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The Call of the Pickup Truck

Most of Us Are Not Farmers or Cowboys or Contractors. Yet the Two Top-Selling vehicles in the Country Are Pickups. American Pickups. What Is This About?

September 15, 1996|JOHN BALZAR | John Balzar is a Times national correspondent. He once owned a 1937 Chevrolet pickup but now drives a Honda Civic

In pursuing life's acquisitions, we arrive at a moment of meditation: Do I need this, or do I just want it? Our thoughts become bothersome arguments with ourselves. So we yield to the irresistible belief that probably, someday, we will surely need what we want right now. Just think how handy it will be.

* From such self-convincing impulses, many a good fad has been hatched and much money has changed hands. Sometimes billions of dollars. While we may come to regret our decisions from time to time, it is pretty much a physical impossibility to kick ourselves in the behind. And feeling guilty is likewise futile, unless you seek peculiar satisfaction in it. Anyway, before long something else is apt to demand our attention with the question, "Do I need this, too?"

Which, roundabout, brings us to the pickup truck.

The best-selling car in America is a pickup truck.

That is a fact. Has been for a long time. It is also a fact that there is not enough horse manure, used washing machines, oversize toolboxes, camper shells and boat trailers to justify so many pickups as a matter of actual need.

Unless answering the call of one's culture is a need. In which case, it is a deep one. And it cannot be discounted that Americans and their pickups are a love affair, as inexplicable and undeniable as any romance, and surely we need this, too.

Besides, pickups are handy.

Sonny Olson is a third-generation Montana cattleman, who, if you hear him tell it, is a practical sort. For instance, his haircut. He shears his hair once a year, just after the snow melts, when he reckons he won't freeze his bare scalp. By next winter his hair will have grown out for insulation and his hat will fit tight again against the winds of blizzards. He wears a bandanna tied nattily around his weather-beaten neck and stuffs his blue jeans inside 14-inch-long boots to keep his pants from getting soiled. As for getting his boots soiled, why, hell, that's what boots are for, like pickups. But if you look closely, you will find that the boots are handmade and cost $500.

Today, Olson is driving a 1960s Ford pickup across the Missouri Breaks range. The paint is red, sandblasted by wind and roughened by sun. It's unwashed, the fenders wrinkled from use. The interior is a pleasing mess, like a good ranch kitchen.

"Pickups?" he says, "I got eight."


"Well, I got more'n that. But I got eight good 'uns."

One for carrying fencing, one for hauling fuel tanks, one with a camper shell, another pulls horse trailers and so on, leaving room here and there on his 20,000-acre spread for spares, just in case. His needs are many, Olson explains. Yes, but as with $500 boots and a proper bandanna, this cowboy is not beyond considerations of style when it comes to doing his work, even if he won't exactly admit it.

Along with most, if not all, truck owners, Olson believes there are many pretenders but only one satisfactory pickup. It is the Ford, vintage 1968-'72, with more than 100,000 break-in miles on it.

"In '73, they started putting plastic in 'em. You take one of those new pickups out with a load of feed and those calves will start pushing and shoving at ya and do $500 damage to the body. Humph."

As for the 100,000-mile break-in, well, that gets the price down to about the same as a pair of boots. So a fellow can have several.

And if it happens he feels comfortably debonair when he gets behind the wheel, afresh with a new haircut, who will begrudge him?

the ford f-series pickup has been the no. 1-selling vehicle in the United States for 14 years. Trucks of all brands, and by their larger definition vans and sport utility vehicles, will soon outsell cars domestically, according to Detroit auto executives.

In 1995, Ford sold 366,000 Tauruses, making it No. 1 among sedans and wagons. But Ford sold nearly twice as many--691,000--full-size F-Series pickups. The No. 2 vehicle in the country, with 537,000 sold, was General Motors' C/K full-size pickup. Chrysler's best seller, ranked either 10th or 11th, according to different industry analysts, was the Dodge Ram pickup at 272,000.

Sometime this year, perhaps even as we speak, the Ford F-Series, in production since 1948, will exceed the Volkswagen Beetle's record of 22.5 million sold, says Bill George, Ford's western regional corporate news manager.

The pickup has been a savior for Detroit. Back in those not-so-distant dark days of the American car business, the full-size pickup never let the Big Three down.

The Japanese have been unable to crack the dominance of domestic full-size trucks, although their mini pickups have been big sellers. Most overseas car companies never tried, perhaps figuring the concept of the pickup truck was too, ah, foreign.

And now, on the growing success of trucks, led by pickup trucks, Detroit banks its hopes for renewal in the 21st century.

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