Trusty utes faithful in Kiwi love affair (+competition)

Scott Stacey with his Dodge Li'l Red Express, featured in' The Kiwi Ute Driver's Guide To Life'.
Scott Stacey with his Dodge Li'l Red Express, featured in' The Kiwi Ute Driver's Guide To Life'.

From Barry Crump, his dog and his Hilux, to Lotto-winner Trev from Te Kauwhata with his new Dodge Ram, the Kiwi bloke and his ute have entered the nation's mythology, with sheds and gumboots. And it's not just blokes. In a new book, Steve Holmes documents New Zealanders' passion for their utes.

Ah the ute. As much a Kiwi favourite as fish and chips, Sunday roasts, pavlova, sheep, Vegemite, barbecues and tomato sauce. Actually, none of these things originated in New Zealand (except our beloved "pav", apparently) but we've embraced them into our culture as though they're our creations.

Perhaps it's because of our inquisitive nature, our need to explore or simply our pioneering roots that we feel it necessary to own a vehicle we can put things in. And not just anything, but large things.

Things that won't fit within the confines of a passenger car. In truth, many utes will be expected to carry little more than the family dog or the Christmas tree.

But that's okay - it's the comfort we take from knowing we're prepared for any eventuality that makes ute ownership so worthwhile.

If there's one thing the Aussies are good at, it's slang. The word "ute" is Aussie slang, a shortening of "utility vehicle" and/or "coupe utility". As Kiwis, we've been happy to embrace the word into our culture, too.

The general consensus is that a ute is what Ford Australia first brought to market in 1934 and marketed as a "Ford coupe utility", after receiving a letter two years earlier from an aggrieved farmer's wife who was fed up with riding to church every Sunday in a mucky pickup.

She suggested that the company produce a vehicle which could carry passengers to church on Sundays in comfort, then deliver pigs to the market on Mondays. The vehicle Ford offered in 1934 was a Ford five-window coupe, with an open-top rear cargo area (bed) which was an integral part of the cab.

The cab and rear bed were all one piece. As such, many of the vehicles we refer to today as utes are not actually utes at all. If a vehicle has a bed which is separate from the cab, it's a pickup truck. If it has bolt-on rear mudguards and a small step to help with climbing into the cargo area, it's a step-side.

If it has a flat rear tray with no sides, it's a flat-deck.

Ford and General Motors/Holden market utes to customers through their Falcon and Commodore models. However, only the Commodore is an actual ute, as the cab and bed are one piece. But the Falcon has a separate rear cargo area - technically, it's a pickup.

But that's also okay; the name "ute" allows us to bundle all manner of light commercial vehicles together.

The Kiwi Ute Driver's Guide to Life applies the name "ute" fairly generically to the vehicles it features.

In fact, if we were to be strict about the criteria for a true ute, it'd make for a fairly boring book. And if we had used the correct term for every vehicle within the title, it would have carried on right off the page.

The book includes everything from utes to pickups to step-sides to wellsides to flat-decks, and even the odd tow-truck and sedan delivery, because even though they're not technically utes, they are utility vehicles in the true sense of the word.

The ute is so many things to so many people. For some it's purely a work vehicle. For others it's a thing of beauty and enjoyment, be it rebuilt as a hot rod or restored to its original condition. Some even consider the ute to be the ideal racing machine, whether on a drag strip, a mud bog or a race track.

In New Zealand, as in Australia and the United States, we even have our own championship series for racing utes. In the US, they race purpose-built tube-frame Nascar trucks, based loosely on the silhouette of a Chevy Silverado, Ford F150, Dodge Ram or Toyota Tundra.

In Australasia, we race actual utes that are, in effect, modified road vehicles. The ute plays such a significant role in Australian and New Zealand culture that ute-racing seems completely natural, despite being highly unlikely in theory.

New Zealand is something of a melting pot when it comes to our vehicles. Unlike many larger nations, we don't have our own motor vehicle industry, other than a few brave but ultimately unsuccessful local attempts.

We did have our own vehicle-assembly industry but that is now a distant memory. For the most part, the cars on our roads during the past century have had a heavy bias towards one particular country. Before World War II, there was a strong American influence that shared equal footing with vehicles of British origin. Post-war, the American presence died away and our roads were dominated by the British marques. By the mid-1960s, Australian and Japanese vehicles began to take hold. And all the while we've had a sprinkling of European vehicles from France, Germany and Italy, and briefly even the Czech Republic and Russia.

The utes we feature are not the flashiest or the most expensive of their type (okay, some of them are), but each of them has its own story to tell within a nation that has embraced the ideal that it is important to have at hand a vehicle which can perform the sorts of duties the family sedan cannot.

Scott his 1978 Dodge Li'l Red Express

American car manufacturers in the 1970s produced vehicles that reflected the trends of the era. Performance and style were out. Garish customising was in. Wild candy paint, flame jobs, fat kidney-bean mag wheels, lake pipes. It wasn't subtle, but it was defining of the decade.

American automotive manufacturers released several kustomstyle vehicles throughout the decade that reflected the trends on the streets. The rare Dodge "Li'l Red Express Truck" was a classic example.

Introduced alongside its more subtle "Warlock" brother, the Li'l Red Express was one of the wildest factory kustoms of the 70s. It was available for just two years: 1978 and 1979. Every truck was painted bright red and fitted with a stepside rear tray. The name "Li'l Red Express Truck", with typical 70s styling, was emblazoned on each door. Wheels were five-slot kidney-bean style, with fat 15-inch tyres featuring raised white lettering. Wood-panelling lined the inside and the outside of the rear tray. Perhaps the most novel feature was the twin vertical chrome exhaust stacks that sprout skywards behind the cab, as they do in Kenworths.

These trucks were the fastest production vehicles made in the US in 1978/79, thanks to their police-pursuit, 360 cubic inch V8 motors.

Aucklander Scott Stacey, 19, is the lucky owner of this very original and patina'd 1978 version, which is one of just 2188 produced and possibly the only example in New Zealand.

He has made a few mild modifications, including removing the smoke stacks and fitting a wooden cradle to the tray.

He has no plans to restore it as the weathered look is part of what he loves about the old Dodge. As they say, it's only original once!

Steph and her 2001 Dodge Ram

When this big Dodge Ram 2500 Sports shows up at a customer's place with a couple of large pieces of macrocarpa furniture strapped to the back, people don't usually expect petite Steph Smith to bound down out of the driver's seat. They're even more stunned when she starts unloading 100kg pieces of furniture off the back, single-handedly.

Steph and husband Andy, who own and run Big Mac Slabs Furniture, process and make macrocarpa furniture and deliver it. They had been using a Toyota Hilux, but it struggled with the weight it was expected to carry and tow. An accident on State Highway 1 was the final straw: a wheel came off the trailer, which was carrying three tonnes of furniture, and tipped the Hilux on its side.

So Steph bought the Dodge in Christchurch in 2010, a snip at $45,000 as the owner was selling to move to Australia. It has its downsides: it costs $160 to fill the tank with diesel, it is too wide to park at shopping malls and, as 165cm-tall Steph says, "It's not suited to the vertically challenged." What it lacks in convenience it more than makes up for in muscle. "I needed something that's man enough for the job." The Dodge now travels between Wellington and Masterton and runs up the country every eight weeks doing furniture deliveries.

Wayne and his 1965 Morris Minor

Morris Minors were everywhere through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The last Morris Minor built anywhere in the world was assembled in NZ in 1974. Designed under Alec Issigonis, who later was responsible for the Mini, the Morris Minor debuted in 1948, offered initially as a two-door saloon and convertible.

By 1952, a four-door sedan, wood-panelled estate (station wagon), panel van and pick-up had joined the line-up. More than 1.3 million Morris Minors were built and they still enjoy a strong following.

Wayne Vercoe obtained his 1965 Minor (known as "Li'l Hulk" and originally owned by Farmers Co-op) in 1981 when it still wore its original pale-green paint.

"My friend bought a business and the Morris Minor wellside came with it. He said, 'If you repair my old Suzuki van, you can have the wellside'."

The Palmerston North painter and panelbeater soon repainted it and treated the old Morrie to a complete rebuild in 2000.

The front guards have been extended and the cargo bed modified. The paint is a custom take on a manufacturer colour, with metallic added. A Toyota Starlet motor has been replaced by a 1400cc Corolla motor and a five-speed gearbox.

Vercoe, 61, says it costs only $45 to fill up and, with small wheel arches, it has plenty of room to hold big parts in the tray. "I used to drop off the children at school. One of them wasn't too keen on me dropping her off at the Blue Light Discos, pulling up in the Morrie, but eventually she realised it was a pretty cool car."

Peter and his 1962 Austin A55

The little Austin A55 was once common on NZ roads. Launched in the UK in 1957, the A55 Cambridge, in sedan form, was replaced by the Farina-bodied Mk II in 1959, but the vans and utes continued until the early 1970s.

Peter Stalker, 72, has owned his since 1981. The Austin was a runabout for his vehicle-painting business for many years.

Now retired, Peter works as a gardener in Masterton, and the A55 still earns its keep carting grass and weeds to the dump. "It's sitting on half a load of rubbish at the moment," he says.

Maintenance is constant.

Peter says the Austin will eventually have to go. But his son, Andy, has, made a small (1:18 scale), low-maintenance version from balsa wood, which will remain proudly displayed long after the full-sized A55 has found a new caretaker.

WIN!

We have 10 copies of Steve Holmes' Kiwi Ute Driver's Guide to Life (HarperCollins, RRP $36.99) to give away.

To enter go to winwithheraldonsunday.co.nz and enter the keywords KIWI UTE along with your details. Entries close at midnight on Wednesday, July 4, 2012.

- Herald on Sunday

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