SALINA – “I’ve always been a Ford guy,” says Melvin Bergkamp.
So when he finally found a twin to the beautiful blue and white 1956 Fairlane Victoria that he and his wife, Marge, drove as newlyweds and restored it to perfection, he could have called his collection of Fords complete.
After all, they include a fully restored 1941 Ford opera coupe, a 1964 Galaxie 500 convertible and an original 1965 Galaxie 500 hardtop that once belonged to Louie Unser of Pike’s Peak hill climb fame.
But there was another one out there, an even rarer find: a 1956 Australian Ford “ute.” It is a head-turner wherever it goes. Most people have no idea what they are looking at when they first see it, thinking it’s a hand-built, heavily customized car.
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“The most common reactions I get are, ‘What did it start out as?’ and `Did you do it yourself?’” Bergkamp said. “When I tell them it was factory-built in Australia … they don’t believe me until they look at the steering wheel and it’s on the wrong side.”
Australians like to joke with Americans that their steering wheels aren’t on the “wrong side,” but are on the “correct side.”
Both Ford and Holden built “coupe utility” vehicles better known as utes in Australia , Ford beginning in 1934 and Holden in 1951. Basically, they were regular cars from the front seat forward, but with a pickup-style bed incorporated into the rear, so a ute could serve a dual purpose as a passenger/cargo hauler.
Ford never built a true American ute, although other U.S. manufacturers dabbled with the concept. Australia, in turn, didn’t build hardtops, concentrating on 4-door sedans.
“Kirk Hatfield had sent a lot of hardtops to Australia … they were very popular over there. They told him he needed one of these utes to fill out his collection,” Bergkamp said. He had spotted the ’56 Ute at Hatfield’s shop while looking for that replacement ’56 Fairlane.
“I told him if he ever wanted to sell that ute to let me know,” he said. Eventually, a deal was struck and Bergkamp went to pick up the ute.
“It was in primer. It ran ... he rigged up a tin can for a fuel tank so I could drive it up on the trailer,” he said. “I brought it home and started working on it.”
Bergkamp said he had learned body and paint skills while serving in the National Guard and that, growing up as a farm kid, he already knew his way around engines and mechanical systems. In fact, he and his sons, Scott and Jason, had teamed up with him to build their own collectible Fords as young men.
Bergkamp had built his own company, Bergkamp Inc., which manufactures highway maintenance equipment.
“I sold machinery in Australia and I saw a ute in a museum over there that looked just like this one,” he said. Finding parts for an Australian ute in America would not be easy, but he was able to have some needed items, like the rear bumperettes and the tailgate handle, fabricated in the company machine shop.
The biggest challenge was finding a replacement worm gear for the steering box, after he discovered that the mechanism operated in the opposite direction of most American components. But he figured out that a domestic truck worm gear would work perfectly.
Bergkamp rebuilt the 292 Ford Y-block V-8 to basic factory standards, only adding a set of Red’s headers and dual exhaust to the setup. The ute came equipped with a standard 3-speed manual transmission, with left-hand shift.
Although his vehicle carries basically the same front end sheet metal as an American ’56 Fairlane, the dashboard, besides being reversed, has the round radio and gauges of a 1955 U.S. Ford. He explained that Ford utes from 1956-59 all had the same look.
A glance down the rear quarter panels reveals fender flares that look remarkably like even earlier 1952-54 domestic Ford car styling.
The rounded roof of the ute looks correctly proportioned with the overall design, as does the seamless cargo box with its rounded tail gate.
Once all the body work was done, Bergkamp had to decide on a color. While he was tempted to paint it Kansas State purple, he opted, instead, for late model Mustang Screaming Yellow, similar to the ute he had seen in the Australian museum. Ed Tangye, a painter at the manufacturing plant, did the honors.
Inside, Bergkamp called on J.D. Johnson of Auto Upholstery Unlimited in Salina to create a yellow and black upholstery scheme, even embroidering the Aussie terms for man and woman, “Bloke” and “Shiela” into the seat backs.
Finishing things off, Bergkamp installed a set of vintage-looking Mastercraft P205 /75R15 thinline whitewalls on four swap meet slotted wheels fitted with Ford centercaps.
Bergkamp and his wife still enjoy cruising and showing both of their ’56 Fords, one that conjures up memories of their early life together and the other, a wonder from Down Under, that seems to baffle all but the most knowledgeable car nuts.
Reach Mike Berry at email@example.com.