offroad ute

Is a ute a car or truck?

Utes, a mainstay of Aussie car culture since we invented the bloody things back in the 1930s, is set to disappear from local showrooms replaced instead, by those most American of things, the truck, or to give them their correct nomenclature, the ‘pickup’ truck. And this has if you believe the multitude of social media channels that drive so much of today’s discourse, get up the collective noses like flies in a desert of a horde of patriotic and jingoistic Aussie car buyers.

“It’s not a truck. It’s a bloody ute. We’re Aussies, not Yanks,” is a typical rejoinder to the idea that our beloved ute is soon to be no more. Which, of course, it is.

Ford’s final Falcon ute rolled off the production line late last month while Holden will also soon cease production of its venerable workhorse, the Commodore ute. In their place will come a line of Thai-built twin-cab hauliers such as the Ford Ranger and Holden Colorado. And yes, they will be called ‘trucks’. Which they are.

The Australians loved the vehicle

First models rolled off the production line in 1934, and they were an instant success, with thousands of them sold in rural areas. And Aussies being Aussies, it wasn’t long before the Ford coupe-utility name was shortened to “ute” – and the rest is history.

A few years later, Holden got into the action when it released its own “utility’ model, which was based on the 48-215 sedan. That vehicle promptly got called a ute too – and from that point, it was all on, with Ford, Holden and the motoring public enjoying a wonderful ute marketing battle that lasted for years, even to the extent of having numerous country songs written about it.

While initially, utes were very much rural vehicles, it wasn’t long before they also hit the streets of urban Australia and New Zealand. 

Naturally, the rivalry extended to the higher-performance product, with both Aussie car companies developing a series of V8-engined utes that culminated in such product as the Holden Special Vehicles Maloo and the Ford Performance Vehicles F6.

None of the uniquely Australian Ford and Holden utes is built any more – the last Ford Falcon ute, a white XR6 Turbo, rolled off the assembly line in June 2016, while the final Holden Commodore ute was an orange SS that emerged from the assembly plant in October last year.

So now the Aussie-built vehicle models that years earlier had spawned the word “ute” have gone.

By definition, a ute is “usually two-wheel-drive, traditionally passenger vehicles with a cargo tray in the rear integrated with the passenger body”. Sounds about right. Typically, in Australia at least, utes have been derivative of our locally-made sedan range: from Ford Falcons to a succession of Holden-badged variants of the General’s four-door sedan fleet – from FJ Holden to Kingswood to Commodore, all have at one point received the ute treatment to cater to Aussie tradies far and wide.

But take a quick look on our roads, or visit a new housing development in any city, and you will soon notice that the Aussie-built ute is already a thing of the past. Toyota Hilux, Mazda BT-50s, Mitsubishi Tritons, Isuzu D-Maxes, Nissan Navaras and the aforementioned Rangers and Colorados dominate Aussie worksites. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Falcon or Commodore ute working as a, well, workhorse. It seems our appetite for bigger, more practical and ever more comfortable workhorses is insatiable, as chippies, sparkies, plumbers, brickies and landscapers dump the venerable Aussie ute in favour of, pause and take a deep breath, trucks.

But the term remains – only these days it applies to truck-based one-tonne vehicles that in most other parts of the world are known as pickups.

The hannalicious Australian car-trucks known as “utes” Down Under are slowly starting to proliferate in the US, thanks to a Colorado outfit dramatically underselling them as “modern-day El Caminos.” This is how they’re making dreams come true.

As many of you know, utes are basically the mullet of motor vehicles and a mainstay of Australian transportation— sedan in the front, pickup truck in the back.

The body style met its demise in America when the El Camino was put down in 1987, but its popularity continued to soar Down Under, making would-be utility car drivers in the States some fierce kinda jealous.

That’s where Randy Reese comes in. He’s been operating “Left Hand Utes” in Denver for the last two years, shipping in Holden ute bodies from Australia as “parts only” vehicles and combining them with just enough American car parts to get them legally titled and registered here in the homeland.

The term “pickup” comes from the USA. Historians say it all began around 1913 when an Ohio company called the Galion Allsteel Body Company began installing boxes on slightly modified Ford Model T chassis.

A few years later Ford began producing its own model T-based vehicle, marketing it as the “Ford Model runabout with pickup body”. 

And, just like as happened in Australia, this sparked massive public acceptance of the pickup truck, with millions of consumers buying the vehicles for lifestyle rather than utilitarian reasons.

And it has never let up.

Last year, for example, the three top-selling vehicles in the USA were pickups that sold in eye-watering numbers – third was the Ram with 500,723 sales, the second was the Chevrolet Silverado with 585,564 sales, and top model was the Ford F-Series with a massive 896,764 sales.

Little wonder then that, as in Australia, many country songs have been penned with lyrics about the pickup truck. Such as these in Midnight Sun by US country star Garth Brooks:  


I like to think of utes as ‘Light Duty’. They have a lower payload to start with. My ute is rated to around 700kgs. This is because it is the v6 manual version. The v8 version is even lower due to the sports suspension. The things you generally see a ute carrying is just general things that won’t fit in a car—tools for work, motorbikes, furniture when moving house. I have also carried a bit of firewood and dirt in mine but nowhere near as much as you could fit in a single cab pickup truck.

One thing the ute has going for it is the size of the tub. It is surprisingly big considering the vehicle is only the size of your standard Commodore.

This came in handy when we cleaned the shed. We decided to use my ute instead of my dad’s pickup due to the fact that my tub was bigger than his tray. It was longer and had higher sides which meant you could fit more in it before you had to tie it down so it would not fall out.

Another upside of a Ute is that it is no different from driving a car. The ute is not overly big and is fitted with a decent sized engine (3.8l v6 in mine but they also came with 5.7l v8s) which means it gets a move on. They also have a nice gearing. This means you don’t have to use all five gears to get to the speed limit when easing it up to speed. Just makes life a bit easier. If I had a choice on which I would drive in traffic, it would be the ute every time.

Pickup Trucks

I like to think of pickups such as the Holden Colorado, Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger as ‘Medium Duty’. They generally have a payload of 1 ton and a flat tray in the single cab options. This means that you can load a different kind of thing on them. You see these used as work vehicles the majority of the time. They either have toolboxes on the back or are loaded with supplies required for the job. A large majority of them are also four-wheel drive which allows you to load them up and go camping. I did this with my Rodeo.

When you start looking at the Nissan Patrols and Toyota Land cruisers, I like to refer to them as ‘Heavy Duty’ due to the fact that they are a lot more robust.

Difference #1: Country of mass popularity

So, I think that you all know this one:

Utes are massively used in Australia.

Pickup trucks are massively used in the US.

Back in 1932, a farmer’s wife from Australia wrote a letter to Henry Ford asking for a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays. Lew Bandt, a Ford designer, came up with a solution for that and called it coupé utility. It was based on their well-known Model A. Due to the popularity they gained in Australia, Henry Ford nicknamed them “Cangaroo Chasers”.

Pickup, on the other hand, was invented in a bit different way. In 1913, Galion Allsteel made hauling boxes and installed them onto the back of a Model T chassis. The rivalry of brands was alive even then, as Dodge made a ¾ ton pickup in 1924, with its whole body was made out of wood. A few years later, in 1931, Chevrolet introduced its first factory-made pickup. The industry was really going strong.

Of course, this is a bit of a generalisation. Exceptions exist.

Difference #2: Base of the vehicle and interior space

Pickups are based on trucks and have more interior storage space.

Utes are based on cars and have less interior storage space.

This doesn’t need any complicated explanations.

Ute, a utility coupe, lays on the chassis of a car.

The front of the car, AKA passenger body and the rear of the car, AKA the cargo tray are in one piece. The reason for that can be found in ute’s elementary purpose, being a people and load carrier for the farmers. But since it was made by chopping off a car’s rear end of the roof and welding a panel to border the passenger compartment, quite a bit of space was lost in the process. You can’t really fit a lot behind the seats. That might be a problem when it starts raining, but I doubt that Australians have a lot of problems of this kind.

Pickups, on the other hand, are made out of 2 pieces: a cab and a cargo bed, laying on a strong chassis, derived from trucks. Among all the practicalities these have, the one important for now is interior space. You can store at least a mid-sized bag behind the seats, even in a single cab. Let alone the crazy double-cabs having a full-sized trunk on the inside. Because the two parts can be taken apart, cab size can be increased if needed. This can come in really handy when you have to carry a cow in the back and pick a girl up on your way home.

Difference #3: Size and Load Capacity. Therefore, Purpose

Utes are generally smaller and have a smaller load capacity. They are “one-shape-fits-all”.

Pickups are generally bigger and have a bigger load capacity. There are multiple types of them.

Just like most of the ute’s characteristics, this one is also tightly connected to it deriving from a car.

Overall dimensions (excluding the hight) remain the same as the ones of the car it was made of.

Chassis is strong enough for some small to mid-sized loads, yet not as strong as the one from the pickup. But it is usually enough for its purpose, carrying some loads that are too big for the car, and big enough for buying/renting a truck.

They also have an overall design that may vary a little, but most utes are made on the same principle: 2 seats and a small cargo bed in the back.

Unlike utes, pickup trucks are vehicles purposely made for carrying heavier loads. They are not always used in that way, but it is good to know that their chassis is capable of holding some heavier loads, those that you would usually hire a truck for. Pickups also come in multiple shapes and sizes: From the classic, smaller ones, all the way to the modern pickups which have a fifth wheel and can haul full-sized trailers. And then there’s single cabs, dual cabs, super cabs… Endless possibilities.

So, there you have it! Those were the basic differences between utes and pickup trucks. Of course, there are some more, such as drivetrain, engine and transmission differences. But those can vary from model to model.

Still, one way or another, now we all see how two vehicle types that seem similar have some significant deviations.

In conclusion, It really depends on what you want to use the vehicle for. If you want something that is no different from driving a car but can carry general things in the back, go for a ute. If you want something a bit more robust, then go for a pickup.

So it seems this latest disquiet is not so much about the loss of an Aussie icon itself, but rather the slipping from the lexicon of that most Australian of words, ute, in favour of yet another Americanism.

But we shouldn’t really be so tied up in knots about it all. After all, Americanisms have pervaded every part of our lives for what seems like an eternity (or at least since the end of the Second World War). And our automotive cultural and lexical landscape hasn’t escaped either.

We, as a nation of car lovers, have gladly adopted ‘muscle cars’ as a descriptor of big horsepower, V8-shod, fuel-guzzling’, big banger sedans and coupes. We still like the idea of (even if we don’t buy them in the numbers we once did) ‘station wagons’ as opposed to ‘estates’. We monitor our engine revs on a ‘tachometer’ and not a ‘rev counter’, our four-door cars are ‘sedans’ and not ‘saloons’, and when we first start our vehicles, they are at ‘idle’, not ‘tick over’.

And of course, most recently, no one lifted an eyebrow and murmured “hmmm’ and declared it was just another nail in our cultural coffin when SUVs irrevocably overtook the incumbent ‘four-wheel-drive’ as the preferred terminology for one of Australia’s largest new car segments.

Ultimately, none of this matters. While the marketers will insist that the car companies’ latest offerings are ‘trucks, the Earth will keep turning, and the Sun will keep shining, you’ll keep paying taxes and tradies will still call their beasts of burden, ‘utes’.

All of this leads to an obvious question: now that the traditional Aussie ute is no more, and the big trend in this part of the world now is towards truck-style one-tonne models sourced primarily from Thailand and China, should we be continuing to call them utes – or opting for the more international pickup?

Scroll to Top