Historiography: The Centennial of a Bitter Rivalry

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All Photos by Randy Stern

A hundred years ago, the truck market grew by two luminary nameplates.

In 1917, Ford introduced their first truck – the TT. The next year saw Chevrolet answer with their One Ton. Both trucks addressed the one-ton payload market with a platform to build off – a basic heavy-duty frame, a powerful engine and supreme capability Americans needed in the post-World War I era.

The story of Chevrolet’s and Ford’s trucks could be told separately. The truth is that their histories have been linked over these past 100 years as these rivals try to outdo each other. The truck engineers and designers at Ford and General Motors have been playing “can you top this” on the most profitable vehicle ever created. If Ford came up with something groundbreaking, Chevrolet (and GMC) will have an answer.

Obviously, this retelling of this century-old Chevrolet-Ford truck rivalry could not ignore those other manufacturers who dared to battle with these two brands. You might see a reference to, say, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, International Harvester/Navistar, Studebaker, or any other truck manufacturer that sold to the many businesses, farms and individuals who needed – or wanted – a truck.

As the Armistice was being finalized in Europe, we look at how the two best selling trucks in the world began their 100-year dominance of this market.

2017 Ford F-150 Raptor

In the USA, trucks have been around before the Ford TT. They go back to the days of horse-drawn wagons. They had more than enough horsepower to carry the goods from the factory or farm to where they are traded and sold. Once the automobile was developed, there was a thought to take the same propulsion systems driving these vehicles onto the old horse-drawn wagon. Karl Benz developed a truck powered by an internal combustion engine in 1895. From that point, the truck as we know it took off from there.

Back in 1918, both Chevrolet and Ford offered these trucks to businesses and sole proprietors to be customized. Neither truck did not come with a cab or any bodies. Both truck makers did bring in third-party companies to add those items on – including removable guards for an open bed.

The 1920s brought prosperity, which translated into growth for businesses of all sorts. There was also a huge entrepreneurial spirit during the Roaring 1920s. The latter will come into play as the entire truck business begins to take off. A world of new opportunities for local and cross-country transport of goods helped shape the development of these trucks.

The Ford-Chevrolet rivalry became a game of tit-for-tat with every new model. Ford’s Model AA was built off of the Model A and both new products were introduced for 1927. Chevrolet introduced the AC International Series truck in 1929 answering the Model AA’s sales leadership. Ford fired back with the Model BB in 1933, keeping the same formula of a stronger frame with a familiar cab design as the current car models. To up the ante, Ford added their flathead V8 engine in the Model BB for more power to haul even more goods to market. Even in the thick of the Great Depression, Ford and Chevrolet continued to make trucks to help spur on the recovery from the country’s deepest economic downturn.

2014 MAMA Spring Rally

Both Ford and Chevrolet continue to push the design and engineering of their trucks in 1937 and 1938 respectively. However, no one predicted that World War II would test the mettle of the truck when it arrived in battle. Though Chrysler’s Dodge trucks took a more prominent role in the war effort, Ford and General Motors provided chassis, drivetrains and other components for various heavy equipment in combat and to feed the supply lines.

The end of World War II was a major transition in American society. Returning personnel from the war took on benefits that enabled them to buy homes, furnishings, start businesses and purchase new vehicles. Before the “Big Three” introduced their new Postwar cars, they introduced brand new trucks.

The year 1947 was a big year for these new trucks. Chevrolet introduced the 3100 pickup as part of the “Advanced Design” lineup. This was not just a change in cab design, but a ground-up engineering advance that focused on the building of a proprietary truck rather than a truck based on a car.

Ford took the same route to building a truck from the ground up with the 1947 F-Series. The F-Series may have gone a similar path to GM’s Advanced Design truck, but Ford’s flathead V8 was seen as an advantage to Chevrolet’s Stove Bolt in-line six-cylinder – even though the numbers were actually quite similar.

MNVW Meet 6.27.15

The Chevrolet and the Ford moved the bar in the truck business. Both trucks spurned a massive growth that set the tone for the next 70 years. Others have already joined in, such as Dodge, International Harvester, and Studebaker. The modern concept of the light-duty pickup truck began with ensuring that the basic half-ton pickup was accessible to anyone from cab access to choosing between a basic box, a flatbed, or going with a cab/chassis format.

In the immediate postwar era, manufacturers were using the same engines as in the cars they were sold alongside. However, that would change as the pickup truck began to take shape in the coming decades. What would also change would be the way the truck will look like. Design independence, based on purpose over continuity with the car it was based on, enabled the pickup truck to be seen for its intended purpose.

The 1950s marked a time when the pickup truck began to look at the possibilities of its future. Trucks were given a different set of engineering and design tenets than mere cars, yet they could be seen as recreational vehicles as well as commercial ones. To attract the recreational buyer, cab designs were massaged towards utilizing some elements from the cars they sold alongside. Eventually, those concepts were seen on the box in the back. For 1955, Chevrolet introduced the first box design that flowed from the cab, while increasing space inside of the box fore and back of the wheel wells. Chevrolet called this special model the Cameo, but the name Fleetside superseded it in the years after.

As the 1950s came to a close, there was a refocusing on truck engineering and design. Pickup trucks started to get larger and more integrated with its design. Work fleets were finding great value in them. Farmers also found that they had no qualms about taking their trucks from the field into the city with some style and flair. It will be the recreational customer that will help frame pickup truck design for the decades to come.

Victoria Car Show 7.22.15

Trucks began to get boxier, as well as larger. Chevrolet’s design of the 1967 C/K Series was a prelude to Ford’s 1968 F-Series. By then, they were able to expand the lineup to include 3/4- and one-ton pickups, using the same cab design, but on stronger chassis, longer wheelbases and heavier components. Designers were able to expand flush box designs to stretch over these longer wheelbases.

The race between Chevrolet and Ford was truly heating up. While Ford touted their Twin-I-Beam front suspension as their primary innovation, Chevrolet countered with an overall commitment to durability. Ford people might not want to hear this, but if you have driven an F-Series with the Twin I-Beam suspension, you would run towards a Chevy with its better engineering and stability control.

Yet, Chevrolet’s sales leadership was about to be eclipsed by Ford. Since the 1970s, the F-Series was the sales leader in all other automotive products. Trucks became big business, as they began returning to some of the attributes their car brethren had to offer. “Luxury” interiors and appointment started filling the cab. Ford beat Chevrolet in offering a two-door extended cab – the SuperCab – in the 1970s. In truth, Dodge countered with their own version of their D-Series pickups.

Crew cabs – four-door versions of the regular cab – have been around since 1963 on full-sized pickup trucks. Ford introduced their crew cab in 1965 with Chevrolet following up in 1973. In the course of 45 years, no one had any idea that a cab designed for a work crew would become the most popular cab choice of retail consumers.

The 1973 Chevrolet C/K-Series was significant not because of its design. It provided fodder for a rivalry that was about to trade some sales paint. If one truck has deepened the relationship with its customers the most, the “square” Chevrolets (and GMCs) did it the best. The design was clean, even with some shaping and scalloping around the sides on, in particular, on the cab. Though later models got, even more, square, it was the durability and dependability of this generation of Chevrolet full-sized pickup that was the envy of the business.

Lucky 13 Mendota Show

Yet, each brand had their loyal customers and fans to prop their favored pickup truck at every turn. When it came to sales, Ford was clearly the leader – solidly since 1982. It helped to keep their truck product fresh, even if it was carried over from a previous generation. The F-Series of 1980 began to push the mark set by Chevrolet by adding more luxury to their pickup. Elements of the frame were still seen all the through into the 1990s.

Chevrolet continued to take the lead in design and engineering. For 1988, General Motors built a truck that would foretell the future. It pushed the pickup truck by attracting more recreational customers while maintaining strong attributes to engage commercial customers. It also sent Ford back to the drawing board. It would take years to formulate a new strategy for pickup trucks, which included further differentiation of heavier duty models from its popular half-ton versions.

When I was shopping for what would become my last new car – the 1991 Acura Integra – I considered a Chevrolet C1500 W/T pickup. The W/T was a basic regular cab pickup that had rubber floors, a vinyl or cloth bench seat, and nominal cab equipment. Not knowing how trucks drove back then, I had my mind set on a short wheelbase model. The truth is was short pickups were not the most comfortable to drive – and why in the hell did I want a truck in a place like Marin County, California if I did not do any work with one?

A few years later, I drove my first pickup truck – a 1993 Ford F-150 XLT I rented along with an acquaintance for New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. This brought up another lesson on trucks – they’re terrible for city driving. Unless you knew how to drive one, you should not have any business driving a truck like an F-150 into a city such as San Francisco.

LTM/MNNI Meet

Funny that I considered a Chevrolet, but drove a Ford first. This was in the face of the most advanced pickup in engineering and design that tried to take either one’s mantle – the Dodge Ram. Its 18-wheeler look was just the beginning of a legend that pushed the pickup truck further int the American consciousness in the 1990s. Though successful, the Dodge still could not sell enough pickups to overtake Chevrolet and Ford for sales superiority.

The Chevrolet-Ford rivalry would be tested in 1997 when Ford redesigned the F-150 and split the entire pickup lineup with its purpose-built and designed Super Duty trucks. Ford took the high road by building a 3/4- and one-ton pickup from the ground up using a stronger frame, a specific cab/box design, and using higher performance engines with specific torque requirements. The Super Duty achieved greater results by claiming higher towing and payload capacities in attracting customers that need to do more with a pickup truck. A consequence of the Super Duty was its acceptance as a lower cost alternative to low-end medium-duty trucks. Companies could buy a Ford F-Series Super Duty in a cab/chassis configuration, put an enclosed body in the back for local delivery work.

The next year, Chevrolet came with a new light-duty pickup truck – now named the Silverado. It further pushed the boundaries that the previous C/K-Series achieved. Instead, they concentrated on the half-ton version with sportier editions – namely, the SS – and adding a light hybrid electric system to the truck. The latter would be a failure since the system did not add torque to the driveline.

For heavy-duty pickups, Chevrolet responded to Ford with the Silverado HD in 2000. The Super Duty’s Power Stroke V8 diesel was met with the Silverado’s Duramax V8 diesel. The frame was beefed up and some adjustments were made to the cab and box design.

LTM/MNNI Meet

In turn, Ford’s dominance in the market was led by the Super Duty’s presence in the 3/4- and one-ton markets. However, Ford dealt with its own setbacks, due to the reliability of the new Triton V8 engines and a recall based on fires stemming from the fuel system. Ford knew it had to produce an F-150 that would be better than any before it. One that would reset the standard they created decades ago and would further extend their lead in overall vehicle sales.

In 2003, Ford came out with an all-new F-150. It was built from the ground up with a more concentrated frame, boxier design inside and out and an emphasis on quality and reliability. This new F-150 also included Ford’s EcoBoost technology with a 3.5 liter, twin-turbocharged V6. It would test Ford’s resolve as earlier versions experienced turbocharger failures when pushed to its limits in capacity. One would tell Ford that, when it comes to trucks there is no replacement for displacement – and torque. Ford would go back to the drawing board as they pushed the EcoBoost engines onto the next F-150.

During this generation of the F-150 came a trophy truck – the Raptor. While cars – and one SUV – benefitted from high-performance engines and track-inspired engineering, Ford found a market that wanted a high-performance truck with engineering for a different kind of motorsport – off-road racing. The Raptor was designed to run through the desert, but many of its customers would use it purely for recreational fun. It would become the ultimate pickup truck for non-commercial customers.

Chevrolet had to respond. The 2006 Silverado pushed their pickup product to counter the F-150 and, eventually, the Super Duty. It was a solid truck – more solid than the Ford, according to several tests. But, it was not enough. The K2XX Chevrolet pickup of 2014 sent GM into design and engineering leadership by sticking to a simple powertrain strategy – with the added bonuses of direct injection, cylinder deactivation, and other engineering advances.

Of course, Ford would lay the biggest card down for its 2015 F-150 and 2017 Super Duty: Aluminum cab and box construction. On top of the EcoBoost engines, the lighter weight helped in achieving improved fuel economy. They would also add a 10-speed automatic transmission – co-developed with GM – to move the efficiency bar further.

2015 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 LT Z71 Crew Cab 013

Which leaves us to the future. What will Chevrolet and Ford do to honor their centennial celebrations of their highly profitable truck products?

That is all speculation at this moment. To look at the future, one must honor the past. Though other players have challenged the two biggest names in American truck lore, one has to look back over the 100 years of each brand’s story to see where they have emerged at the summit. One has to understand why one needs the other to elevate their products further. One has to find how they can retain a deep sense of loyalty for each brand of truck while finding conquests from each other.

That’s the name of the game – for the past 100 years.

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