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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
In 1957 the four-year-old Ford F-100, in its Styleside configuration, joined Chevrolet in doing away with visible fenders front and back (visible rear fenders on “step-side” pickups remain popular to this day). The F-100 also thrust a massive chrome grille at oncoming traffic, and that grille contained quad headlights. As with Chevrolet’s pickups, such carlike items as chrome wheel covers (instead of tiny hubcaps) were standard on some models, and the list of options grew. Both Ford and Chevrolet trucks, but particularly Ford’s, looked large and squarish compared with their predecessors. If your washer and dryer each had chrome grilles and four headlights, you would have an approximation of the visual impact of the pickups of this transitional era. Dodge meanwhile tried essentially the same styling moves but executed them poorly. Its truck market share had sunk to 6 percent by 1960.
TODAY ONLY 14 percent of all pickup-truck owners list “use in line of business” as their vehicle’s main purpose.
The most visible, and most popular, innovation was the extended cab, first seen on 1973 Dodges and Fords. Initially this meant two tiny jump seats stuffed behind the front seat, but Ford and Chevrolet extended-cab pickups are now available with a third door to facilitate rear-passenger entry and the loading of items you’d rather not have outside in the cargo bed. “Anything in a pickup bed gets either wet or stolen,” says a nugget of conventional pickup wisdom.
Today’s pickup trucks are good-looking, quick, tight as a drum, and comfortable to drive. Every “creature feature” (a hideous but accurate term coined by an anonymous product planner) known to mankind is available on pickups, from air conditioning to cruise control to cup holders.
That, in the absence of the kind of minutiae compiled by experts, is a history of the all-American truck, and it is simple enough. Far more difficult is establishing how the pickup went from a blue-collar or redneck utility vehicle to a rig you can drive to the yacht club and not get sneered at.
“The pickup is the cowboy’s horse,” says Bob Lutz, president of the Chrysler Corporation and a man who can claim as thorough an understanding of the psychology of pickups as any. When Chrysler introduced its new Dodge Ram full-size pickup, with radical styling reminiscent of big, thundering, over-the-road tractors in 1993 (a scant twenty-one years since its immediate predecessor first saw the light of the showroom), Lutz said, “We don’t care if half the buyers hate it; if fifteen percent of them can’t live without it, we’ve tripled our market share.” The new Ram has done just that.
Somewhere along the line, beginning in the 1970s, the pickup became attractive to an entirely new group of buyers. Its image as a workhorse began to dim, replaced by an aura of pickups as the thing to drive. John Travolta’s role as an “urban cowboy” (1980), complete with a brand-new Ford F-150, doubtless fueled this trend.
Did this popularity come along as a concomitant to or a result of the increased popularity of country and western music? Can we credit L. L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, and Timberland with making our nation first outdoors conscious and later pickup conscious? In subconsciously longing for a simpler time, are we rejecting the Lexus and the BMW in favor of a real frontier vehicle?
The answers are probably less ethereal than those.
In 1957 Ford introduced a vehicle called the Ranchero. Built on the Ford station-wagon platform, it was all car up front and all truck in the rear. Its bed was sandwiched between the same fender design found on the station wagon. The result transcended the carlike interiors that had already begun—and would continue—on the full-size pickups.
Two years later the Chevrolet El Camino appeared, a General Motors execution of the Ranchero that was, if anything, more carlike and less truckish than the civilized Ranchero. These car-truck hybrids found homes with gentleman farmers and oil-field engineers and in any number of driveways in front of houses occupied by other educated middle-class professionals whose work took them off beaten pathways. With whip antennas bent by the wind and air conditioners at full song, these vehicles were anything but crude, yet they projected an image up there with the Marlboro cowboy’s.