Some historical highlights and some low points, too
In the beginning ...
Ford gets on board
The first heavy Chevy
Dodge weighs in
Cars into trucks
The rising sun
Toyota turns to trucks
Datsun digs in
Trucks get tough
Trucks turn pretty
Change is good
The Canadian connection
Designed for dealers
Toyota heads over
Toyota beefs up
Datsun and Nissan
Not everything was a good idea ...
You can get too fancy
And then there were none ...
Blurring the lines
Keeping them both
Light is might
The next new player?
- In the beginning ...
- Rapid expansion
- Ford gets on board
- Rapid transformation
- The first heavy...
- Dodge weighs in
- Studebaker starts
- Cars into trucks
- The rising sun
- Toyota turns to...
- Datsun digs in
- Hey, Mack!
- Trucks get tough
- Trucks turn pretty
- Swept away
- Change is good
- Handsome hybrid
- The Canadian...
- Designed for dealers
- Getting bigger
- Toyota heads over
- Toyota beefs up
- Datsun and Nissan
- More cars-to-trucks
- Not everything...
- You can get too...
- And then there...
- Blurring the lines
- Keeping them both
- Light is might
- The next new player?
If you want to see just how dramatically a vehicle segment can change, look at the pickup truck. They were originally just for work, and pity the poor farm boy who had nothing else in which to drive his date to town. Today, they can be as luxurious as a premium sedan, and often with prices to match. Come with us as we explore some historical highlights.
Just as the first cars were basically horse-drawn buggies with motors, the earliest trucks were motorized wagons. Historians believe this is the world’s first truck, built by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft—now Mercedes-Benz—in Germany in 1896. Its two-cylinder engine made four horsepower, and the company said it was rated to carry 1,500 kilograms.
As more car companies started up, so did more truck builders. In the earliest days, you could have had such brands as an Argo, Soules, Logan, or Economy. One of the more successful was Rapid, which opened its doors in Detroit in 1904. Keep it in mind, because we’ll hear more about it a little later on.
Ford made a handful of delivery vans in 1905, but the rest of its earliest trucks were made by aftermarket companies that built utility bodies on the automaker’s car chassis, including that of the Model T, introduced in 1908. In 1917, Ford introduced the Model TT, a one-ton chassis based on the Model T’s car frame, but longer and sturdier, and with a beefier rear axle. In 1925, the automaker started producing its first factory-built trucks on both the T and TT frames.
Remember that Rapid? While most other automakers were started by men who developed a car and then the company to sell it, General Motors founder William Durant bought existing manufacturers and brought them into his fold. In 1908, he purchased both Rapid and Reliance, a Detroit-based truck company. He formed the General Motors Truck Company, or GMC for short, to sell these two brands. The first truck to use the GMC badge was built in 1912, and the Rapid and Reliance names were discontinued the following year.
Chevrolet was founded in 1911, but didn’t offer a truck chassis until 1918. That year, you could buy a version of its Model 490 car chassis for light-delivery vehicles, or a one-ton chassis that, oddly enough, Chevy called the Model T. You bought only the chassis and had an outside company put a body on it. The company would begin offering factory-built pickup trucks in 1931.
The Dodge brothers formed their company in 1914, and by 1918 were selling a delivery van that was also turned into ambulances for the First World War. While several companies built truck bodies on Dodge’s chassis in the earliest years, the Indiana-based Graham Brothers made their own trucks using Dodge components. In 1921, Dodge started selling Graham trucks through its dealers. In 1926, Graham sold its truck-building business to Dodge, which retired the Graham name in 1929.
Studebaker had started out as a wagon builder in 1852 and made a few electric cars before joining forces with automaker EMF in 1908. From 1911 to 1913 the company made a small number of panel trucks badged as Flanders (the F in EMF) and then roadster pickups, which were open car bodies with pickup truck boxes. The company actually called them “pickups” in its advertising, believed to be the first time the word was used. Studebaker built trucks from 1914 until the U.S. operation folded in 1964.
Studebaker’s first light-duty truck was the 1937 Coupe Express (this one’s customized), which used the front end, engine, and instrument panel from a car but only lasted until 1939. Over its lifespan, the company built everything from tractor-trailers, to bread trucks, to postal vans. From 1958 to 1960, you could even get a Studebaker pickup with four-wheel drive, in half-, three-quarter, or one-ton configuration.
The first passenger vehicle made in Japan was a version of a British automobile, Wolseley, made under license by Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding & Engineering. That company would eventually become Isuzu. The first truck built in Japan, restored and shown here at the Tokyo Motor Show, was a 1924 Japanese-built version of the Wolseley CP. It had a payload of 1.5 tons and was used as a military vehicle.
Toyota’s first truck was the G1, made in 1935 for domestic sales. The company was still a subsidiary of the Toyota Automatic Loom Works and would become Toyota Motor Company in 1937. It would continue its light-duty truck business and add medium-duty trucks in 1951.
Datsun built its first truck, the Datsun 13, in 1934. Production halted during the Second World War, and postwar shortages took their toll: trucks were built as simply as possible, with some body parts made out of wood when steel wasn’t available. The all-new 220 pickup of 1957 carried the company’s very first overhead-valve engine. The 1958 version, shown above, was the first Datsun vehicle to be exported to the United States, along with the 210 sedan.
Not everything that was “built like a Mack truck” was big. From 1936 to 1938, Mack offered the Mack Jr. half-ton pickup. Mack didn’t actually make them; instead, they were built for Mack by Reo, a car and truck manufacturer created by Ransom Eli Olds (using his initials for its name) after he left Oldsmobile. The Mack Jr. was a gorgeous pickup but very expensive, which led to its quick demise.
When the U.S. entered the Second World War, it didn’t need cars, but it sure needed trucks. Automakers had to suspend car production to make war supplies, but the truck lines kept running, making heavy-duty models for the conflict. Dodge made more than 500,000 military trucks, and after the war, offered a beefy 4×4 civilian version it called the Power Wagon. The package included a winch and PTO.
With American automakers now into full swing with styling, it was only a matter of time before trucks got the full treatment too. For 1955, Chevrolet introduced its Cameo Carrier half-ton, which could be ordered with the company’s equally-new 265-cubic-inch V8. Not many were sold, primarily because of the price: almost $3,000 when a regular Chevy half-ton started at about $1,100. Even rarer was its fancy GMC sibling, the Suburban Pickup. Both used steel boxes with fiberglass fenders.
In 1957, Dodge restyled its cars into what it called the “Forward Look,” with new dual fins it called Swept Wings. These went onto its pickup trucks as well, where the design was called Sweptside. The fins were toned down for 1960 and the styling was renamed Sweptline.
In 1948, Ford rolled out the first complete redesign of its truck line since 1938. Changes included a one-piece windshield, vent windows, and rubber mounts to “suspend” the cab for a better ride. It was now called the F Series, from the F-1 half-ton to the F-8 three-ton. It would undergo several styling changes over the next decade, but unlike Chrysler, Ford didn’t add any car-inspired designs. Factory four-wheel drive was first available in 1959.
While Ford didn’t build a truck that looked like a car, it did build a car that looked like a truck. In 1957 it introduced the Ranchero, essentially its Ranch Wagon station wagon with a truck-style bed. Two years later, Chevrolet introduced its version, shown above, which it called the El Camino. But it wasn’t an entirely new idea. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, you could buy “utility coupes” from manufacturers such as Hudson, which featured a pull-out box under its trunk lid, and from Chevrolet, which pulled the trunk lid off entirely and welded in a pickup bed.
In 1936, the Canadian government slapped a 17.5 per cent tariff on imported cars to protect its manufacturing base. The Big Three responded with “Canadian” models that were really just U.S. designs with trim changes. These included the Mercury M series, based on the Ford F-1; GM’s line of Maple Leaf trucks; and Fargo, a Dodge-based line that was built both for Canadian sales and for export to Commonwealth countries. Most of these Canada-only models were discontinued after the elimination of the tariff in 1965.
While the tariffs played a major role in the Canadian-only trucks, Canada’s unique dealer network was also a factor. Each Detroit automaker had several brands and dealers would carry specific combinations of them, but if that combo was car-only, some dealerships had no truck line. Mercury-Lincoln dealers denied the Ford F-1 were able to sell the Mercury pickup, while Plymouth-Chrysler dealers, who didn’t have Dodge trucks, added the Fargo.
You might have noticed something so far: everything has a regular cab. Dodge changed that in 1972 when it introduced its D-Series Club Cab (it came to the Canadian market a year later). Ford added an extended version in 1974, Today, extended cabs and crew cabs outsell regular cabs.
Toyota sold its first trucks in the United States in 1964, when it imported the compact Stout. Talk about a slow start: it appears only four of them were purchased that year. It did better with the Hi-Lux, introduced for 1969 (that’s a 1974 pictured), which was renamed simply the Toyota Pickup in 1976. In 1984 you could get it with an extended cab, turbo engine, or a diesel powerplant. With an all-new model in 1995—designed and built in the U.S.—Toyota renamed its compact pickup the Tacoma.
The Japanese traditionally made smaller pickups, but in 1993, Toyota introduced its T100, a full-size (for its day, anyway) with a 3.0-litre V6 engine. A 2.7-litre four-cylinder debuted the following year, and an extended-cab version came out for 1995. The T100 lasted until 1998, and in June 1999, the company introduced the Tundra, which Motor Trend magazine promptly named its Truck of the Year.
Since that first 1958 import, Datsun enjoyed steady if not spectacular sales in the U.S. in its earlier days. It upgraded its Datsun 320 pickup in 1965 to 60 horsepower and its first four-speed floor shifter, and in 1967, added the Patrol, its first SUV to its North American lineup. A King Cab extended-cab pickup was added in 1977, and in 1983, a new plant in Smyrna, Tennessee made the company’s first U.S.-built truck. The Frontier lineup, introduced in 1999, included the first compact crew cab with four full-size doors. The full-size Titan came out in 2003.
Rising fuel prices in the U.S. following the 1973 oil embargo had buyers downsizing wherever possible, and the domestic automakers brought in small trucks (often made by global companies and rebadged) to compete with the Japanese manufacturers, such as Chevrolet’s little Luv truck, built by Isuzu. Volkswagen got in on the action by turning its hatchback into the Rabbit Pickup truck (called the Caddy in overseas markets). Other car-based pickups that appeared over the years included the Omni-based Dodge Rampage, and the Outback-based Subaru Baja (and before that, the Brat).
None of the car-based trucks lasted, and neither did a few off-the-wall ideas that some of the automakers dreamed up. One was lopping the roof off the Dodge Dakota to create the Dakota Sport Convertible, which sold just over 3,700 copies from 1989 to 1991. Another was the Chevrolet SSR, a retro-styled concept truck that made the rounds of the auto shows for a few years before going into production for 2003. Overpriced and underpowered, it was gone by 2006.
Lincoln also learned the hard way in 2002 with its Blackwood. A blend of Lincoln Navigator and Ford F-150, the Blackwood featured a two-piece liftgate with doors that swung out from below the power-operated tonneau cover. Outfitted with wood, carpet, and aluminum strips, the bed was pretty much useless for hauling anything. The suspension was too low for off-road and there was no four-wheel option. It was also $52,000 when an F-150 started around $17,000. In 2003, Lincoln dumped all its unsold Blackwoods on the Mexican market. It did slightly better three years later with the Lincoln LT, an F-150 with upscale trim.
In 2005, I went on a press trip to Oregon with several other Canadian writers to drive the all-new Mitsubishi Raider, a rebadged version of the Dodge Dakota. My story was published and I waited for the truck to arrive, but it never did. Mitsubishi sold the Raider in the U.S. from 2006 to 2009, but ultimately decided against bringing it to Canada. (My unconfirmed suspicion was warranty terms, since Mitsubishi covered its vehicles for far longer than Dodge did.) Meanwhile, Suzuki rebadged the Nissan Frontier as the Equator, shown above, but only stocked a handful of trucks before it left the Canadian auto market entirely.
SUV-based pickup trucks such as the Ford Explorer Sport Trac and the Chevrolet Avalanche were already on the market when Honda introduced its SUT Concept in 2004. The difference was that, unlike those body-on-frame models, the SUT was a unibody. And when it went into production as the 2006 Ridgeline, its all-wheel-drive system was front-biased. But it proved to be the right truck for many buyers, with considerable cabin storage space and hidden compartments in its composite bed.
After getting out of the compact pickup market, General Motors has returned with two midsize trucks for 2015, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. Like all of its Chevrolet/GMC trucks, the two are mechanical twins. So why keep both names? Well, part of that might be us, because sales of the two are split almost down the middle here. In the U.S., Chevrolet is the clear choice: according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, Americans bought 529,755 Chevrolet Silverados in 2014, but only 211,833 GMC Sierras. In contrast, Canadians bought 48,046 Sierras, and 41,959 Silverados.
Pickup trucks tend to be among the most traditional vehicles on the market, but for 2015, Ford is going in the opposite direction with the first production all-aluminum body. The company estimates that this, along with a high-strength-steel frame, lops off about 320 kilograms of weight. That can translate into better fuel figures, and with automakers under the gun to improve economy, this could possibly become the material of the future.
Up until now, Canada’s truck scene has been almost exclusively American and Japanese manufacturers. At the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Hyundai wheeled out the Santa Cruz Crossover Truck all-wheel-drive concept. It’s aimed at “urban adventurers” who would use it for light-duty tasks, throwing bikes or camping gear in the back where the bed slides out for more cargo space. There’s no word on whether it’ll actually go into production, but it’s just one more highlight in the long and fascinating history of pickup trucks.