If there is one vehicle associated with Australia it is the ute, or to give it the original formal name, the Coupe Utility. As the proud owner of a ute (seen above at Lake Eyre in central Australia), I thought I would write a brief outline of the history of these versatile vehicles – very brief given we are covering nearly a century of history! I’ll stick to the main developments affecting the Ford and GM-Holden utes for now because they are there from the beginning to the end, but there is definitely more to the story from other manufacturers and the various ways that utes have played a part in local culture.
Looking at them from the outside, you might ask how is a ute different from a pickup? Let’s go back to the beginning. From the early days of the car, their significant cost was often justified for commercial use, with a variety of trucks and vans built including those based on ordinary passenger cars where you might hear the terms “light delivery” or “buckboard”, which would have a small flat bed or a simple box behind a 2-seater body.
This developed in the 1920s into the roadster utility, where the bed was integrated into the body. Larger trucks such as a Model TT might have a timber cab with a roof but no doors; they were delivered with no bodywork behind the cowl, leaving it up to the buyer to arrange their own cab/seating and load area.
The story goes that in 1932 a farmer’s wife wrote to Ford asking them to make a vehicle that they could drive to church on Sunday and use to take their pigs to market on Monday, but also with proper weather protection and a smart appearance. In those days the Sunday service was a major social occasion and the term ‘Sunday best’ meant something, so turning up in a basic work truck was not what you wanted to do. Designer Lew Bandt came up with a design based on the 5-window coupe so the body would have more bracing at the front of the load tray, which extended forward under the rear window right up behind the seat for to maximise the bed length of 5’ 5’’ length with its 1200 lb capacity.
The ute went on sale in the latter half of 1934 with only 500 built in the first year. Lew Bandt was sent to Detroit with two of the utes for a showing with Henry Ford. When his men from Texas asked what the new vehicle was, old Henry said it was a kangaroo chaser! Thanks to timber body framing survivors are very rare, but the National Motor Museum in Birdwood South Australia has two of them; one that has been hot-rodded and one that is in as-found condition after a hard life on a farm in Western Australia.
GM was very close behind, and the story they told highlighted another factor that made the ute happen. General Manager Larry Hartnett was told by a rural dealer that he missed out on a sale because the bank would not approve finance on a family car for a farmer, however it would for a vehicle that could be used to work on the farm. Chevrolet utes continued until the good-looking 1952 model, when its position was usurped by the new Holden ute that debuted in early 1951. US pickups split away from passenger car lines during this same era, and were common in Australia also but were larger and cost significantly more.
The 1948 Holden was GM’s successful proposal for an Australian car after WWII, and was a happy medium between large, powerful American cars and small, economical British cars. The 132ci 6-cylinder put out 60 hp for a top speed of 80 mph, but just as importantly it would return 25 mpg (US) – it only weighed 2280lb. The car hit the ground running, with production (20,557 of the first 50-2106 or FX ute) unable to keep up with demand, and it proved itself well in service. Note the picture above is an FJ, much more common with 44,803 built.
Ford and GM had also started making smaller utes in Britain before WWII, and these continued through the 1950s. Ford bracketed the 6-cylinder Holden with its V8 and 4-cylinder utes until 1958 when a ute version of the Ford Zephyr Mark II took over, looking just like a scaled-down 55-58 Mainline (above). In 1961 the new Falcon ute was released, which as has been covered on CC before, was typical of a phenomenon where development workloads mean utes are released some time after the sedans they are based on.
The 1971 HQ Holden model brought a change to the established ute format, for the first time featuring a longer wheelbase shared with the station wagon and Statesman luxury sedan, while the Camaro/Nova inspired front subframe of the regular passenger versions was extended into a full-length chassis that also retained leaf springs instead of the new coil-sprung solid axle of the sedans. Another development was the One Tonner which had a reinforced chassis and yet-longer wheelbase to allow for heavier loads. It is instructive to note that even the most basic ute did not share the One Tonner’s simple stamped steel grille and heavy gauge curved C-channel bumper, but had the same grille and chrome bumper as the sedans.
The next upheaval for the ute was the 1978 debut of the significantly smaller Opel-based Commodore that was a response to the oil crises. Holden kept their HZ and then WB model utes in production until 1984, after which they had to fall back on the Isuzu-based Rodeo pickup to sell, although a lot of owners soldiered on with their WB utes and in particular One Tonners for 15+ years until Ford- and Holden-built replacements arrived.
While Ford never left it, Holden returned to the ute market in 1990 with its first Commodore ute now running the rwd-ised 3.8L Buick V6 with the 5.0L Holden V8 optional, and sharing its coil spring rear suspension and floorpan with the wagon. On the other hand with its leaf spring rear end the Falcon would soon launch a 1 Tonne variant with a 2300 lb load capacity.
The recently-established Holden Special Vehicles performance offshoot that had developed two Group A touring car homologation specials amongst other hotted-up Commodores quickly turned their hand to the ute, and the Maloo (an Aboriginal word meaning thunder) had 248 hp, tuned suspension, larger wheels and a body kit. This marked the first proper performance version of a ute that was more than just a large engine option.
In 1999 the new AU model Falcon ute finally debuted and was an immediate hit, although technically it was no longer a ute but a pickup as it had a separate load bed. As with other pickups in Australia it could be purchased as a bare chassis or with a drop side tray. The change in body style where the rear chassis attached to the now vertical back wall of the cabin gave useful extra storage space compared to earlier utes.
The 3rd generation Commodore ute in 2001 (nearly 4 years after the sedan it was based on) provided quite a contrast, sharing a very basic semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension with the rest of the range. Particularly relevant to the ute, it gave very poor tire life when loaded, due to excess camber and toe-in.
This era was a boom time at Holden and they went a bit mad with body style variations; in addition to the Monaro that was exported as the Pontiac GTO there was a new One Tonner and the double cab Crewman (plus HSV versions as seen above). Similar to the Falcon, these weren’t technically utes because they had a separate rear chassis section that actually bolted on. They were also available as AWD variants using the system from the Subaru Outback-style Adventra crossover wagon.
The next Holden ute in 2006 was based on the first clean-sheet Commodore (ie not based on an Opel) that was sold on all continents other than Africa and Antarctica. How close it came to being sold in the USA as a Pontiac ‘ST’ will possibly never be known. Body and suspension were new, with additional space in the cabin and better geometry. It had swung the pendulum a long way to becoming a “2-door sports car with a big trunk”, as V8-powered sports versions represent a significant portion of sales, including the ultimate GTS Maloo with a 6.2L supercharged V8 and 580hp.
The market has spoken though, and mid-size pickups are now where the action is, especially twin cabs, with the VW Amarok joining the Japanese models (which are actually produced in Thailand now), with Indian and Chinese models joining in. The current Ford Ranger was designed in Australia, and reflects the future of the local car industry once production ceases in 2017. Ironically the only true utes left will be the fwd 4-cylinder Brazilian models covered on CC a while back.
Post Script: I have been working on this article from time to time for a while, but was prompted to get it finished because the last Falcon ute was just produced on Friday 29 July 2016, bringing to an end 84 years of coupe utility production by Ford Australia.
Cohort Sighting: 1953 Holden FJ Ute – In Memoriam
Cohort Vintage Outtake: 1957 Australian Ford Mainline Utility
Curbside Outtake: 1963-65 Holden EH Utility – I Saw Her Standing There
Curbside Classic: Holden HR Ute – It’s A Beaut
Curbside Capsule: Austin 1800 Utility – Unique Ute
Curbside Classic: 1977-80 HZ Holden One Tonner – A Genuine Grandpa’s Axe
Curbside Capsule: Subaru Brumby – Wild Horses Could Drag You
Excellent article. It’s nice to see that Ford maintained the same 5-window coupe form, with the same proportions, from start to finish.
Not quite. The Falcon utes had a three-window cab for the first three generations. Initially similar to the US Ranchero but for shorter doors, the third generation used hardtop doors and had a rather sweeping roofline for a commercial vehicle (pic). The five-window roof style returned with the fourth-gen XD.
Another pic showing more ‘normal’ usage.
Nice historical overview. Pickup trucks in the US, the utes in Australia and the panel vans in Europe; the diversity of light commercial vehicles in different parts of the world.
Of the more recent utes I like the single cab flatbeds the most. I found a website of an alloy and steel tray supplier, including a tipper. Looking good !
Johannes,the alloy trays as opposed to a steel bodied ute,rattle and squeak loudly as they age and because alloy tray sides all drop down they aren’t much good for carrying soil,compost,etc because of the forces/pressure against the hinged sides and rear.Practical for some,useless for others.
Alright, so steel it will be. Logical, real trucks are made of steel. This one is neat: single cab, steel tray and timber floor.
Not in commercial use where tare weight is to be avoided, alloy is far superior and lighter to maximise carrying capacity.
It was, of course, tongue in cheek. On a more serious note, tare weight was never “utterly” important here, given the high weight limits.
Cabs, fuel tanks, rims, fenders and such were always made of steel. And then there’s the price aspect of alloy of course.
The single cab flatbed, maybe with dropsides would be the commonest body style on these, other than the factory ute. And for a while there, Ford offered the ute and chassis-cab models with much of the sedans’ sports equipment. I was in the dealership once buying parts when someone placed an order for an XR6 with a dropside tray. The salesman didn’t bat an eyelid.
It is interesting they have added some variants available from the factory. Because the XR6 is probably the most probably the most popular with people choosing their own ute, you can get the LPG engine, cab-chassis and one-tonne load rating so you can have a serious work vehicle with the extra goodies.
Previously you would have guys removing the style-side tub to install their own tray and beefing up the rear suspension to carry heavier loads, and I’m sure it still happens with XR6 Turbo utes.
Johannes, it is not steel vs alloy that makes the noise but the tray bodies are more susceptible to noise. A steel body brings its own challenges to keep it looking good when the paint gets damaged, but a good looking custom tray or service body can make its own statement of pride in workmanship for a tradesman.
That same era 1968-70 Holden Kingswood and Monaro may have an inspired 1967-69 Chevrolet Camaro/1968-74 Chevrolet Nova Sub Frame and Rear Leaf Springs, but they were still different in comparison to the aforementioned Camaro/Nova since those Holden Kingswood/Monaro Sub Frame were much wider and larger than their similar sized GM American Cousins. In addition, the Holden’s floorpan regardless of the year were much different from either the Novas or the Camaros. Probably only the Rear Leaf Springs through 1970 (since these Holden Coupe and Sedan switched to Coil Springs from 1971-78) were very similar to both GM models. I am also surprised to find out that the UTE version from 1968-78 used a Body on Frame construction unlike the Coupe and Sedan’s Unitized Body Construction with Front Subframes especially since the UTE’s body design origins were cut from either the Coupe or Sedan models but this is where those similarities end. On this Photo Montage Compilation, it shows how the 1968-70 Holden Kingswood (actually Chevrolet Kommando) differs from the 1971-78 Holden Kingswood (also a Chevrolet Kommando) but besides those, their designs were similar to the 1968-72 Chevrolet Nova and 1969-78 Opel Rekord (actually Chevrolet Opala). The 1965-69 Chevrolet Corvair was included just for comparison purposes since these Sedans were all in the same Compact Size range at least by U.S.A. Standards.
Pedro I did not claim they were the same, I remember the other post discussing the differences. Note that the 68-71 HK-HT-HG cars are completely different to the HQ-onwards utes and do not have the full-length chassis. I expect the HQ utes adopted the full-length chassis both for strength and to simplify the body structure, as well as allowing the addition of the cab-chassis One Tonne model.
I know but I just find it very interesting and amazing that despite of their kinship albeit a “cousin” from overseas, GM at least did not take a shortcut method on this one just like with the American Ford Falcon and its earlier Australian cousin. Even the UTES used a completely different BOF chassis compared to the Kingswood Sedan and the Monaro Sports Coupe were of Unitized Body with Front Subframes and yet the general design of the UTES were very similar in styling cues from the coupe and sedan much like the 1964-87 Chevrolet El Camino were to the same era Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu/Malibu except both shared the same BOF. chassis – The El Camino and the Chevelle Malibu/Malibu. That is just my opinion though.
The difference is that Holden had their own design studio and engineering department whereas Ford did not until the early 1970s. I expect they still started with the engineering data from Opels or the North American A-bodies. They had to modify the engineering to meet local requirements, and parts were going to be produced locally so there was no reason not to restyle or redesign parts if required.
The general theory within the Australian manufacturers was to maximise the sharing of parts due to low overall vol, eg all of the HQ variants share the same front panels with the exception of three different front fascia pas (a GM feature!); the standard single 7″ headlight version, the twin 5-3/4″ headlight Premier and the Statesman which had a deeper divided grille. Another example is there were only two tail light variants (which were the same unit used on both sides) – one for the standard sedan and another shared between the wagon/ute/panelvan/Statesman lwb sedan
JohnH it will be a terribly sad day when Australians have no automotive manufacturers,soon to arrive.This week in Tasmania I saw an HQ,HG,HR and two WB Holdens on the road,all of them utes.Also saw the most immaculate WB Caprice in a metallic gold and driven by an elderly man as I was waiting to cross the road,just beautiful.
Here’s mine, 2003 model
GMH in the 50s fielded three different makes of utility Holden being the cheapest Vauxhall in four and six cylinder BOF designs the next step up the ladder and Chevrolet at the top being the most expensive, by 1960 only the local Holden survived the other two being cut to maximise Holden sales,
Ford had both the American Mainline utility and the British Ford Zephyr and Prefect utilities both unique to Ford Australia, when the Falcon debuted the other three models were dropped again to maximise local sales though the Zephyr was a much stronger vehicle, mechanically robust and featuring a double skinned floor pan for extra carrying strength.
really nice article, looking forward for more
it’s sad news about the demise of these great vehicles,
here in Brazil the mid size trucks have taken the major part of the market share from full size trucks in just ten years, from mid 90’s to mid 2000’s, so both GM and Ford pulled the plug on them after more than 50 years of production.
The small trucks based on FWD cars still sell very well, in the Brazilian market they were introduced around 1980.
Thanks for the article. I saw the announcement last Friday that Ford Australia had made its last Ute. In many ways a sad day. What has contributed to their demise has been the tax break applicable to all Utes, which favours the 4 door 4 wheel drive trucks like the Ranger and Colorado because it allows a family to get a useful 4 door car, with 4 wheel drive and the bonus of a load area, at a 100% write-off without the need to maintain any log books. For this reason, the vast majority of 4 door Utes you see are immaculate and gave never carried a load or been off road. My dentist has one! Heck, I bought one for the office and can’t keep my brother -who is also my business partner – out of it, even though he has an M4!
Great post. My first exposure to Aussie Utes was through (what else?) Mad Max. I thought they were just heavily customized “regular” cars.
What else are you going to use to collect your crashed motorbike with after all? (from IMCDB)
I ran across these utes for the first time doing research for an article on sedan deliveries. There were a few in the states as well but which brands I cannot remember. Ford/Chev/Dodge/ and Hudson seem to have done it iirc. I owned a 67 El Camino and liked it a lot. Sorry they quit making them, both utes and el caminos.
Good article. I think a flat bed ute that could tow would do just fine by me. An SUV and some trailers are doing just fine right now.
Great article. I’ve always been curious about Australian utes, partly because I’ve always been an admirer of El Caminos and other car-based pickups here in the US, and have found the Australian models very compelling. I hadn’t realized that they were going out of production, and I’m really sorry to hear that. To me, they’ve very sensible vehicles – I hope they make a comeback some day.
Thanks for filling in many gaps in my knowledge about these models.
Nice one John.
THE ONE AUSTRALIAN UTE YOU FORGOT ABOUT WAS THE CHYSLER VALIANT ”WAYFARER” A GREAT VEHICLE WITH THE STANDARD MARVELOUS 225 CI SLANT 6 OR OPTIONAL 318 CI V8–I IMPORTED THE WHOLE VALIANT RANGE INTO ZAMBIA IN THE MID 1970’S–WE INCLUDED 1 TON SPRING PACKAGE-TRAILER HITCH–LIMITED SLIP REAR AXLE AND PRICED THEM 10% LESS THAN HOLDEN AND FORD–AND USED PACKARDS FAMOUS SLOGAN–”ASK THE PERSON WHO OWNS ONE”–ANYONE WANT TO BACK ME IN BUILDING STUDEBAKER REPLICA UTES??
The Australian branch of BMC (Austin, Morris, Wolseley etc) made a prototype ute version of the Austin Freeway. The Freeway was an Australian-market, six cylinder version of the Austin Cambridge to compete with the Holden. The engine was a ‘B series’ 1622cc + 2 cylinders. It differed from the Holden in having a full chassis.
The prototype ute was used as a factory hack for some years then disappeared. Many years later it was found in a creek bed in the bush.
Here are 2 pics of the ute and also a pic of the production sedan and wagon.
I recall seeing a few Vanguard and Austin A40 and A55 utes when I was a young bloke.Also a few Austin 1800 utes and an Armstrong-Siddeley.When I was a very small boy my father had a 1930 Chevrolet ute in his workyard and often I would sit in it and pretend to drive it,that was a good looking car.
A40s sold ok in NZ as wellside utes the later A55 and A60s sold well into the 70s as utes and panelvans here Vanguard utes were common though quite rare now, Saw a Freeway sedan at Horopito wreckers a couple of weeks ago always a rare model in NZ never knew they tried building a ute but not surprised BMC and later Leyland OZ did everything they could to produce an Australian best seller
Wow, they used the original high tail fins!
Thanks for posting that Brian! I assume you are familiar with the wide-body prototype Freeway that they added 5″ down the middle of? An interesting story.
Interesting that the width is so close to the bigger A99/A110 BMC Farinas.
Do you know where the photo of the Freeway ute was taken? I have a wagon but would like the ute if it’a avaliable
Photo 2 of the Austin Freeway ute
And the production cars
It’s always great to see more information about these iconic Australian vehicles. A fine article, John.
Here’s a shot from the web of the great looking 1952 Chevrolet referenced in the post. If only it had been built for the North American Market, but I’m sure GM management thought it would have cannibalized domestic pickup sales.
Great article, and a real shame that these unique vehicles are soon to be no more, along with the Australian auto industry as a whole.
The wonderful historical context in this article is even greater salt in the wounds. I just find it amazing how so many are quick to embrace global homoginization in the name of so called “progress” at the catastrophic expense of culture, we’re turning into a bunch of drones.
A pic of late father,s 1950 Buick,ex US Army Jeep and either FC or FE Holden ute with a canopy with windows,Remember on the rare occasion he could drag himself away from work and workshops,we four children would sit in the back of the ute as he towed the plywood caravan across from the Midlands of Tasmania to Orford on the East Coast to the beachside van area.
I’ve often wondered why utes were never marketed/sold/considered for the US market. I’m talking about BEFORE the El Camino/Ranchero.
Dean there was a Model A Deluxe pickup which had an integrated ‘ute’ body sold in the US and Australia, there was also a Russian Gaz A version.
I assume you mean the 1931 Deluxe Pickup, type 66A? Note that the pickup bed bolts to the cab so I would call that close but no cigar.
I can find pre ’34, Ford, Chev, Essex, International etc closed cab swept side utes in the news archives, I wish someone would research this story properly. ‘The Worker’ Brisbane 1927…
Would you care to post some examples? I am fully aware I don’t know everything, but I have looked into pre-1934 utes and have seen similar things, eg the 66A Pickup Deluxe or others that did not have full-height doors for example (1929 Chev & Pontiac “Express Delivery”). It is not my intention to blindly repeat the “standard” history.
Incidentally I found the illustration you used, which was simply a cartoon. Of course it may have been the real inspiration behind the somewhat hokey “official” Ford version, rather than an actual letter from a farmer’s wife.
Here’s a ’30 Essex Dover with what appears to be the exact same turret as the coupe and no frankenbolts visible.
A ’30 Chev Express Delivery appears to have a full door
Thanks for the replies ehdub, when I have some time I will try to find more info on them. I wonder if it was a case of the local coachbuilders doing these bodies, and supplying multiple manufacturers?
It is also interesting that Ford’s ‘story’ was not shot down when it came out. Alternatively I wonder if it was simply because the “first ute” thing only became prominent many years later?