It is hard to believe that a single letter from an irate farmer's wife could have started the ball rolling that eventually resulted in the development of the mighty Australian ute in this day and age when proposed new cars are subjected to the dreaded business-case assessment, feasibility studies from every department from engineering to marketing, and even secret consumer styling clinics.
In fact, it's even crazier than that, as the 'coupe-utility' that Ford Australia developed in 1933 not only served as the foundation for every ute produced in Australia, but was also the progenitor of every utility sold anywhere in the world, including the North American cousin of the Australian ute, the pickup.
But the inspiration for this revolutionary vehicle did not come from a marketing group or other similar group of experts in the field.
No, it was a letter from the wife of a Gippsland farmer to Ford Australia's former CEO, Hubert French, in which she questioned why Ford didn't provide its customers with a vehicle that could be used both for religious purposes and to transport pigs to the market.
The question may seem obvious to those of us who have always seen utes around, but it caused quite a stir at Ford in 1933.
As if to further demonstrate the brilliance of the farmer's wife (and the innocence of the time), the idea was passed down through the ranks at Ford's Geelong headquarters before it reached the desk of Lew Bandt, then 22 years old and, as it happens, Ford's only designer.
But Lew was a bit of a thinker himself, and he quickly figured out that the new Ford V8 sedan could be improved by adding a tray that was integral to the bodywork and additional timber braces to strengthen the joint between the two halves.
This tale has all the hallmarks of an urban legend: In 1932, a farmer's wife from Gippsland wrote to Ford, asking them to create a revolutionary new car design so that "people like us" could use it to go to church on Sundays and transport their pigs to market on Mondays. In 1948, 22-year-old engineer Lewis Bandt was tasked with creating the first Ford ute.
The original ute's wheelbase was 112 inches, and its five-foot-five-inch tray could hold 1200 pounds (550kg). A large number of these cars, which were dubbed "kangaroo chasers" in the United States, were exported there, where they quickly became a smashing success.
Bandt's tragic death in a collision with a sand truck involved his own invention. He was driving a restored Ford Ute from the 1930s. Traders and farmers all over the world still use utes today thanks to Bandt's contributions.
The Ford Zephyr, Vauxhall Velox, various Dodges, Plymouths, and De Sotos, Chevrolets (both sedan and truck ranges), Chryslers, and others were all "top shelf" models in their respective markets before being transformed into coupe utilities for the Australian market.
There are many anecdotes about how overseas executives were shocked to learn that their Australian branches wanted to turn the company's finest sedans into light trucks, but in Australia, this was considered the highest of honours. Their affluent clientele required both features in a single automobile.
This is why older coupe utilities are selling for twice or three times as much as comparable passenger cars did until recently. What these cars meant to their owners in the past is just as important as their rarity.
The lack of a back seat in these coupe utilities was of no consequence. Until the late 1960s, it was common practise in Australia to seat as many people across the front as possible, with those who couldn't be accommodated being given a blanket and cushion to ride in the back.
All local coupe utes soon featured the shorter front doors of the four-door sedan models, blurring the relationship between coupe and ute, as the Australian market could no longer support the tooling for the latest all-steel two-door coupes after 1945.
Once the first Holden utility, the 50/2106, was released in 1951, the lines between coupes and utilities began to blur even more. Despite its attractive appearance—a rounded two-door cabin mimicking the sedan's roofline, and fancy rear guards pressed into the one-piece sides—it lacked the extra side glass of the Ford coupe and was not particularly roomier than comparable work vehicles from the United States and the United Kingdom.
By 1960, Holden's coupe utes didn't have the same roofline or rear styling as the company's newest sedans. In 1964, Ford allowed the back end of its Falcon coupe utility to fall behind the times for the first time, but by 1966, it had recovered. In 1965, Chrysler was the first to connect the rear styling of its local Valiant ute to the waggon, setting a trend that was picked up by Holden in 1968 and Ford in 1972.
From that point forwards, the foundation for every single ute in the region was a shortened waggon chassis, with a plate bolted over the rear footwell to level the load area. Except for one crucial detail, all evidence of their coupe past had vanished.
The XA-XB-XC Falcon ute (above) was the only recent Australian ute with a fast roofline and the rakish, frameless extended doors of the Falcon Hardtop. Although later Falcons reverted to the extra side window of the original coupe utility, this was merely a smokescreen for the shorter four-door sedan front doors that had become standard on all Falcons.
During this later time period, lawmakers in Australia established stricter safety regulations for these locally produced utes based on passenger cars than those in place for imported pickups. Local coupe utilities nearly went extinct in the late 1980s, when uninformed buyers focused solely on price, before parity in safety and emissions laws was restored.
Since then, Ford (with the introduction of its AU Falcon ute) has separated the load bed from the cabin while retaining an extended coupe-like cabin, and Holden has styled its roofline into a sleek integrated style side load bed.
Is there nothing left to set apart the Australian coupe utility anymore? Is it sufficient that the latest iteration of the Falcon still features a refined passenger car cabin in keeping with the original brief? Or does it need the Commodore-style combination of load bed and cabin?
Are there better coupe utilities available? Perhaps modern pickups have made the distinction between passenger car luxury and cargo capacity moot.
The Ute – Australia's very own vehicle
The ute is a peculiarly Australian institution. Visitors from overseas have a hard time grasping the emotional connection many Australians have with their utes, and the popularity of the vehicle is certainly closely connected to the Australian way of life, whether it's the farmer with his cattle dog or kelpie in the back, or the urban tradie, probably with the same dog but otherwise different load.
Even though Australia pretty much invented the ute, it has already made it onto Top Gear in the UK, where it pretty much got the seal of approval from all the presenters.
The word 'ute' of course derives from 'utility', or to be pedantic 'coupe utility', and describes a vehicle with a rear cargo tray and a front that is essentially a normal coupe with two doors. The term 'ute' is only used in Australia and New Zealand, elsewhere in the world it's called just a 'truck' or a 'pickup'.
According to ute folklore, the very first one was produced after a Victorian farmer's wife wrote to Ford asking if they could come up with a vehicle that would be suitable to drive to church on a Sunday, plus able to transport pigs around the rest of the time.
In 1932 the first Ford Coupe Utility hit the market, designed by Lew Bandt. Holden followed with their own version in the 50s, with Ford and Chevrolet launching similar models in the US market.
Such is Australia's love affair with the ute, it's probably no surprise that ute owners like to get together from time to time. The biggest of these gatherings is probably the annual Ute Muster held in Deniliquin in NSW every October, which sees thousands of fans come together to celebrate their love for the vehicle – at 2013 gathering the event smashed the world record for the number of utes in one place (you didn't even know there was a world record for this, did you?) with over 8,000 utes at the meet.
A Holden VF SS V Redline ute even holds the record for a commercial utility vehicle around the Nurburgring – a time of 8 mins 47 secs.
Unfortunately, the future doesn't look good for the ute – with both Holden and Ford ceasing production in Australia, soon the only ute you'll be able to get will probably be called a pickup truck. In fact, before Holden announced they were shutting down all production in Australia, they had already announced that they would be discontinuing Australian ute production.
These developments are unlikely to dent Australia's love of the ute. As a matter of fact, it may result in a booming secondhand market once production has stopped. So our advice is, sell your existing car and go out and get that ute!
Born on the Farm
The agricultural sector in Australia has a strong international reputation. Sixty-one percent of the land is used for farming or gazing, whether for sheep, cattle, pigs, or crops. As a result, many people's attention and resources are focused on the farm, making it essential for farmers to have access to a wide variety of implements, supplies, and transportation options.
Ute design, like that of the original Ford Model T, was inspired by a necessity. Hubert French, Ford's managing director in 1933, was approached by a farmer's wife in Victoria with a request. The contents of the letter were as follows: "My husband and I have been struggling to make ends meet, and we really need a car and a truck so that we can go to church on Sundays and take the pigs to market on Mondays, but we just can't afford it. Are you in a position to lend a hand?" She required a vehicle that could accommodate both passengers and cargo. The request was relayed from French to the company's designer, Lewis Bandt, a young man of 23 at the time who went on to create the iconic automobile we all know and love today. Sadly, Bandt was killed while driving his own utility vehicle, which he had designed.
The Ute Design
Bandt's concept integrated elements of cars and trucks to take advantage of the best of both worlds. By redesigning the vehicle's trick bed, he made it larger and improved the vehicle's exterior appearance. He started off by sketching his designs on a 10-meter-long blackboard. For a "truck" that's supposed to look like a "car," his design would allow for a very respectable 545-kilogram payload. Before putting the car into mass production, Ford built and tested two prototypes. The outcome was so good that even Henry Ford praised it. The original Ute came equipped with a V8 engine and a manual transmission with only three gears.
Bandt's innovative solution was a Model 40 with a four-door cab and a wooden truck bed surrounded by smooth panels instead of the usual truck space. It spread like wildfire, and soon everyone in the farming community had one. In the fifteen years that followed, over 22,000 copies were sold, and the game quickly became a staple of Australian culture. With that, I'd like to raise a glass to the Ute, Australia's favourite utility vehicle, and its eighty plus years in the market.
Even though the 1934 Coupe-Utility (as Lew called it back in the day) is a V8 ute, learning to operate it is like starting from scratch.
You have to get in backwards through the suicide doors and once inside, the cabin is incredibly cramped. It's narrow and the windshield isn't very big, making a car like a Fiat 500 seem like a spacious limousine.
The motor makes a variety of annoying noises as it starts up, including whining, whirring, and gasping, but once it's up and running, the distinctively rhythmic, musical V8 engine note becomes immediately apparent.
There are only three forwards gears selectable via the flimsy gearshift, and synchromesh is barely present. Therefore, selecting first gear from a complete stop is necessary, and shifting from third to second requires careful rev-matching to avoid a graunch worthy of a silent film.
If, as many have told me, the Ford V8 was a technological breakthrough in terms of power and performance, then I can only conclude that horses must have seemed pretty quick in comparison. The old ute doesn't so much accelerate as gain speed, and it does so gradually; once it's moving, you'll still need to account for obstacles like hills and wind, though.
When travelling at high speeds, there is a lot of noise from the engine, the wind, and the road, and the creaks and groans from the body reveal the ute's dirty little secret: that its frame is still made at least partly from dead trees.
The brakes are likely to make your eyes bulge, both from the effort of pushing the lifeless pedal and from the exquisite lack of retardation they summon up, despite the fact that the steering is heavy and the suspension is dimwitted and clumsy.
Furthermore, there are no laminated windshields, radial tyres, or seatbelts, and your passenger's frantic screams would serve as the only forwards collision warning system.
Of course, this was par for the course in the 1930s, and rather than condemn Lew Bandt's best work, it merely serves to remind us how good we have it today.
Not only was the Ford V8 a significant upgrade over competing models of the era, but Lew's Coupe Utility also introduced a category-defining item that continues to find favour with everyone from gardeners and surfers to roofers and off-road bikers. Not to mention, pig farmers in Gippsland, I would imagine.
Lew Bandt's 'distorted' Coupe Ute legacy
Unfortunately, the first coupe ute's direct link to the 1933-34 Ford coupe is in danger of being lost forever following an unintended distortion initiated by Lewis Bandt himself.
In his retirement, Bandt had tried unsuccessfully to acquire a genuine 1934 ute of his design. So, ever resourceful, he built one himself from a cut-down 1934 sedan (below) which left it with a very different roofline to the 1934 coupe and his original '34 coupe utility.
Tragically, Bandt was killed in this replica on his way home from filming an ABC TV documentary about his invention. To honour his legacy, local Ford V8 fans rebuilt the smashed-up replica for the Bandt family, which stayed faithful to its historically incorrect cut-down sedan roofline.
However, because it is housed in a Ford collection, more and more parties assume that it is a correct reference to the original. It has even appeared on an Australian stamp with this incorrect roofline.
A farmer in Gippsland wrote to Ford Australia's former CEO Hubert French, setting in motion the events that ultimately resulted in the creation of the Australian ute. In 1932, a farmer's wife approached Ford about making a new model of car so that "people like us" could use it for Sunday churchgoing and Monday pig transportation. Originally, the ute had a 112 inch wheelbase and a tray capacity of 1200 pounds (550kg). Numerous examples of these vehicles, known as "kangaroo chasers" in the United States, have gained notoriety there. In 1960, Holden's coupe utes no longer shared a roofline or rear end design with the brand's most up-to-date sedans.
Initially, Ford's Falcon coupe utility lagged in the rear end design department, but by 1966, the company had rectified the situation. Lew Bandt introduced the first Ford Coupe Utility to the public in 1932. Of course, we can trace the origin of the word "ute" back to "utility" (or "coupe utility," to be technical). The Ute Muster, which takes place in NSW every October, is the largest of these events. Holden and Ford have both confirmed they will no longer manufacture utes in Australia.
In 1933, Ford executive Hubert French made the ute for a farmer's wife. Bandt was tragically killed while operating his own specially built ute. The 1934 Ute, created by Lew Bandt, was drawn up on a blackboard that was 10 metres long. The original Model 40 featured a smooth panelled cabin with four doors and a wooden truck bed. The ute quickly became ingrained in Australian culture, selling over 22,000 copies.
Bandt tragically died in a crash while filming a documentary about his invention for ABC. To preserve his memory, his family can enjoy this rebuilt replica.
- In fact, it's even crazier than that, as the 'coupe-utility' that Ford Australia developed in 1933 not only served as the foundation for every ute produced in Australia, but was also the progenitor of every utility sold anywhere in the world, including the North American cousin of the Australian ute, the pickup.
- It was a letter from the wife of a Gippsland farmer to Ford Australia's former CEO, Hubert French, in which she questioned why Ford didn't provide its customers with a vehicle that could be used both for religious purposes and to transport pigs to the market.
- This tale has all the hallmarks of an urban legend: In 1932, a farmer's wife from Gippsland wrote to Ford, asking them to create a revolutionary new car design so that "people like us" could use it to go to church on Sundays and transport their pigs to market on Mondays.
- In 1964, Ford allowed the back end of its Falcon coupe utility to fall behind the times for the first time, but by 1966, it had recovered.
- The XA-XB-XC Falcon ute (above) was the only recent Australian ute with a fast roofline and the rakish, frameless extended doors of the Falcon Hardtop.
- Even though Australia pretty much invented the ute, it has already made it onto Top Gear in the UK, where it pretty much got the seal of approval from all the presenters.
- The term 'ute' is only used in Australia and New Zealand, elsewhere in the world it's called just a 'truck' or a 'pickup'.
- Unfortunately, the future doesn't look good for the ute – with both Holden and Ford ceasing production in Australia, soon the only ute you'll be able to get will probably be called a pickup truck.
- The original Ute came equipped with a V8 engine and a manual transmission with only three gears.
- Unfortunately, the first coupe ute's direct link to the 1933-34 Ford coupe is in danger of being lost forever following an unintended distortion initiated by Lewis Bandt himself.
- So, ever resourceful, he built one himself from a cut-down 1934 sedan (below) which left it with a very different roofline to the 1934 coupe and his original '34 coupe utility.
- To honour his legacy, local Ford V8 fans rebuilt the smashed-up replica for the Bandt family, which stayed faithful to its historically incorrect cut-down sedan roofline.