In the United States, between 1957 and 1988, we had two car-based pickup hybrids, the Chevrolet El Camino and the Ford Ranchero. (Arguably four, if you include the Dodge Rampage and the VW Caddy). They’re almost universally regarded as – as Rick Miller from Southern Culture on the Skids says – “the mullet of the muscle car world.” But in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, utes – the same car-based truck formula – caught on and have consistently found an audience since the 1930s.
According to FastLane.com.au, the first ute was developed in response to a letter from the wife of a farmer in Victoria, Australia, who was interested in a single vehicle that could not only bring their pigs to market on Saturday, but bring the family to church on Sunday. Louis Thornett Bandt, the first designer of Ford’s Australian subsidiary, designed a comfortable car with a well-designed cargo area in the back that was able to carry up to 1,200 pounds.
The first coupe utility rolled off the assembly line a year later in 1933. Henry Ford nicknamed the vehicles “Kangaroo Chasers” when they were displayed in Dearborn. By the 1950s, Ford, GM’s Holden and Dodge were all in the coupe utility game, with specialized Australian versions of American coupes, featuring cargo boxes grafted on the back.
As Asian manufacturers began to produce vehicles to send to Australia, they too started building utes. The most popular Asian ute through the 1980s was the Subaru Brumby, which we knew in the United States as the BRAT.
Before the Toyota Hilux became the ubiquitous small pickup around the world, Toyota sold a coupe utility version of the second- and third-generation Corona. Second and third generation Toyota Crowns were also sent to Australia as complete knock-down (CKD) kits, which were assembled as utes by Australian Motor Industries, a huge importer of AMC, Toyota, British Leyland and Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
Several European manufacturers also provided coupe utility vehicles for the Australian market. Vauxhall, the UK’s GM division, provided a ute variant of the Velox between 1951 and 1957, and Peugeot sold the 403 and the 504 as utes.
Today, Ford and Holden are the ute manufacturers of choice in Australia. The Ford Falcon ute is available in both coupe utility and cab chassis formats.
The Holden ute was the basis for a stillb0rne Pontiac G8 ute displayed in the US in 2008.
It brings up an interesting point about the Australian automotive industry. As the rest of the world knuckles under to globalization, Australia still resists it because it’s a huge market, and it’s so separate from the rest of the world. In fact, designs popular in Australia now often wield influence on the American market, due to the fact that Australian drivers are as interested in V-8-powered, rear drive vehicles as many Americans are. The upcoming Chevrolet SS – Chevrolet’s first rear-drive sedan since the Impala SS disappeared in 1996 – is nothing more than a rebadged Holden Commodore.