When Pickups Came of Age

From the farm to the suburbs in 50 years

An often battered and always dirty toolbox-toting, lumber-lugging bearer of crates and cartons; a hardware shop and feed store fetch-and-carry; a stockade for livestock of the smaller kind; a hauler of hay bales, machine parts, firewood and trash; sawed-off sidekick to the 10-ton Mack and apprentice to the tractor.

The pickup truck.

How did this homely utilitarian device escape from the farmyard, factory gate and loading dock, get dressed up for a party and slip into our suburban driveways?

In 2012, the F-series Ford and the Chevrolet Silverado were the two best-selling vehicles in the U.S. Add the Ram, and full-size American pickups outsold the top “family car,” the Toyota Camry, by more than three to one and squashed (sometimes by mistake when backing up) products like the Prius and Volt.

If you came of age when “pickup” just meant “truck,” it’s as if the table saw has moved from Dad’s basement shop to Mom’s living room and become a centerpiece on the wall-to-wall carpet. Of course, for those of us who love trucks (and table saws), this is no bad thing. But it’s a peculiar phenomenon.

Pickups used to look like what they were: an operator’s cab and an engine compartment dragging a box around. Until the early 1950s, a pickup truck driver needed Popeye forearms, Jack LaLanne calf muscles and a Sir Edmund Hillary tolerance for discomfort.

Post-WWII pickup manufacturers were aware of the problem. The 1948 Ford F-1 came with the “Million-Dollar Cab,” so-called because Ford spent that to create “living room comfort.” It succeeded, if your living room had rubber mats, painted steel walls, a bench to seat three, room to leave your hat on and insulating mounts under the floor. What passed for luxury can be seen in the F-1 option list, which included an armrest for the door, a passenger-side sun visor and a right-hand windshield wiper.

Dodge tried to address driving effort in its 1948 “Pilot House” B-series pickup. Shorter wheelbase, better weight distribution and more leverage in the steering system meant the B-series could be turned in a 38-foot diameter without the help of bystanders. Dodge also offered a semi-automatic transmission in 1950. Thus Dodge semi-solved the pickup “monkey problem” of needing two hands for the steering wheel and your tail for the shift knob.

Studebaker built a gorgeous streamliner of a pickup in the 1949 2R. But underneath the sheet metal was a 1930s lunk of a chassis and an ancient, asthmatic 80-hp L-head six.

The first pickup to “get in a family way” (no jokes about parking backwards at the drive-in-movies with an air mattress in the load bed) was the 1953 Ford F-100. It had tough but tender Burt Lancaster looks. It drove like a car for a 5-foot 2-inch, 110-pound wife or sweetheart. It rode like a car (more or less, depending on how many antique shopping finds she’d stacked in the bed). And with Ford’s “Driverized Cab” accessories — headliner, vinyl door panels, two-tone seat trim — it looked like a car from the inside.

The better half could get an F-100 with an automatic transmission and, by the next year, power steering and power brakes. If she happened to be a leadfoot as well as a sweetheart, she could race the 1954 F-100’s 239 OHV V-8 against the 1954 Dodge Series C’s 241 Power-Dome V-8, the first two high-performance pickup engines.

Having seen that a pickup could be part of the family, Chevrolet tried a limited-edition truck model with deluxe upholstery and the smooth, modern enclosed bodywork of post-war sedans — the 1955 Cameo Carrier.

The Cameo’s young designer, Chuck Jordan (future vice president of design for General Motors), proposed a single sleek run of sheet metal from bumper to bumper. GM refused to do it. The cargo box of a pickup was supposed to be a separate unit to keep load torsion from wrinkling bodywork like a cheap sport coat. Also, GM refused to spend money on a new wheelwells-on-the-inside, fender-free cargo box just to get a chic effect. No one knew whether pickup buyers gave a damn about chic.

Jordan solved the fender problem with inexpensive fiberglass panels to cover the traditional stepside of Chevrolet’s ’55 Task Force pickup. Bel Air taillights and hubcaps were added. Whitewall tires, too. Another fiberglass panel was used to tidy up the stamped steel tailgate. Then Jordan graced the cargo/cab division with a vertical chrome strip, making decorative virtue of structural necessity.

Pickup buyers did give a damn. The Cameo Carrier’s production run of 5,220 — all in ivory with bright red B-pillars and bedliners — sold fast, even though a Task Force with the same engine and transmission could be had for two-thirds the price.

Industry response was fast, too. All the major pickup truck brands produced high-style, flush-fender models with body-wide cargo boxes apparently named by the same advertising copywriters: 1957 Ford Styleside, 1957 Dodge Sweptside, 1958 Chevrolet Fleetside, 1958 GMC Wideside. It seems International Harvester didn’t pay the copywriters; its handsome 1957 Custom A-100 was called the Bonus Load.

The message of clean styling was that you didn’t have to get dirty to own pickups. Ford took it further in 1957 by yanking out the back seat and lopping off the roof of its Ranch Wagon, and the message of the resulting Ranchero was that you didn’t have to get trucks to own pickups. Chevy did the same, to even more car-like effect, with the 1959 El Camino.

Mixing design flourish and truck function created a pickup paradox. Indeed, the Ranchero and the El Camino raised an issue of philosophical ontology — something pickups don’t usually do. They asked the Socratic question, “Why are we here?” I remember one car journalist puzzling over it when the Ranchero was introduced. He said something like, “Well, you’re not going to clean out the barn with this.” (I can’t find the exact quote, but it sounds like the magnificently grouchy Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated.)

One wrong turn near a dairy cow with the ’59 El Camino’s vast splay of lethal fin, and it was beef stew for dinner. Even the true pickups were becoming problematic. The most exuberant-looking (and rarest) of them, the 1958 Dodge Sweptside, had Coronet dagger-tip rear quarter panels. Anybody trying to sling a 50-pound sack of chicken feed out of the Sweptside bed was likely to provide a feast day for free-range poultry.

But people weren’t tending the hens with their pickups anymore, or cleaning out barns, either. In 1950, 12 percent of the American workforce was employed in agriculture. By 1960, it was six percent. Meanwhile, light industry was getting heavier. Crates and cartons were being delivered in bulk to Sears and supermarkets. Blue collars were fading to white. The Joads weren’t bundling their possessions into their truck and fleeing the Grapes of Wrath dust bowl. A moving van was taking them to a subdivision. (The truck used in the movie starring Henry Fonda was a 1926 Hudson passenger car cut down in the manner of a Ranchero, and if the Joads had had any sense they would have sold it to a collector in California. But I digress.) The pickup should have gone the way of the trolley car.

It didn’t, because of four wonderful things: the F-100, the Cameo Carrier, women and the invention of the Coleman cooler in 1954.

Americans were leading bigger lives. They needed more space to carry the stuff of life than a car trunk or the back of a station wagon provided. There were shrubs to be planted in the subdivision yard, antique shopping finds to embellish the house, that table saw for Dad’s shop, gas cans, water skis and life preservers for the boat being towed, and, most off all, plenty of the cold beer that’s necessary (except to operate the table saw) for all these leisure activities. The Coleman cooler was a thing of genius, but bulky. You could get six of them in the back of a pickup.

Women, of course, did not want to look like Ma Joad while driving around with all this. But once pickups became self-conscious about being attractive, there was some fumbling at the dressing table. Ford went through a period, 1957–60, of making its front hood look like a comb-over and then, 1961–64, a bad hat brim. Chevy, 1960–66, kept fooling with a pair of unruly eyebrows above its headlights. Dodge abandoned fins after 1959 but spent the next four years trying to decide what sort of foolish grin to wear on its grille.

Pickup manufacturers were slower than pickup consumers to understand that the truck was the new car. Independent front suspension didn’t arrive on Chevy pickups until 1960. Ford followed reluctantly and in a masculine excess of technical complexity with Twin I-Beams in 1965.

And what kind of car was a truck supposed to be? A “muscle pickup” arrived a year before a pickup with factory air conditioning: The 1964 Dodge Custom Sports Special with bucket seats, racing stripes and a 426 wedge-head V-8 was a bitchin’ set of wheels. But on a 90-degree day, Mom, Dad and Junior, comfortably ensconced in a 1965 Chevy C10 with the windows rolled up, probably didn’t notice they’d been blown off at the stoplight.

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that pickups began to abide by the Bauhaus rule: Form follows function. The result was 30 years of simple and restrained wholesome beauty. The passionate admirer of pickups is tempted by the charms of a cute little 1925 Model T runabout with pickup body, the striking profile of a 1938 Willys-Overland Model 77 and the Esquire magazine Varga pin-up pontoon fenders of a 1947 Hudson Model 178. But for a happy home life and growing old together with a true love, better choices are the 1969 Ford F-100 Farm & Ranch Special, 1972 Dodge Adventurer SE or 1973 Chevy C10 Cheyenne.

To this day, pickups are advertised as if they were bought and driven mostly by men (a married man knows how much influence he has on the purchase of anything larger than a trout fly). And it’s surprising how slow pickups were to provide ordinary car conveniences such as — Where to put baby sis? — a backseat. That didn’t occur to truck makers until the 1973 Dodge Club Cab. And a door to get into the backseat wasn’t invented until 1997. Even then there was only one of them — Ford’s touted “third door.” And this was half-width.

Four-door pickups had been around since the 1957 International Travelette. But crew cabs were heavy-duty 3/4- and 1-ton trucks, lumpy as road crews and ugly as road kill. A four-door pickup for family fun instead of fixing potholes had to wait until the next century’s 2001 Ford Super Crew Lariat.

It was a long journey for the modern pickup. But it was foretold many years ago and half a world away. According to Ford’s PR department, the Ford Australia factory in Geelong, Victoria, got a letter from a farmer’s wife in 1932. She wrote, “Why don’t you build people like us a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday, and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays?” Ford Australia’s one-man design department, 22-year-old Lewis Thornet Bandt, went to work on a Model B 5-window coupe. He chalked plans on a 30-foot blackboard, inserting frame trusses to counteract load torsion on the body. By 1934, Geelong was manufacturing something with automotive comforts, a 5-foot 5-inch load bed, and more than a half-ton of cargo capacity.

The farmer’s wife was a quarter-century ahead of her time in envisioning what Aussies call a ute and we call a pickup. Let’s hope she didn’t confuse her Sundays and Mondays and let the pigs loose in church.

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