Utes have been beloved by Australians for generations. But many ute enthusiasts don’t know the fascinating history of the “coupe utility,” which began when Ford began importing cars to Australia in the early 1900s.
The Ford Motor Company began importing cars to Australia in 1904, with early production-line vehicles like the Model T. Due to their affordability, many of these early imports sold swiftly across the country. But at this point, Ford still wasn’t manufacturing cars in Australia. That wouldn’t happen until 1925 when the Ford Motor Company of Australia was established in Victoria.
This is when the ute begins to come to life.
One of the first employees of Ford Australia was Lew Bandt, a South Australian native who served on the company’s automotive design team. Bandt was instrumental in developing the earliest utes, which were produced by Ford starting in the early 1930s.
What sparked Bandt’s design creativity?
As the story goes, a farmer’s wife from Victoria had sent Ford a letter. She suggested the company should design a car that was suitable for trips to church on Sunday, but versatile enough to carry the pigs to market on Monday. This letter ultimately found its way to Bandt, who at the time was just 22 years old, and it helped spark an automotive revolution in Australia.
Early Ute Prototypes Produced by Ford
The earliest versions of the Ford’s utes were Frankenstein cars. They borrowed parts from existing models, and were like a mash-up of different elements from a range of vehicles. For example, the prototypes used the chassis from the Model T, as well as the front-end design of early Ford V8 passenger cars.
Essentially, single side panels were attached to the V8 front end, running from the cab to the back of the integrated tray. This held the two pieces together. Ford also reinforced the body and suspension of the ute to increase payload and improve handling.
Ultimately, Australians were introduced to the ute in 1934. Ford’s “coupe utility” hit the market with a starting price of about $400 and only about 350 units were released. But sales were brisk. Australians had fallen in love.
The ute took off across the country. Ford had developed the perfect car for rural drivers.
At this point in history, during the Great Depression, an automobile was a luxury, and banks would only lend farmers money for work vehicles. The ute fulfilled that requirement and that’s why it was popular among farmers and tradesmen. After Ford’s initial release, the ute would rise to popularity across Australia. Many other manufacturers began to develop utes, sparking Australia’s 80+ year love affair with the ute.
Utes Until the 1950s and Beyond
Ford dominated the ute market in Australia until the early 1950s. From 1940 to 1954, Ford sold more than 20,000 first-generation utes. But by 1950, Ford would face its first real threat. Holden – General Motor’s Australian brand – would enter the ute market, offering a faster, more luxurious ute with a greater maximum payload.
In 1951, Holden released their first ute, revolutionising the industry. Holden’s 1951 model was truly a performance vehicle. It was equipped with a 210-horsepower 6-cylinder engine with top speeds of about 70 miles per hour. The 1951 Holden ute also had a nearly 800-pound max payload.
Continued Innovation in the Ute Market
Over the years, Holden, Ford and host of other car manufacturers have continued to introduce innovations, like independent rear suspension to maximise and enhance performance. In 1990, for instance, Holden introduced the Maloo, a high-performance ute. The Maloo was equipped with a 241 horsepower 5.0 V8, and a later version of the Maloo even set the world record for fastest production utility coupe at 168 MPH.
Today, utes have continued to grow in popularity, and they still account for a large share of the Australian car market. Yet, many of the utes released today are larger in size, looking more like American pick-up trucks than their smaller, more compact predecessors. In 2016, for example, the Toyota HiLux was named the top selling ute in Australia.
Really, we’ve entered a new wave of the ute in Australia. Ford and Holden have experienced declining sales, and have eliminated some of their popular ute choices. Will this be the end of the ute as we know it? Probably not. No matter what they look like, there will always be buyers who need a car that’s comfortable enough for church on Sundays, but has enough space for carrying tools, gear, or, maybe even pigs.