12 August 2014

Confused Trucks

Over the past two decades, America has become a land of truck drivers as SUVs, crossover SUVs, minivans and pickups have grown to account for the majority of light vehicle sales in the United States. In fact, the most popular vehicle in the world for more than three decades has been the Ford F-150, which, according to Morgan Stanley, accounts for 90 percent of Ford Motor Company’s global profits.

Given that kind of profit margin, and considering that in a typical year 16 million new vehicles are sold, there’s a huge incentive for auto manufacturers to try to introduce unique trucks in an effort to expand their existing model lines and fatten corporate treasuries.

For the most part, these efforts succeed. Neither a Cadillac Escalade nor a BMW X5 seem as strange as they did a decade ago. But here are other efforts that seemed like a sure bet but somehow missed the mark.

1978 Subaru Brat/2003 Subaru Baja

The product plan: Chevy was reaping fat profits with its rear-wheel-drive, midsize, car-based El Camino, as was Ford with the Ranchero. Subaru took the plunge with the four-wheel-drive Brat. The carmaker repeated their folly with the 2003 Baja.

So what happened? Brat stood for “Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transport.” Based on the company’s compact sedan platform, the Brat’s practicality was limited by two rear-facing seats mounted in the cargo bed, which offered little protection from weather or accidents. The Baja was a similar effort, minus the cargo bed seats.

[Video: 1933 Ford Pickup vs. 1979 Dodge Lil' Red Express]

1982 Dodge Rampage

The product plan: Like Subaru, Dodge eyed the fat profits being made by Chevy and Ford with their car-based pickup trucks and designed the Rampage to fill the void. Unlike the Subaru, there were no chairs in the cargo bed.

So what happened? In light of the second Mideast oil embargo, Dodge converted their product line to front-wheel drive. So, the Rampage was built on a compact, front-wheel-drive car platform with four-cylinders. However, domestic buyers expected their trucks to have eight cylinders. Result? This tiny truck’s name was a ruse.

1989 Dodge Dakota Convertible

The product plan: Since truck buyers increasingly use their vehicles as lifestyle accessories, why not offer the ultimate four-wheel fashion accessory, a convertible pickup?

So what happened? You have to admire then-Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca and crew for offering something that had never been tried. Nevertheless, whether bought for image or utility, trucks have to look as is they’re ready to work. By contrast, droptops must look seductive. The Dakota offered neither.

2001 Pontiac Aztek

The product plan: Design a car-based crossover SUV with Pontiac design cues hung on a minivan platform to give the vehicle a sense of excitement while saving development costs. Then, name it after a dead civilization, but misspell the name.

So what happened? This is a car that made sense only inside the airless world of GM’s numerous corporate committees. That said, the Aztek has one interesting idea: the center console doubles as a removable cooler. Other ideas, such as the optional tent, were regrettable. And need we mention the styling?

2002 Lincoln Blackwood

The product plan: Casting a jealous eye at the success and profitability of the Cadillac Escalade, in reality little more than a leather-lined Chevrolet Tahoe, Lincoln did the same to its bestselling Ford F-150 pickup.

So what happened? At the time, Ford’s CEO, Jacques Nasser, didn’t fully understand the American market, which might explain why the cargo bed was lined with carpet. Even worse, the cargo bed cover was permanently attached; so it was better at hauling polo mallets than cargo pallets. Ford lost millions on this truck.

2004 Chevrolet SSR

The product plan: Chevy unleashed this convertible pickup concept truck at the height of Detroit’s obsession with retro styling. It elicited such a positive reaction at auto shows that Chevy chose to build it. Given Chevy’s lineup at the time, it’s no wonder.

So what happened? The old saw about those who do not learn from history being doomed to repeat it applies here. While the SSR looked better than the Dakota convertible, its miniscule 4-foot cargo bed rendered the truck useless. Toss in lots of chassis flex and a lofty $40,000-plus price tag, and its fate was assured.

30 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Brian63 GA August 20, 2014 at 17:36
    If your one of the top three car makers in the United States, and your company president doesn't "...fully understand the American market.." then your in trouble! Maybe the chairman of Goldman Sachs was totally clear on the concepts of both the US banking system and the American stock market! Who hires these people??
  • 2
    John Fenrich Owasso, OK August 20, 2014 at 17:38
    How about the early Corvair pick-ups, another idea that wasn't very well thought out.
  • 3
    Dave Houston, TX August 20, 2014 at 18:18
    The most common theme is lack of power and lack of bed space. If you can't haul with a supposed hauler...
  • 4
    Gary Platz Colonial Heights, Va. August 20, 2014 at 18:45
    I' very owned an '84 Rampage for close to thirty years and have had some minor problems but, have enjoyed the fuzziness of it and that there's not too many remaining.It delivered over 30 mpg and has acceptable power.Only made for three years with a one year Plymouth derivative.It always gets a admiring looks at our local cruise in and at the car shows. Even the federal government had quite a few of these mini trucks in their heyday.
  • 5
    Duffy N. Illinios, USA August 20, 2014 at 19:47
    With respect to the 1989 Dodge Dakota Convertible - in about 1982 I lived in Santa Clara California where there was a vehicle dealer who made a sales claim that they would do a convertible conversion on any vehicle you wanted (and would buy from them of course.) But when I tried to talk to them about their smaller (ie much more reasonably priced) pickups, they just laughed at me - not enough profit to be had on that low-end I suppose ... Too bad!
  • 6
    Steve Seattle, WA August 20, 2014 at 20:15
    Regarding the Subaru Brat rear-facing, bed mounted, plastic seats. It is well known that these seats were added purely to circumvent the "Chicken Tax" import tariff. With the seats, Subaru could classify the BRAT as a passenger car subject to a 2.5% tariff vs. a 25% tariff on light trucks. I'm kind of shocked the author of this article doesn't mention this. And I note that the Pontiac Aztec deserves attention as Walter White's car in the incredibly popular AMC series Breaking Bad.
  • 7
    James M VanTress Georgia August 20, 2014 at 20:26
    I have two Blackwoods.Great truck. When did you last see someone with an Escalade carrying a pallet?
  • 8
    RivGS Minnesota August 20, 2014 at 20:48
    In regards to the Dakota convertible, it was tried before. Remember the Model T and A roadster pickups?
  • 9
    Rick Vienna, OH August 20, 2014 at 21:05
    In what world is the Aztek a TRUCK??? While it would be right at home on the planet Bizarro, even THEY wouldn't see it as a truck!
  • 10
    Tim Blackburn Springfield. OH August 20, 2014 at 21:41
    The chairs in the bed of the Brat were to avoid the heavy import tariffs for conventional trucks. Adding them meant that they were 4 seaters and they could be sold for much less than the Japanese mini truck competition.
  • 11
    Mark Mederski Columbus, Ohio August 20, 2014 at 21:56
    Good stories. As some of these vehicles come into view on the road, or as we pass salvage yards, we have similar comments we mouth to our rear view mirrors, or perhaps a caring passenger. Those comments usually include, "what were they thinking...." Experimentation and originality are good things but you wonder, did the Aztec design team never came back to work on Monday and said to themselves, or out loud, "WTF have we created?" and turned a page on their sketch pads, started over. Mark
  • 12
    P. Huot Ogdensburg, NY August 20, 2014 at 22:01
    Hell, thats what the El Camino was for !! So bring that back with some modern styling and features! Even the Ford Ranchero had a market and a use for it's design. (I'm partial, since I have a 60 El Camino!) My favorite would be to see a modern 60 Sedan Delivery updated!! That would be Great!
  • 13
    Mike Davis Royal Oak, MI August 20, 2014 at 22:03
    You have the story all wrong on the Lincoln Blackwood. It was shown nearly a year before the Escalade introduction, but was delayed getting into production because of vendor problems with the plastic tonneau cover. By the time Blackwood finally got there, Escalade had picked all the fruit.
  • 14
    Gary Glenn Abilene TX August 21, 2014 at 16:19
    HEY give me a break. My daily driver looks just like that SSR. Great, Fun Truck.
  • 15
    Greg Indianapolis August 21, 2014 at 07:27
    I had a rampage. It fit my needs at the time. It was, of course, no stump puller by any means. I really only got rid of it because we had our first child and there was just not room for 3 of us in there cabin legally. For some reason, the thing did "eat" clutch cables. I think I broke 3 of them.
  • 16
    Frank Amaral ON, Canada August 21, 2014 at 08:34
    You missed the VW Rabbit truck, which was where Subaru got the idea from
  • 17
    Ernie Aragon Arcadia Cal. August 21, 2014 at 09:50
    Great info I anxiously await your articles every issue
  • 18
    Laguna Mike Austin, TX August 21, 2014 at 10:17
    The BRAT had the rear seating to beat the "Chicken Tax" The SSR was 2 SLOW, 2 LATE and 2 EXPENSIVE!!!
  • 19
    John Rowen MA August 21, 2014 at 10:42
    Not included in this list are the VW Rabbit/Golf based front drive pickups. I still see a few on the road in this area. They were fun to drive and practical for light duty work, but prone to severe corrosion and most rusted up to the window sills before the mechanicals failed.
  • 20
    Roger Fredrick Md August 21, 2014 at 10:44
    Back in late 70's did a lot beach driving on Smithpoint LI. with my 78 bronco. Once on the sand luckily if I got 5 miles per gallon. My times these brats would pass me up doing great in the sand and getting great mileage. Made me think many times why I had the gas hog. Only time they would have a problem if the sand would get to dry and the ruts got to deep and they would bottom out. No problem a few strong backs and they would be on there way. A great beach vehicle
  • 21
    bjc007 California August 21, 2014 at 11:12
    Add various VW pickups to the list...rear engine, with something like a 20-80 weight unbalance and not enough power to get out of its' own way -- unloaded.
  • 22
    Kenneth Boyd Washington, NC August 21, 2014 at 11:21
    You left off the VW Rabbit Pickup which was built at the same time as the Subaru Brat/Baja and the Dodge Rampage (seems like there was a Plymouth version also). You are missing the point with these little trucks. They were never intended to be replacements for full size pickups but were instead aimed at suburban buyers for minor hauling. They did the job they were designed to do very well by providing the ride and economy of a small car while simultaneously offering a pickup bed for limited hauling. Shame this vehicle class has faded from the scene, they filled a market niche that is now void.
  • 23
    alan massachusetts August 21, 2014 at 11:44
    However try to buy a Baja today and you will be paying top dollar - extremely hot car already a collectible.. more so than all of the others that you have listed..
  • 24
    GARY JOHNSON miami, florida August 21, 2014 at 12:36
    I have had both of the Dakota convertible pickups, one 1989 two wheel drive and a 1970 four wheel driveI loved both of them. the 1970 was not used in four wheel drive very often and I could have done without it. If Dodge was still building them, I would have another one!!
  • 25
    Len Boschma Beloit,WI August 23, 2014 at 16:33
    I loved the Rampage pickups. As a sales rep and then Asst. Service Manager of a Dodge dealership in 1983-1984 and an older brother who worked at the Belvidere,IL Assembly Plant at the time I was well accustomed to these lil trucks daily. We used an 84 Rampage 2.2 as our parts department's delivery vehicle and personally used it to move into my first apartment (with the woman who would become my first wife) during a blizzard in March 1984. The rampage certainly holds fonder memories and a better idea than than the marriage ended up being!
  • 26
    Malik Newton Georgia August 23, 2014 at 23:20
    How about the classic styling of Dodge A-100 & the Ford Econoline pick-up trucks from 60's-early 70's those were some cool trucks back then even Jeep built a great in the 50's called FC-150 trucks like these don't come around that much
  • 27
    Texmarc East Texas August 24, 2014 at 09:52
    That's right Mike, and many of those seats fell victim to a cutting torch when owners realized how useless that were. Best use? Sitting in the back watching the sun go down at the lake with a cool drink and a hot date!
  • 28
    Paul B Albany, NY September 10, 2014 at 18:59
    Most of the vehicles on this list seem like they could have done with a bit more planning/market research to become a more successful product. That being said, the Brat is probably a really fun beach vehicle, and if although it looks kind of goofy with the canvas top up, that Dakota Convertible would be awesome to drive around in the summer. There is actually one currently for sale on eBay (I just had to find out!)
  • 29
    Vince Singer Lubbock, TX January 30, 2015 at 21:06
    Rampage, Rabbit, BRAT - all were what Australians call "utes" - passenger cars turned into small factory-built pick-up trucks, for those who don't want to drive a gas-guzzling whale. Many more exist world-wide. Google "Chevy 500" to see a south-of-the-border Chevette pick-up truck. BTW - I drove one of those VW Microbus pick-ups in Germany years ago. 75 MPH top speed - otherwise not too bad...
  • 30
    Thomas Kerr Auburn, CA June 16, 2015 at 00:51
    The VW aircooled pickup known as the Type 2 Transporter was built way back in the early 50's. I happen to have a '59. 9 foot flat bed, 3 drop gates, converts to a flatbed, and storage underneath for tools and other cargo. Sure, it is not as powerful as a modern full size pickup, and forget towing ANYTHING. But it *is* extremely useful for light hauling, as long as whatever you put in it goes between the axles, which is easy since they are out at the extreme ends of the truck. You sit behind the front axle :)

Join the Discussion