Few Australians really appreciate what was distinctive about the Aussie ute to support its claim as a local invention, let alone know whether it still applies.
Fact is, Australia did not invent the ute. The idea of placing the cabin of a passenger car ahead of a purpose-built load area is as old as the car itself.
What Australia did invent, though, was the notion of combining a more stylish, comfortable and roomier coupe roofline with an integrated well-side light truck body – the ‘coupe ute’.
Even if Australian wealth in the 1930s was on the land, banks wouldn’t finance two vehicles. The remoteness of Australian farms and industry dictated a light truck for carrying vital supplies well ahead of a car purchase.
Before the 1934 launch of Ford Australia’s first coupe utility based on its top of the range V8 passenger car, Ford was inundated with requests for a vehicle that combined both functions.
According to the late Lewis Bandt, the local Ford engineer credited with inventing the coupe utility, his colleagues from sales asked him to develop a “vehicle with more passenger protection and comfort – a vehicle which would give farmers all the comfort and economy of a family sedan and still have the carrying capacity of a light truck.”
It is now folklore that at least one farmer and his wife requested a vehicle that would take them to church on a Sunday and the pigs to market on a Monday. There was a handwritten letter to that effect still in Ford archives in the early 1990s.
The outcome (below) was groundbreaking, although it was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Even Henry Ford is on record as suggesting that the boys back in the US needed to take a look at Bandt’s “Aussie Kangaroo Catcher”.
Like everything that has come out of the Australian motor industry, the design of the coupe ute was dictated by Australian isolation and tiny economies of scale that couldn’t pay for another round of fancy expensive tooling.
Ford Australia was already building a classy, wooden-framed, 5-window coupe in the latter part of 1933 that was quite different to the US model.
Bandt’s idea was to start with this local coupe roofline, running boards and similar rear guards, then extend the body frame horizontally instead of curving it downwards for the boot and dicky-seat section.
The extended frame could then support a one-piece pressing that spanned from the doors to the end of the load bed, continuing the fine body line that extended to the grille. The spare wheel/tyre was moved to the passenger’s side front guard.
The result, effective from the similar 1934 upgrade, was an integrated body style instantly identifiable as a version of Ford’s new coupe; a model established in 1933 as a “V-8 Luxury” model with “the thrill and luxury of V8 performance”.
The Coupe Ute legacy
The correct shared-coupe roofline remained critical to all Australian coupe utilities before and during World War II. After an all-steel version followed in 1935, Ford applied the same idea to its small British Fords in 1939, with a similar but scaled-down version of the same coupe roofline.
These Australian coupe utes maintained cabins and chrome-laden front styling similar to Ford’s small local coupes. They were very different to the spartan British Ford 10 commercials, with their tight square-backed cabins and painted grilles.
Although local Ford V8 coupe utes after war’s end in 1945 no longer used rooflines identical to current coupes, the styling relationship was still very strong as the rear windows were shared and the side windows were slightly reduced.
Coupe utilities featuring the same 5-window coupe style based on key Ford US Custom/Customline models from 1948-56 remained on sale in Australia until 1959.
These origins explain why so many cars that were ‘top shelf’ models in other markets were made into coupe utilities in Australia including the Ford Zephyr, Vauxhall Velox, various Dodges, Plymouths and De Sotos, Chevrolets (both sedan and truck ranges), Chryslers and others.
Stories abound of overseas executives horrified that their Australian arms wanted to convert their company’s best sedans into a light truck, yet in Australia it was the highest of honours. Their well-heeled buyers wanted and needed both in one vehicle.
It’s why until recently local coupe utilities had the highest resale in the business and why older examples are fetching two to three times their passenger car equivalent. It’s not just about rarity but what these vehicles meant to their owners in times gone by.
It didn’t matter that these coupe utilities didn’t have a back seat. It was common across Australia until the late 1960s to cram as many passengers across the front as possible and those who wouldn’t fit, were given a blanket and cushion to ride in the back!
Because the Australian market after 1945 could no longer support the tooling for the latest all steel two-door coupes, all local coupe utes soon featured the shorter front doors of the four-door sedan models, blurring the relationship between coupe and ute.
The definition of a coupe utility then became further blurred, with the first Holden utility, the 50/2106 released in 1951. Although beautifully styled with a rounded two-door cabin that replicated the sedan’s roofline and fancy rear guards pressed into the one-piece sides, it no longer featured the Ford coupe’s extra side glass and was not much roomier than similar work vehicles from the US and UK.
By 1960, Holden was no longer matching the roofline nor the rear styling of its coupe utes to its latest sedans. By 1964, Ford had let the rear styling of its Falcon coupe utility fall behind for the first time but caught up again in 1966. Chrysler was the first to link the rear styling of its local Valiant ute to the wagon in 1965, a precedent that Holden followed in 1968 and Ford in 1972.
From that point, all local utes were based on cut-down wagon platforms, usually with a plate bolted over the rear passenger footwell to create a flat load floor. All traces of their coupe origins had disappeared, except for a single noteworthy exception.
The only recent Australian ute closely related to a coupe was the 1972-79 XA-XB-XC Falcon ute (above) that shared the rakish, frameless extended doors of the Falcon Hardtop with a fast roofline to match. Later Falcon models would return to the extra side window of the original coupe utility, but only to hide a return to shorter four-door sedan front doors.
Throughout this later period, Australian legislators defined tougher safety rules for these passenger car-based local utes that didn’t apply to imported pick-ups. Because buyers didn’t know better and chose on price, the local coupe utility almost died in the late 1980s until parity in safety and emissions laws was restored.
Since then, Ford (with the introduction of its AU Falcon ute) has separated the load bed from the cabin but retained an extended coupe-like cabin, while Holden has styled its roofline into a sleek integrated styleside load bed.
So has the Australian coupe utility lost its vital point of distinction? Is it enough to have a refined passenger car cabin as per the original brief still present in the latest Falcon? Or does it need to have the load bed integrated with the cabin like the Commodore?
Have better coupe utilities been produced overseas? Have the latest pick-ups blurred the line between passenger car comfort and load carrying so much that it doesn’t matter anymore?
Lew Bandt’s ‘distorted’ Coupe Ute legacy
Unfortunately, the first coupe ute’s direct link to the 1933-34 Ford coupe is in danger of being lost forever following an unintended distortion initiated by Lewis Bandt himself.
In his retirement, Bandt had tried unsuccessfully to acquire a genuine 1934 ute of his design. So, ever resourceful, he built one himself from a cut-down 1934 sedan (below) which left it with a very different roofline to the 1934 coupe and his original ’34 coupe utility.
Tragically, Bandt was killed in this replica on his way home from filming an ABC TV documentary about his invention. To honour his legacy, local Ford V8 fans rebuilt the smashed-up replica for the Bandt family, which stayed faithful to its historically incorrect cut-down sedan roofline.
However, because it is housed in a Ford collection, more and more parties assume that it is a correct reference to the original. It has even appeared on an Australian stamp with this incorrect roofline. TJ
Holden’s last Kingswood passenger car-based Holden ute and panel van commercials and the legendary One Tonner cab-chassis spin-off laid the blueprint for the modern Australian light commercial vehicle.
These HQ-based models, first released in 1971, were forced to incorporate passenger car safety and engine emission advances not applicable to imported light commercials under anomalies in Australian Design Rules introduced at around the same time.
Drivers and passengers were therefore never treated as second-rate citizens with roomy crash-tested cabins, proper flow-through ventilation, exceptional vision, low wind and mechanical noise levels and a stable, low centre of gravity stance on the road.
For the long distance tradesman, outback farm worker, plant operator or miner, there was no better light commercial to haul fuel, stock, tools and feed.
Power-to-weight ratio and the passenger car handling were also exceptional for the times, especially for a one ton cab-chassis. The wide choice of beefy, long-lived and simple engines mated to an equally effective range of transmissions – including three and four-speed manuals and an automatic option – were a bonus.
Although diesel was never considered seriously for this type of vehicle in Australia in the 1970s, LPG was emerging as a desirable low cost alternative fuel for fleet and long distance use.
Unlike their four cylinder rivals, these six cylinder Holden commercials had enough in reserve to cover any performance loss on LPG. Engine upgrades to cover any performance loss or durability issues on LPG were cheap and widely available.
The One-Tonner quickly also became a popular choice for fast, long distance couriers who progressively upgraded their vehicles as parts wore out. Add an additional lazy rear axle, extra LPG tanks, warmed-over V8 with Bathurst racing internals and a few creature comforts inside and it would be hard to find a better rig for rushed overnight deliveries to remote outposts.
The One-Tonner was also unusual as it was not a variation of the unibody styleside utility, which had its load area integrated with the cabin. The One-Tonner featured its own separate cab design and a longer wheelbase that positioned much of its extra payload ahead of the rear axle.
The only downside to this was the limitations of its extended tail-shaft which left Holden’s most powerful V8 engines off the options list.
The last of these Holden commercials also had attitude. Those that survived a thrashing and overwork were often customised with Statesman or late-model front clips, ahead of load beds and trays that were truly works of art.
Few remain in original specification today, as the challenge was to keep an old Holden commercial on the road at minimal cost. Despite the fact that these commercials ran for over 14 years with few cosmetic changes, there were many changes under the skin.
Holden One Tonner Model History
Beefy perimeter front sub-frame of the HQ passenger car was extended to a full perimeter chassis for the new HQ ute and panel van. The soft coil rear springs of the sedan and wagon were swapped for strong leaf springs. The long 114-inch/2895mm wheelbase and tail lights were shared with the wagon and prestige Statesman model.
The HQ cab-chassis, more commonly known as the One Tonner, was built on an even longer 120-inch/3058mm wheelbase. A first for a local commercial since World War II, the One Tonner had a separate cabin backed by hefty chassis rails that could underpin flat or drop-side trays, Luton peak vans, campers, ambulances, fifth wheel towing and specialist applications such as fire-fighting and race course attendant vehicles.
The One Tonner’s truck-style painted steel front bumper and painted block-pattern pressed steel grille, round indicators placed next to the headlights out of harm’s way and painted wheels and hubcaps were different from the other Holden commercials and said ‘Tough’ with a capital ‘T’.
The One Tonner wheel rims were also seam-welded for extra strength compared to the standard wheel’s four-point welds. The painted truck-style bumper, the pressed steel grille and the wheels, hubcaps and badges, were all painted White or Seagull Grey depending on the body colour.
HQ One Tonners were painted in enamel, not the usual Holden acrylic lacquer of other HQ models. Before today’s laser-cut adhesive decals, this allowed for the enamel sign-writing of the period. By HJ, though, One Tonner paint finish was the same as the rest of the range.
It also featured a new Salisbury heavy duty differential across the range, while the banjo type was standard on other commercials. The super-low 4.44:1 rear axle was usually only seen in six-cylinder manual versions, supposedly to allow a reasonable service life for the clutch (on hill-starts especially) if a one-tonne payload was carried often.
Initially, the full range of sixes (173 cid/2.8 litre & 202 cid/3.3 litre) and both versions of the Aussie V8 (253 cid/4.2 litre & 308 cid/5.0 litre) were offered, except for the One Tonner which was limited to the 173cid/2.8 litre six. The 202cid/3.3 litre option was added to the One Tonner in November 1972.
Transmissions included the M15 all synchro three-speed column-shift manual, M22 wide ratio four-speed floor-shift manual for the sixes and the M40 Trimatic three-speed auto. The V8 engines came with an M20 or M21 four-speed manual.
The original super low ratio 4.44:1 diff in the One Tonner rarely stayed in the vehicle beyond the trip home from the showroom, before most owners changed it to something taller.
Not long after release, head restraints were required under Australian Design Rules.
New speedometer with dual mph & km/h readings and odometer in miles was fitted in the lead-up to Australia’s switch to the Metric system. Amber front indicators were now required by law, forcing the parking lights to be re-located inside the headlights. Front indicator lenses were changed from clear to amber on all models. The 253cid/4.2 litre V8 option was offered in the One Tonner. Trim materials, dash finish and colours were revised.
Full metric km/h speedo and km odometer. Incoming HJ model full-foam seats were retro-fitted to the last of the HQ models in 1974 by some dealers.
HJ facelift. Styleside utes and vans featured new square-edged grille of fine horizontal grille bars, but the One Tonner retained its HQ-style pressed steel grille front.
Dash changes, including a strip-type speedo and improved ventilation, plus new full-foam seats applied across the board. The One Tonner ‘Style Package’ did not feature a “sedan-type grille” as listed in the brochure but had the One Tonner grille, bumper and badges chrome-plated with normal Belmont/Kingswood hubcaps and wheels painted accordingly.
Vapour trap fuel canisters were introduced officially, but many cars built earlier than this date had them including late production HQs.
Purpose-built HJ ambulance package for the One Tonner and van featured latest HJ sheet metal, with the dual headlight grille from the HJ Premier. Hence the 308cid/5.0 litre V8 was finally made available as an option for the One Tonner. Most One Tonner 308cid examples were mated to tough TH400 autos, making them far more durable workhorses than the manual transmission and Tri-Matic versions.
Lower steering ratio to require less steering effort in examples not fitted with power steering.
HX facelift. ADR27a emission-controlled engines lost power and fuel economy. New square speedo and multi-function column stalk inside. HX Kingswood ute and van gained a new grille with vertical bars, while the base models looked much the same as the HJ series.
Apart from detail paint changes, One Tonner appearance was unchanged while cabin interior was upgraded to HX specifications.
The One Tonner’s ‘Style Package’ option was continued. Entry level 173 cid/2.8 litre six was deleted as it was no longer considered strong enough for the job, leaving the 202 cid/3.3 litre six with power front disc brakes as the entry level package. Clutch operation went from rod to cable.
Major HZ facelift with RTS (Radial Tuned Suspension) and improved equipment levels. RTS included new front suspension upper control arms and location, new positive castor and negative camber front end geometry, uprated springs, bushes and shock absorbers all round and an anti-roll bar at the rear for all models. As a result, the Holden commercial range was transformed. Kingswood models were also given quartz-halogen headlights.
The venerable One Tonner still retained the early HQ-style front but with the latest HZ internal cabin changes including yellow instrument needles, centre armrest, RTS improvements and a larger Salisbury rear axle.
The previous HJ-HX Style Package changed to the HZ ‘Appearance Package’ which added a chrome bumper and chrome HQ sedan-style hubcaps to the standard silver-painted One Tonner grille. Many owners, though, completed the package by chrome-plating the grille as well.
All of these upgrades combined to make the HZ model the best and simplest all-round work horse in local One Tonner history.
New pull fork clutch mechanism fitted to all HZ and UC manual transmissions to bring them into line with the new VB Commodore.
Remnants of the stillborn WB passenger car range (killed off by the Commodore) appeared as a Statesman prestige model and a commercial range trimmed back to four models; the basic Holden ute and panel van, an optioned-up Kingswood ute and of course the One Tonner.
The WB model marked the first styling change for the One Tonner since it appeared in 1971. The bucket seat option was the latest design standardised across Statesman and Commodore.
New blue XT5 engines shared with the VC Commodore restored power and economy to both the six and V8 models. Cylinder heads, camshafts, carburettors, inlet and exhaust manifolds, electronic ignition and lower compression ratios were amongst the many changes.
The heavy duty Salisbury rear axle from the HZ One Tonner carried over into all WB One Tonners and was added to the V8-optioned WB utes and vans, although the One Tonner still had a larger rear universal joint and yoke. The banjo-type rear axle on the six cylinder utes and vans was replaced by a lighter Salisbury type.
For the first WB series, the base Holden commercials and One Tonner shared the same circular headlights in a full-width painted slatted grille with matching painted bumpers (below). The first WB Kingswood ute had rectangular halogen headlights and a separate grille with a fine block pattern insert in black and chrome bumpers (above).
All WB commercial levels including One Tonner shared the upmarket rectangular headlight WB Kingswood front.
WB transmissions included the M15 three-speed manual, M20 four-speed manual (with high-ratio first gear), M22 four-speed manual (with low-ratio first gear) and an M40 Trimatic.
The TH350 auto, available on the 308 cid/5.0 litre where specified on earlier models, was replaced by the Trimatic by November 1981.
Although the 308cid/5.0 litre V8 was not ‘officially’ available at the end, there were indeed factory examples built for certain buyers ‘in the know’.
Holden listed four GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) figures for the utes. The 3.3 litre six initially came with a 2155kg GVM while the 4.2 litre V8 had a heavier 2200kg rating. The 3.3 dropped back to 1800kg and the V8 back to 1900kg with a 500kg recreational payload rating. The Holden One Tonner had a 2600kg GVM for the 3.3 and 2660kg GVM with the V8.
All WB commercials were phased-out in 1985 before Australia’s 1986 switch to unleaded petrol and new emissions requirements.
*Special Sandman utes and vans to be covered under a separate feature at Truck Jungle.
Some Helpful Hints
- Holden’s most rugged commercials ever had few faults apart from typical Holden niggles. Because the rugged chassis encouraged overloading, bends and cracks in the section behind the cabin are not uncommon. Cracks near the rear spring hangers and around the front engine mounts and rear of the lower control arms are the result of merciless hard work and metal fatigue, not any design shortcomings.
- Early ‘Red’ six and V8 engines (pre-WB) are easy to maintain and recondition. However, later model pollution gear was a nightmare and will almost certainly be missing. Later ‘Blue’ engines – especially the V8 – restored mid-life power losses, but the composite fibre timing gear and plastic distributor drive gear in the Blue sixes did not belong in such rugged commercials. Most radiators needed to be upgraded and a sub-standard non-genuine water pump will create major problems.
- The V8 is known to chop out its camshaft and lifters, so listen for heavy rattling from the centre of the engine below the carburettor at idle.
- Poor quality aftermarket engine and electrical parts can give more trouble than the worn parts they replace, although new partnerships between Holden and early parts suppliers such as Rare Spares are addressing this issue.
- LPG conversions have been around long enough for worn valve seats in the head to be an issue. Check the LPG tank and installation date as the major statutory 10-year refit of the tank may be imminent.
- The Trimatic auto is so crude that an abrupt, decisive change is an indicator of good health and strong hydraulic pressure. They are amazingly cheap to repair when they finally die or get lazy.
- The manual gearboxes simply wear out, with noisy 1st, 2nd and 3rd gear clusters and bearings the major indicators. Or the sloppy linkages can be so worn that the shifter jumps out of the gate then leaves you stuck without a gear! A first-to-second change can lock-up a worn column shift but it is an easy repair. Even the sturdiest Salisbury diffs are failing from sheer hard work and they do cost serious money to repair.
- Every brake, steering and suspension part does it tough on these commercials, so assume it is worn out until proven otherwise. Replacing the early front drums with discs is a must for even and trustworthy braking. Cabins are usually worn out or sun damaged beyond repair. Even if nothing’s fancy inside, finding the correct colour and trim pattern for each worn out item can be a time-consuming and often futile process.
HQ-WB Holden One Tonner: Global View
Because the Australian market was critical to Japanese light commercial exporters in 1971, the full-chassis HQ Holden HQ ute/van commercials and One Tonner cab-chassis had a profound impact on global models. The boosts in power, refinement levels and styling were quite dramatic from this point.
It also marked the beginning of the end for the long-standing US commercials adapted to local production from Chrysler and International.
Only Ford survived the onslaught by supplementing its equally popular local Falcon utes and vans with a unique locally-built version of the imported F-series cab-chassis and styleside pick-up from the US, using local engines, trim and paint that could rival the Holden One Tonner’s blend of appointments and load carrying ability. In the process, it built a local cult following for the F-series that now rivals any Holden.
The achievement of the HQ series, especially the One Tonner, is that it educated the local market to expect the rugged work capabilities of a light truck with the performance, refinement and safety levels of a passenger car.
This precedent has ensured that a market still exists for a similar local Falcon version 40 years later. The critical difference is that both use a rugged passenger car as a starting point.
However, the demand in mature and emerging markets for a high riding light commercial truck that achieves the same blend of refinement and ruggedness has grown to such an extent that the development path is working in the reverse direction.
New generations of light trucks are now being engineered for global markets with such high levels of performance, safety and refinement that engineering a similar vehicle from a strong passenger car base is no longer a guarantee of creating a benchmark as significant as Holden’s HQ series was in 1971. TJ
If you enjoyed the challenge of driving the Jungle Truck in our first online video game, it’s time to shift up a gear for Jungle Truck II.
This time you’re at the wheel of a rugged Kamaz short wheelbase rigid 4×4, similar to the ones you normally see competing in the Truck division of the world famous Dakar Rally each year. Kamaz is not only one of Russia’s most prolific truck manufacturers, but its trucks have also won multiple Dakar titles.
Not that you’ll find blinding dust and vast Dakar-style deserts here. Instead there’s nine levels of truck-busting jungle terrain you must conquer against the clock, which becomes increasingly difficult with each level reached. The amount of mechanical damage is measured as you go and there’s a limited number of trucks available, so you can’t drive it like you stole it if you want to succeed.
This Kamaz truck is also more advanced than the first one. You still control it with the same four arrow keys on your keyboard (see How To) but this one has realistic suspension movement that makes it squat under power and nosedive under braking, just like a real truck. And the wheels spin if you give it too much throttle.
And you also have some neat set-up options this time, with a choice of three engine specs, three tyre tread patterns, three spring rates (even eight colour choices) to fine-tune the truck to your liking.
You’ll soon find that this tuning becomes compulsory from early on, as the standard set-up lacks the power and traction needed to progress beyond the easier early levels. So have fun and good luck! TJ