Historiography: The Rise of the Mini-Truck

To survive a recession, you have to weather the storm.

The early 1980s were an economic mess, yet not as bad as it was during the 1970s. This past recession felt worse compared to the economy Ronald Reagan inherited thanks to geopolitical storms out of the Middle East, the Soviet Bloc and Latin America. These storms were partially fueled by gasoline – thanks to a crisis brought on by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1973.

The OPEC oil crisis changed the way we viewed the automobile. Though it would take years for North American companies to "downsize" their lineups towards better efficiency, some measures needed to be in place ahead of any crisis.

What we saw were the results of these measures that shaped the automotive industry in North America in 1982. It wasn’t enough to build smaller passenger cars. There was something else that took place that also changed the way we looked at transportation – for both work and play.

In North America, the pickup truck was a volume leader in the automotive industry. For farms, businesses, governments and individual contractors, the pickup truck provided the lifeline to help keep the country going. By the 1970s, they were seen as work vehicles with an occasional recreational use.

A typical pickup truck sold in North America was the traditional full-sized "half-ton" model. The formula continues today with a basic frame, a powerful engine with plenty of torque for cargo hauling, a cab comfortable enough for the driver and a space behind the cab that most likely had a bed that would be filled with everything from bales of hay to lumber to a camper.

Why all of the sudden did truck consumers in the 1970s and 1980s actually consider something else than a Ford F-Series, Chevrolet C/K-Series or the Dodge pickup?

Back in the 1950s, Toyota and Nissan set up shop on the West Coast with something resembling an older pickup truck of the time – but scaled down to a miniature size. When it came to actually considering them, no one thought anything of them – except as simply toys, not work horses. There were uses for them when a smaller scale of work is needed for these mighty little trucks.

By 1971, there was an explosion in what was termed as the "mini-truck." Mazda joined Toyota and Nissan (er, Datsun) by bringing a truck to the USA market. Instead of a robust piston engine, Mazda dropped their first generation rotary engine under the hood. Meanwhile, Ford and GM jumped in the fray using their Japanese partners to leverage their captive import agreements. Mazda was a partner with Ford, so the same Mazda pickup was sold with a proper piston engine and a familiar name – the Courier. GM went to Isuzu for their imported mini-truck – the Chevrolet LUV. Chrysler would soon connect with Mitsubishi towards the end of the 1970s for their captive import truck – the Dodge D-50/RAM 50 and the Plymouth Arrow Truck.

A strange occurrence happened by the time Ronald Reagan was elected President. The demand for mini-trucks continued to grow. Isuzu began to set up shop to sell their version of the Chevrolet LUV – the P'up. Mitsubishi was about to start distributing automobiles under its own brand name – with the Mighty Max waiting in the wings. And, somewhere in Detroit, GM began to create a homegrown mini-truck…

The S-Series truck was GM's domestic entry into the mini-truck sweepstakes. As the first North American-developed and built compact pickup, it took a lot of cues from its bigger brother, the C/K-Series. Each one had a choice of bed lengths, three trim levels and two engines – an Isuzu-sourced 1.9ltre four and GM's 2.8litre V6. An Isuzu-sourced diesel was optional in several markets. GMC's S-15 became the brand’s first entry in to compact truck market, while Chevrolet’s S-10 was ready to kick the LUV out of the lot.

The S-Series was a pretty tough number built in the same manner as the larger C/K-Series. In some ways, they eclipsed the Toyota and Nissan in some dimensions, but the Japanese had a few points of their own. Where the S-10/15 matched the Toyota and Nissan was sales acceptance in the midsection of the country. GM, Toyota and Nissan were built to scale some tough stuff; the Japanese weren't welcome in the heart of the continent. That’s where GM won.

Not to be outdone, Ford was working on its answer to the S-Series. The latest Courier certainly did the job, but Ford knew it had to do better. In 1982, the Ranger was introduced. Following the idea that a good truck is scaled down from its bigger brother, the Ranger had a lot of cues from the F-Series…right down to the frame and bed construction.

The Ranger was better in most respects. Ford offered two four cylinders – a 2.0-liter and a 2.3-liter. It also offered Ford's Cologne 2.8-liter V6 as an option. A Mazda/Perkins diesel engine was an option. The Ranger also offered two cabs types, two bed lengths and two- and four-wheel drive systems. Being an early 1983 model, the Ranger wound up getting more interest than GM's truck. It became apparent that the new domestic trucks would lead the way in changing the mini-truck game further into the 1980s.

Toyota maintained its leadership in the segment despite the arrival of GM and Ford’s homegrown mini-trucks. While the domestics began plunking down V6s, Toyota maintained an all-four cylinder lineup – a gasoline-fed 2.4-liter and a diesel 2.2-liter. You can an extended cab back then – the Xtra Cab. The one thing Toyota maintained was the fact that their four-wheel drive system was a proven driveline since it is used the world over. It is also a popular option for customers in the western states.

Datsun's 720 pickup was considered a modern answer to the marketplace. Like the Toyota, Datsun offered two four cylinder engines – a 2.2-liter gasoline and a similarly sized diesel. In the mini-truck segment, Datsun introduced the first extended cab – the King Cab – and remained its calling card for customers. By 1983, the Datsun pickup switched to the Nissan nameplate and began production at the Smyrna, Tennessee plant – a first amongst foreign pickups.

Beyond the big four mini-trucks, the other three held their own in terms of what they offered customers. Isuzu's P'Up was already familiar to some customers as the Chevrolet LUV. Yet, Isuzu decided to put its own charm to the dowdy truck. We saw more graphics and an emphasis on their diesel engine as a way to sell the P'Up. Isuzu has always been a truck specialist building everything from small pickups to long haulers – specializing on strong, durable diesel engines.

Mazda sold the B-Series as an alternative to the badge-engineered Ford Courier. When the Ranger supplanted the Courier, it opened the door for Mazda to truly sell their truck. Though a better version of the B-Series was forthcoming, Mazda had to make do with being the sole seller of its truck. It also had plans for its replacement a few years down the line.

While Dodge and Plymouth sold Mitsubishi's pickup, everyone was aware of a brand new version that was coming. It would be the most modern amongst the Japanese-made trucks. What Chrysler was not prepared for was that customers would have a Mitsubishi-badged model in the market – the Mighty Max. Mitsubishi released a brand new pickup for global consumption with Dodge selling it first stateside. The Mighty Max came a few months after the first Mitsubishi dealerships opened up on the West Coast.

Was it a fair fight? Though the S-Series and Ranger made it on the farm across North America, they would be joined by others looking for a piece of this segment. They also had staying power through the decade and a bit beyond. The S-Series would yield greater success, despite the rise of the Ford Ranger. By the end of the 1980s, it became a battle between GM, Ford, Toyota and Datsun for compact pickup supremacy. By being the first domestically to build one, GM already had a good start on the marketplace. Ford was no slouch when the Ranger showed up in early 1982. Toyota's already proven to be a global truck master, while Nissan's reputation for simply being tough in its segment was proven time and time again.

What about Isuzu, Mazda and Chrysler/Mitsubishi? They soldiered on for several years strengthening the mini-truck market through the 1980s. By the end of the decade, Chrysler would produce their own small pickup – a mid-sized beast called the Dodge Dakota. Mitsubishi would continue with the Mighty Max well into the 1990s.

The strength of the mini-truck craze came when the domestics decided to make their own homegrown versions of a successful formula. It also gave additional brands a chance to play in the sandbox and expand their horizons. Four-wheel drive, extended cabs and even more cylinders would continue to shape the mini-truck market through the end of the decade.

One would look no further than the streets of the San Fernando Valley to witness how big the mini-truck craze became in 1982. Customizing them were part of the lifestyle of a mini-truck. You began to see some being lowered concurrently with the "lowered Bug" craze. Others took their four-wheel drive versions and raised them higher. The more the culture demanded a degree of customization for their mini-trucks, the more these trucks continued being popular out in the marketplace.

There was a shining moment during the 1980s when it was cool to work and play in a mini-truck. With petrol set to scale up to record heights again, one wonders whether those days would return. With the number of so-called mid-sized trucks dwindling, a revival is far fetched at this time. Maybe we should transport ourselves back to the days when it was cool to drive a mini-truck over Topanga Canyon en route to Zuma. Even those who lived on the farm someone where in a fly-over state shared that dream – in their domestically-built mini-truck.

A mini-truck also answered the larger question of the time: "What recession?"

All photos by Randy Stern

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