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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
That image wasn’t hurt by Timothy Bottoms, who showed those who saw The Last Picture Show (1971) that driving a 1940 Chevrolet pickup was not always an impediment when it came to getting your girlfriend’s clothes off.
Adding to the effect created by the El Camino, the Ranchero, and possibly Timothy Bottoms were the gasoline crisis and the government exhaust-emissions standards that came alone in the 1970s. In that decade full-size pickup sales soared from 1,163,535 in 1970 to a high of 2,234,389 in 1978. At least some of these sales, and probably a lot of them, were made because the unregulated pickups were still fast while cars were growing duller by the year. In the 1970s it was possible to get giant four-hundred-plus-cubic-inch V-8s in your pickup, leading to another common adage: “ Nothing is as fast as an empty pickup.”
Also in the 1970s, small pickups began to appear in the showrooms of Japanese manufacturers and enjoyed enormous sales successes. These compact pickups were later joined by offerings from the domestic Big Three (Chevrolet S-10, GMC S-15, Ford Ranger, and Dodge Dakota). During the decade, compacts went from annual sales of just over a half-million to 1.2 million, and by 1986 they were outselling full-size pickups. This trend went into reverse two years later, and in 1995 full-size pickups outsold compacts by about three to two. In any event, the compacts were advertised from the first as pleasure vehicles, helping their full-size cousins up the ladder of respectability.
Full-size loyalists arc unimpressed by the compact pickup’s impact on the market and will quickly tell you, “If it ain’t a big one, it ain’t a pickup.” Think of John Wayne behind the wheel of a Toyota T100 or Waylon Jennings driving a Ford Ranger, and you’ll understand their point.
A look at what people do with their pickups today is instructive: More than half use them to commute. Commuting, shopping and errands, outdoor activities, and pleasure driving account for three-quarters of the owners’ primary usage. Only 14 percent list “use in line of business” as their pickups’ main purpose.
A look at who these full-size pickup owners are is even more surprising. Some 63 percent of them are between the ages of thirty and fifty-four, and half of them are under forty-five. Half of them attended college, and 23 percent of them graduated. The largest occupational group is managerial/ professional/technical (41 percent) followed by blue-collar at 32 percent. Women drive 9 percent of the big pickups.
Even as you read this, truck marketers at the Big Three are “repositioning” the big pickups as “family” and “lifestyle” pickups. The stylists are working on ever-softer lines, ostensibly in the name of aerodynamic efficiency. Fewer hay bales, once an advertising staple, are showing up in full-size pickup television commercials. Now that full-size pickups represent a major piece of the sales pie (more than 11 percent of total sales and 27 percent of truck sales), it appears that the industry is determined to prove that it’s never too late to overthink a good thing.
In 1954 a boy in the class behind me at Central High School in Jackson, Mississippi, asked for and got a brandnew GMC pickup for Christmas. The young man in question, Gail Gladney by name, could have continued to drive his dad’s 1953 Cadillac, but when the time came to have his own transport, he chose a pickup. Jackson, then and now, is hardly a hotbed of sophisticated urban values, but most of us at Central High put Gail’s choice of a pickup on a level with choosing to attend the junior-senior prom wearing bib overalls. In retrospect he suffered the kind of second-guessing forever attending those ahead of their time.
This past April, during a sporting-clays shoot at the Detroit Gun Club, one of the shooters described the excitement attending the arrival of a new pickup: her new pickup. The speaker, a stunning woman in her early thirties with a successful sales career in her past and future, spoke happily of the pickup’s above-it-all driving position, its general utility, and the ability to strap her three-year-old son in the extended-cab portion of the truck.
No one laughed.