Keep on Truckin'

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

texasmonthly.com: 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?

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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

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