The Death of Australian Utes?
The big question is this: When Ford and Holden stop local production in 2016/2017 will there be a replacement for that Aussie icon – the great Australian ute ? These car-based Commodore and Falcon utes have been part of our landscape since 1948 and 1961 respectively. What are the obvious replacements? The Commodore and Falcon sedans have options for Ford and Holden to choose from for the Australian market, but what about the utility? We are not talking here of the truck-based utes like the imported Ford Ranger or Holden Colorado. The urban-friendly Commodore and Falcon utes are part of our motoring fabric. Utes that go to work with tradies and in the past 20 years have become Australia’s equivalent to a sports car for those under 35. Neither Ford or Holden will talk about future product, post Australian production ceasing. MURRAY HUBBARD reports.
However, globally Ford and GM have no utes like the Falcon or Commodore. Ford told mister-cars this week after Ford becomes a full importer in 2016, the front line ute will be the hard-core Ford Ranger. With Australia being such a small market neither manufacturer is likely to build a one-off sedan-based ute for the Aussie market. Vale the Great Australian ute.
The hard-core Ford and Holden coupe-utility owners may well be left with no options when they go up upgrade. As it is, the Thai production of the truck-based one tonne dual cab utes has already diminished Commodore and Falcon ute sales. If GM and Ford do not step up to the plate with a ute replacement for Commodore and Falcon after they become full-importers, there is a gap in the market that another maker may well wish to investigate. That gap could well be filled by a Korean maker if the business case stacks up. The question then becomes would Aussie ute buyers line up to buy, for example, a Hyundai six-cylinder car-based coupe utility?
Sales show our high-performance coupe utes are losing the battle against the dual cab one tonners. To date this year Ford has sold 237 Falcon utes and Holden 436 Commodore utes. These sales figures are respectively down 23 per cent and 24 per cent down on 2013 at the same time. Against the might of the dual cabs and single cabs, the locally built products account for just 17 per cent of the 2X4 ute segment.
The history of Australia utes – originally known as coupe utilities – as they were based on passenger cars, dates in the late 1920s. However, Ford Australia claims the coupe utility design as its own with the company producing its first coupe ute in 1934 via the company’s young designer, Lewis Bandt. This is a moot point. Our research shows a coupe utility was developed by Holden for Buick in the late 1920s using an outside body builder. Further to that the book `Holden Heritage, 50th Anniversary 1948 -98’ shows a Chevrolet-based 1925 Standard Utility `built by Sydney body builders in 1925.” This car, pictured below, is clearly a soft-top utility, just a tin top away from being a coupe ute.
Coupe utilities differ from pickups in that the tray is connected to the cabin. A good example of this is the current Ford Falcon ute in which the tray is not connected to the cabin, while the Holden is a true coupe utility with the body in one piece. There is, of course, some irony in this in that Ford discarded the concept it claimed to have invented leaving rival Holden to produce the only coupe utility in Australia. Putting that argument aside, the car-based ute has always been an Australian favourite with tradies and these days has spread workhorse its wings and is essentially the only Australian-built sports car. Underling this is the fact that the Falcon and Commodore utes compete on the racetrack in their own series.
Utes are no longer utes, but sports utes with turbo-powered six cylinder engines or massive V8s shoe-horned under the bonnet. They are still a favoured workhorse for many and, dare we say it, have a more passionate following than either Ford Falcon sedan Holden Commodore sedan. This is despite the booming sales in the truck-based one tonner utes like Toyota HiLux, Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50, Holden Colorado, Volkswagen Amarok, Nissan Navara, Isuzu D-Max and Mitsubishi Triton. Although truck based, some of these big utes have greatly improved driveability in recent years, mainly the VW Amarok, Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50.
Other utes have come and gone. Probably the most remarkable imported coupe ute in recent times was Subaru’s Brumby, (1984-94) an unbreakable small farm runabout with all wheel drive, reasonable payload and powered by an 1800 cc flat four engine. While these Subarus are still around, and indeed highly sought after, they are not the answer to the gap that will need to be filled. Too small and too workhorse for the traditional Aussie 6-cylinder and V8 ute owner.
Back in the 1950s we had plenty of utes from which to select. The first Holden, the 48-215 that came out in 1948 featured a sedan, business sedan and a ute. Ford had the V8-powered Mainline ute until 1959, as well as the Ford Zephyr six cylinder ute before the Falcon was introduced in 1960 and by 1961 also had a ute in the Falcon stable. Vauxhall utes were common on Australian farms in the early 1950s and even Armstrong Siddeley also manufactured a ute for the Australian market, built in Sydney and called the Station Coupe.
Chrysler Valiant utes were plentiful in the 1960s starting with the AP6 launched in 1964 as the Wayfarer. The Poms also cashed in with an Austin 1800 coupe utility for Australia from 1978 to 81 with around 2000 units being produced here. During the 1950 there were also Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto utes along with various Chrysler utes, based on the Chrysler Royal.
As a kid I recall going to car races at Calder riding in the back of a Ford Prefect ute. So, there were plenty of coupe utes from which to select in the 1950s. Currently there are just two. Commodore and Falcon. And a guillotine with ominous clock ticking is poised above both with no replacement on the horizon. With sales of the local utes dropping, and no obvious current similar size Ford or GM six or V8 ute globally, it appears the Great Aussie Ute may be confined to history.