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Bob Van Horn's 1949 Ford "Ute" Australian Utility
(from Volume 14, Issue 159)

In a previous “Rods & Ends” column that ran here in Mike Kelly’s Cruise News, author Ken Caskey of Kidd Darrin’s Restorations & Custom Built Cars in Melbourne, Florida spotlighted the Ford Ute. These rare vehicles are not widely known, and actually started from a letter written by one farming couple sent to Ford Motor Company of Australia.

The letter was a simple request that Ford manufacture a truck that could be used for their light duty farm work but also would be comfortable enough for the family outings, Sunday church, and general errands. Then engineer, Lewis Bandt, set to work on the request by playing with a few sketches. He chose the front half of a sedan, curved off the rear, and mated it to a small pickup truck type bed. The result was the first Ranchero or El Camino, if you will. The design was approved, only for Ford Motor Co. of Australia of course, and the production line began manufacturing the Ford Ute -- Ute, being the nickname for Utility vehicle. And to top it off the first Ute was a 1934 model. Talk about neat!

Apparently, a lot of people in Australia thought it was a pretty cool idea too, as the Ford Ute was declared by Ford as the world’s first successful pickup. Unfortunately, while Ford continued to manufacture Utes for Australia into the 1950’s we here in the states were never offered the same. Some Utes will pop up at shows here and there. But, make no mistake, someone had to go “down under” and bring it back for the vehicle to be here in the USA.

Merritt Island resident Bob Van Horn owns the 1949 Ford Ute pictured here, which he purchased from an ad in Hemmings in August of 1999. Being a fan of ‘49 Fords, Bob realized what a rare and unique vehicle it was, and since he owns a body shop the plan was to build a cool shop truck. Due to business and other projects it took longer than anticipated, but the end result was a truly unique car that is sure to draw crowds at any car show.

In the process of getting it road ready, a few modern items replaced their stock equivalents in the interest of driveability. In front a Fatman frame clip was welded in, utilizing Mustang II suspension, plus rack and pinion steering. Out back a ‘59 Ford 9-inch rear end was installed on Chassis Engineering springs. For comfort air conditioning was added, and Painless wiring got everything up and running with a stock 350 Chevy motor and 700R4 overdrive automatic providing the power.

Bob was happy to find out that American parts interchanged, so just finding an American dash converted it over to left hand drive. Other interior items include a ‘70 Camaro tilt steering column, ‘77 Bonneville split bench seat, and a Haneline gauge cluster (in the original speedo opening). Jeff at Greystone Interiors on Merritt Island stitched up the tan imitation leather upholstery....which have embroidered kangaroos on each seat paying homage to the car’s Australian roots.

Luckily Bob was able to find many N.O.S. (new old stock) parts for the car, and after the bodywork was done the Ute was painted PPG Rock Moss Green. A set of ‘56 T-Bird wheels were painted light yellow, and topped with stock hubcaps. In the bed you’ll find a gorgeous Maple wood floor, done by Eric Johnson at Treehouse Woods in Cocoa Beach.

Due to it’s unique styling, the rarity of the car, and the fact that many people do not realize such a vehicle was ever produced it is a real attention getter. Many onlookers wrongly assume that it is someone’s home built custom, but those in the know realize that Australians had the idea of a unibody pickup perfected long before Americans were happily purchasing a Ranchero or El Camino. Indeed, the Ute is a dandy piece or automotive history, mate. CN