DEATH OF THE LION KING

Revealed! Holden’s audacious plan for the world’s first electric supercar, and how Detroit speared it

WORDS TOBY HAGON IMAGES BRENDON WISE

World EXCLUSIVE

Revealed! Holden’s audacious plan for the world’s first electric supercar, and how Detroit speared it

MEET the Super Ute, a stalled top-secret plan by Holden to turn the Commodore Ute into an electric-powered, Bugatti Veyron-crushing supercar that was to wear badges as diverse as Cadillac, Opel, Chevrolet and Holden.

The very concept of a Holden-developed Veyron-beater pushes the bounds of credulity.

But it’s true. Wheels has learnt of Holden’s ambitious plot to transform the humble Holden VE Ute into the world’s quickest car, and in so doing cement Australia as a global design and engineering powerhouse.

Wheels uncovered grainy images of this electric supercar in a short video published on an obscure GM Facebook page during research for another publishing project. Our crack digital team then extracted and enhanced the images.

The car they reveal would have catapulted General Motors into the electric revolution lead, ahead of Audi’s troubled e-tron project lead, ahead of Audi’s troubled e-tron project and a fledgling Silicon Valley start-up called Tesla.

Our investigation into the car’s identity was met initially with blank faces at GM, then stonewalls, before we finally gained confirmation that Project Super Ute was real. It was also highly secret; nobody outside GM or Holden had seen the 2008-developed concept, except for then industry minister Kim Carr, who was being lobbied for government support and financial backing.

Despite the Super Ute name given to the project by the team that created it, this mean machine was no tray-backed hay-hauler. Rather, it was a high-performance supercar powered exclusively by electricity, with engineering computer simulations indicating it would have been capable of hitting 100km/h from rest in 2.3sec – two-tenths faster than the Bugatti Veyron, then the world’s fastest car.

This revolutionary electric supercar project was the brainchild of Holden designers and engineers led by then design boss Tony Stolfo and advanced design manager Julian Broadbent.

The Holden duo and their trusted inner cadre were desperate to demonstrate that Australia could play a vital part in the GM world, and first floated the idea as far back as 2008, when it was presented to global product boss Bob Lutz. A powerful advocate for Holden’s rear-drive expertise, as well as its engineering and innovation capabilities, Lutz helped drive exports of both Commodore and Monaro to the US, and having the locally developed Zeta platform underpin the 2009 Chevrolet Camaro.

The man known as ‘Maximum Bob’ was first shown the Super Ute concept while on a visit to Australia and enthusiastically took the idea back to the States, where he helped progress it to the next stage of development.

The green light was given to develop a clay model in Holden’s Port Melbourne studios, evidence of how seriously the project was being considered by GM.

Support for the audacious concept included senior leadership executives and apparently went as high as GM chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner.

The Port Melbourne-produced clay model’s evolution,

which was monitored closely by GM global design boss Ed Welburn in Detroit, allowed designers to hone its classic mid-engine proportions and to digitally scan them for future CAD-CAM developments. This data was then sent to the US, where a full-size rolling model was built to motor show standards and presented to a GM leadership summit in Florida in 2009.

The Super Ute got the attention of GM top brass, led by Lutz, who saw it as an ideal electric hero car to sit alongside the Volt, which was at the time in its final stages of development ahead of going on sale in 2010.

While the Super Ute project was as much about teasing the interest of executives and showcasing Australian design and engineering talent – with the potential for motor show stardom – it was developed with production in mind. Cadillac, Opel, Chevrolet and Holden were all in line to get production versions of GM’s electric Veyron-smasher.

“We’d sourced batteries, electric motors… all the components needed to build the vehicle,” an insider told Wheels. “We did a lot of the architectural validation and simulation work.”

The Super Ute’s shape was low to reduce aerodynamic drag; at just 106cm high it was some 5cm lower than La Ferrari. Being electric, it needed minimal air intakes, helping to keep the co-efficient of drag extremely low.

Like the 1969 Holden Hurricane concept – to which the Super Ute’s golden hue pays tribute – it utilised existing components off mainstream models, while blending them with futuristic thinking.

THE MEN BEHIND THE MACHINE

Tony Stolfo was the head of Holden design in 2008 and had worked on the VE Commodore Julian Broadbent was design manager of Holden Advanced Design in Port Melbourne Bob Lutz was GM’s vice-chairman of global product development based in Detroit

SHORT-FUSED SUPERCARS

2009 DODGE CIRCUIT EV

Lotus-based electric two-door with a crosshair grille and 200kW of power.

Could zip to 96km/h in a reasonably brisk 4.7sec. Chrysler eventually survived the Global Financial Crisis, but the Dodge Circuit was one of the casualties.

2009 AUDI R8 E-TRON

All-electric version of Audi’s maiden supercar, with 4.8sec 0-100km/h performance, zero emissions and rock star looks, but limited range. Audi was banking on battery technology advancing faster than it did. Still, Audi’s giving it another bash with the second-generation R8.

2013 MERCEDES-BENZ SLS AMG ELECTRIC DRIVE

A 552kW gullwinged super-coupe that Mercedes billed as the world’s fastest electrically powered series production car. It blasted to 100km/h in 3.9sec. It actually went on sale, albeit briefly, and production was barely in double figures. Good luck finding one. at t on t

The Super Ute was inspired by the VE Commodore Ute but ditched the Zeta architecture in favour of a dedicated electric platform with a shorter wheelbase more in keeping with supercar proportions.

The two-seat body was unique, complete with rearhinged scissor doors and a sleek supercar shape.

While the extended rear looks as though it houses a sizeable mid-mounted engine, it actually contains a bank of lithium-ion batteries, enough to keep weight over the enormous 365mm-wide rear tyres and to power two electric motors, one located at the front and one at the rear.

The Super Ute could be recharged from a regular powerpoint – as with the Volt plug-in hybrid – but it also had an onboard power source.

The cab-forward design shoehorned the Volt’s modest 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine behind the passenger compartment and ahead of the batteries. It’s not exactly the kind of powerplant one envisages with supercars such as the Veyron that are capable of subthree- second performance, but its job was purely to recharge batteries on the run.

The decision to use the Volt’s generator and electrical architecture was a tactical move to prove to Detroit that Holden could work within the carmaker’s globalisation framework.

Furthermore, the US was heavily involved in fo four compartmen su three-ba decis ar Furtherm Th

THE COMEBACK MULE

The Super Ute is not the only time GM has turned to Holden’s loadlugger for inspiration.

Last year, Road & Track magazine in America lit a fuse on the rumour mill about what was lurking beneath the body of a highperformance development mule it had snapped from a drone (below).

Sporting a modified VE Ute body, a Corvette turret and flared wheelarches surrounding fat tyres, it was clearly for something with serious performance. Informed speculation suggested the widened, lowered two-seater was a test mule for a long-mooted mid-engined Corvette to be called Zora.

However, look more closely and there’s little in the way of meaningful air intakes and exhausts, something that would be crucial to feeding the rumoured supercharged V8 that would deliver something close to 500kW. The only visible exhaust in the grainy spy photos is a small side-exit one near the doors – not the most obvious place for an outlet on a mid-engined machine.

In uncovering the Super Ute, we wonder whether Holden’s electric supercar project has been reborn in a new form.

Months of research by Wheels has some industry experts suggesting the top-secret mule could be a supercar with some form of electrification, possibly hybrid.

It’s something we haven’t been able to reliably confirm through our GM sources, and some have quietly suggested there’s no Super Ute in any upcoming production schedule.

validation, using computer modelling gleaned from the Volt project to estimate performance metrics.

Despite the broad, sticky tyres and all-wheeldrive, one of the challenges the Super Ute faced was traction, especially problematic with the instant torque delivered by the two electric motors.

“We couldn’t get traction on the back wheels,” one insider told us. “It was way ahead of anything in Europe that was coming out.”

Crucially, the Super Ute would have accelerated faster then any supercar on sale at the time, as well as vehicles from the emerging Tesla, a marque then enjoying modest success in making electric propulsion sexy.

Ultimately, global events beyond Holden’s control killed what could have been Australia’s greatest automotive creation. More correctly, GM top brass killed the top-secret project as they battened down the hatches against the Global Financial Crisis.

In 2009, GM was haemorrhaging money and in June filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US, providing executives with a mammoth task reorganising the company, which involved shelving unprofitable arms – including Saab, Hummer, Pontiac and Saturn – and returning to profitability.

The prospect of a Ferrari-beating electric supercar was the last thing on the minds of embattled executives who were simply trying to save what had been the embodiment of American manufacturing.

Wagoner left the company in 2009, replaced briefly by Fritz Henderson before the arrival of Ed Whitacre, a man sometimes referred to as the “GM Reaper” because he made tough decisions to shelve projects or entire brands.

Somewhere among all this chaos, the Super Ute’s card was marked for execution. Soon after its dazzling 2009 internal reveal, the concept was hustled away to a warehouse in Michigan where it is believed to be still collecting dust.

But Holden didn’t forget about its Super Ute.

In secretly restoring the 1969 Hurricane concept car, codenamed RD-001, some at Holden had planned to roll out the two cars together in 2011 to showcase its innovation at a crucial time for the company as it negotiated with governments about future production support. The two gold concepts would be bookends to Holden innovation, from the forward-thinking V8 ways of 1969 to the futuristic all-electric vision for a fastchanging 21st century.

Ultimately only the Hurricane was shown, a reminder of the innovative ways that helped define Holden.

It still gained widespread media coverage, giving a tantalising taste of just how much interest there would have been if the Super Ute had also been revealed.

HOLDEN: OUR CAR

The top-secret Super Ute was uncovered by Wheels writer Toby Hagon while researching an upcoming book he has written with his father, Will.

Holden: Our Car, which traces the rise and fall of Australia’s first carmaker, is published by Pan Macmillan and will be on sale from August 30.