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.