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