First ute is 80 years old

Last updated 08:03 08/03/2014
Ford is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its Australian invention of its ute, which led to the development of vehicles such as the F-Series and Ranger (background).

MILESTONE: Ford is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its Australian invention of its ute, which led to the development of vehicles such as the F-Series and Ranger (background).

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You'd think the Americans had invented the ute, after all the US's roads are teeming with them and for almost 40 years, the F-150, GM Sierra and Silverado and Dodge Ram have dominated the sales charts, with sedans not having had a look-in in years. But it was the Aussies who did it.

Ford has put things straight, with the Detroit-based company celebrating the 80th anniversary of the ute, as the forerunner of modern pickup trucks, acknowledging that we can all thank a Victoria farming family or more accurately the lady of the house for the idea in the first place.

Back in the early 30s a 23-year- old Ford Australia designer called Lewis (Lew) Bandt created the ute by listening to that farming family's request for a vehicle with more "utility". Hence the name, well in this part of the world, anyway.

Like all good ideas, the first integrated passenger-car based ute was born out of necessity, as with the first Model T.

In mid-1933 the then managing director of Ford Australia, Hubert French, received a letter from a farmer's wife in Gippsland, Victoria.

She wrote: "My husband and I can't afford a car and a truck but we need a car to go to church on Sunday and a truck to take the pigs to market on Monday. Can you help?" What the customer wanted was a vehicle with passenger car comfort that could also carry loads.

French passed the letter on to Bandt, who had joined the company only a few years previously as Ford's sole designer. Bandt had already shown some flair for design, a trait he was to repeat several times for Ford before he retired in 1975.

Ironically Lew Bandt was to die in 1987, after being involved in an accident driving a restored version of the very vehicle he helped make famous.

Bandt's take on the passenger car-based utility was considered revolutionary at the time. Until the early 1930s, many car manufacturers and vehicle body builders had constructed wooden or metal "utility" bodies on car chassis. Henry Ford's Model T was a particular favourite and Ford T buckboards and utility runabouts were to be found on farms and delivering goods in towns and cities throughout the world.

Ford's truck teams translate customer needs into innovations more than ever, including the all- new 2015 F-150 with high-strength, military-grade, aluminum alloys throughout the body.

Ford sold more than 1 million pickups globally in 2013 based on Ranger growth in Asia, F-Series' 37th straight year as America's best-selling truck and the "International Pick-Up Award 2013" in Europe.

Ford is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its Australian invention of the iconic ute, which led to the development of vehicles such as the F-Series and Ranger and propelled the company to years of truck leadership.

Not only was it an Australian invention, but the concept has been exported to the world, reinterpreted by other manufacturers and gained a legion of fans everywhere.

Where Bandt's design differed was that he developed his Ford utility as a coupe (two-passenger, steel-panelled, glass-windowed car) with an integrated steel- panelled load carrying section at the rear. What Bandt did was to blend the pickup sides into a coupe body, which provided a cleaner profile and increased the load area behind the cabin.

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Bandt sketched out his ute on a 10-metre blackboard, giving it a 545kg payload on a wheelbase of 2845mm.

He completed his original design in October, 1933, and quickly produced two prototypes for testing. By January 23, 1934, he had the final drawings and the new Ford ute went into production with Bandt christening his design a "coupe- utility". When the first utes came off the production line in 1934 two were sent to Canada. The car even caught the eye of Henry Ford.

Bandt's original full-scale blueprint drawings of the 1934 coupe utility are now archived in Australia and the rebuilt version of the Bandt coupe-utility is - appropriately - housed in a museum in the rural Victorian town of Chewton, near Melbourne.

In its day, the Ford coupe- utility boasted a V8 engine and three-speed manual gearbox while its suspension was by transverse leaf springs at the front and heavy duty semi-elliptic rear springs at the rear.

The cabin was the same as that of the four-door Model 40 Ford five-window coupe. But, instead of the rear luggage compartment or "dicky seat", Bandt added a wooden-framed utility section with steel outer panels welded to the coupe body to form a smooth- sided vehicle.

The result was quickly hailed as the "must have" vehicle for the rural communities and Ford says that 22,000 were sold between 1940 and 1954.

Lew Bandt's daughter, Dr Ros Bandt, said it was her father's stunning foresight to marry beautiful design and on-the- ground practicality and make it available to all Ford customers.

"I can't imagine what it must have been like in this pressured war-torn time in the 1930s to have the vision to create an affordable ute on the land to help with everyday tasks, both work and play and be able to connect over distance," Dr Bandt said.

"Dad created a brilliant stylish workhorse, which is the legacy he has left to all farmers and owners who enjoy and depend on their utes worldwide. In his words; he wanted the farmer's wife and the pigs to have a glorious ride."

Lewis Bandt's coupe utility was a first for Ford Australia and his ingenuity had a great impact on the then developing Australian car industry.

The original Bandt-designed Ford ute paved the way for what has morphed into some of the world's biggest selling vehicles - the pickup or utility. It also spawned the Falcon ute, which has been a firm favourite with customers since the first Falcon XK ute was launched in 1961.

Over the years, Ford's arch rivals in Australia - Holden and Chrysler - have built their own interpretations of the ute concept.

Right now, as Australian car manufacturing slowly comes to an end, the Holden Commodore- based ute actually outsells the Falcon version, while the Chrysler has long gone and used examples have become collectors' items.

It's argued that they have all become victims of that new force in the lifestyle and work ute business - the truck-based single and twin cab ute, usually from Japan, but now being joined in the genre's burgeoning marketplace by Chinese, Korean and German- sourced vehicles.

However, Ford is doing well in the area and its current Ranger design - developed and engineered in Australia and built in Thailand - often heads off the ubiquitous HiLux on New Zealand's monthly sales charts. It's also the first-ever commercial vehicle of any type to win New Zealand's most revered award, that of Fairfax's AMI Insurance NZ Autocar Car of the Year.

Ford sells more than a million trucks and utes globally, with the US' F-Series being not only the biggest-selling ute, but the biggest- selling vehicle of any type.

Overall, 33 million F-series trucks have been sold, which is twice as many as the next most numerous North American vehicle, the Model T at 16.5 million.

In South America a whole new genre of front-drive, hatchback- based utes has appeared, with Peugeot, Fiat, GM and VW products proving popular with smallholders and young lifestyles.

- The Press

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