Austin 1800 Utility

The humble coupe utility, or Ute for short, was an Australian invention. Young Ford engineering draughtsman Lew Bandt was handed a copy of a letter sent to the Ford management, from a farmer’s wife asking why Ford couldn’t make a car that was suitable for her and her husband to drive to church on Sunday and then take the pigs to market on Monday; and told to see what he could come up with.

Bandt based his design on the then new, in 1933, V8 Coupe, replacing the sloping rear of the cabin and the fold-out “dickie seat” with a deep tray area suitable for small loads.

The Ute was an instant success story and Bandt went on to become Ford’s Manager of Body Engineering from 1966 to 1973.

In fact the ute quickly became a part of the Australian identity, especially in rural areas. The key to the ute’s success was that it was as comfortable as a sedan car, yet practical for the man on the land or the tradesman.

Many people even bought them as a second family car, or even the only family car, because of their practical nature, but with “proper” car comfort and handling.

When the Holden arrived in November 1948, billed as the “all Australian car” despite American origins, it was very popular, but most Aussies were still buying British-designed cars. In 1950, British cars accounted for 70% of all sales in Australia, helped in no small measure by the post-War influx of British migrants.

Holden released its first ute in 1951 and two years later brought out the much trumpeted FJ models – which lifted the company to the spot as largest car producer in the country.

Against the Holden ute, which was so popular among farmers it was omnipresent in rural areas, Austin had the A40 utility and A55 utility – the former being considered too small for the farmer and both being built in small numbers under license by outside factories.

In the 1950s BMC also released the Morris Minor Utility, but its size relegated it to the small business owner as a handy delivery unit or for private use.

More suited to the man on the land, who accounted for a third of total ute sales, was the Morris Oxford Utility, built between 1950 and 1954. However, against the six-cylinder Holden, the four-cylinder Oxford was never a big seller.

By 1955, the only ute on offer from BMC was the Minor, which lasted beyond sedan production into 1962.

The 1960s was a time of major change for BMC, introducing Alec Issigonis’ trio of mechanically advanced, front-wheel-drive cars: Mini (ADO15), 1100 (ADO16) and 1800 (ADO17).

The 1800 was the last of these to be released, on 20 November 1965, yet even before the first cars were leaving the factory, thoughts were being given to producing a utility version.

The idea apparently came from the very head of the company, Managing Director Bill Abbott. Test Engineer Barry Anderson and Assistant Body Engineer Ian Lovegrove were allocated the task of investigating the feasibility of a ute version of the 1800. On 16 August 1965, they submitted their Design Feasibility Study for a Utility Version of ADO17.

Figures in the study, from the Commonwealth Statistician, showed that the light pick-up market (which included the likes of Land Rover and International) had grown significantly in the past three years, and the coupe utility part of that market (well over 70%) was dominated by Holden and Ford, sharing 73.5% in 1963 and 72.5% in 1964.

The figures showed that although Holden, Ford and Land Rover sales had increased slightly over the three years from 1962, sales of International had dropped to almost half.

What should have already been ringing alarm bells for all local manufacturers at the time, was that sales of Japanese utes had increased from a mere 671 in 1962 (2.5% of the market), to 3,362 in 1963 (10.5%).

Anderson and Lovegrove (A&L) wrote: “The Japanese have increased their share of this market at everyone else’s expense, particularly International and the smaller volume sellers. The Japanese have broken into the market by selling actively with very generous dealer margins and pricing competitively. But perhaps more significant is the number of models available. They offer both coupe and table-top styles, two and four seaters and range of Tray sizes and payload ratings.”

Chrysler Australia wasn’t listed in the figures, because their only offering up to that time had been the short-lived, locally-developed Plymouth P25 and De Soto SP25 Diplomat variants of the Kingsway.

However, in March 1965, the AP6 Valiant range was released, which included the Wayfarer coupe utility. This model would put Chrysler in the number-three manufacturer’s spot, ahead of BMC, by the end of the decade.

A&L recognised the Chrysler Wayfarer as the best on offer at the time, and had numerous photos illustrating the advanced features in their Study.

They estimated the Australian market for light pick-ups in 1968 would be around 40,000 units, of which 75% would be coupe utilities.

“B.M.C. is not competing in this market”, they wrote. “Furthermore, many dealers in country areas have requested permission to sell Japanese utilities alongside B.M.C. passenger cars. They claim that they lose passenger car sales by being unable to offer a complete vehicle range.”

A&L argued a utility version of ADO17 would be superior to its main rivals in many areas. “Its payload rating, tray dimensions and standard of passenger comfort would be outstanding”, they wrote. “The absence of a propeller shaft and live rear axle allows a wide range of variants such as flat-top and special bodied vehicles to be manufactured readily. The vehicle could be sold in cab and tray form to body builders thus increasing its market potential.”

They weren’t just theorizing, either. They had taken a standard 1800 sedan and modified it slightly, loaded it with the expected weight of a laden utility and tested it fairly extensively. They found that, despite initial concerns over the front-wheel-drive layout, the car was able to start off on a sealed road with grade of 1:4.2, and on a grade of 1:4.6 on firm gravel, which were considered adequate.

Other tests were carried out on vehicle attitude change on acceleration, fully laden, resulting in a suggestion of fitting torsion bars to the rear suspension.

A&L summarized that the ADO17 utility would have a payload some 2cwt (100kg) more than Holden, Ford or Chrysler, but 6cwt less than Toyota. However, “at 18cwt the Tyres of the Toyota are grossly overloaded. All other vehicles do not exceed Tyre Manufacturers’ recommended loads.”

ADO17 would offer a tray at least 4” (100mm) longer than Holden or Ford, and the same as Chrysler, and over 5” (125mm) wider between the wheel arches than any of its rivals. This was due to the compact design of the Hydrolastic suspension.

“Note that the ADO17 provides clearance for a 48” building sheet between the wheel arches. This is a real advantage. No competitor will get within 4” of this dimension while retaining a live rear axle”, they wrote.

The tailgate width would be more than 6.5” (165mm) wider than its nearest rival (Ford) and a full 9” (290mm) wider than the Holden. In all dimensions ADO17 was superior to the Toyota.

They also felt, quite rightly, that the Hydrolastic suspension would provide “the standard of ride, handling and passenger comfort…far superior to the opposition under all loading conditions.”

One problem they faced was the fact that all coupe utilities available in Australia had a bench seat and could accommodate three people. In order to provide the same seating in their test 1800, they had devised a right-hand, floor-mounted gear change, that required a sizeable cut-out beside the driver’s seat.

They understood that this could be a deterrent to sales, saying; “There are two real disadvantages of the proposed vehicle. Firstly, it will be under-powered compared with the opposition and secondly chains cannot be fitted to the driving wheels. Two ‘unreal’ disadvantages exist. First is the difficulty of convincing the customer that the laden gradeability of a front wheel drive utility is satisfactory. Second is the reaction to right hand floor gearshift.”

Although they said the right hand gearshift was satisfactory, and “might even turn out to be an advantage”, they conceded that an alternative could be a column-mounted gearshift, “which was being investigated.”

On the basis of this Study, Barry Anderson was given the go-ahead to design the car and build a prototype for durability testing. “Ian was immersed in something else and there were other projects on”, he said recently. “So they said, ‘Barry, you’re going to have to do it. We’ll give you one draughtsman.’ That was my first complete project, actually. I was test engineer for installing the new dynamometers, to test engines. So, I did it (the ute) as a part-time job. We had a draughtsman (Don Boye?) doing that and I’d spend a morning with him and we drew it all up and then we subsequently built up a prototype.” 

The project was now given a designation from the Australian Drawing Office, as YDO10.

The first prototype was hand-built in the Experimental workshop – probably by Reg Redfern, who had been responsible for the wide-bodied Freeway (see Issue 3).

It was then taken on three trips, each of around 10,000 miles (16,000km) to Charleville in Queensland, as former BMC Experimental Road Proving Manager Roger Foy recalls. “The ute trip was the first time we had gone to Charleville. That was an initiative that came about because of Evan Green. We were planning to go to Mt Isa, but Evan just happened to come along and saw we were getting ready to go. He said, ‘you don’t need to go that far, you will get everything you want at Charleville’. And that’s 500 miles closer, and he said the roads around there are just as bad as any around Mt Isa.”

The first trip revealed a number of weaknesses in the body, particularly the new rear sections, which after all is what these trips aimed to find out. “It was a new and different concept, as you can imagine”, Roger explains. “We had to decide what sort of a load to carry on it for a start. We were aiming for half a ton, which when you think of it is fairly substantial, because under normal circumstances you would never carry half a ton on a ute all the time. You might carry half a ton occasionally, but that was what we had to discover, if it was capable of doing that.”

Roger says that an important aspect of the rear torsion bars was to reduce the unladen ride height at the back of the ute, by pre-loading the suspension and bringing the displacer loads within a more suitable range in the spring rates for when the ute tray was empty.

For comparison they bought a Holden ute and took that on the trip as well, as Roger continues. “The Holden ute wasn’t free of troubles either. In some respects we had as much trouble with the Holden as we had with our own; and it was a production ute.”

“Up there (Central Queensland) you’ve got this succession of cattle grids. On the Holden we found we kept getting brake fade, because it had drum brakes of course, whereas the 1800 had disc brakes. In the end, the 1800 was good enough for us to say we should proceed. That was the whole point of that first trip was to see if it was worth being done.”

A second prototype was built for the next trip, accompanied by the first for comparison. The second prototype had a different suspension arrangement, drawn up by Ian Lovegrove, with different methods of mounting the rear Hydrolastic displacer units to the chassis.

That was a feature of the YDO10 that had been ingrained from the start, that the car would have an integrated chassis for the rear end, rather than being of monocoque design like the sedan cars, so that it could be offered in a variety of body styles.

The chassis was the load bearing part of the body and the tray sides were not structural. This meant panel van or flat tray versions, as well as bare cab/chassis, could be offered, thus potentially increasing sales. These variants had been suggested in the first Feasibility Study by Anderson and Lovegrove.

The second trip proved problematic for the new suspension arrangement, so it was summarily scrapped. “That didn’t work out at all. In fact, we wondered how the hell we were going to get it back to Sydney”, Roger remembers.

For the third trip, the original prototype remained with the original set-up, but with larger displacer units in the rear. The sedan had smaller displacers in the back than in the front, but the ute was fitted with the same size in both locations, making them interchangeable (an advantage for keen restorers today).

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The BMC Experience Issue 11. Oct-Dec 2014 Magazine


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