Monday, May 28, 2012

Australians love affair with the "Ute"!

Small trucks have been built or sedan cars modified for decades. When I was growing up in Sydney one of my friend's father had a 1909 Renault sedan, a canvas hooded vehicle with no windows and a through-dash clutchless gear change  that had been 'got at' by modifying the rear end to take a goods tray. As young lads were want to do, we often 'borrowed' it on a Friday or Saturday night - it had a crank start, no keyed ignition, so quietly push it down the street, crank her up and off we went - and we all piled into/onto it and went careering around the countryside - usually looking for dances where there would be girls present.

A restored 1909 Renault sedan of the type that was modified
as a goods vehicle that we used in the 1950's in Sydney

The very first 'purpose-built' utility truck was an Australian idea, designed and was built in Australia by the Ford Motor Company at its Geelong factory in Victoria. 

It rolled off the assembly line as a production vehicle in 1934.

The Ford Australia plant under construction in Geelong, 1926.

Ford Model T parked outside the Geelong Library
at its launch in Australia in 1925

The Ford Australia plant’s first products were Model Ts assembled from "complete knock-down (CKD) kits" provided by Ford of Canada. Nevertheless, it is best known in more recent times for having produced the Falcon, originally a U.S. model introduced in Australia in 1960, but adapted to Australian requirements and road conditions. Since the release of the XA model in 1972, Falcons have been fully Australian designed. It also produces a four-wheel-drive model called the Territory.

Ford Australia is the only Australian car manufacturer which designs and manufactures its own unique high-volume engines.

Ford Australia’s Geelong plant today

The story of the utility truck or coupé utility– the ute – began in 1932, when a letter was received by Ford Australia’s plant at Geelong, Victoria. It was written by a farmer’s wife who’d had enough of riding to church in the farm truck and arriving in saturated clothing;
‘Why don’t you build people like us a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday, and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays?’ her letter asked. 
Bank managers at the time would lend money to farmers to buy  a farm truck, but not a passenger car, hence the plea from one very fed up woman!

It arrived on the desk of managing director Hubert French who, instead of dictating a polite dismissal, passed the letter on to sales manager Scott Inglis.

He in turn showed it to plant superintendent Slim Westman, and the two of them took it to Ford Australia’s design department, which in 1932 consisted of one man .....… Lewis Thornet Bandt was 22 years old and had already been singled out for bigger things with Ford.

Interviewed shortly before his death in 1987, Bandt recalled the moment when Westman and Inglis came to him with the letter.

The brochure for the first utility
The whole thing had already started to germinate," said Bandt. "Westman quite rightly reckoned that if we cut down a car and put a tray on the back, the whole thing would tear in half once there was weight in the back.

"I told him I would design it with a frame that came from the very back pillar, through to the central pillars, near the doors. I would arrange for another pillar to further strengthen that weak point where the cabin and tray joined. I said to Westman `Boss, them pigs are going to have a luxury ride around the city of Geelong!’"

Bandt began by sketching the coupé utility on a 10 metre blackboard, depicting a front view as well as side and rear elevations. When they were seen by Westman some weeks later, he told Bandt to build two prototypes.

The vintage Ford ute that Bandt had rebuilt for himself (rego number UT 001) in which – quite ironically – he was killed in a collision with a sandtruck on March 18, 1987.

On a wheelbase of 112 inches, with a rear tray that was 5ft 5ins long and had a payload of 1200 pounds, they were the first vehicles to also offer a comfortable all-weather cabin.

On first sight of the prototypes, Scott Inglis authorised a startup production run of 500 vehicles. Westman asked for – and got - £10,000 for tooling, and the first coupé utilities rolled off the Geelong assembly line in 1934.

Not all Australian farmers could afford the asking price for a brand new Ford Utility and during the period of WWII cargo carrying trucks were in demand. Some showed that necessity is the mother of invention and constructed their own utility trucks by cutting down a sedan car and adding a tray back.

A typical farm sedan at an old country homestead, 1946
(Maxwell Spencer Dupain AC image)

A ‘cut-down sedan’, come utility truck  on North Terrace, Adelaide, 1947
(Maxwell Spencer Dupain AC image)

Born out of a woman’s frustration with car designs of the day, the enclosed cab utility was initially regarded as a luxury. But the `ute’ was quickly accepted as a necessity of bush life, and won recognition around the world as the ideal farmer’s or tradesman’s vehicle.

Owning a "Ute" or a "truck" is almost de rigeur for many Australian males, especially those who live in rural areas. The 4WD diesel varieties such as the Toyota Land Cruiser or the Nissen Patrol are most popular with the farming fraternity because of their 'raw power' and traction, however, the petrol engined Prado's, Colarado's and Rodeo's are more popular with 'townies'.

I have owned several "Utes", in fact, my first vehicle was a Phase 1 Standard Vanguard Utility which I bought second hand in 1959 - an ex-tradesman's cast-off vehicle - a column shift manual geared monster-weighted vehicle with a 4 cyclinder short stroke engine that had a habit of burning out clutches.

Phase I Standard Vanguard Utility of the type I owned in the late 1950's

Currently I own a GMH (General Motors Holden) Rodeo which is a vehicle I love and have extensively modified to suit our touring activities.

Rodeo LT when first purchased

I've added an electric tow brake mechanism, bullbar, driving lights, foglights. uplift rear suspension, heavy duty towbar, a tray liner, a rear canopy, a second 12volt battery system to run devices like a portable refrigerator/freezer, rear mounted camera with a 5" dash mounted video screen, GPS mapping system and a whole lot of other items.

While we no longer tow a caravan it was ideally set up to do so and it is still used to tow a small box trailer for gathering heavier loads for the garden or for building construction.

The Rodeo LT in its caravanning days.

It's a fair statement that Australians love their trucks! I live next to a High School and the number of Mum's who rock up to drop-off or pick-up their kids in the family truck is quite significant and only bested by those who come in 4WD Sports sedans and ATV's.


North of Wiarton & South of the Checkerboard said...

John, Rob & I once had a 1929 T-Bucket Ford truck, it was pretty cool.

JohnD said...

Yep, There were quite a few differrent types around that period - Bucket Trucks, Roadster Rumbles, Depot pickup trucks, Roadster pickups - mostly soft-tops and nearly always 'order models' but not 'production line models'.

They were all fun vehicles - I had a friend who had a Ford Roadster with Rumble seat. You could squeeze three in the front and two in the rumble (being thirteen I got the rumble seat) and it was beaut to cruise along the highway with the wind in your face. Rea bugger if it rained, tho' lol!

Mostly all the survivors were cut-up into Hot Rods, something I personally didn't like as I preferred them as they were intended.