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Hidden Talents

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Despite a 400hp motorsport-inspired engine build, this 1968 Holden HK ute has recently completed a 10,000km odyssey in just three weeks. Build it to use it and enjoy it on the road.

The 1960s was an unrivalled high point for car design, and Australia’s efforts were no different. By decade’s end Holden unleashed its HK series, ultimately with the legendary Monaro coupe re-writing the rule books. The HK sedans, wagons and vans all hold a special place in Aussie hearts, but it’s perhaps the ute version that many most fondly remember of the era. It was the True Blue workhorse and a characterful sight across much of rural Australia.

Stephen and Krissy Jenkins have their own long-running HK story. “When we first started going out, I had an HK ute,” Stephen said. “A few years ago I’d just bought an HT Monaro when this came up for sale, and Chrissy said would I buy it for her. So I did. She loves them.” That was five years ago, and thanks to Stephen’s long-running history of building and racing cars, has been able to create this stunning street car that packs a chunk more power and performance from its transplanted V8 than the original ute’s inline six-cylinder.

Despite the plate suggesting it’s a 1969, the Mako Blue HK is actually a 1968 model – Stephen said he just couldn’t find a number plate to match. The couple bought it when it was just a shell in undercoat, although thankfully the body was mostly rust free. “Someone was going to make a skid car (burnout car) out of it, but I decided to totally re-do it,” Stephen said. “I first put a 400 Chev small block in, but it had a failure straight away, so that was the end of that. I’ve replaced it with a 350 Chev, bored out to 355, which a friend of mine helped me rebuild.”

With a history of drag racing a Holden HT ute and racing a 4×4 Toyota LandCruiser with Chevy engine in the 1980s, Stephen’s motorsport learnings ensured he picked some key high-performance-suited components for the engine build. “It had probably been a crate engine, and I bought it as a block with lots of extra parts. We began putting it back together with plenty of new parts; pistons, cam, lifters, new heads.”

It’s all pretty serious stuff. Using a four-bolt main block with steel GM crank, Stephen fitted a hydraulic flat-tappet cam, aluminium heads and TRW forged flat top pistons. On went Hurricane ceramic-coated extractors and a three-inch stainless-steel exhaust – yes, it’s very loud – while the transmission is a fully manualised General Motors PowerGlide with 2800 stall converter, built by Brisbane’s Pro-Launch Transmissions.

Stephen humbly says about the ute: “It goes quite well,” and although he hasn’t run it on a dyno, he guesses with the parts on the car and the specification it’s making around 400hp at the flywheel. With his drag racing past, and working as a fitter in a 4WD centre in a previous life, Stephen said his experience has counted for a lot when performing such builds. “You learn as you go on, and the older you get the wiser you get with what can happen. I always persist in getting things right.”

Ensuring the diff doesn’t explode is key, so Stephen uses a shortened 9-inch unit filled with 31-spline axles and Truetrac centre. To handle the extra performance there’s Holden HJ drilled and slotted rotors to manage the stopping up front, with a Commodore brake upgrade at rear plus a Wilwood master cylinder. You’ll spot the rims are far from original too – the classic HK body now sitting over PT Drag Pro wheels, 17×5-inch at front and 15×8-inch at the rear. While the front end is standard HK it’s been tastefully chromed, while fully adjustable front shocks help give the ute a beautiful stance.

Above all, Stephen said his favourite aspect of building any car is applying the paint. “It’s where you get to see your achievements finished,” he explained.

Saying he’s “done a little bit of everything in different places I’ve worked,” his time working at a panel beaters in Caboolture, just north of Brisbane, helped him here. “We never had a proper spray booth, just a lock-up garage with a big vacuum fan at the back where we’d do the spraying,” he said. “You’d get bits of rubbish on the paint occasionally, so you’d have to get the wet and dry sandpaper out and then buff it.”

The finish on his HK ute is superb; all the more impressive when Stephen said he takes what he learnt from his previous work and sprayed it in his shed at home. He’s used the car’s original Mako Blue colour, but with a “sprinkle of blue silk” through it. Just two days before our photoshoot in Rockhampton, Stephen had to repaint the roof and bonnet so it was looking perfect for a Show N Shine event. “I had to take off all the exterior components, rub the whole car down and re-cleared it in one go. It’s hard to do with the pearly stuff (in the paint) to make it looks all the same.”

The interior looks as good as it must have done when it first rolled off a Holden showroom floor, albeit slightly different. A Premier bench seat with very cool cup holders in the centre arm rest have been given a custom blue and white two-tone colour. Stephen outsourced this specialist work, using a mobile re-trimmer who took the seat away to re-do at home, while he made and fitted a new tonneau cover and new headliner on site.

With all the work complete and the HK looking ready to clean up at car shows, you may expect the Jenkins family to load the ute onto a trailer ready for presentation. Not at all. This HK is for being used, and when I met them they had just driven nearly 1000km to Rockhampton from near Brisbane. Despite very heavy rain, they’d be making the return journey too. “You get sore ears driving it,” Chrissy said, and it’s not surprising with that V8 rumbling along at 3400rpm at 100km/h thanks to the 3.9 diff gears.

They’re used to it. “Last year we drove with a friend in another HK ute from the Sunshine Coast to Longreach, Winton, back to Hughenden, Charters Towers and then up to Cairns and Cooktown,” Chrissy said. “We drove it back home again and it never missed a beat. It was approximately 10,000km in three weeks.”

With all the go-faster parts, is Stephen tempted to take the ute – which is Chrissy’s car, really – back to the drag strip? “It’s not a track car yet, Chrissy won’t let me!” he said. “There’s a possibility. We could turn the timing up a bit and put some better fuel in it…”

In reality, it would be a shame to risk damaging such a special vehicle, but Stephen again said experience is key here. “When you have an engine like this, you need to have an ear for anything going wrong. Things can turn catastrophic quickly, and will cost a lot of money. If you can get onto things very quickly, you can save it.”

For now, both Stephen and Chrissy simply enjoy sharing the HK ute with others while out on one of their epic road trips. “You just feel really good driving around in it,” Stephen said. “Lots of people wave and stop as you go past. So many people love an old Holden, probably even more so now they’ve stopped building them completely.”

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