RelayRides blogger and automotive expert, Trent Fletcher, shares a brief history of one of America’s most beloved vehicles: the pickup.
First introduced in 1925 as the “Ford Model T Runabout with Pickup Body,” the pickup truck has become a staple in American life. Since then, the class has evolved immensely, now offering models that feature full-size passenger cabins, extra cargo capacity, luxury amenities, high performance packages or off-road abilities. What started as essentially an agricultural vehicle has turned into such a large market that the Ford F-150 pickup was the best selling vehicle in the US for 17 consecutive years.
The Origins of the Pickup
The Ford Motor Company introduced the first factory-produced pickup truck in 1925. Based on the Model T coupe, it featured a cargo box and adjustable tailgate, and was designed to haul small loads. In 1928, when the Model A replaced the Model T, the first closed cab pickup entered the market, featuring luxuries such as a safety glass windshield, roll-up side windows, three-speed transmission and a 40-horsepower four-cylinder engine. In 1932, Ford began offering a flathead V8 as an option in their trucks, which produced 50% more horsepower than the previous 4-cylinder engine.
Throughout the 1930s and early 40s, Ford and GM continued improving upon their truck models, offering more powerful engines, attractive styling and increased payload capacity. Production of commercial vehicles halted during World War II, and it wasn’t until 1947 that new designs were ready for the market. Based on feedback from consumers, late 40s and early 50s models featured larger passenger cabins than their predecessors, better visibility and more overall refinement. The pickup was becoming a vehicle for more than just farmers and businesses. Ford introduced their F-Series full-sized pickup line in 1948, which has held the title of Best Selling Pick-up for 43 years.
Japanese automakers popularized the compact pick-up in America during the 1960s, not only building trucks under their own nameplates, but also offering their models to the Big Three for re-badging under American brands. It wasn’t until the early 80s that American manufacturers released their own compact truck models, in the form of the Ford Ranger and the Chevy S-10. These models were built to provide the utility of a full-sized truck in a more economical package. In 1986, Ford released the Ranger GT, which featured enhanced performance features like an uprated V6, limited-slip differential and bucket seats.
From Utility to Primary Vehicle
Changes to the standard pickup format continued through the 90s and into the 2000s, including the introduction of the compact crew cab to the US market with the Nissan Frontier in 2000. Now that pickups offered full-size interiors, a new segment of buyers could consider buying one as their primary vehicle. This trend also lead to the creation of luxury trucks and sport utility trucks (SUTs) like the Cadillac Escalade EXT, released in 2002, and the Ford F-150 King Ranch, introduced in 2001. These models feature premium leather interior, top-spec audio systems, heated seats and anything else that one might expect from a luxury vehicle.
Bigger and Bigger
“Muscle trucks” gained popularity in the 1990s as well, when manufacturers combined the performance of their sports cars with the utility of a pickup. The most recognizable high-performance offerings include for Ford Lightning and the off-road focused Raptor, both based off the F-150, and the Dodge Ram SRT-10. Sport models offered larger, more powerful engines than their flagship counterparts, as well as improved suspension and unique exterior styling.