Recently we published a primer on the Shooting Brake, a sports car/estate hybrid that is notoriously difficult to reconcile as a harmonious design. How do you elegantly mate a sports car front with an estate wagon rear?
Equally difficult, and even more quirky, is the coupé utility, or ‘ute’, or simply ‘car/truck’, a hybrid of coupé and truck.
A coupé. With a giant steel tray out back. Crazy. And yet, like the shooting brake, strangely compelling.
The format was developed in the 1930s by Ford of Australia engineer, Lew Bandt, who had received a letter from a farmer’s wife who asked for a “a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays”. Ford’s response was to offer a limited edition hybrid car/pickup that was called a “coupe utility”. The format had a long lifespan for such a unique vehicle, and was well known, even iconic, in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa.
The modern coupé utility was pioneered by Ford in 1957 with the introduction of the Ranchero, a hybrid utility vehicle that was based on a full-sized station(estate) wagon package. It was perhaps the first crossover vehicle, depending on how you define the term – a car with the utility of a pickup when needed.. Modification of the Ford station wagon was relatively easily and used many standard components, making it a cost effective expansion to Ford’s lineup.
The intended demographic for the Ranchero was the farmer who wanted something more upmarket for a trip into town. Women, farmers or not, also proved to be a steady customer base, appreciating the utility without the high ground clearance or the rough ride of trucks. Garage and petrol station owners were also steady customers. And of course, the hot rod and surfing crowd on both US coasts, plus Australia and South Africa, liked the car-based board hauler.
It was this burgeoning youth market in the early 1960s that Ford sought to tap into with a new generation of vehicles. The first, and best of these was, of course, the Mustang. But Ford was looking for a youth-oriented future for other vehicle formats as well.
It was at this point Syd Mead entered the picture. At the end of the 1950s Syd Mead was hired fresh out of Art Center to serve under Ellwood Engels in Ford’s advanced design studio. Although he would only be at Ford for two years (leaving at about the same time as Engels), it was a productive time there with many proposals for concept vehicles.
One of these proposals was for a youth-oriented truck that departed from the utilitarian roots of the pickup and embodied both style and function that could attract the same demographic as the Mustang. The ‘cab’ was a four seat compact club coupe with a glass canopy over the seating that would lift up like a fighter plane. Continuing the fighter plane theme, the hood formed a prow, with character lines streaming back across the body. Mead managed to transition the fighter plane front and canopy into a more simplified bed structure. Mead’s rendering showed motorcycles parked nearby, implying the truck bed was large enough to haul a motorcycle.
Mead would later recall: “This was designed to mount onto a ’63 Ford station wagon frame. It was fully operational with A/C, radio and a fully operational top conversion. The small rear ‘cab’ roof slid back, a rear seat unfolded and a ‘filler’ section with a window rose into position. This meant that, sacrificing bed length, the vehicle converted electrically from a bench seat, three-passenger vehicle into a five-passenger close-coupled club sedan/truck. The vehicle was toured for about two years.”
The vehicle, now named the Ranger II, was introduced at the 1966 Detroit Auto Show. Mead, and Engels had been gone for some time, and the concept was simplified – the prow was bifurcated and a flat panel placed between. The canopy roof was still there, but simplified as compared to Mead’s. The cockpit converted from two seats to four or five. And the overall massing was trim and boxy, not nearly as sculptural as Mead’s proposal.
Here is an excerpt from the Ford press release at the time:
“Ford Division’s advance design Ranger II, an ultramodern idea in pickup trucks…
“(It) features a custom designed passenger compartment that expands at the push of a button from a pickup to a two-door sedan accommodating two additional passengers in the rear compartment.
“When a four-passenger sedan is desired, a switch on the master control is activated and the rear portion of the cab moves 18 inches into the bed of the truck, a roof section moves up into position and two additional bucket seats fall into place.”
“Other innovations include aircraft-type canopy doors that operate hydraulically at the turn of a key and a forward-hinged hood that opens hydraulically by a switch on the master control.
The ultra-streamlined windshield of specially tempered plastic-type glass, special high intensity headlights of rectangular design, contoured bumper, extruded aluminum grill, and a Clearwater Aqua finish give the vehicle a look of the future.
“As a two-passenger pickup, the truck bed is six feet wide and eight feet long – the standard F-250 bed size. The cargo bed has walnut flooring, courtesy lights, aluminum loading rails, vinyl-covered side panels and padded wheel housing.
“The functional interior features contoured bucket seats, and a host of options including power steering, tilt-away steering wheel, SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic transmission, AM/FM radio and a SelectAire air-conditioner.
“The Ranger II is 57 inches high, 18 feet long, 84 inches wide and has a 120-inch wheelbase. Power for the special show vehicle is provided by a 390 cubic-inch V-8 with three carburetors.”
The design of Ranger II clearly suffered from deviations from Mead’s original concept. Still, it was interesting and innovative, with a striking, changeable interior and elegant bed. As Mead noted above, the concept toured the country for a couple of years. There were no plans for production.
Syd Mead’s subsequent career trajectory and outstanding CV are familiar to readers of Car Design News. It is interesting to look at a personal luxury coupé design of the same era and some of the same styling themes. This rendering was done for one of the US Steel books, but it could have easily been a Ford Thunderbird or Mercury Cougar proposal. And, judging from the appreciative avian audience in the image, it was another car that Mead would have driven to the beach.
As for the Ranchero, it would continue in production until 1979 and then die a quiet death, a victim of changing times and high oil prices. Compact pickups such as the Ford/Mazda Courier were more practical and fun, easily customizable, and easier on the pocketbook. Indeed, the success of the Courier inspired Ford to create its own line of smaller, midsize pickups in 1983.
The name on those new pickups? The Ford Ranger.