When Ford unveiled the All-electric F-150 Lightning at an event in Dearborn, Michigan last week, he marked a pivotal moment for one of America’s most American commodities: pickup trucks – Ford pickups, nothing less – were gone zero emissions.

“Obviously, they’re not the only company looking at this issue, but they’re probably the most important,” said Allyson Harwood, editor of Kelley Blue Book.

The three best-selling vehicles in America are all large trucks, she noted. But when it comes to pickup trucks, the Ford F-150 is the undisputed king. The F-150 has been America’s best-selling truck for 44 years, and the full line of F-Series trucks is the best-selling vehicle of all kinds in the United States. It is also the van with the longest heritage.

According to data from Cox Automotive, Ford has sold 7.4 million F-series trucks over the past decade, including the heavy-duty F-250 and F-350 pickups. The Chevrolet Silverado The pickup was the second best-selling vehicle in the country, but a distant second, with 5.3 million sold during that time. General Motors has already announced it will also manufacture a fully electric truck.

The rise of the suburbs

Ford introduced the first factory-built pickup with a steel body, a version of the Model T Runabout, in 1925.

There are older Ford trucks, including the heavy-duty Ford Model TT introduced in 1917, but they were mostly sold without cargo beds. Other companies added these. Henry Ford had resisted building full trucks with factory-installed beds for fear of angering the many companies that relied on such customizations, according to Mike Mueller’s book “Classic Pickup Trucks”.

Trucks became so important to Ford that after World War II when the company stopped building bombers and Jeeps To manufacture passenger cars again, its first new product was the 1948 Ford F-1 pickup, the start of the current F-Series lineup.

“If you read the brochure for this vehicle, it reads exactly as it reads today,” said Ted Ryan, Ford’s records manager. “The bed, the towing capacity, the comfort of the cabin, all of this was emphasized in the 1948 brochure with the F-1. “

The F Series was launched just as major changes were taking place in America. Government-backed mortgage programs, veteran benefits, higher-paying jobs, and new construction techniques have created vast new housing developments outside of major cities. These areas weren’t exactly rural, but they weren’t urban either. They were from the suburbs.

The suburbs weren’t new, of course. Separate – but not too separate – living areas surrounded by lawns, bushes and fences have been around for a long time. But this confluence of changes and incentives has accelerated their growth.

In 1940, 13.4% of Americans lived in the suburbs, according to Census Bureau data. In 1970, 37% did so. By 2010, the trend had continued to the point that half of Americans lived in the suburbs. This has created new markets for pickup trucks in a number of ways, some experts have said, as well as changes in the trucks themselves.

In rural America, pickup trucks were a staple of transportation as they still are today.

In the suburbs, however, homeowners with lawns to maintain and homes to repair also found they needed pickup trucks, said B. Mitchell Carlson, an expert on classic pickup trucks.

“Now I have to go to the hardware store and I need grass seed and I need fertilizer,” he said.

With a growing number of two-car households and two-car garages, pickup trucks could function as a second race racer alongside the family sedan or wagon, Carlson said. Around this time, the pickups started to get a little nicer as well.

More “ creature comfort ”

“They were now starting to have, like, double sun shades and everything, “he said.” They were beginning to have more comfort for the creatures. “

The trucks started to look more refined. The Chevrolet Cameo Carrier, which came out in 1955, “easily deserves credit for showcasing this country’s first truly chic pickup,” according to Mueller’s book. Sleek and car-like, the smooth-sided Chevrolet lacked the bulging rear fenders that had long been standard on pickup trucks.

Andy Weise, who teaches American urban history at San Diego State University, is skeptical that pickup trucks have made big inroads into middle-class suburban garages. Whether well equipped or well designed, the trucks would simply have been too downgraded for most of the more mobile Americans of the 1950s to want to park in their homes, he said.

But, he said, the rise of the suburbs created a new class of entrepreneurs who could make a living repairing the homes and beautifying the backyards of their wealthier neighbors.

“My sense of the van in the suburbs is very class-related,” said Wiese, “and I think the people who would have had trucks in the suburbs would have been working class people who did so much work. on the larger properties, in particular. “

Cotten Seiler, who teaches American Studies at Dickinson College and authored the book “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America,” pointed out that suburbanization doesn’t just pull people out of cities. Urbanization and well-paying union jobs also attracted people from rural areas to the suburbs and they brought their trucks with them.

“In terms of social mobility, these people didn’t trade their vans for sedans, they swapped their vans for nicer vans,” he said.

And as their descendants, who continued to drive trucks, progressed economically, trucks became even nicer and more luxurious, Seiler said. Around the same time, the pickup trucks were given special protections that helped seal their identification as purely American products, Seiler said.

The all-American truck

He spoke of the “tax on chickens”, instituted in 1964 in retaliation for the French and West German tariffs on American poultry. The Johnson administration imposed a 25% tariff on imported trucks which remains in effect to this day. With a protected market, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – now part of Stellantis – have made their trucks cultural statements in addition to mere transportation.

“There was a Chevy ad like ‘This is our country, this is our truck’ and in some ways it kind of crystallizes that sense of the nation’s identification with this … protected product,” Seiler said. .

Today, Toyota and Nissan offer full-size pickup trucks, as well as smaller midsize trucks. Honda sells the Ridgeline, and Hyundai recently unveiled the Santa Cruz, two smaller, car-like trucks that are built in the United States, thus avoiding the tax. Yet traditional American full-size truck makers dominate the market like half-ton gorillas.

Even Ford and GM now offer smaller “midsize” trucks, like the Chevrolet Colorado and Ford ranger, designed to appeal to those who use trucks more for play than work. They are also more attractive to residents of dense urban areas where large trucks can be a challenge to drive and park. Ford executives have been open about plans for an even smaller truck than the Ranger for the US market.

Ford, in particular, deserves credit for making bold technological leaps rather than easily resting in its Lord of Trucks position, Kelley Blue Book’s Harwood said.

In 2011, Ford introduced a turbocharged V6 engine option in a truck market dominated by large V8s. In 2015, a redesigned F-150 arrived with an all-aluminum bodywork, which was once unthinkable in a product where relatively heavy steel had long been associated with durability. And last year, Ford started selling the first fully hybrid pickup truck.

So when Ford recently revealed the F-150 Lightning, the first fully electric full-size pickup truck, it showed the genius of Ford’s penchant for innovation, Harwood said. Ford did this by focusing on the real needs of truck buyers, like a 10,000 pound towing capacity and a bed designed to work with attachments purchased for other F-150 trucks, rather than flashy things like zero to 60 acceleration from the Lightning.

“What Ford is really doing is taking people on their journey of innovation,” she said. “They say, ‘We’re going to push this. We’re going to take it a step further with, “but what they’re doing that’s great is they create solutions that people want.”


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