drifting ute truck

What is a Ute in Australia?

In 1933, a Gippsland farmer’s wife wrote a letter to Ford Australia, asking: “Can you build me a vehicle that we can use to go to church on Sunday, without getting wet, and that my husband can use to take the pigs to market on Monday?”

Lew Bandt, who was then a young designer at Ford’s

Geelong plant, modified a 1933 coupe, by incorporating tub bodywork in the back and strengthening the chassis so that it could carry a load. The prototype was approved, and the Ford Australia ute went into production in 1934 as the Model 40-A Light Delivery.

But was this really the world’s first ute?

It depends entirely on how you define the word ‘utility’. Wikipedia defines ‘ute’ as: “an abbreviation for ‘utility’ or ‘coupe utility’ It’s a term used in Australia and New Zealand to describe vehicles with a tray behind the passenger compartment”.

It’s widely accepted that the original ‘utility’ was distinguished from a light truck by the fact that its bodywork continued in an unbroken line, aft from the cabin to the tail. A light truck had its cab and cargo bodywork separate.

Most modern utes aren’t ‘classic utes’ because the rear tub is separate from the cab structure. That’s a necessary separation in the case of a 4WD ute, to prevent stress cracking of the rear bodywork as the chassis flexes.

A second and very important demarcation is the difference between the 1920s and 1930s’ utility’ and ‘coupe utility’. A ‘utility’ was derived from a passenger car with a soft-top, convertible roof and a ‘coupe utility’ was derived from a hard-roof sedan.

Ford Australia’s claim that Lew Bandt’s design was the world’s first ute is based on the fact that it was certainly North America or Australia’s first ‘coupe utility’. All the utilities that preceded it in these markets were soft-top utes.

But one very early ute wasn’t American at all: in 1927, across the Atlantic, a new company called Volvo (Latin for ‘I roll’) produced its first cars and

pickups, with open and closed cabins. However, only 27 closed-cabin pickups were produced before the company upscaled the OV4 to light truck size, moving it out of the ute category.

If 27 production vehicles is a reasonable amount, then Volvo was clearly the world’s first ‘coupe utility’ maker. The photos show an open-cabin ute because we can’t locate a pic of the closed-cabin (coupe) version.

The good

The way they’re put together might be changing – or devolving – but what utes can do hasn’t changed a bit. They’re still the best way to carry anything large, heavy or ungainly – Clive Palmer, for example – short of a dedicated light-duty truck or van.

The rear end of a ute can carry all kinds of unpleasant nonsense without any stench finding its way into the cabin. Once the job is done, it’s easy to wash the tray out with a hose and tackle the next job.

In some cases, it’s almost as easy to clean out the cabin. Base-spec utes can come with vinyl floors and hard-wearing seats, befitting their status as workaday tools.

If, however, you’re after a car to do double duty, just like the original brief, modern utes can fit the bill well.

Utes used to be fairly Spartan affairs, but these days the better utes’ interiors are pretty well up to par with passenger cars. 

Modern utes are awash with safety, toys and accessories that rival luxury cars, but the quality of the interior plastics and seat trims are still a generation off.

The next generation will also bring a few new players, eager to enter the burgeoning ute game. It won’t be too long before you can drive a Renault, or even a Mercedes ute, taking ute ownership to the golf club car park. Plenty of room for your clubs, at least.

In 1934, the first Ford Coupe Utility rolled off the production line. The original ute had a 5ft 5in tray that could carry off a load of 1200 pounds (550kg). The coupe ute was undoubtedly successful – even Henry Ford himself commented that the boys back in the US needed to look at what he dubbed the ‘Aussie Kangaroo Chaser’.

However, the concept of having a purpose-built tray rear to a passenger cabin may be as old as the invention of the car itself. Appearing to be the earliest example of a ‘ute’ is the 1903 Oldsmobile, which was fitted with a tub-like body which seated two passengers.

The Dodge Brothers company also had a soft-top pickup in its line up to 1924, while other contenders to the title of ‘first ute’ include various models of Ford in the US, such as the 1925 Model T Runabout with pickup body.

While Australia cannot strictly claim the invention, our innovation was somewhat evolutionary. The comfort and style offered with the coupe utility appear to be the first of its kind. The ute has remained successful over time, becoming a classic Australian icon.

Over 80 years later, the ute is increasingly ingrained in Australian culture. The Toyota Hilux crowned the best-selling model in 2016, the first time ever that the most popular model in Australia was a commercial vehicle rather than a passenger car. The Ford Ranger was forth top-selling model and the Mitsubishi Triton the ninth.

Australians may no longer require the ute to take them the church or the pig market, but the original principle of flexibility and comfort remains as popular as ever.

The bad

Criticising a ute for not behaving like a passenger car is like criticising a donkey for not being a horse; even so, it’d be unwise to overlook the most pressing pitfall of ute ownership.

While car-based utes feature similar levels of technology as passenger cars, the rest of the field is about as advanced as the Amish. Consider the HiLux, Ranger or Amarok; as hardy and adventurous as they might be, they’re running chassis technology that went out of date in the 1960s.

The body-on-frame setup, which passenger cars left behind while the Beatles still had short hair, is the simplest and therefore cheapest way to build a chassis.

Think about your average ladder. Now make one out of girders, lay it flat, fasten wheels to the corners and plonk a passenger compartment on top. What you’ve created is the basic chassis that runs under every single imported ute in the country.

Body-on-frame armatures are exceptionally cheap to make compared to unitary or monocoque bodies. The penny-pinching doesn’t stop with the chassis, either; manufacturers are just as parsimonious when it comes to suspension.

Leaf springs, which are about as old as Les Patterson, are also incredibly cheap to make and fit ladder chassis. Leaf springs also remove the need for trailing arms and other complex suspension componentry that’s required in coil-based setups, keeping the manufacturing cost as miserly as possible. Leaf springs are still the best way to suspend a heavy load, however, as they spread the weight along the chassis rail rather than concentrating it over the surface area of the top of a coil spring.

The practical upshot of cheap, old-world tech really starts to manifest when you get behind the wheel and pitch into a pothole.

As the rear end is suspended on leaf springs, it can feel flighty and unrestrained – because it is. The simplistic suspension does a poor job of controlling the rear wheels, especially under load, causing all sorts of unsettling bouncing, shunting or hopping along the road.

It gets a lot worse in inclement weather as the wayward rear end becomes a chore, or even a nightmare, on ice. Modern traction and stability-control systems – mandatory as of November 1 this year – can wrest control back, but they’re covering serious engineering inadequacies.

This misbehaviour has an unlikely remedy; ask anyone in a blue singlet, and they’ll tell you that their ute has the best ride – and best traction – with a couple of hay bales or a Clive Palmer in the back. That’s because the weight counteracts the frenetic action of the leaf springs, allowing the rear to behave with a modicum of civility. With a few hundred extra kilos to lug around, however, don’t expect decent fuel figures.

It’s important to note that Nissan actually bucks the trend by offering its new Navara with a coil-sprung rear end. It’s a standout in this regard, but heaping praise on a 2015-model car for featuring all-round coil springs is like praising a teenager for mastering a fork and knife.

With such a fatal shortcoming, at least for the majority of utes, the other issues of ownership seem minor by comparison. And, in reality, they are – when you buy a ute, you accept that your friends, colleagues and complete strangers will want you to help them move house, fetch things from Bunnings or go to the tip.

At least crash safety isn’t a concern any more, with utes from most manufacturers achieving five-star ANCAP safety ratings. If, conversely, you value dollars more than kneecaps there’s always Great Wall, Foton or Mahindra.

Lew Brandt’s creation

For the following information, we’re indebted to Robert Ryan, who owns a very rare, genuine Model 40-A coupe utility.

Interestingly, Robert told us that the well known Lew Bandt (Rego UTE 001) ute replica, produced in 1975, was built from a cut down 1933 Ford sedan to a ute, procured from a farmer in Bannockburn, Victoria. The reason was that Lew could not find a genuine Ford Coupe Utility. After Lew’s death in 1987 in this vehicle, it was rebuilt by members of the Early Ford V8 Club Victoria as a 1934 model, by changing the grille and bonnet, but still using the 1933 sedan cabin section.

This patchwork replica has received more adulation than genuine vehicles: in 1997 Australia Post issued a 45 cent stamp and poster card depicting the replica Bandt Coupe Utility; Classic Carlectables released a 1/43 scale model of the non-genuine Ford Coupe Utility and in 2017 Ford Australia, in collaboration with the Royal Australian Mint, released an uncirculated coin of the non-genuine Ford Coupe Utility.

Light Delivery was the Ford Australia title for both Roadster (soft top) and Coupe Utilities in the years 1933-1934.

Of the total 1390 produced in Geelong, 862 were Roadster Utilities, and only 528 were Coupe Utilities.

Incidentally, the parallel production pattern of hard and soft tops continued, as this photo of a 1936 Roadster Ute shows.

Do they pass muster?

As of next year, the car that gave birth to this whole segment – the Ford Falcon ute – will be dead, while the Commodore ute’s future is more than a little grim. Most industry pundits say it’ll bow out in the next 18 months as well.

With the death of the true, car-based ute the future seems bleak. Body-on-frame utes feature technology from the Great Gatsby with none of the class and seem to grow larger and more ungainly with each successive generation. They’re packed with more toys and fitted with nicer interiors, but the real panache of a car-based ute is gone.

Glimmers of hope for the future do exist, such as Mercedes-level interiors and coil-sprung rear ends, but they’re not enough to solve the inherent flaws.

But, just as sushi’s seaweed has replaced the cabbage-chocked Chiko Roll, the bulk of Australians have moved on from the utes of Australiana to those with a more international appeal.

Other pre-1930s utes

The earliest ute may have well preceded these mass production examples by more than 30 years. On the jacket of his wonderful Australian automotive history book, ‘From Horse to Horsepower’, S A Cheney is photographed sitting at the tiller steering of a 1903 Oldsmobile, which is fitted with an integrated

tub body that is distinct ‘ute’.

The post-Dodge-Brothers company had a soft-top Dodge pickup in its model line-up in 1924. (John and Horace Dodge both died within a year of each other, in 1920 and their widows were then running the company that was eventually sold to Chrysler in 1928.)

An excellent example of the 1924 Dodge ute is owned by Bruce Church of Broken Hill. Bruce’s ute began life as a touring car with its original owners, the Parham family, but was retrofitted with replica ute bodywork in 1947, incorporating the original rear mudguards.

The ute spent most of its life as a working vehicle but has had long rest periods sitting on blocks. Bruce Church says the Dodge is still in original, unrestored condition.

In 1927 Chevrolet also produced a soft-top ute, known as the National Roadster Utility.

The claims for ‘first ute’ status will doubtless continue, but that of ‘most loved’ Aussie ute undoubtedly goes to the 1951 Holden coupé utility that was derived from the 1948-year, 48-215 four-door sedan. The first Holden ute (nicknamed FX) was a great performer and was cheaper than any of its rivals. The waiting list was around 70,000 in its first year.

Ute trends

Utes have never achieved cult status in urbanised Europe, where the van is king, but in most other countries – particularly agri-based ones – utes are vital to transport. The US dominates the ute world in terms of numbers and, until recently, the Ford F-Series pickup was the biggest-selling vehicle model on earth, but with poor export sales.

The laurels for ute numbers per capita go to Thailand, where some 420,000 new utes are sold each year. This healthy market, combined with world-class vehicle manufacturing capability and the fact that Thailand has heavy import duties on any vehicles that aren’t locally produced, has seen most Japanese-brand

utes being manufactured in Thailand since the 1990s.

A strange Thai law that demands leaf springs on ute rear axles is slowing Japanese-brand ute development.

India and China are ramping up ute production and will threaten traditional makers in the next few years.

In the United States, between 1957 and 1988, we had two car-based pickup hybrids, the Chevrolet El Camino and the Ford Ranchero. (Arguably four, if you include the Dodge Rampage and the VW Caddy). They’re almost universally regarded as – as Rick Miller from Southern Culture on the Skids says – “the mullet of the muscle car world.” But in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, utes – the same car-based truck formula – caught on and have consistently found an audience since the 1930s. According to FastLane.com.au, the first ute was developed in response to a letter from the wife of a farmer in Victoria, Australia, who was interested in a single-vehicle that could not only bring their pigs to market on Saturday but bring the family to church on Sunday. Louis Thornett Bandt, the first designer of Ford’s Australian subsidiary, designed a comfortable car with a well-designed cargo area in the back that was able to carry up to 1,200 pounds.

The first coupe utility rolled off the assembly line a year later in 1933. Henry Ford nicknamed the vehicles “Kangaroo Chasers” when they were displayed in Dearborn. By the 1950s, Ford, GM’s Holden and Dodge were all in the coupe utility game, with specialised Australian versions of American coupes, featuring cargo boxes grafted on the back. As Asian manufacturers began to produce vehicles to send to Australia, they too started building utes. The most popular Asian ute through the 1980s was the Subaru Brumby, which we knew in the United States as the BRAT.

Before the Toyota Hilux became the ubiquitous small pickup around the world, Toyota sold a coupe utility version of the second- and third-generation Corona. The second and third generation 

Toyota Crowns were also sent to Australia as complete knock-down (CKD) kits, which were assembled as utes by Australian Motor Industries, a huge importer of AMC, Toyota, British Leyland and Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Several European manufacturers also provided coupe utility vehicles for the Australian market. Vauxhall, the UK’s GM division, provided a ute variant of the Velox between 1951 and 1957, and Peugeot sold the 403 and the 504 as utes. Today, Ford and Holden are the ute manufacturers of choice in Australia. The Ford Falcon ute is available in both coupe utility and cab chassis formats.

The Holden ute was the basis for a stillb0rne Pontiac G8 ute displayed in the US in 2008.

It brings up an interesting point about the Australian automotive industry. As the rest of the world knuckles under to globalisation, Australia still resists it because it’s a huge market, and it’s so separate from the rest of the world. In fact, designs popular in Australia now often wield influence on the American market, due to the fact that Australian drivers are as interested in V-8-powered, rear-drive vehicles as many Americans are. The upcoming Chevrolet SS – Chevrolet’s first rear-drive sedan since the Impala SS disappeared in 1996 – is nothing more than a rebadged Holden Commodore.

Today, almost a century later, and the ute is as ingrained in Australian culture as ever. Although originating as a cargo carrier for tradesmen and farmers, the modern ute is just as likely to be seen in the suburbs as the bush. In 2015, of the top 10 cars sold in Australia, three were utes, and Toyota’s HiLux took out the top spot as the best-selling car – of any kind – in the country.

“The versatility of the dual-cab [a ute with rear doors and rear passenger seats] is, in my opinion, the main driver behind the incredible sales figures,” says Justin Walker, editor of Australian Geographic Adventure and former editor of 4X4 Australia magazine. “Being able to lug your work gear around during the week and then load up the ute tray with camping gear, bikes, kayaks, etc., for a family adventure on the weekend, is key to their success.”

With large swathes of outback Australia requiring the four-wheel drive to access, 4WD utes are a popular choice. Toyota’s newest HiLux model, the SR5, underwent intensive testing and development, including 650,000km in real-world Australian conditions – some of the harshest in the world. Representing a significant evolution from those early wooden tray backs, the SR5 with its new 2.8L diesel engine is the most powerful HiLux ever built.

True to the concept of the original utes, the cabin of the new Hilux is also more comfortable than ever. Offering new electronic driving aids and improved suspension, “these improvements have resulted in significant improvement in regards to ride comfort and overall handling, without compromising the load-carrying capability,” says Justin.

Australians may no longer require a vehicle to take to church on Sunday, and the pigs to market on a Monday – but the original principle of versatility and comfort remains as relevant as ever.

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