Wheels of Fortune

To the delight of automakers in Detroit and elsewhere, there's only one vehicle that matters to every single Texan: the pickup. And no wonder. Whether it's a West Texas ranch hand or a suburban soccer mom behind the wheel, the pickup says a lot about who we are—and who we'd like to be.

IF PICKUPS ARE A RELIGION in Texas, Red McCombs is the missionary who took the gospel from the sticks to the city. In 1958 McCombs quit peddling Edsels in Corpus Christi and moved to San Antonio to become partners in a Ford dealership with a man named Hemphill. "When I got here," says McCombs, "we were selling ninety-five percent cars and five percent trucks. Mr. Hemphill told me, 'Look, Detroit is going to insist you take some pickups, but there is no interest in 'em except as work vehicles. So just give 'em away, lose money on 'em, because you're going to have to take 'em if you want to get some cars.'" McCombs figured better and started finding ways to spruce up his trucks for urban buyers—a little chrome here, a wraparound bumper there, maybe a Western design on the seat. "Detroit had always thought that the only way to sell a truck was to make it cheaper than the competition's. But we showed them that we could take a three-thousand-dollar model, add two thousand in features, and sell it before we would that stripped-down model over there."

McCombs's ideas made sense to Lee Iacocca, an ambitious young Ford executive charged with marketing light trucks at the time. In 1963 McCombs was elected chairman of the National Ford Dealer Council on the strength of one pledge: Give us a better truck and we can sell more Fords. By then Iacocca was Ford's general manager and in a position to do something about it. Two years later Ford rolled out its upscale Ranger package, a set of creature-comfort options that introduced such radical indulgences as carpet and armrests on the doors. Then Iacocca and McCombs worked up a plan to teach the rest of the country's dealers how to sell a dressed-up truck. By the end of the decade, General Motors' postwar dominance of the market was over, and Ford was king. And Detroit's blue-collar stepchild, the pickup, was on its way to becoming its favorite son.

Forty years later, McCombs's big gamble seems like a no-brainer. The pickup is a full-fledged Texas icon now, one that is far more important to us than boots and jeans or big hair and boob jobs. It was an indispensable tool to roughnecks and cowboys, one that made the twentieth-century segment of the Texas myth possible. And as we moved away from the oil patch and the ranches, the pickup went with us and found a different place in our lives. If you didn't ride in one to swimming holes or drive-in movies when you were a kid, then your mom and dad did, and you heard all about it when they drove you in a truck to a public pool or a multiplex. Pickups are where we first learned to drive and then to break curfew, where we were able to play the stereo as loud as we wanted, make attempts to get nearer to the opposite sex, and dream of one day getting out on our own.

Today, one of every four vehicles registered in Texas is a pickup, and it feels like even more if you're just counting cars in traffic. While plenty of truck owners are still people who need them—ranch hands and contractors, people who work for a living—fully 70 percent are folks who just want them—city-bound soccer moms and, as Texas Tech American lit professor emeritus Kenneth W. Davis puts it, "hormonal high school boys and physicians longing to be released into the wild." For them, a pickup's practicality may come into play once a month. The rest of the time, it's a tie to Texas past.

But don't underestimate the power of nostalgia; as important as the truck is to the self-image of Texas, the state has come to mean that much and more to Detroit. Full-size pickups—Ford's F series, Chrysler's Dodge Ram, and General Motors' twin-sister models, the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra—are far and away the best-selling American-made vehicles, jumping from 1 million sold ten years ago to 2.3 million last year. Pickups account for nearly half of Detroit's profits, and some observers say they are the only things keeping the Big Three out of the red. With one of every seven pickup sales occurring in Texas, we're the biggest truck market and the best place for research, and rightfully treated like the pretty girl at the truck maker's ball. We are courted with our own commercials, marketing junkets, Texas-only extras packages, and early chances to buy new models, not one of which arrives without every component having been meticulously tested on Texas buyers. And now that Japan wants a piece of the full-size truck market—last year Toyota broke ground on a San Antonio plant that will roll out 150,000 new trucks a year—the small battle begun by Red McCombs for the hearts and minds of Texas pickup buyers has blown up into a full-scale war. While Detroit may be thinking in terms of dollars and cents, in Texas, it's a fight to define who we are.

THERE'S NO MORE RELIABLE WAY to coax a "You're not from around here, are you?" out of a resident of the West Texas plains than to ask him or her, "Why a pickup?" So I learned when I visited the new Benny Boyd Chevy Dodge dealership in Lamesa on the Saturday before Memorial Day. Lamesa is a dusty little town of about 10,000 situated among the oil fields, cattle ranches, and cotton farms between Lubbock, Big Spring, and Midland, the kinds of places where the truck may have developed into an icon but is not often discussed as one. And the pickup's role in the mythos is certainly not a conscious concern for customers walking a lot's hot asphalt, hoping to hurry up and lay down $30,000 for a new truck that they can show off at holiday picnics.

Benny's does a good business in Lamesa. Managing partner Paul Holcomb says he sells an average of

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