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America's Peculiar Love Affair With Pickups

The Gyrhead boys are prone to pondering the most arcane matters.  Would a lobster win a fight with a crab?  Why do people watch reality TV?   Recently the beer fueled question arose of why Americans love pickup trucks.  This same question has tortured European intellectuals for decades, though they've handily concluded the whole matter with the declaration that we're all idiots.

Americans love pickup trucks, and that's a matter of fact.  In the 2005 model year, the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra and Dodge Ram garnered the top 3 spots in new vehicle sales.  This sales performance in a year when hurricane Katrina and the Iraqi war caused fuel prices to rise and fall as much as Kirstie Alley’s weight.  Incredible.  What is it that Americans find so appealing about trucks?  After much toe kickin’ and ponderin', we have an opinion on the matter.  Since it’s our website – you’re gonna hear it.  Ahh, the wonder of the Internet.

40 years ago you could walk into any car dealership and spec out the car that perfectly suited BOTH your priorities and realities.  Wanted a 426 Hemi Coronet post coupe with dog dish hubcaps, column shifter and rubber floor mats?  Mother MoPar would be happy to build you one.  Needed a full size Impala wagon to haul the Cub Scouts but not ready to give up the drive-through holeshot?  Chevrolet had you covered, with FACTORY built L-72 wagons complete with woodgrain, 12 bolt, positraction and a Muncie 4 speed.  Man, those were wild times, and they left a dizzying legacy of one-off musclecars that still fascinate us.

Deep down we knew the good times couldn’t last.  Any manufacturing executive worth a darn understands the supply chain nightmares associated with giving consumers infinite product choices.  So limitless choice gave way to pre-engineered option packages, and serious car enthusiasts have been suffering ever since.

Buying a new car today is as much fun as buying a dishwasher.  Pick your color, pick your sound system and that’s about it.  No more ala-carte engine options, no more big blocks, seldom any transmission choices, and certainly no option box for a 4.10 posi.

But, there's good news.  Pickup trucks represent the last bastion of fun and freedom of choice with the vehicular order form.  GM offers no less than SEVEN engine picks in the Silverado, and they aren’t bashful about whooping about the horsepower ratings either.  Pick the entry-level 4.8 liter V8 and get 285 horses.  Go with the 5.3 liter and get 10 more ponies but about 35 more Lb/Ft of torque.   Get the 5.3 liter Vortec “Max” and 345 horses are yours – along with the confidence that Oakland Raider great Howie Long approves of your engine selection.  There's also a 6.0 small block complete with a lumpy, bonafide Z06 cam.   Go really nuts and GM’s happy to supply the 496 cube big block with 455 Lb/Ft of torque.  You’d better believe they proudly call it the Big Block too.   Before pooh-poohing these horsepower figures, remember that they are stingy SAE net ratings – so these engines are easily putting out 300-400 gross horsepower.   Despite the pushrod design, they are smooth, refined and make great power all the way through 6,000 RPM.    Ford offers no fewer than 3 V8 options and a monster 6.8 liter V10.  In terms of performance, the Fords seem to make a lot more bottom end grunt than the GMs, but we find the 4.6 and 5.4 Triton to be painfully thrashy – with terrible NVH characteristics.   The exhaust note of the 6.8 V10 is just plain weird, but many of our commercial customers are racking up well over 500,000 miles on the V10, so we know it's stout.    MoPar offers up 2 V8s, including the now media over saturated 5.7 Hemi. (Must Mopar put the Hemi in everything they make?  And those little Joey-with-the Hemi Durango ads make us feel like puking)  All the same, the new MoPar Hemi is awesome, but there just isn’t the variety of selection in the Pentastar truck engine lineup.   Yes, the SRT-10 is the undisputed brawn king, but most of us will never get seat time in such a limited production super truck.  Most SRT-10s seem to spend their days stored in climate controlled collector garages anyway.  In terms of diesel power, all 3 manufacturers have mondo offerings.  The Duramax, Power Stroke and Cummins units are each kinetic monuments to Archimedes himself.

Want to bang gears?  Then order the manual transmission – it’s available with most every engine in the big 3’s pickup line.  Pick from 3.55, 3.73 or 4.10 axle ratios and make it a locker – just like the old days.  A word to the wise though:  with the deep overdrives and tall tires on today’s trucks, skip directly to the 4.10’s with a limited slip. You’ll thank us and the gas mileage penalty with the digger gears isn’t nearly as bad as you’d think.   Make no mistake, all full sized trucks are astonishing gas hogs - they'll burn through your budget faster than a Nigerian internet scam.  We strongly suggest owning one only if you really need one,  because the cost of being a pickup dilettante is simply too great. 

The incorrigible PJ O’Rourke wrote the greatest treatise EVER on the joys of performance pickup truck driving:

     “Driving a pickup at high speed is a difficult skill to master. The first step is to assume the proper driving position: Use one hand to firmly grasp the drip rail on the roof. This takes the place of shoulder harness, lap belt, and air bag and lets you give the finger to people with anti-handgun bumper stickers on their cars. Then place your other hand on the gearshift knob so you'll always know what gear you're in (which is second, as I pointed out before). Now take your third hand...Perhaps some picture of the difficulty is beginning to emerge. Anyway, be sure to balance your beer can carefully in your lap.

    The second step is to drive over to the 7-Eleven and get more beer. Use your down vest to mop up the one you spilled all over your crotch as you backed out the driveway.

    The third step is cornering technique. There are three ways to take a high-speed curve in a pickup. The first way is to use the traditional racecar driver's "late apex": Go deep into the curve at full speed doing all your downshifting and useless brake-pedal pumping in a straight line. Then, in one smooth motion, turn the wheel to the full extent necessary for the curve. Aim for an apex slightly past the geometrical apex of the inside edge of the curve and slowly bring the steering wheel back to straight ahead as you reapply the throttle. This will put your truck into the woods. The second way to take a fast curve is to come into the curve slightly slower, dial in a greater amount of steering, and stay on the throttle so as to propel the truck into a "power slide." This will put your truck in the woods too. The third method is to come to a full stop before entering the curve and have a beer. While you're doing that someone else will come along in another pickup truck and knock you into the woods anyway.”

Anyone raised on old-school trucks knows this is true, and we launched Dad’s stovebolt powered C-10 into the puckerbrush more than once in our younger years.  But my, pickups have come a long, LONG way in the past two decades.

How the engineers did it is a mystery – but the new breed of pickup trucks actually handle.  Unlike our old Chevy, where any connection between the tiller and the front wheels was strictly coincidental, the new trucks all boast rack and pinion steering, impossibly stiff hydroformed frames that make for an incredible driving experience.

Years ago, buying a truck entailed some seriously Solomon-like sacrifices.   Creature comforts were few, so a hard working truck necessitated some considerable  suffering.   We'd guess that the real reason most cowboys look so grizzled and flinty is a chronic pain condition from too much seat time in old truck.  Happily, that's not the case anymore – today’s trucks come incredibly well equipped with comfort and convenience features and represent much better value for the dollar than cars.

In terms of quality, there’s been a quantum leap too.  Our last 1980 Chevrolet went to the scrap heap with a mere 48,000 miles on the clock.  It’s mechanical heart was still willing, but the body just rusted away – shedding parts faster than Lindsay Lohan sheds clothing at the Kids Choice Awards.  By contrast, our current fleet of trucks are all well over 120,000 hard miles, and they still run perfectly and look nice too.

What about the latest truck offerings from Toyota, Nissan and Honda?  We say the jury’s still out on whether these vehicles can rightly be considered “trucks”.  These vehicles are squarely marketed to suburban pickup “fashionistas” and very few seem to do any real work. When’s the last time you saw a Tundra sporting a snowplow?  When’s the last time you saw a Ridgeline towing a 5th wheel car trailer?   How many Titans do you see working rough on the jobsite?   While we’re certain that these are nice vehicles, owning one is a lot like listening to Nickelback.  You think its cool, but it isn’t.   However, all 3 of these vehicles are American made, and their manufacturers do have an enviable record of good corporate citizenship in America, something that Ford and GM can’t honestly say of late.

So, the answer to the perplexing question of pickup truck popularity seems obvious.  Pickups still provide maximum consumer choice, big league performance and value.  These are 3 attributes that Americans find incredibly appealing, and it's probably why trucks won’t relinquish their market lead anytime soon -  fuel price trends and European sensibilities be dammed.

© Gyrhead & Sons Restoration Parts 2007.  If you like this, share this articlewith your friends. We worked hard on it so please cite the source.

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