Keep on Truckin’

Associate editor John Spong on Toyota trucks, the SUV craze, and hybrid pickups.

August 2004By Comments In your story you mention that by 1980 pickup trucks had made it to the big city. So why a story on the pickup, the new national car of Texas, right now?

John Spong: In truth, the best reason to do this story is really a nationwide one: America has gone pickup crazy. There are a number of signs indicating just how strong the trend is. For one, trucks are being bought by people who never would have thought about such a purchase five years ago, particularly moms and dads who want trucks to serve as their family’s primary vehicle. But just as significantly, pickups are being built by car makers that wouldn’t have touched them in the past, companies like Cadillac, Lincoln, and Honda. (Strangest of all, on that count, are the pictures you can find on the Web of a prototype BMW pickup.) And then there is the fact that Nissan and Toyota are now trying to move in on the full-size pickup market. Everybody I talked to—car makers, car dealers, car drivers—discussed the fact that for trucks to get this popular, people had to shake the idea that pickups strictly belonged in the country. But people in Texas got past that stereotype a long time ago, which is one of the reasons that automakers come here to find out how to build and market trucks. Learning about all that got me thinking about the two questions we tried to answer in the piece: What does the truck mean to Texas, and what does Texas mean to the truck? How did the idea come about?

JS: At a party last Christmas I ran into a buddy from high school who had spent the past five years working on ad campaigns for GMC trucks. He was a pickup nut, spouting off statistics and talking about buying trends and the history of trim styles, and he had this strong sense of state pride in the fact that Texas was the birthplace of it all. After listening to him talk about trucks for about an hour and realizing that his enthusiasm was shared by New York ad execs and Detroit car makers, I figured we had a story. What kind of research was involved in this story?

JS: I spent a lot of time on the phone with auto executives and three days at dealerships around the state watching truck sales. But the most fun was test driving trucks. I had three trucks—a Dodge, a Ford, and a Chevrolet—for a week a piece. (Neither Nissan nor Toyota was able to get a “media demo” to Texas while I was reporting.) The Dodge was a huge, red, 3/4-ton diesel that was loud enough and big enough that I had an instant desire to drive around town looking for guys who had picked on me in junior high school. Chevrolet sent down its most plush family model, and one night, parked in my driveway, I actually sat in the backseat watching a movie in the DVD player. The Ford was one of the new tricked-out F150s. It was bright Tonka yellow, with an interior that looked like the cockpit of a small jet. What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?

JS: I was surprised when San Antonio car dealer Red McCombs described a time when pickups were confined to rural areas. On the one hand, that made sense; first and foremost pickups are work vehicles, and the kind of work they are best suited for has, in Texas history, taken place in the country. But by the time I was old enough to start looking for something to drive, in the early eighties, pickups were everywhere (including Austin, where I lived). Think about your own high school parking lot. It is impossible to imagine those lots without trucks, but even harder to imagine McCombs working so hard to get Detroit to realize that market was there. While researching your piece, did you come across any noticeable trends or buying patterns? For example, more foreign-made trucks are sold in big cities? Ranchers in West Texas prefer certain colors?

JS: One of the more interesting things I saw was that buyers in Texas tended to know more about the trucks than the people selling them. I saw a 22-year-old kid at a Ford dealership in Austin who didn’t even want to look inside the cab of the pickup he was going to buy. He told the salesman that he already knew what was in there and he didn’t need to look at it. Unfortunately for the salesman, the kid also knew what the invoice price of the truck was, which was significantly lower than the sticker price, and when the salesman tried to adjust the trade-in price and change the number of monthly payments to make it look like he was getting a better deal than he actually was, the kid would not budge (he got his price). All the salespeople I met talked about this happening to them. They said that with all the information available on the Internet, buyers are able to educate themselves long before they get to the dealership, and it has a tremendous effect on a dealer’s profit on a truck sale. According to your story, Red McCombs says Toyota is trying for “market supremacy.” Do you think he’s right?

JS: It’s hard to say. Thomas Hine, the design and consumerism critic I talked to for the story, said that one big draw of pickups was that they offer a chance for people who don’t actually do any physical work to own and use an authentic, working man’s tool. For years, a full-size pickup was by definition made in America, by an American company, so you’d think that to maintain that authenticity, a pickup would need to stick to that definition. But Hine also said to be careful about what you mean by “authenticity.” “Look at the way Levi’s, the dominant maker of blue jeans for generations, lost its edge after the market went from buying the standard brand to buying jeans that fit me.” According to Hine, the pickup market has grown to include different kinds of buyers, people with different ideas of what they need in a truck. They’re more apt to look at fuel efficiency and environmental and safety concerns. “Buyers won’t be people for whom Ford and Chevy are almost a religion, but a far larger market that is looking for a truck that fits them.” If Toyota and Nissan can address those needs better than the Big Three, they’ll have a chance. Do you think the pickup has surpassed the SUV in terms of popularity?

JS: SUVs may well have become just popular enough to ensure their own demise. A lot of new truck buyers would have never thought about buying a pickup if they hadn’t already moved to an SUV. But now that a pickup’s interior can be outfitted with all the luxuries of an SUV’s, new car buyers are seeing that the other attributes that made them want an SUV are available to an even greater degree in a truck. Pickups are more practical—there are things you can put in the bed of a pickup that you’d never put in the back of a Suburban—and they cost less. And as fuel efficiency becomes an even greater concern, SUVs should feel the sting a little stronger than pickups, as trucks will always have that working segment of the market that cannot switch to another vehicle. You mentioned in your story that Chevy and GMC will have gas-electric hybrid engines available in pickups later this year. Do you think truck owners are that concerned with fuel efficiency?

JS: It depends on which truck buyers you look at. All the auto executives I talked to acknowledged that if gas prices stay as high as they are now, the new breed of pickup buyers, people who just want a truck, may back off. After all, pickups are not the cheapest vehicles when you get to the pumps. But people who really need them for work—contractors, ranchers, farmers—will be able to pass those costs on to their customers or employers. Gas prices won’t hurt that part of the market. What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?

JS: There was a real obstacle in getting people to think about trucks as something other than a tool. Trucks are such a part of life in Texas that when you go to a place like Lamesa and ask people why they want a truck, they really do look at you like you’ve just arrived from Mars—and then they look over your shoulder for the hatchback that you must have just come from Mars in. Do you own a pickup? If so, why? If not, why not? Have you ever owned a pickup truck? If not, would you ever consider buying one? Why or why not?

JS: I heard that question a lot when I was interviewing people for this story, and it was easy to see people lumping me firmly in with the modern buy-a-truck-because-I-want-one bunch. From my senior year in high school until I was about thirty, I drove a jacked-up, blue Toyota four-wheel drive that didn’t spend a lot of time doing ranch work. Most of its use came after hard rains, when I’d go with friends to vacant lots and drive through the mud. But it did come in handy, particularly between semesters in college when just about every friend I had would ask me to help him move from apartment to apartment. As I got older, those kinds of requests came less often, in part I think because more and more people were buying trucks.

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