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.

August 2004By Comments

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 80 trucks a month, a particularly impressive figure considering that there were only 8 vehicles on the lot when Benny’s took over the location in May of last year. There are now 540 vehicles, 85 percent of them pickups, an even mix of standard-size half-tons and the larger three-quarter and one-tons more associated with work. “We keep new cars on the lot primarily as a courtesy to the few car customers we get,” said Holcomb. “There’s no point trying to convince these cotton farmers that they can work out of a LeSabre.” That, even though he sells to a fair number of windshield farmers, wealthy folks who haul nothing bigger than a cell phone on the twenty-mile drive from their homes to their fields outside town.

One of Holcomb’s first customers that day was J. J. Richards, the 71-year-old proprietor of Richards Backhoes, who came in wearing a Wagner Brakes gimme cap and looking for a three-quarter-ton crew cab Dodge diesel. Although he’s driven Fords, Chevys, and Internationals, Richards has been partial to Dodge since buying his first one, in 1963. He brags that his 1973 Dodge crew cab, the industry’s original four-door pickup, is still running. When asked if he would do a lot of pulling in this new truck, he answered, “No, I do a lot of pointing.” But even though he hauls more backhoe operators than backhoes these days, after fifty-odd years of work as an area roughneck, farmhand, and small businessman, he sees only one appropriate way in which to ride. “Cars are for getting groceries and going to family reunions,” he said.

John Nobles, a Midland real estate agent who was wearing a straw cowboy hat on the lot and in the photograph on his business card, came in to trade his 2003 Chevrolet heavy-duty half-ton diesel crew cab for the same model but with four-wheel drive. While the handful of Impalas on the lot appeared to have big enough trunks to accommodate all the “For Sale” signs he was apt to need on a given day, he said he had to have a truck: “I show a lot of property in the country.”

The other two sales were to young families. Jeremy and Traci Davidson, a Lubbock couple who were due to have their first child the following weekend, bought a half-ton Dodge crew cab to take baby boy Gage home from the hospital. “I’d like to have waited until December to buy,” said Jeremy, who got a $450 graduation rebate for finishing up at Texas Tech this spring. “By then I’ll have the raise that’s coming at the Lowe’s where I work. But the baby’s coming now. And besides, if you buy at the end of the year, all that’s left are white trucks with no trim.” Jim Bob and Mixie Conner bought also. He’s a crop insurance appraiser who drives 1,500 miles a week for work in busy months, and he’s trading for a three-quarter-ton Dodge diesel crew cab. Mixie likes the cinches for child seats built into the back seat, and Jim Bob likes being able to leave the diesel engine running when he gets out in the field so he doesn’t have to turn the air conditioner off. And he’s partial to that loud diesel roar. The only drawback? “Our two-year-old, Charlie,” said Jim Bob, “has a white Matchbox pickup like the one I’m getting out of. I guess we’ll have to find him a red one now.”

Although a Lamesa buyer’s accent was a little thicker than the ones I heard on lots in Austin and New Braunfels, they all said the same thing: It has to be a truck. It was true whether the purchaser was a weekend one-hauler buying a hardworking Ford, a young rodeo fan buying the biggest, baddest Dodge, or a would-be gentleman rancher buying a smooth-riding Chevy. None of them were inclined to wax philosophical about their purchase, but then they didn’t have to. That they wouldn’t even kick the tires on a car that might have addressed their needs—and in a more fuel-efficient manner—indicated how deeply ingrained their preference was. They didn’t want a car; they wanted a piece of their heritage.

THE PICKUP DIDN’T SET OUT to be an icon for Texas or anywhere. The Ford Motor Company introduced the first mass-produced, factory-built pickup, the half-ton Model T Runabout with Pick-Up Body, in 1925, after Mr. Ford took note of a significant number of his cars with their back seats cut off and replaced by small cargo boxes. He sold 30,000 of that first batch of pickups, enough for Chevy and Dodge to follow his example. But any big hopes for the market were soon scotched, first by the Depression, when no one could afford a new vehicle, and then by World War II, when no one could find one, as American automakers dedicated their production to the war effort. After the war, all of that changed. Soldiers returning to rural America wanted the trucks they’d driven overseas, vehicles like the Dodge Power Wagon, a four-wheel drive created specifically for the military that would become a fixture on country roads. At first automakers sold surplus trucks left over from the war, along with pre-war-model cars and trucks, the only vehicles they were ready to build when their plants shifted back to commercial production. But the first new models Detroit introduced were pickups, first at Chevy, in 1947, and then at Ford and Dodge, in 1948. The farms and ranches that were still driving the U.S. economy ate them up.

The pickup’s emergence was well-timed for Texas ranches. In the fifties America began its exodus to the cities and suburbs. Up to that time, ranch work was done by groups of cowboys spending weeks in bunkhouses far out in the field or camping around chuck wagons. The shrinking rural labor pool made that kind of help harder to find, and pickups took up the slack, reducing the amount of time and the number of hands needed to work a ranch. Small ranchers were able to cut back their costs and in many cases acquire more land. Even the big Texas ranches that were generally able to hang on to their hands saw that working from trucks would make their operations more efficient. When use of stock trailers became widespread, in the sixties, ranch hands were able to take just the horses they’d need to a job each day, as opposed to driving a remuda out and staying for weeks at a time. The cow camp and the chuck wagon became a thing of the past, a development that some old ranchers lament as the end of the real cowboy. “It used to be a cowboy had to be able to do two things,” says Jim Hoy, a cowboy folklife scholar at Emporia State University, in Kansas. “He had to be able to ride a horse and get a rope around a steer. Now he had to do a third: keep an old Ford pickup running, which was probably the hardest of those three things to do.”

Unless, of course, you lived in the city, in which case it was the only one of the three you could realistically hope to pull off. So if the modern Marlboro Man rode in a truck, that was no tragedy for residents of Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio. As the pickup replaced the horse in the image in their heads, the cowboy didn’t so much decrease in their estimation as become easier to emulate. “A pickup is a holdover, a part of the myth we can hold on to,” says Ron Tyler, the director of the Texas State Historical Association. “Even though I live in the city, being able to go out and buy a truck is a chance to relive this historic time in Texas when a pickup was an absolute necessity.”

IT TOOK ABOUT TEN YEARS of cowboys in trucks for the pop-culture curve to catch up with reality. In the 1963 movie Hud, there were two primary vehicles: a Dodge Power Wagon driven by Hud‘s father, the proud, tradition-minded patriarch of a Texas ranching family, and a convertible Cadillac driven by Hud, the brash heel who could not have cared less for family or land, let alone tradition. The contrast was simple to understand. One was a work vehicle, the other a citified status symbol. For all the charisma that Paul Newman brought to the antihero Hud, by the time he slammed his Cadillac into the back of the Dodge in the film’s climactic scene, leading to his father’s death, it was clear that the angels, and more to the point, Texas tradition, rode in the truck.

Larry McMurtry says that when he wrote Horseman, Pass By, on which Hud is based, he wasn’t looking for metaphors when he chose the two vehicles. But if there’s any irony in McMurtry’s career, it is that his dry-eyed looks at Texas have always inspired nostalgic fits for the fans of his books. So he may not have meant to be anything but authentic when he put Sonny and Duane in a pickup in The Last Picture Show, his utterly unsentimental look at growing up in Archer City. But when Peter Bogdanovich’s film version of Picture Show came out in 1971, the pre-war, split-windshield Chevy truck that the boys used for petting sessions and a weekend bender in a Mexican border town seemed like the only tool that could squeeze life out of a small country town.

Or the only means to even survive. In Elmer Kelton’s 1973 novel, The Time It Never Rained, rancher Charlie Flagg refused to surrender to the seven-year drought that devastated West Texas in the fifties. “Charlie’s pickup never became a character,” says Kelton, “but as his situation declined, he had more and more problems with his truck, so it became a sort of symbol.” And just as Charlie wouldn’t accept any federal relief, he kept that pickup running.

By the time John Travolta’s Bud drove into Pasadena during the opening credits of 1980’s Urban Cowboy, McCombs’s gamble had paid off, and pickups had made it to town. You no longer had to be a cowboy to drive one. It didn’t matter that the only things Bud put in the bed of his truck through the entire film were a suitcase and the groomsmen from his wedding. His pickup, a black, long-bed Ford with fog lights mounted on a chrome roll bar, was an extension of who he wanted to be, not who he was. And since the film’s real accomplishment was in confusing a way of life with a look, the pickup became a fashion accessory, a way to live the dream with a degree of certainty that a shirt with snap buttons could never provide.

That dream was sold on television shows too, where driving a pickup implied an earthy, practical heroism. There were carefree, cocksure stuntmen like The Fall Guy‘s Colt Seavers, no-nonsense lawmen like Walker, Texas Ranger, and of course, heart-of-gold modern cowboys like Ray Krebbs on Dallas, the Southfork Ranch foreman who managed to be a good guy without being the weenie that Bobby Ewing was.

All these images are at work in pickup sales now, according to Dave Hickey, an art and pop culture critic who grew up in Dallas. “Pickup trucks now are like that beer-commercial country music you hear in Austin and Lubbock,” says Hickey, referring to the Pat Green types who name-check Lone Star beer and pickups in every other song. “It’s not about being ‘country’ but acknowledging we’re from the country. There’s a deep red-state anxiety, where everything is about nostalgia.” To Hickey, who admits that a van would have been a better choice than the Chevy pickup he drove when he owned an Austin gallery in the sixties, a truck suggests ruggedness in a less than rugged time. “We don’t ranch, we don’t work, so obviously we need a pickup.”

Thomas Hine, a design critic and an author whose 2002 book I Want That! examines American consumerism, goes deeper into why. “When most people go to work, they sit at a computer screen, doing everything they do in the abstract. They’d prefer to be doing something more direct, something that expresses their competence.” Thus the recent rash of do-it-yourself weekend landscapers and home improvers, people who fill Home Depot parking lots with pickups each Saturday morning. But he knows that there’s something more at work in Texas, where pump jacks still pump and ranch hands still rope and the rodeo still sells out the Astrodome. “In Texas,” says Hine, “it’s part of the ethos.”

The most accurate look into that ethos today is the animated television series King of the Hill. When it first aired, in 1997, it opened the only way it rightly could, with Hank Hill and his neighbors Dale, Bill, and Boomhauer standing in Hank’s driveway, drinking beer and looking under the hood of his pickup. The four of them were struggling, in a manner of speaking, to figure out why his truck wouldn’t run. Dale opined that the vehicle suffered of being a Ford. “You know what they say ‘Ford’ stands for, dontcha? It stands for ‘Fix it again, Tony.'” Hank allowed that Dale’s assessment would make sense if his truck were a Fiat. Then mush-mouthed Boomhauer mumbled something about “sparkblugs.” Hank let that thought pass. He saw a bigger concern. “I’ll tell you what my truck really needs: leadership. Detroit hasn’t felt any real pride since George Bush went to Japan and vomited on their auto executives.” It was not a commentary on industry or politics but a declaration of person and place. That driveway could have only been in Texas.

IN 1989 DODGE WAS WORKING on a makeover of its Ram trucks that would come to define the look of the pickup today. It had been seventeen years since the Ram had been redone, and in the meantime Dodge’s market share had fallen to barely 6 percent. Full-size pickups were boxy back then, and so were Dodge’s first prototypes. But when an engineer decided to try out a different look, he came up with a design patterned after the old Power Wagon, with squared-off front fenders jutting out from an elevated hood and a front grill that looked like clenched teeth bared into a stiff wind. The design resembled a small Mack truck or, more important, a great-big pickup.

Dodge held two major clinics for consumer feedback, one in Dallas and one in Fort Worth. The response was mixed, with about half the audience scoring it a nine or a perfect ten, the other half rating it at four or below, and no in-betweens. Internally, Dodge started calling it its “love-hate” front end and decided to take a chance that the lovers would buy it. Then it went to work on other elements the Texans had said they wanted: greater horsepower and acceleration, stronger towing and hauling capacity, and bigger cab dimensions. In the summer of 1993 Dodge rolled out the new Ram. It was bigger, stronger, and tougher-looking than anything else on the road. Sales leaped from 40,000 of the 1993 model to 230,000 of the 1994. Fred Diaz, now the director of marketing communications at Dodge, was selling trucks at the time: “We had to go to Texas because Texas is the horse’s mouth.”

“I don’t think there’s ever been a truck program, certainly not one done by Ford, that didn’t have a market-research event in Texas,” says Leo Shedden, who was the business director for Ford’s truck group when he retired in 2002, after thirty years with the company. “Typical respondents down there knew their trucks. No matter what segment of the population we would talk to, young or old, male or female, they knew something about fuel economy, power trains, towing, performance, trim level. They even knew what options were available.”

Keeping up with all those options is a bigger task than it used to be. Ford and Chevy have followed the 1994 Dodge to bigger and beefier exteriors (and emphasized their high-powered diesel engines, which compete with the Dodge’s Cummins), but after the SUV boom of the nineties, pickup buyers started looking for elevated comfort inside their trucks. All but gone for good are the plain Jane, steel-and-vinyl interiors McCombs used to wash out with a hose. Today’s interiors are done up like living rooms that would take a team of maids a full day to detail. And buyers who fifteen years ago might have brought four requests to the dealership—”I’d like a cloth seat, an automatic transmission, a cassette player, and bumpers”—require a whole other set of considerations.

Every touch of luxury you could want in a car is available in a truck: seat warmers, GPS systems, satellite radio, and DVD players. Chevy’s top-of-the-line four-door family truck has power ports to run the kids’ video games in the back seat and power everything in the front, so that Mom and Dad can both program a preferred seat and steering wheel position, an air conditioning temperature, and the volume and station of the radio. The truck will automatically go to one setting or the other depending on whose key unlocks the door. Ford’s top-end package, a four-door King Ranch edition that comes with the Running W brand of Texas’s most famous ranch stamped or stuck on nearly every available surface, is upholstered in King Ranch leather, with saddlebags on the backs of the front seats and a leather-care kit to protect your investment, which can run as high as $50,000.

These are clearly not work trucks, and as the market has mushroomed, part of the growth has been in high-dollar toys. Besides the King Ranch model, Ford has cross-licensed a Harley-Davidson pickup, which is decked out in black leather, and two years ago produced a bright-yellow Tonka concept truck. Dodge’s Ram SRT-10 has a 500-horsepower, ten-cylinder Viper engine and goes 150 miles per hour. Chevy’s Avalanche is the auto equivalent of a Transformer toy, covered in hard plastic and able to switch from a pickup to an SUV and back again. The company makes a new convertible roadster pickup, the SSR, a round-bodied, low-riding novelty truck that, with its top down and its bed cover off, looks like a deviled egg with the yolk licked out. Cadillac makes a pickup now, and Lincoln, Humvee, and Honda aren’t far behind.

But it’s the popularity of the four-door truck, the pickup-as-family-sedan phenomenon, that’s driving the market today. According to Shedden, regular cab pickups with just one row of seats accounted for 95 percent of sales as recently as 1980. But through the eighties, Ford sold enough half-ton F-150’s with extended cabs—a foot and a half of space behind the seat for storing whatever you didn’t want to get wet or lost, be it tools, supplies, or your kids—that Chevy started making them too. Then Ford noticed a new kind of buyer for its larger work trucks. “In the late nineties we were looking at Texas sales of our F-250s and F-350s,” says Shedden, “and the four-door crew cabs, which were built for actual work crews, were up around fifty percent of the mix. But the mix had a high number of Lariats.” (The Lariat was Ford’s top-of-the-line luxury package.) That told Ford that the trucks were being used for something other than work, a fact that Texas dealers confirmed. So in 2000 Ford introduced the F-150 SuperCrew, the first four-door half-ton, and redefined what a family sedan was in Texas and across the U.S. Within three years, Dodge and Chevy were making half-ton crews too, and now, just four years after they were invented, they account for one third of all national pickup sales, with the extended-cab models accounting for half and the regular cab making up the rest. It can be hard to even find a standard cab pickup on most Texas lots; that’s not what families are looking for.

“There was a definite push-pull,” says Brent Dewar, Chevrolet’s general manager for marketing. “The Texas market was already moving in that family-sedan direction. That was a market pull. In the rest of the country, we had to create that demand, give the market a push.”

IT WAS ONLY A MATTER of time before foreign car makers decided to make their own move into the full-size pickup market. Still, Toyota’s Japanese brass were hesitant when their North American execs suggested that the company introduce a half-ton pickup in the early nineties. They weren’t afraid of the Big Three’s dominance of the full-size market; it had taken time, but Toyota and other Japanese automakers had already overcome American resistance to Japanese cars and small trucks. But they worried that a full-size truck was just a work vehicle, and despite plenty of research to the contrary, they couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of a pickup doing anything but hauling equipment or cattle trailers. So executives at Toyota Motor North America invited their bosses to come to the U.S.—more specifically, to Irving. On a Sunday. When the Cowboys were playing. Then they turned them loose in the parking lot of Texas Stadium a few hours before game time. Any misapprehensions about the place of the pickup in American life were cleared up before the first rack of ribs came off the grill at the tailgate party.

At first Toyota hedged its bet. In 1999 it introduced the Tundra, a full-size pickup that became known as a “7/8 truck” because Toyota had stopped just short of making it as large as the American models. At 4 percent of the market, it has yet to threaten Detroit. The pickup explosion emboldened the company, however, and in February 2003 Toyota announced it would open an $800 million plant in San Antonio, where it will build a scaled-up Tundra to compete head-to-head with the Big Three. “Right now we make 100,000 pickups a year, and we’ll take that to 250,000 with this plant,” says Dennis Cuneo, a senior vice president with Toyota North America. “And we’ll need someone to buy them. This will help us sell in the heart of the market.” Cuneo figures that a sticker reading “Made in Texas, by Texans” on its special Texas-package trucks—with twenty-inch wheels, running boards, a bed liner, and a “Texas Edition” badge—will work to that end. But there is more to it than that. “Being in Texas will also help us learn how to make a truck we can sell elsewhere,” Cuneo says.

Nissan has moved in on the market too. Last summer it brought out its first half-ton, the Titan, which on paper can do everything the American trucks can. “It’s as hairy-chested as any of the others,” says Geoff Wardle, an auto designer at Pasadena, California’s Art Center College of Design, America’s foremost auto design school. And, of course, Nissan delivered the Titan to Texas dealers a full month before the rest of the country.

Although the Detroit executives try to sound unconcerned, Toyota and Nissan have their attention. The threat is serious enough that last year, when Ford introduced a new F-150, a $1.8 billion, top-to-bottom redesign of the world’s best-selling vehicle, it took the occasion to send a message to Toyota. For the launch, Ford shipped one hundred prototypes to San Antonio for eight waves of “ride and drives,” two-day opportunities for auto writers and Ford dealers to get to know the new pickups. The writers were treated like out-of-town wedding guests, with Ford trucks to drive from the airport, lunch waiting at the historic Menger Hotel, and activities planned for every minute of the weekend. There were lectures and demonstrations at a dealership in Boerne, an off-road obstacle course and seven-thousand-pound trailers to tow in Bandera, and a glad-you-came barbecue in Gruene. And as the writers drove those new F-150s through the Hill Country, they saw Ford logos and slogans painted on what seemed like every billboard, barn, and water tower on the road. “Obviously Toyota wasn’t the single factor in choosing to do this in San Antonio,” says Todd Eckert, who helped put the event together for Ford. “Six of our top twenty-five truck dealers nationally are in the San Antonio area. But we do want ultimately to remind people that, yes, Toyota is coming, but Ford is already here.” Chevrolet makes a similar pitch. “[We’re] number one in owner loyalty right now, and it’s driven mostly by trucks,” says Jay Allen, the head of Chevy’s southwest zone, which includes Texas. “We’ve been doing this a long time, and we’ve given consumers no reason to jump ship.”

But Toyota and Nissan aren’t counting on luring farmers who trade a GMC for a GMC every five years. They’re looking at growing markets, like Generation Y kids and Hispanics, who, according to studies, don’t make a priority of sticking to domestic brands. The Hispanic market is particularly important to Toyota executives, who were well-aware when they chose San Antonio that a large Hispanic workforce would be available to fill those three thousand new jobs. As the Hispanic market grows, Toyota wants to be its truck. So while Toyota and Nissan’s projections may be high—if both company’s estimates come true, they’ll have 15 percent of the market in five years—it will take time. Red McCombs, who now sells Toyotas as well as Fords, says Toyota’s goal is market supremacy in Texas and that it has the wherewithal to get there. Even though he’s first and foremost a salesman, he’s been right before.

Some observers speculate that Japan’s pickup plan could eventually cost the American automakers $1 billion annually. And on that front, Detroit is already working. Trying to address pickup buyers’ changing needs, it’s putting more focus on fuel efficiency and safety. Chevy and GMC are already selling gas-electric hybrid engines, and Ford’s new F-150 was the only 2004 model pickup to earn the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s highest rating for protecting passengers in frontal collisions. Whether these moves will enable the Big Three to fend off the new competition remains to be seen, but at least one fact should help Detroit sleep well at night: In Texas, demand for the pickup isn’t going anywhere. “Pickups are like what’s left in a population’s DNA after a plague,” says Ron Tyler. “The survivors are the ones with the right gene to beat it. After the plague is gone, they may not need the gene anymore, but it is still there.”

Related Content