For all of history, pickup trucks were functional vehicles only. They were for farms, lumber yards and rednecks. In the 1960s, for example, it wasn’t unusual for a truck to not have:
- Air conditioning
- Power steering
These were unnecessary frills. First of all, the carpet was pointless because if your truck had carpet, you wouldn’t be able clean the floorboards with a garden hose, so that’s out. If you needed power steering or air conditioning, you were a pansy, so those are out. And seat belts were kind of a new idea at the time.
In the 1960s, the kind of people who were buying trucks weren’t the kind that would have worn seat belts anyway, and there’s no way they were paying extra just to have air conditioning or power steering in a vehicle they were going to be using to drag cow manure from one edge of the farm to another.
Although seat belts became standard in the mid-1960s, and power steering quickly became inexpensive and, therefore, standard, that was about all that changed in the truck world, right up until the late 1980s.
And suddenly, for difficult to ascertain reasons, it became cool to take your kids to school in a Chevy truck rather than a Chevy car.
There are some obvious conditions that had to exist for this to be possible. First, gasoline had to be inexpensive, and it was. In the late 80s all the way through the late 90s, the price of a gallon of gas hovered around the $1 mark, occasionally dipping below 90 cents. Secondly, there had to be room for these vehicles in driveways, parking lots and roads. This sounds silly, but in many places around the world, including some of its biggest, best cities, it would be terribly impractical to own a vehicle the size of a Ford F-150, because it would hog most roadways and would be difficult to park, both at home and about town. Finally, the vehicles had to be comfortable for women, children and pansies.
This is where the auto makers had to make some changes.
Since the late 1970s, the Big Three American auto makers had been getting their butts handed to them* in the car markets by Asian companies, who made cars that were superior in every conceivable way. Naturally, the Big Three decided it was fruitless to just make better cars. Instead, operating on the “Americans will buy anything as long as its bigger than another thing” theory of economics, they just started making big cars, i.e. trucks with air conditioning, carpet and CD players.
* I know a writer who would have used “getting their tits waxed” here. Mentally insert this phrase above if it makes you happy.
It worked out great for the auto makers because all they had to do was add some bells and whistles to vehicles they were already making, which is a completely different process than coming up with entirely new vehicles to satisfy the public’s demand for wasteful driving practices*.
*Probably one of the most hypocritical things I’ve ever written. Until lameness forced me into a Toyota Corolla, I had spent my life among the most wasteful drivers you’ve ever known. I had owned five cars before the Corolla. Three had V8s, two had V6s, one was an SUV.
And I did not drive any of these lightly.
I nearly got a detention in high school for doing burnouts in the school parking lot after football practice. In college, I once did donuts in the parking lot, in the middle of the day. I used to drag race one of my cars on a flat stretch of road out by the jail in Hutchinson. I drove one of my cars 134 miles per hour, which helped turn a 16-minute trip from Burrton to Hutchinson into an 11-minute trip from Burrton to Hutchinson. In my SUV, I drove out to Clinton Lake near Lawrence and rather abruptly went off-roading.
I am not the king of conservation.
Thus, at about the same time Americans were Super Sizing everything and walking around with 44-ounce foutain drinks for no discernable reason, they gobbled up these high cars with big tires like handfuls of french fries.
SUVs were already popular in the 1990s, too, but it wasn’t until late in the decade that Americans finally got honest with themselves and said, “You know what? This business about needing the bed to haul things is pretty much bunk. What I really need is more seats to haul the kids I don’t have.”
Which is why today we celebrate the mid-1990s phenomenon of trucks as luxury vehicles.