The American Pickup

The pickup once demanded some accommodation. If you had a “need” for a pickup, you had to forego some of the creature comforts and utility of a car. You did without a good stereo and learned to appreciate poor handling.

As far as most consumers and producers are concerned, a pickup isn’t a pickup unless it’s big.

The Honda Ridgeline and a sheep, from Honda’s 2016 Super Bowl ad.

The Debut

Honda held the press event for its 2017 Ridgeline model at the Rio Cibolo Ranch, near San Antonio, because it wanted to make one thing clear: the Ridgeline is a pickup truck. This is true—sort of. The Ridgeline has all the capability most pickup owners will ever need: it can tow a bass boat, haul a load of rocks, or lug a Jet Ski. And it certainly looks like a pickup truck, though very much of the up-to-date school. Old trucks had two doors, seating for three, and a bed long enough to hold a full sheet of plywood or three yards of mulch. But like the overwhelming majority of pickups on the market today, the Ridgeline has four doors, enough seating for a family of five, and a stubby five-foot bed.

The rural launch echoed Honda’s recent Super Bowl ad, which features a gentleman rancher tending his flock of sheep in a verdant vale. When no one is looking, the sheep belt out Queen songs they’ve picked up in transit—the Ridgeline’s cargo bed doubles as a giant stereo speaker, and apparently the rancher is a Freddie Mercury fan. It’s a weird ad, but the messaging is sound. Livestock, as we all know, only ride in truck beds, and though it shares a platform and a lot of DNA with the Acura MDX, a domesticated luxury SUV, the Ridgeline is a truck, and thus sheep-appropriate. You can’t, after all, put sheep in the third-row seat of an SUV.

The Loneliness of the Mid-Size Truck

“Honda insists that it really is a real truck,” insisted Automobile Magazine in June. Why is the world’s eighth-largest car manufacturer so anxious? Because it’s trying to compensate. For many pickup enthusiasts, the large and rigid Ridgeline is too small and too soft.

The Ridgeline is known as a mid-size truck, bigger than a compact but smaller than full-size. But mid-size isn’t what it used to be: the Ridgeline and its fellow mid-sizers are as big as the full-size trucks of old, and since there are no compact trucks for sale in the US anymore, the mid-size is no longer in the middle of anything.

Why doesn’t the US make small trucks? Partly because doing so never appealed to domestic automakers, leaving the segment open to foreign competition. Until, that is, some frozen chickens got in the way.

The Chicken War began in 1963, when the French and the Germans imposed a tariff on American frozen chickens and LBJ slapped a 25-percent tariff on light-truck imports in retaliation. The VW pickup, based on the company’s popular microbus, was the most direct target of the trade conflict. Over the years, the Germans—and later the Japanese—learned to skirt the tax by shipping pickups over in pieces and finishing assembly in the US. But the chicken tax is still on the books, so the only way to make any real money in the American pickup market—with trucks of any size—is to build them here, which is why the category is so much more profitable for Detroit than any other. Behind its tough-guy facade, the American pickup is a delicate orchid kept alive by protectionism.

With no foreign competitors bringing compact pickups into the American market, and American manufacturers still unwilling to produce them, the chicken tax has all but wrung the neck of the compact pickup. These days, even the misnamed mid-size trucks have become scarce. In addition to being nearly as big as their overgrown siblings and hardly less expensive, mid-size trucks don’t offer any major advantages. Ford and Fiat-Chrysler stopped selling mid-size pickups in the US market a few years ago, and the remaining three from Nissan, GM, and Toyota—all of them long in the tooth—account for little more than 10 percent of the pickup market. If sales figures for the first-generation Ridgeline are any guide, only a few tens of thousands of Americans will conclude that the Honda serves their needs. As far as most consumers and producers are concerned, a pickup isn’t a pickup unless it’s big.

Popular Atavisms

Size remains an issue, but the deeper problem is structural. According to all of Honda’s competitors—as well as chauvinistic pickup aficionados—unless the body and the frame are separate, it’s not a truck. A body-on-frame vehicle has an engine, transmission, and wheels bolted to a ladder. Atop the ladder go the cab and the bed. These are separate entities, which helps the whole vehicle skip down the road like a drunken first grader.

By these criteria, the Honda is . . . well, not a truck. Like all modern passenger cars, from the teensy-weensy Chevrolet Spark to the massive Mercedes S Class, the Ridgeline’s bed and body are all one unit, and there is no separate frame. Unibody (also called unit-body or monocoque) construction gives the Honda the composure of a teacher’s pet bringing a note to the office. And why not? Honda is looking at the same market data as every other manufacturer. It reveals that the largest market for pickup trucks consists not of construction crews, but suburbanites who “need” a pickup but don’t want to trade any creature comforts to get one. Their Ridgelines will haul the kids to soccer before hauling a new gas grill home from Lowe’s. The only time they’ll use the trailer hitch is when they decide to mount a bike rack.

And yet, millions will buy the body-on-frame jumbo trucks from Ford, Chevy, Fiat-Chrysler, and, to a far lesser extent, Toyota and Nissan. The three most popular vehicle models in the US are full-size pickup trucks. Americans buy more than two million of them a year.

The Ridgeline may be an outlier, but in one respect, it fits in perfectly with its cohort of pickup trucks, real and otherwise: it gets poor gas mileage. Making direct comparisons in the truck space can be very difficult because Detroit offers its pickups in so many configurations, but it’s safe to say that the Ridgeline’s mileage is in the range of other mid-size trucks, and barely better than the big boys. Comparing conventionally fueled gasoline trucks to diesel, battery electric, and hybrid vehicles might elicit legitimate calls of foul. Undeniably, however, choosing a pickup truck to haul golf clubs over a sedan capable of the same feat uses far more fuel and contributes more to climate disruption. (It’s especially sad to see Honda going after the pickup market because small, environmentally friendly, economical cars are the bedrock of the brand.) Looking toward 2025, automakers are demanding that the EPA reduce its minimum mileage rules by about 10 percent. The Obama administration has held firm. Trump supporters, however, surely expect their candidate to roll back those standards in his quest to Make America Great Again.

To drive a thirsty truck is to live in a pre-EPA era, before the spikes in gas prices, before political correctness. The freedom that allowed Americans to drive around in comfortable living rooms while Europeans suffered in their struggle buggies remains a cornerstone of what cold war propagandists called the American Way of Life. To pilot a Prius or even a VW Golf is to admit that the rules actually do apply to us. To fill the bottomless tank of a pickup, meanwhile, is to practice the religion of the American Way. It is to affirm climate denial, petrol-adventurism, and American exceptionalism. We might forgive the incurious Chevy Silverado buyer for not recognizing this dynamic. But a Honda buyer? Shame on them for not knowing any better.

The Way of the Future

Still, although their architecture is archaic and their environmental standards prehistoric, today’s full-size trucks are not the pickups of old. For one thing, the classic rear-window gun rack is gone, replaced by a storage compartment under the seat. Speaking of seats, fully 90 percent of full-size trucks are ordered with seating for five and two-thirds with four doors. And as the cabs get bigger, the beds get smaller: these enormous trucks are too small for 4×8–foot sheets of plywood, but they offer a wide array of extravagant options, including electric tail gates operated from the key fob and a step ladder to get into the back, even though everyone knows that the proper way to mount a truck bed is to step up onto the tire. Full-size pickups now come with rear-facing cameras, and in some cases, bird’s eye view systems that obviate the need for mirrors (or windows).

Today’s big trucks are as different from their forebears as the iPhone is from the old Ma Bell dial phone. Like the old phone, the old pickup served a purpose. But today’s popular pickups are designed to inspire lust—a desire not just to use a thing but to buy it, to possess it. The truck has evolved from a market afterthought to the very pinnacle of consumerism.

At the same time, the Big Three have spent a lot of marketing dollars shoring up the idea of the real pickup. Their ads, like Honda’s, feature ranchers, along with hay bales, hard hats, carpenters, and fishermen. Ford has Denis Leary deliver and angry rant daring you not to buy the aluminum F-150, while Chevy warns would-be Ford buyers that “a real truck uses real steel.” In response, Ford calls its aluminum “military grade.” A commercial for the Ram 1500 features the same scenario as the Ridgeline ad, only the Ram sheep don’t sing. It’s a delicate balancing act: provide the luxury amenities customers demand while flattering them that they are real Americans who need real trucks to get real work done. In this context, unibody construction, with its quiet ride and composed handling, is just one more luxury twist, the logical result of pretending that vehicles with remotely controlled electric tailgates and boarding ladders deserve to be called pickup trucks at all.

This is why Honda won’t have the unibody market to itself for long. Fiat-Chrysler and Hyundai have plans to produce unibody pickups, and GM and Toyota have shown off unibody concept trucks. In fact, these unibody concept trucks began to appear at the auto shows shortly before the Great Recession. Were it not for the collapse of the vehicle market in 2008, they might already be on the road. Marketers call these smaller, unibody designs “lifestyle” vehicles to distinguish them from full-size trucks allegedly designed for work. Driving a vehicle that appears ready for work, however, turns out to be just one more lifestyle choice.

The Good Ole Pickup

In olden times, pickups didn’t find their truck-ness contested, because they were built no differently than cars. The frame and chassis arrived near the end of the assembly line, where the wooden body would be dropped onto the chassis and bolted up. In the days of the Model T, the pickup truck was actually a roadster, a sporty two-seater, with its sexy tail end swapped out for a cargo box. Horses still ruled the ranch, but plenty of farm families bought pickup bodies on their Model Ts and Chevrolets to haul crops to town. This was a different kind of lifestyle vehicle: it served those who were already living the lifestyle.

In the mid-1950s, automakers began trying to expand the pickup market—or they began responding to market demand, depending on your perspective. In 1957, Ford created the Styleside, with rear fenders integrated into the bed. The following year, Dodge introduced the Sweptside, a pickup with tailfins. And 100 percent of the Big Three tried their hand at the Stepside look, which mimicked the very prewar aesthetic—separate rear fenders—the Styleside had dispensed with. Chevy had the car-based, compact El Camino; Ford, the Ranchero. Even full-size trucks got wraparound glass and snazzy grilles with chrome options. The El Camino lingered into the 1980s, but none of these achieved much in the way of sales. Still, the truck was no longer just a tool. It was an easygoing state of mind. It was a Sandy Cay.

Sandy Cay was neither a Borscht Belt comedian nor a Caribbean island. He was my first pickup, a 1978 Dodge in Adventurer trim. The name came from the stylish two-tone paint job, though its mustard yellow over brown was well faded by fifteen years of life in Michigan weather by the time I bought him. Having moved to Ann Arbor from New York City, I needed an old pickup. “Need” isn’t quite the right word. But there is no word, at least in English, for the feeling that wells up from within the soul. John Jerome explained it best thirty years ago in his book Truck: On Rebuilding a Worn-Out pickup and Other Post-Technological Adventures. The onetime managing editor of Car and Driver needed to haul horseshit for his garden, so he needed an old truck. “Think of all the other things we could do with it,” he implores. “Oh, my, yes: a full-time working truck. All of a sudden I can’t invent problems fast enough to keep up with the solutions such a truck would represent.” He named his truck Harry Truman.

My stated need was hauling lumber to the campus wood shop, but in the back of my mind I had a secondary motive. I’ve never been great at making friends, so I figured the truck would help me get through the lonely, gray years of exile in Southeastern Michigan. Classmates would gravitate to me when they needed to move their junk from one cheap hovel to another. “Dan, old sport,” they would say in my raccoon coat fantasy of academic life, “I hear you have a truck.” It was either buy a pickup or start dealing pot.

In the days of Sandy Cay, automakers were still trying to find a way to expand the truck market. Sandy’s Adventurer trim signaled that this D100—though virtually identical to every other D100—was made for hauling a camper body and having some fun. An original magazine ad for the Adventurer shows mom and sonny emerging from the ice cream shop while the truck—new and well appointed—turns the head of a middle class housewife pushing her grocery cart:

Built for him . . . and for her. For the man who wants to move anything from cement blocks to sports gear. Plus ride and handling to ease a lady through her chores.

The product did not live up to its advertising. Even new, these trucks bounced and rattled and bounced again down the road. In order to haul heavy loads, the rear wheels were suspended from leaf springs, an ancient technology. With no weight in the bed, a big bump would send the rear end stepping sideways (ah, now the Stepside trim makes sense). Under hard braking, the unweighted rear wheels would lock up and skid. The old Dodges may have gotten a lady through her chores, but not with ease.

I’m not convinced that was a bad thing. To own a pickup was not merely to pose as a ranch hand but to accommodate oneself to the laconic ranch-hand ethos. If the ranch-hand would have made do with cowboy coffee and a bed roll, the pickup driver would make do with Sanka and a pup tent. The cab only carried three across with the middle passenger’s legs curled up to clear the transmission hump. Pickup trucks weren’t angry machines with more power than was good for them. They weren’t built to dominate the road. To drive a pickup was to slow down.

Surreal Pickups

It takes a certain irresponsible nostalgia—an anachronistic devotion to technology for its own sake—to drive a pickup of the bygone kind. It’s not as safe, not as comfortable, not even as useful as, say, a minivan for the typical suburban owner who does have to shop at Lowe’s and drive the carpool to soccer practice. Call me an anachronism. My 2007 F-150 has two doors, two-wheel drive, the base six-cylinder, and hand cranks for the windows. I had to teach the kids how they worked.

The F-150 is ugly inside and out. Sandy Cay had sensible mirrors framed in chrome. The newer Ford has mirrors framed by plastic so thin that there’s no gap between the reflection and the scene just ahead. I sometimes flinch because I think the car behind me is about to cross my path in front. The seats are a shade of gray so dull that it makes other shades of gray look interesting.

Even so, this old thing can’t help but have more luxury than Sandy Cay. There’s air conditioning, a digital stereo, and a thick steering wheel. I appreciate the better sound, and the air conditioner mostly works, but I can’t abide the thick wheel. The proper way to drive an old truck is to hang your fingers from the upper rim, somewhere just past noon. The wheel should float back and forth, loose and easy so that turning it a bit doesn’t do much. Critics call this sloppy steering and complain that old trucks didn’t handle well. But a pickup truck shouldn’t corner, shouldn’t have a zero-to-sixty time worth mentioning. A pickup that “handles” only encourages what the auto companies euphemistically call “spirited driving.” My truck has no spirit; I feel no compulsion to give it a name.

Yet my particular flavor of F-150 is an outlier. Most of the people who buy two-door trucks with gentle motors won’t actually drive them—only their employees will. The boss will buy himself an expensive model with room for the kids and enjoy a huge tax break in the process. That’s why the average transaction price of a new truck is $42,500, up from $33,500 five years ago. Ford alone has three models that start north of fifty. Trucks used to be a cheap alternative thanks to their archaic architecture and exemptions from certain environmental and safety standards; now they cost a third more than the average car. When people buy these trucks, the companies that make them feel fat and happy: even as prices skyrocket, the cost of building a body on a frame remains low.

I cannot declare Sandy Cay or Harry Truman “real pickups”—I’m not sure there ever was such a thing. But I do know that the pickup once demanded some accommodation. If you had a “need” for a pickup, you had to forego some of the creature comforts and utility of a car. You did without a good stereo and learned to appreciate poor handling. The pickup truck driver accepted those constraints, and in the process, subverted a consumerist ethos that insisted on bigger, better, more. The contemporary pickup, whether unibody or body-on-frame, has all the luxuries, room, and performance of a passenger car with eight times the trunk space. It demands no sacrifice and stands not as an alternative to consumption, but as its pinnacle. It can haul loads and haul ass on the road and take the family of five to the ski slopes without so much as a roof rack. If he could see the Ridgeline, the dearly departed Sandy Cay would shed a tear, not because the Ridgeline isn’t a real pickup, but because it is.

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