The Pickup Truck Mystique

Most drivers don’t need them. So why are pickups so wildly popular?

Front of a pickup truckl

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There is something about pickup trucks that both perplexes and amuses.

Why? That is, why are pickups so wildly popular in America, even in what would seem to be our least pickupiest parts? Like along the wide boulevards of our metropolises, for example. Or parked at ornate downtown concert halls. What gives?

To find out, I went straightaway to a top authority on spending habits. “Can you explain this to me?” I asked Kit Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy.

“Well,” she responded with a quick laugh, “it doesn’t have anything to do with picking things up.”

What accounts for the trucks’ ubiquity, then? “What pickups communicate is that we are resourceful, independent, tough, and ready for action,” Yarrow told me. “That’s totally in league with American values.”

So, we buy all these behemoth work trucks mainly to work out our latent inadequacy issues and to demonstrate we’re prepared for whatever calamity may come? Well, yes. And no.
Millions of people actually require half-tons for the utilitarian duties they are designed to perform. And by that I don’t mean coupon-Tuesday jaunts to Walgreens and Chick-fil-A.

The Big Three automotive manufacturers rely on these repeat buyers. Pickups, as a category, outsell cars by a considerable margin. They drive the industry’s profits, which accounts for the constant proliferation of models. Even Mercedes-Benz and Tesla are about to introduce pickups. Some of the fancier ones already on the road are definitely not your father’s Ford F-150. They are full-on luxury beasts with prices ranging to $80,000. Eighty K – for a pickup!

A quick survey of your neighborhood will likely reveal, however, that not every pickup owner is a housing contractor ferrying tool kits and sheets of plywood. A large percentage have never hauled so much as a carton of Tonka toys, let alone towed a trailer. Their cargo beds — some secured by hard-plastic tonneau covers — are pristine. You could comfortably dine on shrimp cocktail back there — underscoring the point that, for many, piloting one of these tall fellers is largely about that brash self-image thing.

“What pickups communicate is that we are resourceful, independent, tough, and ready for action.”

In Texas, the pickup capital of the country by sales (I believe the state’s constitution requires ownership of one per household, minimum), the trucks are as commonplace as cattle. It was in Dallas that I first noticed pickup cabs outfitted with look-at-me gun racks and longhorns. I mean huge horns, taken from a dead animal. Fashionable, no? Fits right in with Kit Yarrow’s research, which says that pickups tell a tale of self-sufficiency and maybe a bit of braggadocio.

I recently read an article arguing that Texans love their pickups because they are more comfortable than cars for driving vast distances across the plain. I’m not buying it. I’m more in tune with the anonymous writer who posted an online essay titled “7 Reasons Why Americans Love the Pickup Truck.” He concluded that the pickup is “a modern representation of the frontier life.” In essence, he said, pickups are “a warming ember” that insulates us against the encroaching coldness of urban life.

Actually, it was not too long ago that you dared not park your pickup on a “fancy” street anywhere — not in a city, not in a suburb. Chuck Lofquist, a Florida-based builder, recalls those days. “There was a stigma attached to pickups,” he told me. “People who drove them were regarded as being lesser.” A pause. “But now most people would agree that pickups are very good-looking vehicles, and you can park them anywhere.”

I might take a contrary stand on the matter of aesthetics, but you can’t dispute Lofquist’s second point. Pickups — including the performance models pushed by the industry — have rolled into a space beside apple pie: Both define what is iconically American.

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Comments

  1. I totally agree — Iam 83 years old and gave my ’86 Toyota pickup to my oldest son. I miss that truck almost s much as I miss my parents. I did everything imaginable in that little red truck and it symbolized freedom and independence to me and I am still fiercely independent. I wish I hadn’t given it up. It feels like I’ve given up my best friend.
    My name is Joseph H. Casto — a retired Navy SCPO God Bless America!!!

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