November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.