The pickup truck’s rise from its makeshift origins to the almost luxury-item status it enjoys today amounts to a Horatio Alger tale with a technological twist, providing a striking allegory of cherished national legends of progress and upward mobility.
In the early 20th century, a number of Americans — seeking a more expeditious means of hauling material that could not be strapped atop the traditional motorcar — took their tinsnips to the family flivver, affixing a large box or old wagon bed to the rear of the chassis. Soon smaller entrepreneurs installed cabs and hauling containers on the chassis of the Ford Model T. But the Ford Motor Company did not offer the first fully factory-assembled pickup truck until 1924-‘25 with its “Model T Runabout with Pickup Body” and 20 horsepower engine.
Chevrolet and Dodge made serious moves into pickup production in the 1930s, and once the wartime production restrictions of the 1940s were lifted, the competitive scramble to meet pent-up demand led to a steady progression of bigger, more powerful trucks.
By that point the pickup was a vital component of one of the most far-reaching transformations in American history: the mechanization and consolidation of Southern agriculture.
The 20th century farmer needed to make not just the production but the transportation of his precious crop more efficient. When its bed was framed by slatted wooden side-bodies extending up to cab height, a pickup truck could haul a bale of cotton five miles to the gin in scarcely the time it took to hitch two mules to a wagon. As a 7-year-old boy, I lived for the thrill of riding to the gin sprawled atop a load of cotton piled high on our pickup.
The same forces that embedded the pickup in rural life would eventually erode the very foundations of that life. The dwindling prospects of any but the largest and most mechanized farming operations pushed much of the increasingly marginalized population off the land toward the beckoning bustle of the metropolis. Although Americans fleeing the farm took their memories of the family’s dilapidated old pickup with them, actually parking such a vehicle in your driveway guaranteed a cold shoulder on arrival in the studiously urbane and fervently aspirational ‘burbs.
Soon enough, however, rising metropolitan incomes and the growing popularity of camping, boating and other outdoor activities justified the acquisition of newer, better-kempt pickups, equipped with once unheard of comforts and conveniences like leather seats, air conditioning, extended cabs, automatic transmissions and power steering.
Annual sales of pickups topped 2 million by 1980 and had surged past 11 million in 2017. With even the entry-level Dodge Ram 1500 stickering in the neighborhood of $65,000, many of today’s pampered pickups stand little chance of hauling cotton, hay, livestock or anything else likely to scratch them.
For a sizable contingent of Americans, the pickup truck has emerged as a means of establishing their ties to a distinctly blue-collar identity in the course of flaunting their bourgeois prosperity. And the pickup’s political implications have most commonly skewed right, even far right.
The stereotypical combination of a gun rack and Rebel flag decal once conjured images of night-riding, racist thugs. Even sans flag, the racked shotgun or rifle (or both) invited suspicions that the driver was not simply a dedicated hunter but someone just itching to be crossed. Ironically, the proliferation of extended cab vehicles in combination with the increased risk of theft amid the burgeoning illicit traffic in firearms, has largely reduced the gun rack to a garage sale item.
Although foreign truck manufacturers have forced their stateside competitors to pay more attention to fuel economy and vehicle dependability, “Buy American!” still resonates in the pickup marketplace. Significant differences in overall production levels notwithstanding, it is striking that Ford sold nearly twice as many F-Series pickups last year as all of the leading Japanese heavy and mid-size pickup truck models sold combined.
Marketing experts think it is no coincidence that potential buyers are reminded periodically that Ford was the only major automaker to refuse federal bailout funds during the last recession.
If the pickup truck is deeply ingrained in our national life and culture, like America itself, it has been and remains many things to many people. For generations born on the farm, it may summon classically bittersweet nostalgia. For others, it has been a metaphor both for unvarnished rusticity and a laid-back middle-class existence.
James C. Cobb is a contributing editor at Zócalo Public Square and Spalding Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia. His latest book is “The South and America since World War II.” This essay is part of What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Arizona State University, produced by Zócalo Public Square.