There are contesting claims as to the origin of the first ‘ute’ and some people reckon it’s an Aussie invention.
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 a 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.
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.
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 distinctly ‘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 retro-fitted 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.
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 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.