VIN-Swapped Half-Holden Half-Chevrolet Has Importer On Guns

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Curious list in Cars & Deals that will end on April 22 promoting the “2015 Chevrolet Caprice Ute Conversion.” The Caprice isn’t sold with a truck bed—we’ve never had that luck in North America—though their Australian counterpart Holden Commodore is of course, and is known as the Utes. But the word “conversion” isn’t clear on its face, carrying the potential to open up new responsibilities on potential buyers depending on how the job is done. The seller has tried to explain, but only encourages more attention to auction site.

The vehicle description reads as follows:

This is a right-hand-drive Australian-spec Holden Ute registered in Tennessee as a 2015 Chevrolet Caprice with a Custom Built title. It is equipped with a metric instrument cluster and its odometer displays approximately 82,000 kilometers, which represents about 51,000 miles.

The seller states that the pickup is made using an empty Ute shell and parts from the Chevrolet Caprice Police Pursuit Vehicle (PPV) and the Chevrolet SS. The list of parts sourced from Caprice PPV includes a 6.0 liter V8 engine, catalytic converter, seat belts and airbags. Parts sourced from the SS include a 6-speed manual transmission, limited slip differential, hub, front clip and doors. More details on the builds and modifications reported by the seller are provided below.

The first line — an Australian-spec Holden Ute listed as a 2015 Chevrolet Caprice — should raise eyebrows immediately. In general, a vehicle should not be legally classified as anything other than what it is, and what it starts with Holden Ute. Ute components may have been replaced for the domestic equivalent of Caprice and SS that meet federal safety standards, but the VIN is built into the body, and this is a Holden body.

However, the VIN does not reflect Holden’s; that’s the beginning belonging to the Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle. Perhaps, semantically, one could argue that with the assortment of “SS-sourced” parts and engines from PPV, this Zeta of Theseus is more Caprice than Commodore. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine a federal judge listening.

Commenters on Cars & Deals — some of whom claim to be specialists in the trade in legally imported utes — were extremely skeptical, to say the least:

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Screenshot: Cars & Deals, Jalopnik

All strong words, although the worries are understandable. These are my personal favourites:

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Screenshot: Cars & Deals, Jalopnik

There’s no disrespect to the “ute community,” but it’s impossible for me not to imagine these exact words being shouted at a town hall-style forum in Canberra. The seller has attempted to answer questions with more in-depth explanations of certain parts, such as the seats and components of the airbag system. But that does little to eliminate the main sticking point — that this is an illegal import in the eyes of a law that imposes a VIN from another car sold domestically.

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Screenshot: Cars & Deals, Jalopnik

Few people are more experienced in the trials and tribulations of vehicle import than our own Mercedes Streeter. Mercedes graciously offers its own theory of how a ute conversion like this can go sideways. In short, he probably wouldn’t have pulled the trigger either:

Many illegal cars cross the US border in some parts. The danger is, let’s say a ute without a drivetrain is loaded onto the ship. The contents of the container are labeled as auto parts. Now, Customs doesn’t check all the containers, so this one passes. Someone got the ute, and completed it using donor PPV. They also scrape VIN from PPV. The car would be doubly illegal due to bad import and VIN exchange. There’s no way the FBI will come for the owner, but it’s a huge opportunity.

Mercedes notes that on-board ute conversions are possible, but they require a lot of work. “The official one is a Pontiac G8s/Chevy SS that someone sawed off once,” he told me.

I also contacted Dylan Cain from Import People in Ferndale, Washington, a shop that knows a thing or two on the subject. Cain likened what seemed to be happening here to drama with imported R34 Skyline GT-Rs from Kaizo Industries 13 years ago. He also added that while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will almost certainly take issue with the ute – if it pays attention – the states may be a little more willing to let it slide. Cain’s words, lightly edited for clarity:

It reminds me of [the Kaizo case], because the car was imported as a shell, then put together and registered as “Custom Build”. Most likely the shells were imported as “vehicle parts”. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think CBP or NHTSA would be happy to see this car assembled as it is. I think when it comes to VIN, it just falls back on state patrols in certain states when the vehicle is inspected. Apparently the state doesn’t care, NHTSA probably won’t agree. A classic battle between state & federal governments, I believe. The best way to get a clear answer for anyone who is serious about buying a car is to call NHTSA & ask how they feel about it. Chances are the car will never be a problem and skirt under for years, unless it comes to their attention for some reason.

With three days left to bid on this rolling identity crisis and the current highest bid at $22,000, it will be interesting to see how this story ends. No doubt what happens next will be under the watchful eye of the ute community.

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