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So You Want To Buy a Ute

Australians love their “utes” — pickup trucks based on car, rather than truck, platforms. Doug wishes the Holden ute had come to the United States. I wanted one so badly I built my own from a kit. But what if you want the driving experience of a car and the utility of a truck, and you don’t want to build it yourself? Not to worry: Believe it or not, there are many utes available on Autotrader right now for extremely reasonable prices.

For starters, we have the definition of the American ute, this 1987 Chevrolet El Camino. When the average person thinks of a strange car/truck thing, they think of the El Camino. Though most versions of the El Camino were based on the Chevelle, this example, from the last year of production, was based on the smaller Malibu. This particular example is equipped with the optional 305-cu in. (that’s 5.0-liter for you metric nerds) V8 and a 3-speed automatic transmission, both contributing to its truck-like 13 miles per gallon city/16 mpg highway. But for $5,995, that leaves a lot in the budget for the extra gas money you’ll need.

But before the El Camino, there was the Ford Ranchero. Like the Camaro to the Mustang, the El Camino was GM’s reaction to Ford’s innovation. This 1960 example is available on Autotrader Classics — and at $3,995, it’s the least expensive Ranchero available in running condition. Non-running Rancheros are available for even less if you’re handy with a wrench. This one needs some interior work, but it runs and drives just fine, with many new parts under the hood. If you’re looking for a cheap project, this could be a good option.

Not to be outdone by Chevy and Ford, Dodge introduced their own mini-ute in the early 1980s: The Rampage, which was based on the front-wheel-drive Charger of the time. It wasn’t fast, but its 1,145-pound load capacity nearly matched that of the El Camino’s 1,250 pounds. Dodge only built the Rampage from 1982 to 1984, so it’s kind of a rare ute — rare enough that none are available on Autotrader at this time.

Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without the original Volkswagen Pickup, the vehicle that inspired Smyth Performance to make ute kits for newer VWs. It was based on the original Rabbit and built in the same Pennsylvania factory, conveniently avoiding the 25 percent Chicken Tax on imported light trucks. This one is the only one currently available on Autotrader. It’s the ultimate example of the original VW truck, complete with a diesel engine and a manual transmission. It’s in excellent condition with just 90,823 miles, which is why the price is a premium at $12,992. It’s a lot for a small truck — but in this case, the seller genuinely does know what he has.

Doug has already professed his love of the Subaru Brat. This particular “Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter” from 1984 is in mint condition and has just 49,000 original miles. Clearly, its previous owners didn’t use it on the ranch the way President Ronald Reagan used his. It also includes the cap, covering not only the bed but the pair of jump seats in the bed. These seats were basically useless, but their existence allowed the Brat to be classified as a passenger vehicle and bypass the Chicken Tax. I’m still not sure I’d want to ride back there. This Brat is listed for $14,999, which is high, but representative of this example’s excellent condition.

For a “Subarute” that’s both much newer and costs much less money, you might consider this 2003 Subaru Baja for $4,000. This was Subaru’s attempt to recapture the glory and popularity of the Brat, but with a real and usable back seat rather than the Brat’s tax-evading jump seats. Essentially it’s a Legacy wagon with the roof over the cargo area chopped off. As a result, the bed is quite small by truck standards. But for some people, the sacrifice of bed space for a real back seat is worth it, making the Baja the right choice. But not many people. While Subaru expected to sell 24,000 Bajas per year, only 30,000 were sold during its 3-year run, which was cut short due to slow sales.

Of course, you could always just buy a truck, especially if you do truck things like heavy hauling and towing. Out of all these examples, only the Subarus send power to all four wheels. And being based on cars, they’re not set up for any serious off-pavement excursions. But they will still do most of the truck things the average person does from day to day, and they’ll turn some heads while doing it, which no Ford F-150 will ever do.

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  1. I recently purchased a silver gray 2005 Baja. within hours I was asked if I wanted to sell it and had a few offer4s since.

    Its a lot of fun to drive with the Turbo and with a tonneau cover the bed makes an enormous trunk. But sadly, it won’t hold a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood unless its strapped down.

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