Avoidable Contact #87: How to lie about pickups, using this one weird pic!

Here’s the great thing about automotive enthusiasm: it’s a big tent, with room for everyone from Brass Era restorers to the fellows who rip Hellcat burnouts through downtown Atlanta. It’s true that we, as a hobby, often suffer from the narcissism of small differences; anyone who has ever seen this old Emo Phillips routine will understand how I, as an air-cooled 911 owner, can enjoy RUF cars, be okay with Singer-modified cars, have little respect for safari 911s, and express unbridled contempt for “RWB” conversions. That being said, I have more in common with even a water-cooled 911 owner (shudder) than I do with someone who chooses to drive a crossover or take the subway, and I try to remember that whenever I’m tempted to lash out at someone who puts a GT3 tail on their Carrera or fake racing livery stripes on their 911SC.

The crummy thing about automotive enthusiasm is that it has acquired a tumor of sorts during the current Extremely Online era. This tumor, for lack of a better word, consists of people who don’t really like cars but who have joined the automotive enthusiast community for various other reasons. Sometimes these people are anti-car activists who want to push their viewpoint on the rest of us. Sometimes they’re people who simply enjoy the thrill of control, so they delight in tormenting us with their opinions about upcoming restrictions on human-driven cars, gasoline powerplants, or copper-infused brake pads. Last but not least you have the folks for whom Everything Is Political and they have chosen cars seemingly at random as a place from which to lash out.

It’s the latter group that has brought us the above widely-circulated photo showing a 1998 (or thereabouts) Toyota Tacoma Regular Cab 2WD sitting next to a recent F-Super Duty crew cab. This image has been hotly debated on Twitter, at one point even attracting the attention of Ford’s notoriously caustic and forthright PR person, Mike Levine, who noted:

Curb weights for Ford Trucks are the same today as 20 years ago with fuel economy thats increased by 10+ mpg. Do you know how much fuel that saves across the US fleet?

This reasonable response didn’t pass muster with many social-media commenters, who had a lot to say about “toxic masculinity” and “virility compensation” and other concepts that I personally place in the same category as astrology but which are no doubt very important to the people who use them unironically. Let’s put all of that aside for a moment, however, and simply consider the image itself. Is it real? I’d say that it is; there’s no Photoshop involved that I can see. I’m pretty sure you could find these two vehicles and take the same photograph somewhere else and it would look about the same.

Next question: Is it true? Which is to say: Do the facts behind the photo match the purpose to which the photo is being put? There’s been a lot of talk in the past month about things that are real but perhaps not always true. We’ve all seen the infamous video of the suitcase full of ballots being pulled out from under a table. Nobody is alleging the video was faked. The question is: does the video show what we think it shows? Don’t ask me. I don’t know. I’m not an election “expert.”

I am, however, a bit of an expert on light-duty trucks, in the sense that I’ve sold hundreds of them, financed thousands, owned several, and driven many. So let me tell you why the above photo should probably come with some sort of Twitter Ministry Of Truth warning, and why it doesn’t tell the story it’s meant to tell. I’ll break it down PowerPoint-style for those of you who are executives, or have to deal with them:

0. These vehicles are from two different categories. Ever since about 1970 we’ve had three distinct sizes of light-duty truck in this country: the quarter-ton or light half-ton trucks, the half-ton trucks, and the three-quarter-ton-and-above trucks. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Toyota sold a “One Ton” compact truck for a decade, and the various Ford high-performance trucks are often short of a proper half-ton capacity. The definitions of payload have also changed over time; it would be perfectly legal to sell a half-ton truck where the payload included passengers but most modern half-tons have a 600-pound fudge factor for passengers and gear worked into the equation. That was not always the case.

Anyway, a Tacoma is a compact truck (light half-ton), while an F-350 or whatever this is has a payload of between two and three times that of the Toyota. If you took a picture of a 1998 F-350 next to a Tacoma, you would still see a considerable discrepancy in size. I know, because I sold F-350s back then. So the first lie here is that you’re being shown different categories of trucks. You could take a similar photo of, say, a 1975 Chevy Vega in front of a 2019 Chevy Impala to “prove” that cars just keep getting bigger, even though we all know that’s not the case.

1. These vehicles have different suspension/drivetrain configurations. It’s almost always the case that four-wheel-drive trucks sit higher than two-wheel-drive trucks. This is done because 4WD trucks are more commonly used off-road, where you have things like rocks and stumps. I know a very wealthy property developer who has insisted on driving an S-Class Mercedes onto his sites for the past 25 years. About once a quarter, the local dealership has to remove a tree branch or part of a cinderblock from the front suspension of said S-Class. There really are reasons to have more ride height on a truck like that F-350. Putting a 2WD F-350 behind that Tacoma—or putting a 4WD Tacoma in front of the F-350—would show less discrepancy. Of course, that wouldn’t fit the narrative here.

2. The Ford is customized; the Toyota is stock. Hey, remember Marty McFly’s dream truck in Back to The Future? Sure you do. Would you care to take a guess as to how it would compare with the F-350 in the photo? I’m guessing it would be no more than a foot shorter. People who customize their trucks for a perceived off-road usage often raise them, even if they don’t plan on doing any serious off-roading. Remember that the truck in Back To The Future was squeaky-clean. This F-350 has fake beadlock wheels and a mild lift on it—common modifications in 2020 and 1998 and 1984. A considerable number of owners actually lower their trucks, and you don’t have to look very hard to find a half-ton truck “laying frame” on the ground in many cities—but that doesn’t serve the narrative, either.

3. The two trucks are also different cab/bed configurations. A crew-cab F-Series pickup is thirty-five inches longer than an equivalent regular-cab version. Toyota didn’t offer a crew-cab Tacoma in 1998, but they added one to the lineup just a couple of years later. It was twenty-six inches longer than the equivalent regular cab. Of course, you aren’t going to be shown a picture of a crew-cab Tacoma in front of a regular-cab F-350, and you already know why.

Based on the above, I’d say this photograph is not truthful when it is used to convey the message that “Today’s trucks are massively larger than yesterday’s trucks.” It’s a misleading comparison of compact vs. one-ton, 2WD vs. 4WD, stock vs. modded, regular cab vs. crew cab. A more truthful photo would show a stock 1997 F-350 Crew Cabs next to a 2020 model. If you did that, you’d see that the new truck is a couple inches taller and about five inches longer, plus up to three inches wider, depending on configuration. The weight would be about the same. Fuel economy, as Ford’s Levine noted, is way up. Crash safety is way up, too; those old trucks were not a great place to be in an accident. Of course, a comparison of equivalent F-350s (or equivalent Tacomas!) wouldn’t be very dramatic. At the most, you’d get the sense of a general, ahem, embiggening trend. Less than the difference between a 1998 Camry and today’s model.

“Alright, Baruth, you might have a minor point—but the discussion isn’t really about what the available truck sizes are, it’s about the different choices being made by the average buyer today versus 1998.” It’s true that Americans, in general, are buying more capacity in vehicles now than they did twenty or forty years ago, but this is probably a Good Thing. It’s a function of increased automotive longevity and lower running costs. Maybe in 1998 your average truck buyer had to buy a new S-10 every five years in order to have durable, rust-free transportation. Now he can buy a Silverado every ten years, spending about the same real-world money. Let’s not forget that the continually increasing payload of government-mandated features and qualities, to say nothing of what a modern consumer expects in the way of base equipment, has had a leveling effect on vehicle prices. A new Ford Ranger isn’t much cheaper than a new F-150, and why should it be? Because it has all the same features but happens to weigh 500 pounds less? That’s $75 worth of scrap.

I’ve tried very hard to understand the arguments of the Extremely Online crowd against today’s light-duty pickup trucks, but most of it seems to boil down to a quasi-aristocratic sense of aesthetics, namely: Middle-class people shouldn’t be allowed to drive these enormous things around without being punished somehow. My Silverado 4×4 is no heavier or more offensive than, say, an AMG G55 or a Range Rover Autobiography, but the general consensus appears to be that rich people have earned the right to drive a large vehicle and I have not. The same argument is leveled against “McMansions”: How dare someone buy a big house in the suburbs instead of paying the same amount for a thousand square feet in Hoboken? Why don’t these petit bourgeois morons know their place?

At the heart of it, I think, is an unwillingness to live and let live. As a truck-drivin’ white-trash resident of a low-class subdivision, it never occurs to me that I should have the right to regulate how people live in midtown Manhattan or San Francisco—but clearly this is a diode-style relationship, because they have opinions about me and they’d like to see those opinions given the force of law. It’s worth noting that the original poster of the image wrote something like “If you’re a farmer, contractor, or just one of many who regularly make use of your truck bed &/or truck towing capacity… THIS THREAD ISN’T ABOUT YOU.” In other words, if you need a truck, you should be allowed to have one, while the people who just want a truck should be barred from F-350 (or even F-150) ownership. This sounds very tolerant, but I have my doubts about “need” and how it might be defined in the future. I “need” a truck because I tow race cars … but do I “need” a race car? Almost certainly not, which means I don’t “need” a truck, which means that I shouldn’t have the right to buy one. Maybe they’ll let me buy a 1998 Tacoma. Ever tried to tow a 6000-pound race rig with a 1998 Tacoma? Me neither, for the same reason I never tried BASE-jumping through a wind farm.

Luckily for me, the mob doesn’t yet have the power to keep me from owning a truck. Yet. This could change. So I’m going to ask a favor from all my friends out there in the world of automotive enthusiasm, even the water-cooled crowd: Let’s make sure we all speak in defense of lifted F-350s and whatnot when the time comes. You don’t want one? You don’t need one? That’s fine—but don’t think that your idea of “need” is any more sacred than mine or anyone else’s. If you’re active in the defense of my 6.2-liter Silverado, I’ll do the same for your Brass Era car, your Parnelli Jones replica Mach 1 Mustang, your vinyl-wrapped Hellcat. It’s a big tent. Let’s not forget how big it is … and let’s not let them forget, either.

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