, along with an owner-made forced air induction assembly.

The twin-point Mallory distributor (remember them?) still provides ample spark, while a four-row forklift radiator and twin fans take care of cooling duties.

The exhaust uses custom extractors that feed back to a twin two-inch stainless system.

“This engine was originally planned as a stop-gap measure, just to get the car engineered and on the road, but three decades later it’s still there,” Graham says. “I ran multiple bottles of NOS through it in the late 80s, which did some minor damage, so it received a freshen-up in 1990 by another mate, Victor Pace.”

A Saginaw four-speed survived many burnout encounters before being replaced with a spankers fine-spline T5 in ’89 – chosen for its 38 per cent overdrive to better suit the 3.7-geared nine-inch on highway runs.

An owner-modified front crossmember was used for sump clearance – remember there were no conversion kits back in those days – while the steering consists of an LH Torana rack topped with a UC Torana column.

Front brakes are HT Monaro assisted by a remote VH40 booster, with the original Fairlane drums retained for the rear.

Keen-eyed readers may have noticed the different wheels; satin-finish 15-inch Center Line Auto Drags are a recent addition and measure in at 5.5- and 8.5-inch widths.

The interior was trimmed back in ’82 by Motorcraft, who covered the HR Premier buckets and adjacent surfaces in a mix of brown velour and carpet. An LE Monaro wheel, Luke harnesses and a brace of six Smiths gauges add a racier element to the cabin.

With a relationship spanning 34 years, does Graham have other changes on the horizon? “Well, I’ve finally finished the tailgate conversion,” he laughs. “I’ve had the Premier garnishes and stainless moulds sitting around for decades, and sorted it back in April.

“I have a six-litre engine that may find its way on board, and if that’s the case, I’ll respray the firewall and front subframe in body colour to tone down the amount of black. There’s some Connolly leather here that would update the interior trim, but the car is still in such great condition it seems a shame to change it.”

Watch the video here

Looking back:

1. Graham has long been an HR fan, and here he is lined up at Heathcote in 1980 with his HR Premier sedan. “It was the forerunner to the ute, and ran low 14s with a triple-Webered six-cylinder. I came home with $25 in prize money that day!” he laughs

2. Before the likes of Photoshop, we actually had to cut and sticky-tape real photos together for mock-up ideas. “I took a picture of my sedan, trimmed it down to a ute and chopped the roof,” Graham says. “I actually had the real thing marked out and ready to cut, but couldn’t find a new hacksaw blade so left it to the following day. Lucky I did, as I woke up to find I’d had a serious change of heart”

3. It messes with your mind like a Magic Eye illusion! With the right side more-or-less sorted, this pic makes for an interesting comparison between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ tail treatment

4. The HR was sprayed in Hermitage Red by Graham’s good mate Andrew Csaszar. “I made up the light set in the hope it would aid the longevity of the paint,” Graham says. The fact that the same paint still looks great 33 years later says he was on the money

5. Some more early ‘Photoshop’, this time for an HR coupe idea that GC has had brewing for some time

6. An iconic sight. The HR is well remembered from its Canberra days being driven sans tilt front. It not only looked wild but helped greatly in keeping things cool during burnout sessions

7. Back in ’94 Graham and the HR rustled a few exotic feathers by entering the Grand Prix rally and achieving a creditable finish in the Top 20

8. In 34 years the HR has never been a trailer queen, and even saw boat ramp duties on a number of occasions. “I’ve driven it to Canberra 13 times, Sydney once and Adelaide twice, clocking up 85,000 kays so far,” Graham says. “Before I fitted the T5, I even used to swap diff centres in Canberra for the driving events. But for the trip home, I usually couldn’t be bothered changing back to 3.7s so would just scream along doing 100km/h at 4200rpm!”


Colour:Hermitage Red
Make:Chevrolet 283ci
Crank:Forged steel
Pistons:Speed Pro
Carb:Holley 650 4bbl
Intake:Edelbrock Performer
Heads:283 Power Pack cast
Cam:Sig Erson hydraulic
Ignition:Mallory twin-point
Cooling:Four-core forklift radiator, thermo and mechanical fans
Exhaust:Custom headers, twin 2in stainless system
Gearbox:T5 fine-spline manual
Diff:Ford nine-inch, 3.7 gears
Front:HR crossmember, LH rack, UC column
Rear:HR, seven-leaf
Shocks:Leslie (f & r)
Brakes:HT Monaro discs (f), Fairlane drums (r)
Rims:Center Line
Auto Drag;15×5.5 (f), 15×8.5 (r)
Rubber:Wanli 195/55 (f), Hankook Dynamic 265/50 (r)