Australian car culture arguably peaked in the 1970s. Drive-ins were the place to go on a Saturday night and local manufacturers pulled out all stops to attract local buyers to a wide range of lifestyle-oriented vehicles. Names like Sundowner, Drifter and of course Sandman were everyday words – heard equally in reverence and fear from sun-seeking youngsters and concerned parents alike.
Holden offered the Sandman as a high-specification option across four-generations of Kingswood ute and panel van from 1974 to 1979. While there have been a number of concepts and homages made of the iconic car since, it has taken 36 years for the name to officially return.
Stickers, floor mats and accessories are the name of the game here… So keys in hand, I grabbed a cold Big-M turned up some Cold Chisel and let the good times roll for a week in the new ‘Sandy’.
The VF Holden Ute is a bit of a favourite in the CarAdvice office. Plenty powerful with a 260kW/517Nm six-litre V8 up front (270kW/530Nm in $45,940 six-speed manual guise), and dynamically impressive with a multi-link independent rear end and, of course, rear-wheel drive.
Sure it feels big to park and has rear-quarter blind spots for days, but it is easy to drive and easy to like.
The ute is the Australian sports coupe – business in the front, party out the back. Call it what you will, but if you don’t take it too seriously, it’s almost more rewarding and certainly more fun. And it’s that non-serious fun side that, in my opinion, makes the Sandman tribute work.
That’s right – in the words of Tenacious D, this is not the greatest Sandman in the world, this is just a tribute.
Those impossible to miss bright orange decals and liberal use of the classic ‘Sandman’ name have caused a bit of controversy on social media and a number of arguments around the CarAdvice office.
What is seen by some as just “Holden… wringing the last bits of Aussie-ness out before they shut down“, is treated by others a bit less seriously – a fun throwback to a different time. A fond reminder that perhaps Holden, like the rest us, was a bit cooler when they were younger.
Holden have previously noted that the cost to engineer a panel van or canopy accessory – to create what most people consider to be a ‘proper’ Sandman – would have made any production version simply too expensive.
Look at it like this, in the same way RoboCop was built to honour the image of Alex Murphy (the pop-culture references are thick and fast today), the 2015 Holden Sandman is a nod of respect to its forbears. And like Officer Murphy, there is still some heart and substance behind the mask. And personally, I love it.
The gloss black 20-inch wheels look great on the Heron White ute, and those HX-inspired hockey-stick decals are just the right amount of silly.
Less silly, and even better looking is the smart black sports bar behind the cab. It completes the lifestyle look, and reinforces the pleasure before business tone of the ute.
The trademark Sandman logo (in a different, more modern font than the original) has moved from the tailgate to a subtle sun blind in the rear window – a necessity brought on by the location of the number plate.
And of course, there is the Sandman’s centrepiece accessory, those bright orange shag pile seat covers.
Part Muppet, part sports towel, the covers might be just a step too far (they are optional for $450), but they are stupendously comfortable and certainly a talking point. For mine, it’s the right amount of kitsch to complete the package.
Rolling across town on our usual weekend errands, Miss Six (who loved the seat covers) and I found the ute ‘almost’ practical.
The cab is comfortable and there’s reasonable space behind the seats for backpacks and jackets. An impromptu stop at the supermarket and dry cleaner highlighted a couple of problems though.
There’s a hook behind the passenger seat, but it’s not high enough to hold shirts on a hanger – there are no hooks above the doors as you would find in most four-door cars. And if you buy more than a litre of milk and some Iced Vo-Vos, then you’ll need to use the tray to store the shopping, and well… that never ends well.
However, these were minor quibbles compared to the biggest problem. We were in a Sandman, and no one cared.
Ok, so Albert Park and Richmond aren’t exactly the same demographic as Torquay, but I would have thought a name that had so much provenance and history would at least raise an eyebrow or two.
Not even ten years ago I had a 1972 VH Valiant Charger and would regularly be greeted by the classic two-finger V and a cry of “Hey Charger” from the lights.
Now, doing the school run in a car emblazoned with one of the most famous names in Australian car history, I was all but invisible.
Times have changed and people forget. Our car culture used to be so strong, but now, to the throngs of people shopping and stopping in for a chai latte, the Sandman wasn’t important. It wasn’t even an amusing anecdote.
However, at one of Miss Six’s regular birthday parties later in the week, I had my first callout. The grandfather of the birthday girl, now in his 60s, saw me pull up among the usual mass of Swedish wagons and German SUVs.
“A Sandman,” he cried. “Oh I had one of them, great times”. A twinkle in his eye flashed back some 40 years. He was instantly a younger man, carefree on the NSW south coast.
After I explained the ‘no panel van’ thing, again, he laughed and agreed it looked quite good. “It will never be the real thing, but it’s a bit of fun.” Nail, head, hit.
He used to park his car, an HJ panel van, around the corner from his now-wife’s parents house for fear their courtship would have been short lived.
“I loved the car but I loved her more,” he said. It’s as Hallmark a moment as you can get.
Later that afternoon, Miss Six and I found ourselves in Sandringham on an eBay errand. “That looks great,” yells a driver in a VE Holden Ute. Heading back up Beach Road, we score a couple more waves from passers by. The Sandman’s appeal is still there, albeit seemingly limited to coastal areas.
Shooting the short video for this article, we had a guy pull over and stop to get a closer look. “Will it be a collectors item?,” he asked.
Maybe, maybe not. If it is an investment you are after then an original 1970’s Sandman is always going to be a smarter decision.
Wind the clock back, and a 1978 HX Sandman ute would have set you back about $8000. Selling it now – in good condition – would net you about $25,000. That figure is only going to increase, but it’s better kept for sunny weekends than for every day use.
To be a bit more practical (not to mention more powerful, safer and more comfortable) and still a bit of fun, the 2015 VF Holden Ute SS V Sandman is still a nice little sidebar of Australian motoring history and a fair tribute to an old classic. A statement that says you remember the old times, and are still keen for a good time.
So grab the board, fire up some AC/DC and head for the coast. Australian car culture might have changed, but it hasn’t been lost altogether.
As the sticker on the back says, “Let the good times roll… again.”
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser and James Ward.