Ford's Ute Heritage
Depending on how far you stretch the definition, the first ute arrived when someone replaced the horse in a horse and cart combination with an engine. That honour is usually attributed to Nicholas Cugnot’s steam-powered artillery tractor in 1770. Ford Australia’s place in the evolution of the modern ute is more specific. It is now widely accepted that Ford Australia was the first to create the Coupe Utility in 1934.
It featured two distinct developments that separated it from earlier passenger vehicle-based utility vehicles. The new Coupe Utility combined the stylish five window coupe roofline (two door windows, two side windows and a rear window) of Ford’s rakish long-tailed coupe models with a unique one-piece side pressing that extended from the doors to the rear of the load area. Compared to what had come before it, the effect was dramatic.
Because the company had already offered a wide range of light utility trucks based on the earlier Model T, Model A and the first V8, Ford Australia more than any rival knew how much its new 1934 Coupe Utility differed from its predecessors and the substantial gamble on tooling it represented.
Ford Australia already had a standard utility car or roadster utility in its range which was little more than a long rectangular box behind the windscreen with a seat and rudimentary fabric roof separating the vehicle occupants from the load area.
Long before 1934, Ford utes in the US had fully enclosed steel cabins but were totally different. They were short steel boxes with doors that offered just enough room for driver and passenger. They were chopped-off vertically ahead of a narrow load box located between the rear wheel wells. The wheel wells were left exposed on the outside, hence the stepside description applied to US designs.
Styling of these first steel cabin pick-ups was not a priority when they consisted of a load box and a cabin box with Ford’s latest bonnet and grille attached. This early US style evolved into a pick-up range separate from the passenger cars and ultimately became the F100/F150 series.
The idea for the Australian Coupe Utility began with a 1933 letter penned by the wife of a farmer on his behalf from Gippsland in rural south-east Victoria to Ford Managing Director Hubert French. You could imagine the scene on a cold and wet Gippsland evening as she declared she was no longer going to share the trip to town with pig manure or the elements.
The letter was written in the quaint language of the times: “Would Ford build for me a vehicle: the front is the Coupe, to suit my need of taking the family to Church on Sunday; the back is to be the Roadster Utility box, so I can take the pigs to town on Monday?”
At first it was treated as a “luxury” request, but French handed the letter to Director of Manufacturing C.C. 'Slim' Weston who called on the services of one Lewis T.Bandt, then Ford's only designer. The 22-year-old had already designed a number of fabric roof utility vehicles for a South Australian body builder and was given the task of combining the style of a Ford coupe with an integrated utility tray.
Bandt’s watercolour concept sketches still in Ford’s possession depicted the new model in typical Aussie contexts such as creek crossings, clambering up banks and across ploughed fields. He showed an intuitive understanding of how hard it would have to work in a country where there were more tracks than roads and the four-wheel drive was another decade away.
Overhang was kept to a minimum, ground clearance high, and the cabin had to be big enough to stow gear out of the weather. Most importantly of all, it had to show some style, enough to do a family proud as they arrived at church on Sunday.
This is the key to the unique Aussie ute heritage. Light trucks in other markets provided workers no more than necessary to do their job and were little more than a work tool. In egalitarian early Australia, the economy rode on the sheep’s back and the rural sector was the main market. Australian farmers were tough and independent.
The Ford Coupe Utility had to earn its keep in tough isolated conditions but also reflect the owner’s self-employed status. This quickly grew to include tradespeople and other small business owners who wanted a vehicle to look smart after knock-off time.
Westman believed – quite rightly – that cutting down a passenger vehicle and putting a tray on the back would result in the vehicle tearing itself apart once there was a load on the back. Bandt hit on the idea of installing a frame that ran from the back pillar. An extra pillar was added to strengthen the weak point where cabin and tray joined. Upon completing his fabled masterpiece, Bandt told Westman: "Boss, them pigs are going to have a luxury ride".
Christened the 'coupe utility' the vehicle went into production in 1934 – the first major job in the expanded Geelong tool shop and body press shop.
Two were sent to Canada – with Bandt in tow – and shown to Henry Ford. So impressed with the design Ford revealed the radical new vehicle to his key men who asked what it was. "A kangaroo chaser," Ford replied. "And we're going to build them here." Ford US would in fact build many coupe utilities based on the Australian concept, the later models wearing the Ranchero badge.
The new concept was an instant hit for Ford Australia and each new Ford V8 model brought a new coupe utility. These early Ford V8 models were out of reach of most Australians and the fact that the latest coupe utility models always sold steadily provide an insight into the importance of the rural and building trade sector in the fledgling economy. They also found a market with the Australian military.
After World War II, the 1946-48 Ford coupe utilities featured a shortened version of the sleek 1946 coupe roofline incorporating the Coupe’s oval rear window.
Ford Australia carried over this style for unique coupe utility versions of the all-new 1949-51 Ford Custom V8 range. These were followed by similar Mainline ute versions of the 1952-54 side-valve Customlines. These became a force in Australian motor racing and challenged the notion that a racing car had to be based on a passenger car.
The rules eventually caught up with them but not before the Ford V8 ute had earned a worthy racing pedigree.
Ford Australia then introduced its most powerful ute, the 1955 Mainline, the first and only ute in Australia with an overhead valve V8 at the time. These big Mainlines were the last Australian Coupe Utilities based on US V8 models and ended in 1959.
Footnote: The Ford Discovery Centre in Geelong is custodian of a replica 1934 Ford ute belonging to the Bandt family. Because most original 1934 coupe utes were worked into the ground or hotrodded, Bandt after his 1976 retirement built this replica from a chopped down sedan. Tragically, Bandt was killed in it in 1987 on his way home from filming an ABC documentary on the first coupe utility. The Early Ford V8 Club Victoria rebuilt it with Ford Australia support as a memorial to Lewis Bandt. It was never intended to be a historical reference as its sedan roofline slopes in the opposite direction to that of the correct coupe roofline. At least one national motoring museum has procured a street-rodded example of the original coupe-utility and is restoring it back to its original 1934 specification.
The Six-Cylinder Utes
Ford Australia defined a smaller ute niche just prior to World War II with scaled down five window coupe utility versions of small British Fords including the Prefect which were quite different to basic British Ford utes with their stumpy cabins. These continued into the 1950s as a more frugal alternative to Ford’s big V8 utes.
In 1950, GM-H drove a new ute version of its first Holden through the middle of Ford’s coupe ute range. Ford Australia and Lewis Bandt quickly responded with a roomier prototype coupe utility version of the Mark I Zephyr.
The British were not keen on seeing their premium new Zephyr model cut up into a ute, understandable given the basic work focus of British utes, so Ford Australia had to wait until the Mark II Zephyr went into local production to introduce a five window Zephyr coupe utility. Some of the tooling was amortised over a unique Australian Zephyr wagon. Both models are now sought-after by British enthusiasts.
The Zephyr was the most refined and powerful six-cylinder coupe utility of its time with smart looks and extra cabin space over its Holden rival. It was also a hard worker after Bandt delivered a much deeper and stronger load bed than the rejected British Mark II Zephyr ute proposal based on a cut down Zephyr sedan.
When the Zephyr and Mainline utes were phased out, they were still performance leaders as the new Falcon ute went into local production in 1960 and replaced both of them. The US Falcon Ranchero ute featured the longer doors of the two door models which dictated a longer rear overhang to maintain length in the load bed. This was not suitable for rugged Australian conditions in 1960 so a clever local rationalising of tooling delivered a Falcon sedan, wagon, ute and panel van from the one platform.
By using the shorter front doors and the short rear overhang of the sedan, Bandt delivered a unique Aussie Falcon coupe utility with the same load area as the US version but with much better departure angles to traverse ridges and creek crossings. The Aussie Falcon ute outgunned its Holden rival with bigger engines and was the first in 1962 to offer a Deluxe version, reviving the workhorse and recreation focus of the 1934 Coupe Utility.
As if to highlight the close relationship between the Aussie ute and a coupe, Bandt built an experimental retractable roof coupe based on this new Deluxe version of the 1962 XL Falcon ute as it shared the same proportions as the sedan.
For the 1966-72 XR-XT-XW-XY series Falcon, Ford Australia again went it alone with another unique local coupe ute that shared the same platform as the sedan and wagon. The Australian version was quite different from its US equivalent as it retained the sedan’s Mustang-Bred proportions and looked quite sporty.
Ford upgraded the ute’s tail lights and rear styling to match the sedan at each model change from XR to XY. No wonder so many owners transformed their Falcon utes from this period into GT replicas. This series was also the first to feature a V8 Falcon ute including an unrivalled 351 option for the XY. The top level Falcon 500 utility offered appointments and finish that revitalised the original work and leisure vehicle focus.
For 1972, Ford Australia had to go it alone with its first all-Australian Falcon after the smaller Maverick compact replaced the US Falcon. The new XA-XB-XC Falcon coupe utility merged closer in appearance and size to the big new Ranchero utes based on the Fairlane-sized US Torino. The all-new XA Falcon ute would determine the footprint of today’s Falcon utes.
Ford Australia based its Falcon/Fairlane/LTD range on three wheelbases, standard, long and extended, for the first time in 1972. The Fairlane’s much longer wheelbase was now shared with the XA ute and wagon. This allowed Ford Australia to build a new ute around the Hardtop’s longer doors with a rakish coupe roofline without compromising load area and rear overhang. The direct link between coupe and utility had been revived. With optional 351 V8 and GS Rally pack, Ford Australia defined a new sports recreation niche that survived until the end of the XC.
The Survival Years
The 1979 XD replacement with its sharp European lines brought with it the longest running Coupe Utility in almost 70 years of the Ford ute. Although its drivetrain and front end styling were steadily upgraded, the XD’s original architecture survived for no less than two decades.
It was a reflection on the rightness of the original XD ute as much as the rocky market conditions encountered by the Aussie ute. After Holden abandoned the ute market in 1985, it was left to the XD ute and its descendants to stop the Aussie ute from becoming extinct.
The XD ute was effectively a crisper, more angular looking version of the long wheelbase XA ute. Because there was no XD Hardtop, Ford Australia had to return to the sedan’s shorter front doors but filled the gap with additional windows behind each door. This marked the return to the original five window coupe utility design for the first time since Geelong production of the Mainline and Zephyr utes ended.
Because of its passenger car origins, the Australian coupe utility always faced a much tougher and costlier set of ADR safety requirements than its imported light commercial rivals. As these rules became tougher, the cost advantages enjoyed by the imports grew and were further boosted by tariff concessions over passenger cars.
Ford Australia survived this onslaught by skipping costly model changes for the ute and toughed this period out with mild upgrades based on the XF facelift of the XD. A steady group of buyers who appreciated the Falcon ute’s passenger car comfort, powerful six cylinder engines and tough leaf spring rear suspension kept it alive.
Then the tables turned. An overheated yen wiped out the cost advantages and the 1990 arrival of the first Commodore ute from Holden helped switch the focus back to the local product. A new recreational market grew so fast that both models have since enjoyed record sales.
The 1993 XG Longreach facelift added Ford’s latest overhead cam sixes leading to the first XR6 ute in October 1993 featuring the signature four headlight XR front in the now familiar XF sheetmetal. It had the unintended side benefit of providing proud owners of early XF Falcon sedans with an appearance upgrade. The 1996 XH facelift then grafted the latest EF sedan front onto the XD cabin generating an even sportier-looking XR6 ute.
Other Longreach variations included a genuine one-tonne payload option, the first for a Falcon ute and still unrivalled for a passenger-car based utility. The amazing Outback was effectively a rally version for long distance work beyond the bitumen.
Late in 1997, the XHII revival of a V8-powered Falcon ute opened the door for the first XR8 ute powered by a unique 185 kW engine. For this version of the Windsor V8, Tickford combined the new Explorer cylinder heads with Cobra inlet manifolds from the EL GT program. It was a welcome return to the original concept of a coupe ute based on Ford’s premium V8 model.
The First All-New Ute in Two Decades
In 1999, Ford rewarded loyal Falcon ute buyers by engineering the first all-new ute range in two decades to meet their specific demands. The AU series represented the first major advance over the original 1934 concept yet in the areas that matter it is closer than ever.
To cater for the wide variation in user requirements, Ford Australia separated the cabin from the load area and built a substantial frame under the load area ready to support a huge range of specialised applications.
Those who argue that it is no longer a coupe utility have not taken into account the extended 5 window cabin which offers more cabin room than any previous model or rival. The AU ute with factory load bed has all the style of the original 1934 Coupe Utility with sleek integrated styling from front to rear even if there is a slight gap behind the cabin. It also separates the load area from the cabin better than ever which was the reason behind the original Coupe Utility in the first place.
Its tough leaf spring rear end is now unique for a passenger car-based utility so that the dual leisure and work combination has never been stronger especially with the unrivalled one-tonne option. Cabin refinement and appointments have never been better with room to stretch for driver and passenger. The biggest and most powerful sixes in any ute plus a tough double wishbone front end provide reserves of pulling power and handling that are more car-like than a ute.
Towing capacity is simply awesome and its rear drive, long wheelbase, substantial rear load rails and leaf spring rear end are an unrivalled combination.
This range also introduced the first local ute in history with a dedicated LPG option that does not compromise load area.
The sporty XR8 versions with their V8 Supercar looks and sharper handling have been an outstanding success and quickly contributed to the new range’s market leadership. In Australia, Ford dealers dominated the ute sales race, delivering a record 16,955 utes in 2001, easily surpassing the previous record of 13,698 set in 2000. This is a far cry from 1989 when Ford kept the ute market alive alone with around 8163 sales.
Pursuit limited edition versions of the XR8 especially the rare Pursuit 250 with its 5.6-litre engine in 2002 further extended the boundaries for a hard-working premium performance ute.