History of the Pickup Truck

An all-American innovation, the pickup truck gave ranchers another trusted and versatile workhorse on the range.
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An all-American innovation, the pickup truck gave ranchers another trusted and versatile workhorse on the range.
truck

World War I

In the 1910s, America’s automobile business was booming. Yet not until a purchase order from the U.S. Army in 1918 did the Dodge brothers develop a half-ton multipurpose truck, jumpstarting the category of light-duty trucks. Dodge’s original truck had a max payload of 1,000 pounds and was powered by a 35-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with a three-speed transmission. During this time, the first Chevy truck, the Model 490 (named after its sticker price, $490) went on sale with a paltry 21.7-horesepower, four-cylinder engine. Chevy buyers were, however, expected to build their own cab, truck bed, and body onto the chassis or pay an extra $100-plus for an aftermarket cab that bolted onto the frame.

1920s

Henry Ford saw the potential of the pickup, and in 1925 the Ford Motor Company started making the “Ford Model T Runabout with Pickup Body,” priced at $281. Buyers enjoyed the reasonable price and steel bed that was just 56 inches long, 40 inches wide, and 13 inches high. The bed came with pockets for holding stakes and had heavy-duty rear leaf springs. Power came from a 40-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. Ford built 33,800 pickups that first year alone. In order to speed up production, Ford also took a cue from the cattle industry, adopting his famous assembly line from the Armour Meatpacking Company’s method of efficiently processing cow and pig carcasses.

1930s–WWII When Ford introduced its 65-horsepower V8 engine in 1932, the company had already sold 3 million pickups. Toward the end of the ’30s, the modern pickup as we know it was introduced with a full cab, a choice of high bed walls or as a flat bed, and V6 or V8 engines. A 1937 Chevy 3/4-ton came with 85-horsepower. Dodge had moved to a 75-horsepower six-cylinder engine. By the 1940s, pickup trucks started to get longer and more massive, with distinctive grills that set them apart from cars. With this boost in size came more power, more passenger room, and bigger beds. With the onset of WWII, civilian pickup truck production halted as raw materials and manpower was diverted to the war effort.

Post-war

In 1947, Chevy launched the size race with its new light-duty pickup and the first three-man seat. It had a roomier cab, better visibility through bigger windows, and a higher seat height. Dodge’s B-Series truck followed the same trend, notable for the bed’s high walls, great for hauling. Engines averaged 90–100 horsepower. In 1948, Ford launched the original F-Series with an inline six or V8. The first civilian Jeep, the CJ-2A, was introduced in 1945 to replace farm workhorses; its belt-drive attachment served as a mobile power supply for farm implements. Jeep offered cash awards to people who came up with unique applications for the $1,090 CJ, like the first Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine.

1950s–today

The oil crisis of the ’70s sparked interest in smaller, more fuel-efficient compact pickups, like the Chevy LUV and Ford Ranger, and Japanese imports. In 1977, the Ford F-150 became (and remains) the best-selling truck in America. In fact, it’s the top-selling vehicle, period, since 1982. The new millennium brought Japanese full-size pickups to America, like the Toyota Tundra and the Nissan Titan. Last year, U.S. buyers bought almost 2 million pickups, with Texas leading the way (Texas accounts for 14 percent of sales nationwide). To this day, North American pickups are casually defined by “body-on-frame construction,” a simple but tough platform chassis to which the bed, cab, and engine are bolted.