A curious listing on Cars & Bids due to end on April 22 touts a “2015 Chevrolet Caprice Ute Conversion.” Caprices weren’t sold with truck beds — we’ve never been so lucky in North America — though their Aussie-counterpart Holden Commodores of course were, and are known as Utes. But the word “conversion” is vague on its face, carrying the potential to open up a fresh, spring-loaded can of liability on a prospective buyer depending on how the job was done. The seller has attempted to elaborate, but it’s only spurred more concern on the auction website.
The vehicle’s description reads as follows:
This is a right-hand-drive, Australian-spec Holden Ute that’s registered in Tennessee as a 2015 Chevrolet Caprice with a Specially Constructed title. It’s equipped with a metric instrument cluster and its odometer displays about 82,000 kilometers, which represents approximately 51,000 miles.
The seller states that this pickup was built using a bare Ute shell and parts from a Chevrolet Caprice Police Pursuit Vehicle (PPV) and a Chevrolet SS. The list of Caprice PPV-sourced parts includes the 6.0-liter V8 engine, the catalytic converters, the seatbelts, and the airbags. Parts sourced from an SS include the 6-speed manual transmission, the limited-slip differential, the hubs, the front clip, and the doors. More details about the build and the modifications reported by the seller are provided below.
The very first line — Australian-spec Holden Ute registered as a 2015 Chevrolet Caprice — should immediately raise eyebrows. Generally speaking, vehicles should never be legally classified as something other than what they are, and what this one started as was a Holden Ute. Ute components may have been changed out for domestic Caprice and SS equivalents that meet federal safety standards, but the VIN is attached to the body, and this is the body of a Holden.
Only, the VIN isn’t reflective of a Holden’s; it originally belonged to a Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle. Perhaps, semantically, one could make the argument that with an assortment of parts “sourced from an SS” and the engine out of a PPV, this Zeta of Theseus is more Caprice than Commodore. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine a federal adjudicator would care to listen.
Commenters on Cars & Bids — some of which claim to be specialists in the trade of legally importing utes — are highly skeptical, to say the least:
All strong words, albeit understandable concern. This is my personal favorite:
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 field the shower of questions with deeper explanations about specific parts, like the seats and airbag system components. However it’s done little to allay the primary sticking point — that this is an illegal import in the eyes of the law wearing the VIN of another, domestically sold car.
Few people are more experienced in the trials and tribulations of vehicle importation than our own Mercedes Streeter. Mercedes graciously offered her own theory as to how a ute conversion like this could go sideways. In short, she probably wouldn’t pull the trigger either:
A lot of illegal cars get through the US border in parts. The danger is, say a ute without a drivetrain was stuffed onto a ship. The contents of the container were labeled as car parts. Now, Customs doesn’t inspect literally all containers, so this one slips through. Someone gets the ute, and finishes it using a donor PPV. They also scrape the VIN off of the PPV. The car would be double illegal because of the bad import and VIN swap. It’s unlikely that the feds will ever come for the owner, but that is very much a non-zero chance.
Mercedes noted that above-board ute conversions are possible, but they necessitate a ton of work. “The legit ones are Pontiac G8s/Chevy SS that someone took a sawzall to,” she told me.
I also reached out to Dylan Cain of The Import Guys in Ferndale, Washington, a shop that knows a thing or two about this subject. Cain likened what appears to be happening here to the drama with Kaizo Industries’ imported R34 Skyline GT-Rs 13 years ago. He also added that while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would almost certainly take issue with the ute — if it notices — states might be a little more willing to let it slide. Cain’s words, edited lightly for clarity:
It reminds me of [the Kaizo case], because the car was imported as a shell, then pieced together and registered as “Specially Constructed.” Most likely the shell was imported as “vehicle parts.” I am not a lawyer, but I don’t think CBP or NHTSA would enjoy seeing this car assembled in the way it is. I think when it comes to the VIN, that just falls back on state patrol in that specific state when the vehicle was inspected. Apparently the state could care less, NHTSA would probably disagree. A classic battle of state & federal government I am sure. The best way to get a clear answer on it for anyone serious about buying the car is to call NHTSA & ask how they feel about it. Most likely the car will never be a problem though and skirt under for years, unless it was brought to their attention for some reason.
With three days left for bidding on this rolling identity crisis and the highest offer currently standing at $22,000, it’ll be interesting to see how the saga ends. No doubt what happens next will fall under the scrupulous eye of the ute community.