“Obviously, they’re not the only company looking into this, but they are probably the most important,” Kelley Blue Book editor Allyson Harwood said.
Ford introduced the first factory-built pickup with a steel cargo bed, 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 those. Henry Ford had resisted building complete trucks with factory-installed beds for fear of angering the many firms that relied on making these customizations, according to the book “Classic Pickup Trucks” by Mike Mueller.
“If you read the brochure for that vehicle, it reads just like it reads today,” said Ted Ryan, Ford’s archive manager, “The bed, the towing capacity, the cab comfort, all those were stressed in the 1948 brochure with the F-1.”
The F-series was launched just as major changes were happening in America. Government-backed mortgage programs, benefits for veterans, higher paying jobs and new construction techniques created vast new housing developments outside of big cities. These areas weren’t rural exactly, but they weren’t urban, either. They were suburban.
Suburbs weren’t new, of course. Areas of separated — but not too separated — homes surrounded by lawns, bushes and fences, had long existed. But this confluence of changes and incentives accelerated their growth.
In 1940, 13.4% of Americans lived in suburbs, according to data from the Census Bureau. By 1970, 37% did. By 2010, the trend had continued to the point that half of Americans lived in the suburbs. This created new markets for pickups in a number of ways, some experts said, as well as changes in the trucks themselves.
In rural America, pickups had been a transportation staple as they are still today.
In the suburbs, though, homeowners with lawns to care for and houses to fix found they needed pickup trucks, too, said B. Mitchell Carlson, an expert on classic pickups.
“Now I got to go to the hardware store and I need to get grass seed and I need to get fertilizer,” he said.
With a growing number of two-car households and two-car garages, pickups could work as a second errand-runner next to the family sedan or wagon, said Carlson. Around this time, pickups also started getting a bit nicer, too.
More ‘creature comforts’
“They were starting now to actually have, like, dual sun visors and everything like that,” he said. “They were starting to get more creature comforts.”
Trucks started to look more refined. The Chevrolet Cameo Carrier, which came out in 1955, “easily deserves credit for introducing this country’s first truly classy 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 pickups.
Andy Weise, who teaches American urban history at San Diego State University, is skeptical of the notion that pickups would have made big inroads into middle class suburban garages. No matter how well-equipped or nicely designed, trucks would simply have been too déclassé for most upwardly mobile Americans in the 1950s to want to park at home, he said.
But, he said, the rise of the suburbs created a new class of entrepreneurs who could earn a living fixing the homes and sprucing up the yards of their wealthier neighbors.
“My sense of the pickup truck in the suburbs is very much connected to class,” Wiese said, “and I think the people who would have had trucks in the suburbs would have been working class people who did so much of a work on the bigger properties, especially.”
Cotten Seiler, who teaches American Studies at Dickinson College and who wrote the book “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America,” pointed out that suburbanization didn’t just pull people from the cities. Urbanization and high-paying union jobs also pulled people from rural areas into suburbs and they brought their trucks with them.
“In terms of social mobility, those people didn’t trade in their pickup trucks for sedans, they traded in their pickup trucks for nicer pickup trucks,” he said.
And as their descendants, who continued driving trucks, moved upward economically, trucks became still nicer and more luxurious, Seiler said. Around the same time, pickup trucks got special protections that helped seal their identification as purely American products, Seiler said.
The all-American truck
He was talking about the “chicken tax,” which was instituted in 1964 in retaliation for French and West German tariffs on American poultry. The Johnson administration placed a 25% tariff on imported trucks that remains in place to this day. With a protected market, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler — today part of Stellantis — made their trucks cultural statements in addition to just transportation.
“There was a Chevy ad like ‘This is our country, this is our truck’ and, in some ways that sort of crystallizes that sense of the identification of the nation with this protected… product,” said Seiler.
Ford, in particular, deserves credit for making bold technological leaps rather than resting easy in its position as Lord of Trucks, said Kelley Blue Book’s Harwood.
In 2011, Ford introduced a turbocharged V6 engine option in a truck market dominated by big V8s. In 2015, a redesigned F-150 arrived with an all-aluminum body, something once unthinkable in a product when relatively heavy steel had long been associated with durability. And just last year, Ford began selling the first fully hybrid pickup.
So when Ford recently revealed the F-150 Lightning, the first fully electric full-sized pickup truck, it showed the genius of Ford’s penchant for innovation, Harwood said. Ford did this by focusing
“What Ford is really doing is they’re taking people along on their innovation journey,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to push this. We’re going to go a little bit further with it,’ but what they’re doing that’s great is they’re creating solutions that people want.”