High, Wide, And Handsome

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WHEN CLINT EASTWOOD ROLLS INTO MERYL Streep’s Iowa driveway in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), he is driving a clapped-out 1963 GMC pickup truck. You can safely bet that not one person who saw that movie laughed to see Mr. Eastwood in a pickup instead of a Corvette or a Mustang or some other vehicle that might once have seemed more fitting for a freelance photographer. Contrast this with Cary Grant’s brief stint as a pickup driver in North by Northwest (1959). Grant, driving the truck through no choice of his own, hides it on a side street before reaching his destination, a fashionable Chicago hotel. In those days nice people didn’t drive pickups; today they do.

Of course, nice people have driven pickups for more than three-quarters of a century, but for most of that period pickups were hardly considered the height of automotive fashion. A pickup was a necessity, not a nicety. One of my friends sums it up this way: “I grew up on a farm in the fifties, and the pickup to me was always a piece of farm machinery. I didn’t think it did a hell of a lot for my image when I drove it into town.” Today, image—of the positive variety—is one of the accessories that come standard with a pickup truck. And the appealing vision of the high-riding, freedom-loving son or daughter of the wide-open spaces is one that Americans in large numbers now associate with the once-humble pickup.

In 1995 residents of the United States bought 14,766,454 new vehicles. One of every five of those was some form of pickup truck. In fact the most popular vehicles in this country are the Ford F-Series, all full-size pickups. These trucks have been the single best-selling vehicles in North America for nineteen years, and their only serious competition for best-selling honors during most of those years was the full-size Chevrolet C-K series pickup. In 1996 more than 1.6 million Americans rumbled away from dealerships in Dodge Rams, Ford F-Series, GMC Sierras, or Chevrolet C-K full-size pickups. These trucks were born of necessity and bred of hard work, but they have evolved into travel companions whose cargo is just as likely to be surfboards, snowmobiles, or dirt bikes as chicken feed or fertilizer.

The origin of the pickup truck as we know it is cloudy but not obscure. Reducing the vehicle to its basics—power up front, passengers in the middle, open cargo area in the rear—reveals the pickup as nothing more than the mechanized evolution of the horse and wagon. Consider the buckboard’s position as a light version of the conventional farm or commercial wagon, and you will grasp the pick-up’s relationship to its larger cousins in the truck world. In American slang the word pickup has come to mean the buckboard of the truck world, the ubiquitous half-ton pickup, “half-ton” referring to its load-carrying capacity.

The word pick-up , complete with hyphen, can be found applied to the 1921 International Harvester S series. The word had appeared without a hyphen in 1913 Studebaker sales literature, but pick-up remained accepted usage until the 1930s. Beginning with the first trucks and continuing into the 1940s, manufacturers often used the word express to describe a truck with a passenger cab and a cargo bed. An express truck, from the early years until the term disappeared, usually had more than a halfton capacity.

WITH ITS 1955 model, Chevrolet served notice that utility was no longer the sole driving force behind pickup design.

A word is in order about the way trucks were sold in the 1920s and earlier. Often the buyer bought a simple chassis consisting of frame, driveline components (engine, axles, wheels, drive shaft, transmission, differential), engine cowling and radiator, steering wheel, and perhaps a windshield and seats. To this foundation the owner would add a cab of some description and a cargo area suitable for the truck’s intended use. The cab and body might be cobbled together by the owner, a farm wagon maker, or the village blacksmith, or they might be purchased from suppliers who made and installed purpose-built bodies, a practice that survives to this day in the form of the conversion van.

Though no one has stepped forward to explain where the word pick-up as a truck modifier came from, we do know who popularized it. That person was Henry Ford, and as with so much of what he did, sheer numbers played a major part in making the pickup a household word.

Observing that a great many Ford owners were adding a small cargo box onto the frames of their Model T’s, more than six million of which were on the road by 1924, Ford that year began making pickup cargo beds, but as items to be installed by his dealers. The next year his company added a fully assembled pickup to his lineup. The Model T Roadster Pick-Up, so called because of its convertible top, cost $281. In that inaugural year Ford made 33,795 of America’s first mass-produced factory-built “pick-ups.”