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Restoring the Ute, Part 1

The first in an occasional series

By Julian Edgar

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Well today I did it.

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I hired a Landcruiser and a car trailer – and dragged home two 43-year-old cars. Cars that came off the production line when I was just five years old. Two cars to be duly transformed into a single restored, driveable vehicle. A vehicle to be fettled and massaged in my home workshop until I have a car I can happily drive around in, together with my wife and 7-year-old on the bench seat.

Well, perhaps in fact Alexander will be a lot more than seven when the car is driving, but we’ll have to wait and see…

Sunday morning cruises through the open spaces of the sheep country in which I live, following the undulating, single strip of blacktop threading its way through the landscape on the old bullock routes. Some local shopping: getting the milk and bread and checking the post office box. And perhaps, every few weeks, a trip to work and back – 150 kilometres over back-country roads, dressed in my suit and tie…

Over the years I have done lots of car modifications and, in fact, lots of things automotive. I have worked on turbo cars, I have rebuilt a BMW six cylinder engine, I have rebuilt (and modified) an auto trans, I have turbocharged a hybrid car and modified cars with petrol engines and diesels.  But I have never done any bodywork – no panel beating and no painting. (Well, in fact I have done a bit – but that was a very long time ago and always under the guidance of others.)

And I have definitely never restored an old car. So it’s a new experience.

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But unlike some who love old cars, I know about their warts. You don’t need to tell me that the cars I have just bought are simply woeful in performance. That in any modern context they have such little power that they’re laughable. (And, significantly, even in their time, they were not fast cars.)

I know that current NCAP crash testing outcome would tell the story of their safety in negative numbers. (“And the latest NCAP rating? Try minus two out of five!”)

I also know that most hardback histories of the Great Cars of All Time contain no reference to the vehicles I have just bought. And, despite being (half) designed and (fully) manufactured in Australia, most Australian car nuts have never even heard of them.

And an elegant shape?

Nope.

They’re simply not: no-one, not even the greatest Austin aficionado, could call them ‘elegant’. And those comments apply to the sedans, let alone the utes….

So what have I bought? The pics give it away: I have bought a pair of Austin 1800 utes. Born in 1968, they’re officially Mark I machines, with something like less than 800 ever made. (The Mark 2? Apparently just another 1500 or so came off the line.)

That makes my model one of the smallest (if not the smallest) of any Australian production run in the last 50 years.

The Austin 1800

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To state it mildly, the Austin 1800 sedan is an odd car. The brainchild of one of the most idiosyncratic of car designers ever – the Briton, Alex Issigonis – the car followed the outstanding success of the Mini and the less unqualified success of the Morris 1100. These cars used transverse front wheel drive arrangements (then unknown or at the very least, unusual) and had incredible interior packaging prowess.

Issigonis was determined, artistic, dictatorial and arrogant – but a man who also had a sense of fun and shyness and loved his many friends. Someone capable of immense lateral thought – a trait which seems completely lost from current car designers – he was equally at home designing suspension systems (steel, rubber or fluid), engines (flat four, in-line six, alloy V8), or bodies (monocoque, FWD, RWD).

Surely, he was one of the most versatile and talented automotive designers ever.

The Mini – while quite slow to start in its success – turned out to be an astonishingly ground-breaking car. It became popular with the rich and famous and yet still appealed to the frugal. A car for stars and yet still a car for charladies. And, since the Mini had been conceived with an absolutely uncompromising eye by Issigonis, what he wanted simply dominated the design. Issigonis was the car designer: he always knew better than the mere public. With the Mini, the public ended up agreeing with him.

And so everyone figured the same process could be followed with the Austin 1800.

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But the dynamic was different. What worked with the public in small, cute, fun-handling and dimensionally tight package did not work with a full-size family car. The bus-like steering wheel, odd styling and utilitarian foundation to every 1800 feature were no doubt pure industrial design – but people don’t buy cars on design, they buy cars on emotion...

The Austin 1800 was by no means a disaster but it didn’t revolutionise family cars the way that the Mini changed small cars forever.

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But inside it was a big car, and so the Australian arm of what became British Leyland saw it as potential competition to the large local Valiants and Fords and Holdens.  Compared to those cars, all with six cylinder inline engines, rear wheel drive and basic suspension systems, the Austin was revolutionary. From its transverse four cylinder to its Hydrolastic fluid-filled suspension, it was from another planet. So it was put into local production and rolled off the Zetland line in Sydney.

Sure it was ‘different’, but the makers hoped it would be seen not be so much as ‘weirdly different’ like the Citroens, but with its made-in-Australia status, rather more ‘advanced different’.

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And what better way to solidify is ‘Australianness’ than to produce a ute version? Designed by local engineers, it used the standard Austin 1800 wheelbase and slightly lower geared motive power, but added a bench seat and a long tray. The suspension was a little altered (with at the back different sized rear displacers and auxiliary torsion bar springs) but the rest was very much the Australianised 1800 that locals had come to love.

If not actually buy in great numbers…

My bent

And why do I like this car – the Austin 1800 Utility? A few reasons.

Firstly, I’ve been looking at older cars over the last few years and I gotta say, the cars I’ve been most attracted to are the commercials. The Bedford tray-tops, the Austin trucks – even the older Holden utes.

The mix of commercial utilitarianism and contemporary styling cues seems to me to make for a fascinating mix of aesthetics. From a personal perspective, I also love the idea of actually being able to put such an indulgence vehicle to real (hobby) work.

And the Austin 1800?

Over the years I’ve owned a number of older cars: a Rover 2000, a Volvo 142 and a W123 Mercedes 230. To that list can be added an Austin 1800 sedan.  And of all those cars, it’s the Austin 1800 that has kept the fondest spot in my heart. Its revolutionary suspension, the incredible torsional stiffness of its body, the amazingly airy internal spaciousness.

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I think that if I had one-hundredth of the ability of Issigonis and Alec Moulton (the developer of the suspension), I think maybe the 1800 would be the type of car I would have liked to develop. (But perhaps with better aerodynamics – cue the pictured Pininfarina  makeover of the Austin 1800 sedan. And yes, it appeared before the Citroen!)

And so when two Austin 1800 Mark 1 utes came up on eBay, just 10 kilometres from where I live, I thought: can I really go past this?

And, well, I didn’t!

In Part 2: getting them home and finding out what I’d just bought…

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