A Brief History Of Australia's Car-Truck 'Ute' On Its 80th BirthdayS

Ford is decreeing today the 80th anniversary of the Australian-invented car-based roadgoing pickup known as the 'ute,' and in recognition we found a bit of backstory on the practical utility cars so beloved in the Land Down Under.

The story begins in a rural corner of Victoria, Australia way east of Melbourne called Gippsland. It was 1933 and a farming couple had that same problem many of us still deal with today; they needed a vehicle for hauling pigs and a vehicle for date night, but could only afford one.

Unlike us spoiled modern consumers, they couldn't just tweet @FordAustralia and hope for the best, the wife had to break out a pen or emu-quill-and-ink and write a letter to Ford. The company reports it read:

"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?"

Hubert French, the man in charge of Ford Motor Company Australia at the time, miraculously got that letter and thought Mrs. Victorian Farmer might have been on to something. He passed the letter on to Lewis Bandt, a 23-year-old comprising Ford Australia's entire design team at the time, who ran with it.

Vehicles with wood or metal utility trays were not unheard of in the mid 1930's, Ford Model Ts being a favorite. But unlike preceding trayback'ed trucks, Bandt based his "utility" on a steel-paneled coupe with real glass windows. Specifically, the Ford Model 40.

Instead of slapping on the steel-paneled cargo tray and calling it "sorted," Bandt blended the sides of the bed into the coupe body. This not only gave the vehicle a much more stately appearance, it also allowed for a little more cargo space behind the cabin.

The design was complete in October 1933 and after finalizing the design with a pair of prototypes, what was known as the "coupe-utility" went on sale January 23, 1934.

A Brief History Of Australia's Car-Truck 'Ute' On Its 80th BirthdayS

The finalized vehicle packed a V8 mated to a three-speed manual. Transverse leaf springs with shock absorbers at the front, heavy duty semi-elliptic rear springs and shock absorbers at the rear made up the suspension.

With a 9'4" wheelbase with a 5'5" tray and a payload capacity of 1200 pounds, Ford boasted fuel economy of 20 MPG in the vehicle's first print advertisements.

Ford claims 22,000 of these first-generation "utes" were sold between 1940 and 1954. That sounds more impressive when you remember Australia's national population was under nine million back then.

General Motor's Australian outfit Holden entered the market with a big splash in 1951, when they released a utility coupe of their own based on their FX car.

With a 210 HP OHV six-cylinder engine, Holden's ute could cruise at 65 MPH and return 30 MPG with a max payload of about 785 pounds.

A Brief History Of Australia's Car-Truck 'Ute' On Its 80th BirthdayS

In 1961, the Ford brought their coupe-utility game to the next level with a ute variant of the Falcon XK sedan.

A Brief History Of Australia's Car-Truck 'Ute' On Its 80th BirthdayS

A bitter brand war had begun; Holden and Ford Australia have been building competing utes to this day.

Hot-rodding hoons of Australia had been adding a third element of capability to the ute: performance. Both Ford and GM had sporty variants of their utes for some time, but the competition stepped up in 1990 when Holden trotted out a particularly rascally ute called the "Maloo," "thunder" in an Australian Aboriginal language, from it's newly-minted Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) line. The first Maloo was based on Holden's VG line and was powered by a 241 HP 5.0 V8.

In June 2006, a stock Holden HSV Maloo R8 ute set the world record for "fastest production utility/pickup truck" at 168 MPH.

A Brief History Of Australia's Car-Truck 'Ute' On Its 80th BirthdayS

Though Ford had also been active in Australian motorsport for decades, an offshot sprang up in 2003 called Ford Performance Vehicles (FPV) which brought yet more extreme utes to the scene. They're still taking inquires on their beefed-up 5.0 V8 version of Ford's GS.

Heartbreakingly, ute originator Lewis Bandt died at the helm of a restored first-generation Utility in a crash in 1987, but he is immortalized through the impact his designs have had on the vehicle market and Australia's motorized culture.

Both Ford and Holden do offer venerable variants of their utes for the 2014 model year, but what becomes of the unique bodystyle after the Australian auto industry coasts to a halt remains uncertain.

Images: Ford, Five Starr Photos/Flickr, Sicnag/Flickr, Thomasdotorg/Flickr