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Holden Commodore 2003 Review

The traditional Aussie ute had become a real workhorse capable of doing some serious business.

So popular did the one-tonner become that thousands are still used by tradesmen today almost 20 years after Holden stopped making them.

Ford acknowledged the one-tonner's enduring popularity when it released an AU ute in 1999 with a full chassis and one-tonne capacity.

Its runaway success prompted Holden to build a new Commodore-based one-tonne ute, which was unveiled at the Melbourne Motor Show last week.

There were utes well before Ford built the one that is generally acknowledged as the first in 1934, but those that preceded Ford's unique multi-purpose worker were rather crude and uncomfortable vehicles.

Ford's coupe utility, as it was called, brought the comforts of a sedan, on which it was based, to the workplace and created a vehicle that had everything a sedan offered in 1934 with the capacity to carry tools or goods to and from the work site.

But the problem with most of the utes Holden and Ford built was that they were restricted in their ability to carry a serious payload.

That was until Holden came up with the one-tonner as part of the HQ range in 1971.

The main difference was that the one-tonner had a full chassis that was heavily reinforced to carry the payload.

An added advantage was that, with the full chassis, it could be fitted with a multitude of tray bodies which could be configured to a specific need.

It was a runaway success with tradesmen, small business operators and farmers alike.

The traditional Aussie ute had become a real workhorse capable of doing some serious business.

It was also popular as a recreation vehicle, one that could be readily fitted with a camper body, or carry a wide range of things from offroad bikes to power skis.

Model watch

The HQ one-tonner was a new, and unexpected, model. It's partial chassis was an ideal base which Holden could extend to full length and make into a rugged frame capable of surviving the rigours of a rough and tough working life.

Power was from a choice of six and eight-cylinder engines. The base six was a 173 cubic inch (2.8-litre) unit, and there was a 202 cubic inch (3.3-litre) version available as well.

Best known as the red motor, the overhead-valve pushrod six dated back to 1963 when it was introduced in the EH.

It had been progressively improved through the years, and in 1971 it put out 88kW in 173 form and 101kW in 202 guise.

Fed by a single Bendix-Stromberg carburettor, the Holden red motor was a simple design which was more renowned for its low-down pulling power than its ability to perform at high speed.

For more punch Holden offered a choice of V8 engines. There was the 253 cubic inch (4.2-litre) engine with a single dual-throat Bendix carburettor which was tuned for economy, and the 308 (5.0-litre) which boasted a four-barrel Rochester carburettor and plenty of punch.

Gearboxes ranged from a three-speed column-shift manual, through four-speed floorshift and three-speed column-shift autos.

There were a number of facelifts before the WB one-tonner was dropped in 1985, but Holden retained the same formula right through to the end.

The main changes were the introduction of the first generation of emission engines in 1976 and radial tuned suspension in 1977.

The emission controls had a huge impact, robbing the engines of performance and fuel economy. RTS, which came with the HZ, made the one tonner more rewarding to drive, with worthwhile improvements in handling.

Market value

The one-tonner has reached an age where trade values are a little unreliable, mainly because the vehicles vary so widely in condition.

The values given here are a guide to where you should be starting, but a one-tonner that has been thoroughly rebuilt and is in top condition will be worth much more than an original old stager that's on its last legs, even though they might have left the assembly line at the same time.

Early HQ one-tonners can be found for between $1000 to $2300, but be wary of the cheapies.

Later WBs are more popular, and because they are newer will have more life left in them. Expect stickers between $3000 and $5200.

In the shop

With the youngest Holden cab-chassis now almost 20 years old, any vehicle still on the road is likely to have been through a number of rebuilds.

Many have had power transplants with six-cylinder engines being dumped in favour of V8s, and basic body panels have often been swapped for panels from upmarket models like the Premier and Statesman so be prepared for anything and everything, and don't be surprised by what you might find.

The old Holden red motors were quite rugged, but any that have survived up to 30 years of constant use will be nearing their use-by date.

Look for blow-by caused by worn rings, low compression, worn bearings, worn camshafts and valve lifters, cracked heads, valve recession (particularly if it has been running on LPG), oil leaks, and a warped exhaust manifold.

The original fibre camshaft timing gear was prone to stripping, but later engines had an alloy one.

Blue motors were introduced with the WB in 1980, restoring much of the performance and fuel efficiency lost with the dreadful ADR 27A engines of 1976, but the French-built Varajet 2-bbl carburettor was troublesome.

On V8s look for worn camshaft lobes, particularly on the rear cylinders, warped intake manifolds, coolant leakage due to warped cylinder heads, cracked exhaust manifolds, valve recession, and rear main seal oil leaks.

The 253 cubic inch V8 was much improved when fitted with the Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel when the blue XT5 motor was launched in 1980.

In some quarters it was regarded as smoother and more responsive than the larger 308 V8.

While the driveline components are quite likely to have been replaced over the years, it's unlikely the chassis has ever been changed, and the one-tonner chassis was prone to cracking in a number of areas.

Be particularly careful when checking around the rear mounting brackets for the front suspension lower control arm as these were known to crack.

Look for slack in the steering which could indicate worn steering, and suspension bushes which might need replacing.

Rust can be expected in any car this old, but check the bottom of the doors and the front guards, the floor pan, firewall and around the windscreen and rear window where the mounting flanges could have been corroded away.

Also be watchful for illegal and unsafe modifications that have been made by incompetent and dodgy backyard mechanics.

Ripper stripper: The original fibre camshaft timing gear on the red motor was prone to stripping, but later engines like the one originally fitted in this WB had alloy ones

Juice Mixer: The French-built Varajet 2-bbl carburettor on the WB was troublesome.

Fly by wire: Look for slack in the steering which could indicate worn steering and suspension bushes which might need replacing.

Spot the gap: The one-tonner chassis was prone to cracking in a number of areas, particularly around the rear mounts for the front suspension lower control arm.

Spring-loaded: Check the mounting brackets for the rear suspension.

Air cooled: Rust in body panels can be a problem. Run a magnet over the bottom of the doors and front guards.


Toyota HiLux (1985) $1200-$3000

Mazda B2000 (1985) $1000-$2100

Holden Rodeo (1985) $1300-$2800

Ford Courier (1985) $1300-$3200

Pricing guides

Based on 134 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
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Range and Specs

Acclaim 3.8L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $2,900 – 4,950 2003 Holden Commodore 2003 Acclaim Pricing and Specs
Berlina 3.8L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $3,900 – 6,380 2003 Holden Commodore 2003 Berlina Pricing and Specs
Equipe 3.8L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $3,100 – 5,280 2003 Holden Commodore 2003 Equipe Pricing and Specs
Executive 3.8L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $2,800 – 4,840 2003 Holden Commodore 2003 Executive Pricing and Specs
Pricing Guide


Lowest price, based on 120 car listings in the last 6 months

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