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Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz aren't the first utes rejected for Australia: the 'Frankenstein' Ford Laser, Holden Gemini, Mazda Rotary, Subaru Outback and other car-based pick-ups we never saw

With their compact sizing, low prices and economical running costs, these car-based utes could have been a bit hit in Australia.

Of all the automotive hopes and dreams dashed in 2021, surely the news that both the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz are not coming to Australia (at least not for the foreseeable future) ranks among the most disappointing.

It’s an all-too familiar story. Carmaker unveils hot car. Australians fall for hot car from afar. But as we drive on the wrong side of the road, risk-averse carmaker accountant computers say no and we miss out. Heartbreaking.

Frustrating too, since previous car-based imports have worked well Down Under – most famously the Subaru Brumby in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as did its spiritual successor, the Mitsubishi CC Lancer-derived Proton Jumbuck in the 2000s.

With the iconic Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon utes that were such a huge part of our cultural fabric now lost to the past, we reckon enough Australians are hankering for something more sophisticated and civilised than the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger trucks to make a Maverick and Santa Cruz business case fly. And the market is ripe for the picking.

At least Hyundai Australia has payed lip service to us by actually trying to get the Alabama-built, Tucson-derived, left-hand-drive-only Santa Cruz over the line. After all, it recognises our great history and provenance with utes.

Ford Australia – the claimed inventor of the world’s first coupe-utility nearly 90 years ago since it barely beat GMH to market back in the early 1930s – can’t even seem to see the local potential in Maverick, lacking the guts that saw gambles like the original Falcon GT and Fairlane projects propel the Blue Oval to glorious market leadership.  

With the chances of ever seeing the Santa Cruz and Maverick – or the conceptually similar Honda Ridgeline also from America for that matter – in Australia remote at best, it’s time we take a look back at the rollcall of other car-based, unibody utes and pick-ups that were dropped before they ever even had a chance to carve out a life in the lucky country.

Could they have been legends alongside the Brumby and co? We’ll never know…

Holden-Isuzu Gemini-based Saehan/Daewoo Max  

General Motors’ last rear-drive small car was the T-body range, developed by Opel in Germany as the Kadett C. Holden partnered up with Isuzu for the re-engineered PF50 project version, creating the unique Australasian 1975 TX Gemini that eventually became our bestselling small car until Ford’s Mazda 323-based Laser dominated the 1980s.

Alongside the Australian-built Gemini sedan was a coupe (until 1979’s TE facelift), wagon and van versions (from 1978’s TD), while a natty little ute was created by GM and Isuzu for emerging South Korean brand Saehan. Sold as the ‘Max’ from 1979, it was later rebadged a Daewoo until production ceased in 1988.

Did Holden miss an opportunity? An Isuzu-made four-cylinder petrol engine was joined by a diesel version (as per 1981’s Gemini Diesel – the first diesel car ever manufactured in Australia), and boasted an 850kg load capacity. GMH instead chose another Isuzu-engineered pick-up – the Rodeo – for Australia instead. What could have been…

Fun fact: there were also two further T-body derived utilities, this time using the Chevrolet Chevette as a starting point and featuring the same centre body, but boasting different noses, interiors and tubs: the 1978-1982 Grumett 250M Rural of Uruguay, which used a discarded Vauxhall Chevette (Opel Kadett C) utility design proposal but a fibreglass body, as well as the steel-bodied 1983-1994 Chevrolet Chevy 500 of Brazil.

Ford Laser-based Bantam/Mazda Rustler

Another Aussie connection, this time with Ford’s Asia-Pacific world car of the 1980s, the front-wheel-drive, Mazda 323/Familia-based Laser.

Despite the Japanese connection, the second-gen (KC/KE) Laser hatch launched in 1985 was designed at Broadmeadows, while the Meteor sedan, wagon and (not for Oz) cabriolet were essentially rebadged 323s. Then there was the related Capri convertible from 1989.

What’s lesser known is the Bantam ute version created for the booming ‘bakkie’ half-tonne pick-up market in South Africa. Taking over from the 1983 original that was based on the European front-drive Escort, the 1990 version married the entire front part of the Laser/323 (including the body, cabin and powertrain) with the rear part of the old Escort ute (tub, suspension and back axle). Lasting until 2001, this automotive Frankenstein's monster proved a smash hit.

So much so, in fact, that Mazda Australia imported two examples of the Mazda Rustler version for evaluation during the recession-ravaged early ‘90s, with a view of providing a cheaper alternative to the popular Subaru Brumby, but never followed through. What a shame. So close…

And what became of the Bantam? A smaller, cheaper, Mk4 Fiesta-based ute (again with the grafted-on 1983 Escort rear tub) was sold from 2002 to 2011, until Ford of South Africa decided to step up to the much-larger T6 Ranger truck instead. However, reports suggest that the nameplate may return soon.

Some reports suggest it will be a rebadged version of the long-awaited replacement for the South American-developed VW Saviero (basically a very old Polo ute), said to be derived from the 2018 Tarok concept.

Subaru Outback-based Baja

If you don’t live in the US, Canada or Chile, you might not be aware that little old Subaru did finally replace the much-loved Brumby in the early 2000s… but not in a good way.

Completely missing the point of a small, accessible workhorse, the 2002 Baja was instead a variation on the third-generation Liberty/Legacy wagon series, using the popular Outback body and AWD running gear to create a monocoque four-door ute. The resulting design drew widespread criticism for its ungainly appearance, exacerbated by excessive plastic side cladding that attempted to make it look more ‘lifestyle’.

Not even a turbo version of the 2.5L EJ boxer four could save the Baja from falling embarrassingly short of its 24,000 annual sales predictions. Barely 30,000 were made before production ceased in 2006. Being US-built, no RHD was ever offered, denying Australian Brumby fans the trouble of getting all worked up over it.

Mazda B-series truck-based Rotary Engine Pick Up (REPU)

Somewhere deep in the current Ford Ranger’s DNA is a great ancestor with its engine revs in the sky and its leaf-sprung feet firmly on the ground.

A variation of the second-gen B-series truck launched all the way back in 1965 (and that also spawned the Ford Courier version), Mazda’s 1974 Rotary Engine Pick-up (REPU) remains the only Wankel rotary-engined utility ever productionised.

Made in Japan but only sold in the USA and Canada, its timing was lousy, launching in 1974 just as petrol prices soared and emissions laws stepped up, meaning the thirsty, dirty 1.3-litre four-port 13B rotary faced an uphill battle.

Actually, the novelty of a revvy Wankel-hearted sports truck with fat wheels, flared mudguards, a sports dash and signature Mazda rotary round taillights did lure some 14,000 buyers in its first year, but sales soon plummeted. A longer, roomier cabin and mechanical improvements (including a five-speed manual) accompanied 1976’s minor facelift, but just 1161 units found homes when the REPU was discontinued just one year later. Only a little over 15,000 were built.

Today, these LHD-only oddities command big money around the world. 

Volkswagen Golf 1-based Caddy

The first Golf was responsible for a bunch of firsts – it set the popular template for the modern hatch (1974), hot hatch (1976 GTI), diesel (1977) and cabriolet (1980) we know today.

What’s less widely known is that it also gave birth to the original Caddy – and a ute at that.

Aimed at the North American market, and initially built only in the US as the Rabbit Pickup, it launched in 1979 as a Subaru BRAT (Brumby) competitor, but didn’t really fire and so was dropped in 1982. Manufacturing transferred to Europe (in what is Bosnia and Herzegovina today) that same year, where the Caddy name took over.

That lasted for 10 years, when production migrated again, this time to South Africa, and lasted all the way into 2007 – even though the badge was also applied concurrently to the Spanish-made Mk3 Polo panel van, then the latter’s Mk5 Golf-derived successor from 2003, as well as its Mk8 Golf-platformed replacement from 2020.

Confusing? Australia completely missed out on seeing the first and second iterations of Caddy, until the previous shape debuted here in 2005. But how cool would it have been to have access to the Mk1 Golf ute original! Again, and sadly, we missed out as per usual. Boo!

Toyota RT46 Corona ute

The third-generation, RT40-series Corona ‘shovel-nosed’ sedan (along with a handful of imported wagons, liftbacks and exquisite coupes that followed) is credited as Japan’s first big automotive sales success in Australia back when local production by AMI in Port Melbourne commenced in 1964.

But while Toyota Australia offered the big Crown ute during that time, along with the heavy-duty Stout built by Hino and predecessor to our bestselling HiLux line today, it bypassed releasing the adorable Corona half-tonner single cab ute (or gawky double cab ute and stylish van for that matter).

We’ll never know why. Maybe they were deemed too demure (they’re very cute) or gutless (early models had a 1.2L engine)? Who knows.

Of course, the Corona went on to become the Camry in Australia. Can you even imagine a Camry Ute?

Ford Cortina-based Ford P100

Ford’s Cortina from Europe was a global medium-sized family car that spanned five generations over 20 years, attracting buyers with its low price, simple mechanicals and rugged good looks.

Earlier models were built in Australia alongside the larger Falcon range, and even shared plenty of the latter’s mechanical components including six-cylinder engines from the early ‘70s, amortising development costs to create a unique competitor against the Bathurst-blitzing Holden Toranas of the era.

The symbiotic relationship between Cortina and Falcon, however, came with a caveat: that the former couldn’t outshine the latter, which was destined to be Australia’s bestselling car in years to come.

That means the South African-developed P100 Bakkie pick-up launched in 1971 was out of bounds for us, given its all-too-close proximity to the popular Falcon ute that – just a year later – went all-Australian in its design. Broadmeadows needed to look after its golden goose.

To bring you up to speed, the P100 was a Mk3/TC Cortina up front and a ladder-frame chassis with leaf springs and beefed-up (from Rover) rear axle out back. Officially badged ‘Cortina Utility’, it morphed into the square-rigged Mk4 (TE) Cortina shape in ’77 and Mk5 TF in ’80, finally gaining the P100 badge in ’82 and living through until a Sierra front half was grafted on from ’88 and European sourcing switched to Portugal.

Two fun facts: firstly, in Turkey, Ford collaborators Otosan kept the Cortina version going until 1996; and secondly, the P100’s heavy-duty 2.0-litre Pinto engine was used as the basis for the fire-breathing Cosworth Sierras in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Can you imagine a P100 XR4 Turbo sold in here alongside the ancient XF/XG Falcon six-cylinder utes? No wonder Ford Australia steered clear of it.

Holden SB/XC Barina-based Opel Corsa Bakkie and Chevrolet Montana

To finish off, we’re not suggesting Australians would have embraced an Opel Corsa-derived Barina-based ute. It would have been far too small, too weedy and too expensive against the locally-built Commodore utes sold here from 1990’s VG through to the last VFII in 2017. Holden might have been foolish enough to create the SB Barina Cabrio in ’98 but this was a model too far.

But the Barina ute existed, as the replacement for the original Gemini-based Max/Scat ute that kicked off this story (see above), and then morphed into what was essentially a rebodied XC Barina-based ute in the 2010s until this very year. Latin NCAP scored it zero crash test stars, deeming it totally unsafe.