The ute is synonymous with Australian auto culture and has been for decades, and although Australia is often credited with ‘inventing’ the ute, the pages of history aren’t quite so clear.
As the story goes, the first ute ever built was the result of a letter that was sent to Ford by a Gippsland farmer’s wife asking: “Can you build me a vehicle that we can use to go to church in on Sunday, without getting wet, and that my husband can use to take the pigs to market on Monday?”
Despite the way legend tells it, the origins of the ute are still a little unclear. So, who owns the title of the first ute ever built?
In response, an opportunistic young designer at the Ford plant in Geelong named Lew Bandt took the idea and ran with it, modifying a 1933 coupe by building a tray on the back and reinforcing the chassis so that could take a heavier load.
His design – the “coupe utility” – was approved and the ute went into production the very next year. The “coupe utility” had a wheel base of 112 inches and a five foot five inch tray that could carry 550kg. When this Australian beast was presented in the US by Henry Ford, he nicknamed it the “Kangaroo Chaser”.
But do the origins of the ute go back even further? Perhaps the earliest incarnation of a ute-like vehicle is a 1903 Oldsmobile, built 30 years prior to the Bandt’s “Kangaroo Chaser”.
The Oldsmobile, one of the first vehicles to ever go into mass-production, definitely had a distinctive ute look, with a small tub-like tray that sits behind the dual cab. However, the cab is uncovered, and it would be very difficult to any pigs in such a tiny tray. To classify the Oldsmobile as a ute might be a bit of a stretch.
Another major contender for the first ute ever built is the 1925 Ford Model T – built in the US by the Ford Motor Company of the USA. The Model T had a canvas-covered ute canopy, a wooden tray and heavy duty rear springs to take a bigger load. However, in 1924, Dodge had built a car that very much resembles a ute – one year before Ford had built theirs. Both examples clearly outdate the 1933 “coupe utility”:
However, if we are to define the ute as per the original criteria requested by the Australian farmer’s wife, then perhaps neither the 1924 Dodge or the 1925 Ford Model T properly fit this description. This brings us a 1928 with the Ford Model A which was produced in a ‘pickup’ style with a tray, a closed cab with a windscreen to keep rain and wind out, and rigid doors with glass windows. This was one of Ford’s most popular early models.
On the other side of the world, Volvo has also begun producing pickup style vehicles with open and closed bodies, similar to the Ford Model A – yet another contender for the first ute ever built.
Perhaps the crown for the original ute will never be unanimously agreed upon, but what is clear is that the need for versatile vehicles has been around since cars have been produced. In 1951, Holden produced their hugely popular own coupe utility, thus sparking the time-honoured rivalry between Ford and Holden, further solidifying the place of the ute in Australia’s cultural identity. The Gippsland farmer’s wife would never know what she had started.