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The American Road: Pickups

The DriveWrite Archives Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

The American Road: Pickups

Bill Crittenden
April 16, 2014

The top selling American vehicle isn't a car...it's the Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Pickup trucks are a genre of vehicle unto themselves, the full-size segment starting at the bottom with the basic two-wheel drive, V6-powered white-painted work truck. A plastic interior is not only cheap, but easy to clean the mud or paint or dust off of.

Aside from compact pickups, which you're familiar with from the Volkswagen Amarok and others, from the basic full-size work truck it can go upward in the direction of the tricked-out special editions that pull huge trailer campers, luxury trucks (including a Cadillac!), car-show customs, off-roading 4x4's, and even a NASCAR series where modified versions of the standard NASCAR race cars are run with pickup truck bodies.

Yes, there are also performance trucks, as the Ford Lightning that Jeremy Clarkson tested on Top Gear, Ford Raptor, and V10 Viper-engined Dodge SRT/10 have each shown.

So I've been asking around to find out why Britain doesn't have more pickup trucks and in particular full-size pickup trucks (parking space size, fuel cost, that "refinement" thing, it rains a lot, the dog would get cold in the back, etc.). My favorite answers were the ones who said they would buy one if it were available, which just proves that there are all types of drivers everywhere you go.

But the most enlightening answer came from James Butler, who said, "we have Land Rovers instead."

There's no way a Land Rover is going to match an F-150 in hauling bulk or heavy weight around, nor does it have the range of options for utility attachments that American full size pickups have. Got 4x8 to haul? Fat chance.

So why the Land Rover? Perhaps there's something more than cuddly comfort that makes it the British favorite. Some psychological need that a practical Dacia just can't fill.

The Land Rover isn't just a vehicle. It's an icon of a culture, the Jaguar of trucks, and it makes people who own one feel good about themselves and their home country in a way that a more practical vehicle couldn't.

America is a bit backwards about comfort. I mentioned in articles before that many of us take pride in living a little rough, saving a huge amount of money by skipping the "refinement" that we sometimes interpret as "softness for the weak." My words at the time, comparing a Corvette to a Ferrari, were, "So what if it's a little gaudy and your back hurts a little after driving it...you take pride in not being so soft that you need to spend a ridiculous amount of money to have your ass coddled in the name of 'refinement.'"

And that's just the Corvette. Nothing on four wheels evokes images of rough & tough cowboys played by John Wayne more than an American pickup truck. Remember, between the Jersey Shore and Hollywood there's 3,000 miles of farms, mountains, and country music.

So, in looking back at my own experience, I realize I didn't need a pickup truck in the sense that I had a lot of stuff to haul around. I was a suburban kid who grew up on Garth Brooks, who really looked forward to open, traffic-free roads between small towns. Emotionally, I needed that Chevrolet S-10 the way a middle-aged man needs his Porsche: it made me more like who I wanted to be.

My dad has had a couple of pickup trucks for a side business. He probably could have bought a van and kept his stuff dry and secure, but he said he had always wanted a red pickup and ended up with a Ford Ranger at first and has a plain white Ford F-150 work truck now.

The average suburban American crossover & SUV buyer often cites the cabin space, upright seating position, extra height compared to other vehicles, and storage capacity as reasons to buy one.

Well, take those basic desires to Duck Dynasty country, and even if you're not hauling hay or pulling a horse trailer every weekend, you feel more practical and self-reliant knowing that you could.

And so we love pickup trucks. Starting from the farmers and contractors who use them for work on a daily basis, they've seeped into our cultural identity, becoming a symbol of simple rural American values of practicality and manual labor.

That pickups trucks have gone beyond work to symbolism perhaps explains why there are so many types, including some that just aren't practical for anything you'd normally use a pickup truck for. Want a muscle car, but also a pickup truck? F-150 Lightning. Luxury car? Cadillac Escalade EXT. Dream of driving the Dakar? Ford Raptor. And that's just stock, from-the-factory trucks.

And for all three of those examples, there are drivers who just wouldn't be satisfied with a Mustang, a CTS, or a Subaru Impreza. Those cars just don't represent who they are.

In summary, why do Americans buy so many pickup trucks? Because so many of us just want to, because they represent who many of us want to be better than any station wagon or SUV. For those among us, we feel a bit like Richard Hammond showing up at the stadium in Miami with his Dodge Ram and cowboy boots. In the end, you and I both know that it was a better choice than the Camaro, because you just never know when you might need to haul a cow carcass to a campsite. Just in case.

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