exploring white ute

Did Australia invent the ute?

In an age where 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, it seems outrageous that a single letter from a ticked-off farmer’s wife could have set in motion the chain of events that led to the mighty Australian ute.

Actually, it’s even crazier than that, because the ‘coupe-utility’ that Ford Australia developed in 1933 not only formed the basis of every locally-made ute, it was also arguably the granddaddy of every utility sold anywhere in the world, including the Aussie ute’s North American cousin, the pickup.

Yet the impetus for this game-changer of a vehicle came not from a marketing committee, nor any other kind of industry think-tank.

No, it was a letter to Ford Australia’s then-boss, Hubert French, from the wife of a Gippsland farmer asking why it was that Ford didn’t offer its customers a vehicle that would take them to church on Sunday and then cart the pigs to market on Monday.

For those of us who have grown up with utes as part of the landscape, the notion seems like a no-brainer, but back at Ford in 1933, the question really rattled a few cages.

The concept was handed down through the Ford hierarchy at its Geelong head office before the letter landed on the desk of Lew Bandt, then 22 years of age and, as if to illustrate the genius of the farmer’s wife (not to mention the innocence of the time) Ford’s one and only designer.

But Lew was a bit of a thinker himself, and he quickly worked out that the new Ford V8 sedan could be augmented with a tray that formed part of the bodywork with extra timber braces to strengthen the area where the two halves of the vehicle met.

The story sounds like an urban legend: In 1932, a Gippsland farmer’s wife sent Ford a request for a revolutionary new car design: “Why don’t you build people like us a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday, and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays?” she asked. The job of designing a car of this versatility fell on the shoulders of 22-year-old engineer Lewis Bandt, and two years later, the first Ford ute was released.

The original ute had a wheelbase of 112 inches, a five-foot five-inch tray that could carry 1200 pounds (550kg). The car went on to become a huge success, and was exported to the US and dubbed ‘kangaroo chasers’.

Sadly, Bandt’s invention was also part of his final moments as he was killed in a collision with a sand truck. He was driving a vintage 1934 Ford Ute he had rebuilt for himself. Fortunately, Bandt’s legacy lives on with utes owned and operated by tradespeople and farmers all around the world.

These origins explain why so many cars that were ‘top shelf’ models in other markets were made into coupe utilities in Australia including the Ford Zephyr, Vauxhall Velox, various Dodges, Plymouths and De Sotos, Chevrolets (both sedan and truck ranges), Chryslers and others.

Stories abound of overseas executives horrified that their Australian arms wanted to convert their company’s best sedans into a light truck, yet in Australia, it was the highest of honours. Their well-heeled buyers wanted and needed both in one vehicle.

It’s why until recently local coupe utilities had the highest resale in the business and why older examples are fetching two to three times their passenger car equivalent. It’s not just about rarity but what these vehicles meant to their owners in times gone by.

It didn’t matter that these coupe utilities didn’t have a back seat. It was common across Australia until the late 1960s to cram as many passengers across the front as possible, and those who wouldn’t fit were given a blanket and cushion to ride in the back!

Because the Australian market after 1945 could no longer support the tooling for the latest all-steel two-door coupes, all local coupe utes soon featured the shorter front doors of the four-door sedan models, blurring the relationship between coupe and ute.

The definition of a coupe utility then became further blurred, with the first Holden utility, the 50/2106 released in 1951. Although beautifully styled with a rounded two-door cabin that replicated the sedan’s roofline and fancy rear guards pressed into the one-piece sides, it no longer featured the Ford coupe’s extra side glass and was not much roomier than similar work vehicles from the US and UK.

By 1960, Holden was no longer matching the roofline nor the rear styling of its coupe utes to its latest sedans. By 1964, Ford had let the rear styling of its Falcon coupe utility fall behind for the first time but caught up again in 1966. Chrysler was the first to link the rear styling of its local Valiant ute to the wagon in 1965, a precedent that Holden followed in 1968 and Ford in 1972.

From that point, all local utes were based on cut-down wagon platforms, usually with a plate bolted over the rear passenger footwell to create a flat load floor. All traces of their coupe origins had disappeared, except for a single noteworthy exception.

The only recent Australian ute closely related to a coupe was the 1972-79 XA-XB-XC Falcon ute (above) that shared the rakish, frameless extended doors of the Falcon Hardtop with a fast roofline to match. Later Falcon models would return to the extra side window of the original coupe utility, but only to hide a return to shorter four-door sedan front doors.

Throughout this later period, Australian legislators defined tougher safety rules for these passenger car-based local utes that didn’t apply to imported pickups. Because buyers didn’t know better and chose on price, the local coupe utility almost died in the late 1980s until 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 but retained an extended coupe-like cabin, while Holden has styled its roofline into a sleek integrated style side load bed.

So has the Australian coupe utility lost its vital point of distinction? Is it enough to have a refined passenger car cabin as per the original brief still present in the latest Falcon? Or does it need to have the load bed integrated with the cabin like the Commodore?

Have better coupe utilities been produced overseas? Have the latest pickups blurred the line between passenger car comfort and load carrying so much that it doesn’t matter anymore?

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

Australia is well known for its agricultural community. Whether its sheep, cattle, pigs or crops, 61% of the land is used for farming or gazing. Because of that, a lot of life is centred on the farm, and farmers needed tools, supplies and vehicles that to help on the farm.

Like many ideas, the design of the ute came from a need, just like the original Ford Model T. In 1933, Hubert French, Ford’s managing director at the time, received a request from a farmer’s wife in Victoria. The letter said, “Dear Sir, my husband and I can’t afford a car and a truck, but we need a car to go to church on Sundays and a truck to take the pigs to market on Mondays. Can you help us?” She had a need for both passenger room and cargo room in the same vehicle. After French got the request, he passed it on to the company’s designer, 23-year-old Lewis Bandt who then designed the vehicle that we have all come to know and love. Unfortunately, however, Bandt subsequently died in an accident whilst driving the utility vehicle that he had designed.

The Ute Design

Bandt’s design combined the features of both a car and truck in such a way that it would maximise the good qualities of each. His new design cleaned up the overall profile of the vehicle and increased the area of the trick bed. His renderings were first drawn on a blackboard that was 10 meters long. His design would allow for a 545-kilogram payload, which was quite impressive for a ‘truck’ that was supposed to look like a car. Ford built and tested two prototypes before the vehicle was finally put into production. Even Henry Ford was impressed with the result. The first Ute model had a V8 engine and a three-speed manual transmission. Bandt’s surprising solution had a four-door cab, like other Model 40s, but the truck space was replaced by a wooden truck bed that was surrounded by a smooth panelled exterior. It caught on like wildfire and was very quickly declared a ‘must-have’ vehicle for farming families. Over 22,000 were sold in the decade and a half that followed, and since then, it has turned into a great Australian tradition. So, here’s to 80 plus years of Utes, Australia’s favourite utility vehicle.

A V8 ute it might be, but driving the 1934 Coupe-Utility (as Lew named it back in the day) is an exercise in learning all over again how to drive a motor vehicle.

The suicide doors mean you have to reverse into the cabin backside-first, and once you’re in, it’s incredibly small; narrow, mainly, but the windscreen is also tiny, and something like a Fiat 500 seems vast inside by comparison.

The engine starts with a host of whining, whirring, gasping sounds, but once it’s running, you can hear that it is, indeed, possessed of that rhythmic, musical V8 engine note.

The spindly gearshift controls just three forward ratios, and there’s little or no synchromesh in evidence. So, using first gear at all requires it to be selected from a dead stop, and changing back from third to second needs careful rev-matching to avoid a graunch that is straight from a black-and-white movie.

Many people have told me how the Ford V8 was a revelation in terms of power and performance and, if that’s the case, then all I can presume is that horses must have seemed pretty fast back then. Rather than actually accelerate, the old ute accrues speed – and gradually at that – and even once it’s up and running, you still need to anticipate hills and unfavourable wind currents.

There’s lots of noise at speed, too, mechanical, wind and road, and the creaks and groans from the body let you in on the utes dirty little secret; that its frame is still made at least partly from dead trees.

The steering is heavy and the suspension dim-witted and clunky, but it’s the brakes that are most 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.

And, of course, there are no seat-belts, laminated windscreen or radial tyres and any forward-collision warning system would consist entirely of your passenger’s panicked screams.

Of course, this stuff was all part and parcel of driving back in the 1930s and rather than condemn Lew Bandt’s best work, and it merely serves to remind us how good we’ve got it today.

In fact, the Ford V8 was a big improvement over other offerings in the day, but more than that, Lew’s Coupe Utility created a product that still resonates with everybody from landscape gardeners to surfers; roof tilers to dirt-bike riders. And, presumably, Gippsland pig farmers.

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.

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