Sun, Dec 01, 2002 - Page 11 News List

Demand for Australia's `utes' on the rise

AUTOMOTIVE TRENDS Downunder, a utility vehicle is refered to as a `ute.' With a long history dating back to the 1930s, the hybrids are gaining renewed popularity

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The ``ute'' is to Australians what the pickup is to Americans. Utes are integral to everyday existence in the bush. Every year, Australians buy 70,000 utes and small pickups, about 9 percent of the vehicle market. The Reverend David Stands, of Kennewick, Washington, restored a 1935 Ford roadster-ute from Australia.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

The "ute" is to Australians what the pickup is to Americans: a blue-collar icon and a symbol of rugged independence. Utes are integral to everyday existence in the bush -- and, increasingly, to life in the city.

What's a ute? A utility vehicle, though the term has a different connotation down under. Simply put, it is a pickup based on a sedan -- a car with a cargo bed.

There have been utes in the US, too, though they were seldom called that. The Ford Ranchero made its debut as a 1957 model and Chevrolet introduced its El Camino for 1959. Both ceased production long ago.

The Australian ute's origins date to Ford "roadster utilities" built in Geelong, Victoria, in 1930; these were essentially the same Model A roadsters with pickup beds that were sold in the US. But within a few years, American and Australian trucks headed onto different paths.

In the US, pickups grew ever larger and more distinct from cars; in Australia, the ute remained closely tied to automobile designs.

The early roadster-utes were unpleasant in a land with so much dust, so in 1934, Ford started making a "coupe utility" with a metal top and wind-up windows -- reportedly at the request of a farmer's wife.

"She wrote to Ford and said she wanted a car they could drive to church on Sunday and take animals to market on Monday," said Phil Newell of Portland, Oregon, an Australian who imports old utes and muscle cars -- think "Mad Max" -- at www.AussieCarImports.com.

Today's utes look like station wagons with the tops cut off behind the front seats. Every year, Australians buy 70,000 utes and small pickups, about 9 percent of the vehicle market. The Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore, from General Motors, each have about a quarter of the market, with Japanese imports accounting for the other 50 percent.

Utes can be muscle cars, with the Holden SS facing off against the Ford XR8 Pursuit Ute. Both have V8s rated at about 300hp and five-speed manual transmissions. Ute collectors who want something more rare than a Ranchero or El Camino sometimes buy them in Australia and ship them across the Pacific. The Reverand David Stands, of Kennewick, Washington, got his when he served as minister for a Church of Christ congregation in Perth for three years in the early 1990s.

A lifelong hot-rodder, Stands, 44, grew up near Bakersfield, Califoernia, where "we could see the dragstrip from the roof of our house."

In Australia, he sought out one of the early roadster-utes.

He paid US$350 for a battered example, a 1935 Ford, he found sitting beside a house in Perth. He bought another 1935 model and shipped the two to the US together. Of the six survivors from that year, he owns two; the others are unrestored.

Stands spent six years restoring the ute from Perth. He sold the second one, which is now being restored to its original condition in Florida.

"I did all the sheet metal and paint," he said of the blue and red beauty.

"And the fenders were pretty far gone -- although the Australians would say, `Oy, mate, that's mint!'"

He didn't like the proportions, so he "chopped" the windshield two inches and squared off the cowl behind the seat, flattening the original arc. He also moved the back of the cab forward and shortened the box. He devised a rumble seat for his children that folds flush into the front of the bed when not in use.

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