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THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE UTE
Did the the ute originate in Australia - sadly, no.
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 in 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 building a tray on the back and strengthening the chassis so that it would carry a load. The prototype was approved and the Ford Australia ute went into production in 1934.
But was this really the world's first ute? The earliest example 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 a tub body that is distinctly ‘ute’, but without a covering over the front seats.
Another contender for ‘first ute’ status is Ford Australia’s parent, Ford Motor Company of the USA, which claims that the first series production ute was the 1925 Ford Model T. This vehicle had a two-seat body, with canvas hood and a wooden, stake-side body, on top of heavier-rated rear springs.
However, Dodge may have beaten Ford to the punch, by one year. The Post-Dodge-Brothers company that also produced vehicle components for Ford, had a soft-top 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 rero-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.
Both the Dodge and Ford USA vehicles clearly pre-date Ford Australia's first coupe-utility.
The ‘first ute’ credit may depend on how a ‘ute’ is defined. If the criteria are those provided by the Gippsland farmer’s wife, then the scene shifts to 1927/28.
In 1928, the Ford Model A replaced the Model T and a pickup body was available. Initial release pickups had soft-top weather protection, but in August of that year a closed-cab model was introduced, with a safety glass windscreen and rigid doors that housed roll-up glass windows. Almost 100,000 Model A Pickups were produced in 1928/9.
But the first ute may not have been 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 bodies. However, only 27 closed-body pickups were produced before the company upscaled the OV4 to light truck size, moving it out of the ute category.
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 utes is slowing Japanese-brand ute development.
India and China are ramping up ute production and will threaten traditional makers in the next few years.
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