THE FIRST UTE

A LADY A PIG AND A DE­SIGNER

Unique Cars - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS FORD UNIQUE CARS AR­CHIVES WORDS DR JOHN WRIGHT

On 18 March 1987, Louis (‘Lew’) Thor­net Bandt, died in a head-on crash with a truck near Ban­nock­burn in south-west­ern Vic­to­ria. He was at the wheel of a 1934 Ford util­ity, a ve­hi­cle of which he was es­pe­cially proud, not only be­cause he had re­stored it to as-new con­di­tion, but be­cause he had de­signed it him­self. Two con­tested sto­ries de­tail – one more thor­oughly than the other – the in­ven­tion of the all-steel coupe util­ity. There had never been any ar­gu­ment about this be­ing an Aus­tralian in­ven­tion, but the for­mer man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Gen­eral Mo­tors’-Holden (1934-1946), Sir Lau­rence (‘Larry’) John Hart­nett, claimed in his 1964 mem­oir Big Wheels and Lit­tle

Wheels to have come up with the idea him­self.

In the chap­ter of his book en­ti­tled ‘How the Ute Be­gan’, Hart­nett writes:

“The story of the birth of the coupe util­ity, or ‘ute’…is worth re­call­ing…

“On a drive to Syd­ney from Mel­bourne in Novem­ber 1934 I stayed overnight in Gunda­gai… The lo­cal GM-H dealer called on me at my ho­tel, and he was the un­hap­pi­est man in town that night…”

A would-be Chevro­let sedan buyer could not se­cure a loan from his bank to buy a pas­sen­ger car. This farmer had a mort­gage. The bank man­ager didn’t want to lend him money to buy a car to drive his wife around.

“Next morn­ing, with the dealer, I called on this bank man­ager… He showed us a doc­u­ment in­struct­ing all man­agers that pas­sen­ger cars were not to be pur­chased by farm­ers work­ing off fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments.

“I asked the man­ager, ‘Where do you draw the line be­tween a pas­sen­ger car and a com­mer­cial? ’

“He said, ‘Oh, it has to be a job that will help him with the farm. He must be able to cart things around in it.’

“As we left the bank I said to the dealer, ‘What about a

road­ster util­ity for this chap?’ That was a ve­hi­cle with a road­ster front end and a tray body at the back. ‘They’re a bit out of date’, the dealer said.

“He was right, of course. Those can­vas tops of the road­ster were old hat in 1935. I thought about the prob­lem as I drove up to Syd­ney. I felt there must be an an­swer to it, one that would sat­isf y the bank and the farmer. Then I hit it: make a coupe util­ity, with a snug all-metal cabin and a handy tray body at the back.”

And so, sug­gests Larry Hart­nett, the ute was born and put into pro­duc­tion by GM-H:

“So the farmer got his new car, and GM-H got a new model. We sent a sam­ple util­ity to Detroit and they were im­pressed.

“A year or so later I was in Gunda­gai again. Our dealer this time was the hap­pi­est man in town. He took me to the main street and pointed to all the new ve­hi­cles parked with their noses to the kerb. Most of them were coupe util­i­ties.”

It’s a tale that makes good read­ing, but it is miss­ing a key word: ‘Ford’. Per­haps the most re­mark­able thing is that in Novem­ber 1934 the boss of GM-H could fail to be aware that Ford Aus­tralia was al­ready sell­ing pre­cisely such a ve­hi­cle. This seems disin­gen­u­ous be­cause at least one pho­to­graph of a Ford ute was taken dur­ing the con­struc­tion of GM-H’s new Fish­er­mans Bend head­quar­ters in 1934!

Here is the true story. Some time in 1932 a farmer’s wife wrote to Hu­bert French, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Ford Aus­tralia. Now, while GM-H had its head of­fice in an in­dus­trial Mel­bourne sub­urb, Ford’s was in Gee­long sur­rounded by farm­ing coun­try. In­ter­est­ingly though, the let­ter came from Gipp­s­land. The woman was upset that when trav­el­ling in their open-sided farm truck her clothes got wet.

Ac­cord­ing to Bandt in an early 1980s in­ter­view: “Her let­ter said, ‘Why don’t you build peo­ple like us a ve­hi­cle to go to church in on a Sun­day, and which can carry our pigs to mar­ket on Mon­days?’”

French passed the let­ter to his sales man­ager Scott Inglis who passed it to the plant su­per­in­ten­dent Slim West­man who passed it to his 22-year-old de­signer Lew Bandt.

“Slim West­man came to me one day and said he wanted the front end of a V8 sedan com­bined with a util­ity tray,” said Bandt. “He said Aus­tralian farm­ers needed a ve­hi­cle with more pas­sen­ger pro­tec­tion and com­fort – a ve­hi­cle which would give them all the com­fort and econ­omy of a fam­ily sedan and still have the car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity of a light truck.

“The whole thing had started to ger­mi­nate. West­man quite rightly reck­oned that it we cut down a car and put a tray on the back, the whole thing would tear in half once there was weight in the back.

“I told him that I would de­sign it with a frame that came from the very back pil­lar, through to the cen­tral pil­lars, near the doors. I would ar­range for an­other pil­lar to fur­ther strengthen that weak point where the cabin and the tray joined. I said, ‘Boss, them pigs are go­ing to have a lux­ury ride around the city of Gee­long’.”

West­man in­structed his sole de­signer to build two pro­to­types. Inglis or­dered a batch of 500. West­man re­ceived a bud­get of £10,000 for tool­ing.

LEFT Lew Bandt with his team dis­cussing the ute’s in­te­rior space. BE­LOW They mightn’t have started it, but Holden built the fi­nal utes in Aus­tralia and this is where they started.

ABOVE Grandad! The orig­i­nal meets a dis­tant off-spring. ABOVE The true pi­o­neer – Ford’s 1934 4 coupe util­ity.LEFT Chevro­let added a coupe ute sib­ling to com­ple­ment t this 1934 soft-top ute. .

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