The ‘ute’ is an all-Australian invention. The word that is, not the vehicle design. Testament to our infinite ability to shorten words (utility), our infuriating habit of copying things (US pick-ups) and an infantile obsession with bad DIY (the ute muster).
A ute is a two-door vehicle based on a passenger car, using the chassis front end and running gear with a modified rear, typically a cargo tray with a fold down tailgate. Front and rear are framed, and skinned, together in an integrated design, called a monococque. This is different to its US counterpart, the ‘pick-up’, where the cab and the cargo bed are separate. The latter is now the common version (in both senses).
The story goes that in 1932-33, an unnamed farmer’s wife wrote to Ford Australia asking “Can you build me (us) a vehicle that (we can use) to go to church in on a Sunday (without getting wet), and which (that my husband) can (take) carry our pigs to market on Monday?” This seems entirely apocryphal: the supposed letter has never appeared, there is no evidence in the Ford archives, but some version is repeated in every telling in every book and website. Perhaps it’s a Furphy.
A similar story, of a farmer desiring a car for church on Sunday and market on Monday, is told about the origins of the Citroen Deux Chevaux, a highly adaptable and flexible little car that converts to a ute, an idea that Citroen continued to explore into the 21st C with the Pluriel, but that’s design story for another time.Back to Geelong: The myth does materialise when Ford commissions its design department, consisting of just one man, the brilliant 22 year-old Lew Bandt, who together with an assistant draftsman A. Scott, responds with an highly original design for a two-door body with a tray at the rear, based on the American Ford Model A chassis. As a ‘Utility’ vehicle, it goes into production as the Model 40-A Light Delivery in 1934.
This first ute had two forms: a ‘roadster utility’, which we would now call a convertible or ‘soft top’ (862 produced) or a ‘coupe utility’ (528) - from the French coupé, meaning a single roof – that is a roof with only a front and rear pillar, but no middle or B pillar. When displayed in the US, Henry Ford nicknamed it the ‘Aussie kangaroo chaser’.
Whilst the design was similar to models made in the US in the early 1920s by Ford and Chevrolet, Lew Bandt’s design was an original Australian vehicle in its conception and execution. A model closer in design was the less well-known 1927 ‘ute’ produced in Sweden by the then new car maker Volvo - Latin for “I roll”, or the acronym ‘Very Odd Looking Vehicular Object’, which it wasn’t.
Fewer utes were being built by Ford in the late thirties, and after WW2, at the encouragement of the then Labor government led by Ben Chifley, General Motors Holden designed and built a fully ‘Australian car’, the 48-215 sedan, similar to the Chevrolet Aerosedan and 2nd generation Deluxe. Chevrolet had developed the design in the early 40s but rejected it as too small for the US market.Three years later Holden released a ‘Coupe Utility’ coded 51-2106, based on that sedan, but without any direct antecedent in the US. Holden later had the Belmont and Kingswood Utes, but there was no early Commodore Ute, rather returning in 1990 to one based on the VN Chassis. A VE Commodore Ute was designed in 2008, intended to be exported to the US as the Pontiac G8 ST, but production did not proceed owing to the GFC.
Holden continued to produce cars and Utes for 70 years until the Federal LNP forced their hand and they closed in 2017. The Ford Falcon Ute started in 1961 and lasted until Ford closed locally in 2016. In that time almost every other manufacturer has made a Ute, or more correctly a pick-up, culminating in Toyota’s Hi-Lux being the best-selling model in 2016 in Australia, the first time a commercial vehicle had held the title.
In 1977 Lew Bandt (sometimes misspelled Brandt) was looking for one of his now very rare Model 40-A Light Delivery coupe utilities. Unable to find one, he built a replica on a 1933 Ford sedan found on a farm in Victoria. In 1987 he was tragically killed in that vehicle, not far from the Geelong works where he had created an Aussie Icon.
The car was rebuilt by members of the Early Ford Club Victoria. In a bizarre, but totally Aussie way the replica has received more recognition than the genuine vehicle. It appeared on a 1997 Australia post 45 cent stamp, and there is a 1/ 43 scale model.
The ute has entered our folklore and is now part of the law of our folk. By which we mean its continued celebration as a bogan fetish object. Take the Deniliquin Ute Muster (please).
Held each year, thousands of utes arrive to do circle work and celebrate the way you can modify the design beyond all reason. These farmer utes have wicked aerials, mad colours, flags, absurdly-sized driving lights, offensive B+S stickers with dubious double entendres and outrageous bull bars, intended to kill any living thing in its road, which sadly in the city sometimes means pedestrians.
This last point is not without irony: advances in passenger vehicle design have addressed pedestrian safety using smooth and soft edges, crumple zones and plastic bumpers. A pedestrian has a far greater chance of survival when hit by a modern sedan, or its variation as a ute, than a SUV, pick-up, or heaven forbid the ‘roid-raged’ mini-trucks. The old idea of a car-based ute is still the safest.
When it comes to poor design no one can touch bogan DIY. The descent of these utes into Frankenstein territory sadly sullies the memory of Lewis Thornet Bandt, one of Australia’s great auto designers, with purity of form and function top of mind. His memory is fading, a man without honour in this design desert, unless you happen to be crossing the Lewis Bandt Bridge over the Moorabool River at the end of the Geelong Ring Road. Hopefully in a ute.
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