Historiography: The Personalization of the Pickup Truck

There was a time when a truck was driven for some form of commerce.

Whether you were a farmer, a tradesperson or in the business of transporting goods a distance, a truck was the best way to accomplish commerce. It made money for you, your employees and your business. The idea was simple: Take a chassis, add a cab and find a way to take care of the back to carry loads.

The formula may sound simple – and it was about a century ago. Yet, I often wondered how such a novel concept became so complicated.

A truck was not supposed to sell more than a standard passenger car. The necessity of having a truck as part of the will of commerce was there, but no one envisioned one to fall into the hands of a private owner for personal use.

How did we get to this point? First, a clarification: If I used the term "recreational" use rather than "personal," then we would forget about 100-plus years of truck history.

Even in its earliest years, truck chassis were used as recreational vehicles for private use. You may recall some photos of Henry Ford with his friends – one being Thomas Edison – out camping in a modified truck chassis that provided support for tents, foods and other goods needed for the outdoors. It seemed logical to use a truck chassis, as it would do a better job navigating a wooded trail better than a passenger car. Of course, we are talking the days before paved roads and the national highway system.

By about the mid-1920s, we began to see an evolution in the pickup truck. Ford offered a Model T with a single cab and a cargo box in the back. Access came from a tailgate and you could add extended wooded side stakes to protect what is inside the cargo box. Ford modified the rear suspension by adding heavy-duty coils to handle the weight in the cargo box.

The formula was further enhanced by Ford. The onset of the flathead V8 changed the way Ford sold their trucks – extra cylinders meant more power to carry heavier loads. Other manufacturers jumped on board by offering their own trucks. They took Fords cue by further distinguishing truck cab design over their passenger car models. General Motors, Chrysler, Hudson, Studebaker and International Harvester offered their wares to the same commercial customers, while Ford enjoyed a huge lead as the world’s biggest truck provider.

As with American society, World War II would change both the pickup truck and its use. Its commercial sales base grew as suburbs popped up on former farmland. Truck design and engineering began to take on car-like elements and conveniences since the manufacturers noticed that private ownership of pickups took root. In a way, this change was inevitable.

The recreational use of trucks also grew. Camping and vacations were promoted, while developing trailers to haul boats to the lake or campers to the woods. It was as the notion of recreation was driven by the convenience of postwar technology.

By the mid-1950s, manufacturers in America began to create pickups that would fit well within the confines of subdivisions and driveways. The "stepside" bed – where the cargo box fit in-between the rear fenders – began to see more enclosed beds where outer shells would envelop the fenders. Automatic transmissions became an option for the most popular pickups. More attention was given to suspensions and frames where trailering was growing – driven by the expansion of recreational use products.

Even the pickup truck grew itself. While Hudson and Studebaker were no longer in existence, Ford, GM, Chrysler, International Harvester and Kaiser-Jeep built their pickups to dwarf even the most basic full-sized sedan. The formula remained simple, as it was less expensive to build a truck than a full-sized passenger car in the 1960s. The result would yield a greater profit margin for the pickup than its bread-and-butter car.

By the 1970s, we began seeing more developments in the pickup placating the growing private ownership market. Truck manufacturers offered upgraded interior trims with newfangled conveniences – such as power windows and door locks. Pickup design even took shape with the 1972 Dodge D-Series and 1973 Chevrolet/GMC C/K-Series looking more with the times.

The full-sized pickup truck had company in this country. By the late 1950s, foreign makes began selling their idea of the pickup. The British Motor Corporation sold Morris Minors with a truck box in the back. Japan also sent forth pickups by Toyota and Datsun. You could also buy a Volkswagen microbus with a flat bed over the rear engine with collapsible cargo walls.

By 1970, Toyota and Datsun spurned a new class of pickup – the minitruck. Soon, the big three jumped in by importing models from their Japanese affiliates. Chevrolet sold an Isuzu pickup as the LUV, Ford’s Courier could also be bought at a Mazda dealer – except the latter had a rotary engine, and Chrysler eventually sold Mitsubishi pickups through Dodge and Plymouth dealers. The result was an increase in private ownership of pickup trucks, since the smaller models were less expensive and exuded more fun than their full-sized compatriots.

Then, there was the development of the "coupe utility." GM and Ford thought it would be a cool idea to take their popular full-sized cars and fashion truck beds out of the back. The Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero held steadfast in this market from the late 1950s through to the 1980s, despite not having the capacity and capability of their true truck cousins. They, too, also attracted a higher percentage of private owners than commercial ones.

At this point, I would say: "and the rest is history." We already know that Ford continues to own the pickup market. For the past 43 years, Ford's F-Series (the F-150 and Super Duty combined) has dominated the vehicle market. The strength of the F-Series continues with customer loyalty and continuous improvement. A vastly improved version of the F-150 will debut by the end of the year with a wide selection of engines – including a fully hybrid gas-electric model, a diesel, and two twin-turbocharged V6s.

Should I mention the Raptor? Yeah…why not?

GM recently introduced new versions of their full-sized "half-ton" pickups – the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and the GMC Sierra 1500. Some have criticized GM for not going further in their overall design. However, the popular pickup trucks introduced a new diesel, along with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine to the lineup. GM also added a new generation of heavy duty pickup trucks that fall in line with the design and engineering of their half-ton siblings.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles have found great success with their Ram Trucks brand. Not only are the Ram 1500 and Ram Heavy Duty pickup trucks the best-selling product at FCA inNorth America, it is considered to be the best pickup truck line in the same trade zone. It is a fact that this website wholeheartedly agrees with.

Toyota and Nissan are still in the pickup business in the USA. This time, they both have full-sized offerings along with their now-mid-sized models. Toyota seems to get the idea of the pickup with the Tundra, while the Tacoma has been the leader in the smaller truck market. Nissan soldiers on with the Frontier and Titan. A new V6 engine was installed on the 2020 Frontier, while the full-size Titan received a refresh and a concentration on the half-ton market.

Then, there is Honda. The current Ridgeline came from a hybrid of the coupe-utility and a midsized truck. It will soon be replaced with something that may actually look like a standard-issue pickup. It is also the only pickup sold in the USA that is front-drive based – which most truck owners think is absolutely wrong.

Compared to the immediate postwar years, today's pickup market has been further segmented than before. You still have full-sized trucks – former half-tons – that represent the core of the market. Heavy-duty pickups live in the high end, but only offered by Ram, Ford, Chevrolet and GMC.

Although we mentioned the mid-size Tacoma, Frontier, and Tacoma, the domestic three had gained a footing in this segment. GM has the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon offering diesel engines and – for Chevrolet – an off-road ready version. Ford's Ranger is the only pickup with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine to match the power of their rivals equipped with V6 motors.

FCA gave Jeep a capable mid-sized pickup truck in the Wrangler-based Gladiator. Some have written off this truck as a fad made for those who love to do the "Jeep Wave." However, it has a Diesel engine option along its venerable V6 and some good payload and towing numbers to boot. Yet, truck owners want to a see a mid-size truck offered from the Ram brand that will compete head-on with the Tacoma, Ranger, the GM twins, Ridgeline, and the upcoming new Frontier.

Why do we give so much attention to pickups today? For the manufacturers, it is the bottom line. You can build so many to sell and still yield a nice profit off each unit. In turn, retail consumers get a versatile machine that is part-commuter, part-recreational vehicle and part-project hauler for the home.

Through the years, I viewed trucks in various ways ranging from fascinating machines to unnecessary devices. Early on, they were indeed fascinating. As a Boy Scout, I was the first to earn the Truck Transportation merit badge in my troop – some of which came from studying trucks themselves.

Almost four decades later, I am reviewing them for my outlets. It is part of the reality of the marketplace – trucks are attractive to both retail and commercial consumers. You could rent mid-trim level models from AvisBudget, Hertz/Dollar/Thrifty, Enterprise/National/Alamo and so forth at your local airport. A truck is commonplace as any car or SUV/crossover anywhere in this country.

However, I have come to appreciate the pickup truck again. They are as useful as you want them to be, but occupying a larger footprint than most vehicles on the road. Somewhere in-between the balance are vehicles as iconic as the America spirit.

Respect the truck!

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