FE Holden Utes & Vans
Holden built on the success of its FX and FJ commercial range with the release of the new-look FE series station wagons, utes (above) and vans in February 1957.
Eight months earlier, their FE sedan sibling had raised the curtain on the long awaited new Holden and the Australian public instantly warmed to the more modern lines of ‘Australia’s Own Car’.
There was no confusing the larger and slightly heavier new FE sedan with the outgoing FX-FJ series. The handsome body design was all new with a lowered belt line, bonnet and boot that resulted in a 40 per cent increase in glass area, including a new one-piece curved windscreen replacing the first Holden’s split-screen.
The rear mudguards were now integrated with the body shell and featured new chrome-plated die-cast taillight clusters. Headlight rims were also die-cast chrome items. In addition to the latest push-button door handles, there was extra bright-work even on the entry level Standard models.
Electric blinkers (or direction indicators) were now standard equipment on Special models and optional on other grades. Yes, you read that right – optional. Back in those simpler times, it was accepted practice for drivers to indicate which direction they wanted to go by using hand signals out the driver’s window!
The front blinker light assemblies were mounted below the headlights, with the parking lights still integrated within the headlights. The rear blinkers followed US practice by flashing the left or right red brake lights on and off.
Provision was made for optional reversing lights with a clear lens below the brake/taillight lens but these were rarely optioned and almost never used. Holden would find a good use for these later though (see FC series).
The bonnet was mounted on modern spring-loaded hinges that did away with the previous model’s support rod that had to be un-clipped and propped in place each time the bonnet needed to be held open.
From this dazzling new sedan emerged Holden’s new commercial range of utes and panel vans eight months later, which proved to be just as rugged, willing and capable as their predecessors.
A little known historical fact is that the media announcement for these new vehicles (plus the station wagon) was made all at once in February 1957 before each was phased into production over the following three months.
Like the FX/FJ, the new FE ute (FE/2106) and panel van (FE/2104) came in only one basic workhorse specification with no top shelf Special variant like the sedan and wagon.
They were still powered by the same 132 cid (2.2 litre) inline six cylinder pushrod overhead valve ‘Grey’ motor (above), so named because the entire engine and gearbox unit were painted a drab grey colour in production.
Elegantly simple, low in maintenance and silky smooth, the Grey’s power output increased by 10 bhp to 70 bhp in the FE thanks to a slight increase in compression ratio (6.5 to 6.8), larger valves and improvements in cylinder head porting.
Peak torque also improved from 100 ft/lbs @ 2000 rpm to 110 ft/lbs at a remarkably low 1200 rpm, making it even better suited to the demands of commercial vehicle use which often required hauling and towing heavy loads.
From mid-1957 an Australian-made carburettor with Bendix-Stromberg branding replaced the US-made Stromberg unit and in January 1958 the engine’s cooling system pressure was raised from 4.0 to 7.0 psi to cope with higher engine demands.
A large heavy-duty oil bath air filter, which was only available as an option in the FX-FJ series aimed at rural buyers on dusty roads, became standard equipment on the FE engine.
The electrical system was also upgraded from the sluggish 6 volts to 12 volts with a higher capacity generator driven by a narrower and more efficient 11mm fan belt and pulley set (earlier models used a 15mm-wide belt).
Drivetrain & Chassis
The FX-FJ three-speed column shift manual gearbox with non-synchro first gear and Holden’s signature Banjo-style hypoid differential with semi-floating axles and 3.89 final drive ratio were carried over, but many mechanical improvements were made across the board.
The clutch was now hydraulically operated in place of the FX-FJ’s mechanical arrangement and the clutch and brake pedals were upgraded to the newer ‘pendulum’ type, which pivoted from under the dash rather than through the floor.
Both hydraulic master cylinders for the brakes and clutch were mounted high on the firewall for easier servicing access. Braking was also upgraded with the four-wheel drums now separate from the wheel hubs. Rear axle shafts were now stronger one-piece items with forged flanges.
The steering was improved with a newly designed, fully sealed recirculating ball steering box and new linkages. A front stabiliser bar was also fitted for sharper handling, as Australian roads continued to improve and speeds continued to rise with them.
New smaller diameter wheels and tyres were slightly wider and resulted in a 17mm drop in ground clearance compared to the previous FJ model (186mm vs 203mm). 4.5 x 13-inch rims with a five-stud pattern replaced the FX-FJ’s skinnier and taller 4.0 x 15-inch items. 6.40-13 six-ply tyres were fitted only to the commercial range, up from four-ply on the sedans.
The new Holden commercials were also heavier than their predecessors. The FE ute’s tare weight (or unladen weight) was up 21 kgs on the FJ version (1064 kgs vs 1043 kgs) while the FE van was only 4.0 kgs heavier than the FJ van (1070 kgs vs 1066 kgs).
Fortunately, maximum payload ratings also increased, with the FE ute up 31 kgs to 410 kgs and the van up 46 kgs to 403 kgs. Even so, Holden was well aware that many ute and van owners often expected these vehicles to carry up to double their recommended payload and sometimes more, so we suspect these ratings were (like the FX/FJ) quite conservative!
On FE utes and panel vans the fuel filler cap was located on the left-hand rear guard. The spare tyre storage was also different to the sedan, as it sat within a small fold-down compartment (in a similar style to the previous model) with the lid located externally between the rear bumperettes.
Unlike virtually all other Holden series, the FE panel van was based on the wagon and not the utility. Even though they shared the same drop-down spare tyre lid, there were many detailed areas where the panel van was more similar to the wagon than the ute.
Panel vans had a full steel paneled upper tailgate as standard but could be ordered with an optional glass window (RPO 333) as it shared the wagon’s upper tailgate. The standard van tailgate was created simply by welding a section of sheet metal into the window aperture and painting it body colour. Utes featured a stylish three-piece curved rear window.
Interiors designs were all new (above) with wider, improved seating and better sound insulation throughout the cabin. The dash featured a matt charcoal-black finish to reduce driver glare with relocated instruments and controls to make them easier to use.
There was also a large centrally-mounted radio speaker grille, lockable glove-box and an ashtray (remember those?) with a lift-up lid in the top centre of the dashboard.
Other new features included a speedometer that read to 110 mph (176 km/h) and a key operated combined ignition/starter switch in place of the previous model’s separate key ignition switch and push button starter. The steering wheel also featured a full circle horn ring.
A sign of how far we’ve come since the 1950s is that windscreen washers and a heater/windscreen demister were only available as optional extras on the FE!
Total FE production (including all models) reached 155,161 from July 1956 to the FC’s introduction in May 1958.
FC Holden Utes & Panel Vans
The FC (above) was a mild facelift of the FE series. This was during a period of staggering market domination by GM-H, with Holden’s market share at one stage exceeding 50 per cent. No wonder Ford and Chrysler wanted a slice of this huge pie.
Unlike its predecessor, the entire range of FC sedans, wagons and commercials was released at the same time but the ute and van commercials were still only available in the one ‘no-frills’ workhorse specification.
Body sheet metal was identical to the FE but there were many revisions to exterior and interior trim and ornamentation.
A new grille was the most prominent change with bolder horizontal and vertical bars incorporating parking lights at either end of the wider, lower bar. If blinkers were optioned they shared these front parking light housings, so it was not possible to tell if an FC was fitted with front blinkers unless they were activated.
The FC’s rear blinkers continued to use the US-style flashing brake lights until October 1959, when an amber blinker lens was installed in the (hardly used) reversing light housing. These amber rears carried over to the FB/EK series commercials that followed.
Another interesting historical fact is that when launched the new FC ute and panel van featured grille, headlight rims and taillight surrounds painted body colour as a point of difference (see above) instead of the more attractive chrome-plated items used on the FE and all other FC models.
The chrome-plated grille and headlight rims returned to the commercial range in mid-FC production. This not only looked better but saved GM-H having to produce painted and chromed versions of the same parts.
Mechanically the FC was a carry-over from the FE series with improvements to engine, suspension and numerous other components that continued Holden’s process of ongoing refinement.
Published engine output levels remained unchanged for the FC series even though small revisions had been made for better driveability, smoothness and lower noise levels. This included replacement of the old oil-bath air filter with a new paper-type disposable filter design in late 1959.
The most notable changes to the 2.2 litre six were a slight increase in compression ratio (6.8 to 7.0:1) to take advantage of Australia’s improving fuel quality and a revised camshaft profile. These changes resulted in peak torque moving further up the rev range from 1200 rpm to 1400 rpm.
Interestingly, the FC ute and van range saw slight increases in kerb weights (or tare weights) with the FC ute gaining 21 kgs over the FE version (1085 kgs vs 1064 kgs) while the FC van (below) was 25 kgs heavier than the FE van (1095 kgs vs 1070 kgs).
There were no real differences in equipment between the FE and FC ranges, which would suggest such a weight increase was due to on-going upgrades to the body structures to handle the increasingly tough jobs these commercials were being expected to perform.
As a result of such weight increases, the payload ratings were reduced with the FC ute dropping 22 kgs to 388 kgs and the FC van down 25 kgs to 378 kgs. Even so, these ratings were generally ignored by many owners, who continued to overload their hard-working Holden utes and vans to alarming levels.
Seat and door trims were improved and the dash was enhanced with a new radio speaker grille with vertical bars. Air Chief transistor-powered radios became available as an accessory from late 1959, replacing the old valve type which was vulnerable to shock and vibrations.
There was also a new black plastic surround for the instrument cluster and minor controls on the dash had new black bezel surrounds grouped in pairs. The full circle horn ring on the steering wheel was also reduced to a semi-circular design to improve the driver’s view of the instruments.
Total FC production including all models far exceeded that of the FE reaching a staggering 191,724 vehicles between May 1958 and January 1960 when replaced by the new FB series. TJ
*Special thanks to Holden expert Terry Bebbington for his assistance with this article. Terry is the author of a 100-chapter, 352-page, hard cover book titled “60 Years of Holden” which is a complete encyclopedia of all Holden models produced from 1948 to the current models. The sheer volume of detailed specifications makes this book a unique and valuable source of reference. For more information visit: www.haynesmanuals.com.au