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High, Wide, And Handsome
The single best-selling American car isn’t a car at all. It’s a pickup truck. Here’s how it rose from farm hand to fashion accessory.
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
By the end of the 1920s, the pickup was a feature of the American workplace, both farm and urban. Conceived as a workhorse, it remained largely outside the realm of socially acceptable personal transportation, though in rural areas pickups frequently did double duty.
By the early 1930s the pickup truck had evolved into the form that would define the category until after World War II: an enclosed cab, most often resembling the front end of a car, with seating for two or three, glass windows all around, and precious little else in the way of comforts. By the late 1930s such luxuries as heaters, radios, windshield wipers for the passenger side, and cigarette lighters began to appear on options lists.
The 1930s can be defended not only as the styling zenith of the pickup truck but also as the last decade when the segment was crowded with nameplates. Among the automakers these included Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, CMC, Hudson, Plymouth, Studebaker, and Willys-Overland, plus less familiar names such as the Buddy Stewart pickup built by the Stewart Motor Corporation of Buffalo.
Truck builders with pickup offerings in the 1930s included Brockway, International Harvester, Diamond T, and REO (which built the Mack Junior pickup sold by Mack), though not all of these made a pick-up as small as a half-ton. Dodge built a truck called the Fargo that became a rebadged Dodge pickup sold until 1972 in Canada under the Fargo name, and the Ford pickup appeared in Canada from 1946 to 1967 as, of all things, a Mercury.
Trivia buffs could make a career of sorting out the “facts” concerning the pickup truck. There was a Crosley pickup, built from 1940 to 1942 and from 1947 to 1952, but the entire vehicle weighed only about 1,300 pounds. Another tiny truck, the American Austin (later American Bantam), appeared in the 1930s. Early truck makers included Buick and Cadillac. And so on. Of all these pickups, only Chevrolet, Ford, CMC, and Dodge survive today.
The styling highlight of 1930s pickups is generally acknowledged to be the 1934 Terraplane (built by Hudson), a swoopy execution of the genre that looks like nothing so much as a Dinky Toy grown to full size. There were any number of other stylish pickups valued as classics by today’s collectors, including the 1932 Ford and the 1931 Chevrolet.
After World War II the Big Three—or Big Three and One-half if you count GMC—issued pickups using largely pre-war components and sheet metal. Chevrolet Advance Design pickups and the almost identical GMC FC Series were ready in time for the 1948 model year. Ford, which had briefly built a restyled pickup for 1942 that featured an Art Deco “waterfall” grille, brought it back for the first three postwar model years. Like Chevrolet’s Advance Design pickups, Ford’s F-1 was “all new” for 1948, as were the 1948 Dodge pickups.
The last U.S. automaker to enter—re-enter, actually—the full-size pickup fray was Willys-Overland (later Kaiser-Jeep, later American Motors, now part of the Chrysler Corporation), which introduced a Jeep pickup in 1962. The Jeep appeared at a time when many pickup name-plates were becoming memories. Hudson had built its last pickup in 1947, Diamond T’s went away in 1951, Stude-bakers in 1964. International Harvester, a player from the beginning, discontinued its pickup in 1980.
Though there were a few competitors, the postwar playing field belonged to Ford, Chevrolet, Chevy’s GMC clone, and Dodge after 1945. The evolution of the pickup as personal transportation, however, was not jump-started until the appearance of two landmark designs, from Chevrolet in 1955 and Ford in 1957.