The Pickup Truck

The pickup truck is an American icon, same as the Conestoga wagon and the Marlboro Man. If there are other farmers in the world, none have the devotion to a truck as the Yankee/Rebel/Cowboy/Dirtball. Ten-dollar diesel might have something to do with it, but cars and tractors also run on such ointments. In Scotland I visited farms where the utility vehicle is a variant of the Land Rover, an Anglo-Saxon version of the Jeep. Manufacturers have added others, small rugged “tobhar-tarruing,” aboriginals call them – “turd hauler” the approximate translation. A vehicle to contain the essence of the rural trade: tools, baler twine, hair of farm dog, logging chain, bag of milk duds, vice grips. If historians want to encapsulate for posterity the life patterns and cultural honcho of Homo erectus dirtballus, just bury any average pickup truck and the complete life cycle of the varmint in question is duly documented.

With General Motors as well as the other auto companies making the rounds with begging cup in hand, it is appropriate to examine the ideology of the great American pickup truck, including to what it is attached. A long list as include ski boat, snowmobile trailer, camper, fishing boat, and to note these outdoor accessories if originating from modest sources have evolved to a largesse last seen in dinosaurs. The oar-equipped bass boat of the 1930-50s if once affixed with a Maytag sort of engine is now a boat with horsepower to rival the truck that tows it down the road. Why did our beloved pickup truck become such a gargantuan? Why the faithful bass boat, the symbol of serenity and escape, become a PT boat sans torpedoes? Seemingly every facet of our lives in the interval of 1950-2000 has shared the same central theme of “super-mac it.” From lakeshore cottage to the fishing boat, suddenly expected to pull a water skier on their bare feet, six at a time. Which doesn’t matter, except how it affects the lakeshore, the highway, the cottage, the petroleum reserve, the planet’s climate. The humble snowmobile started out at 8 horsepower, capable of about 20 mph. A modest identity, a woods machine, a trail machine, barely audible, sturdy as a chainsaw. Rare the modern snowmobile as can’t touch 50 mph, many capable of speeds far in excess of that. All this in the pursuit of nature, at a hundred miles an hour. How did we get to the point where outdoor activities are expressed by a range of devices with a carbon footprint as wide and to think we deserve such excess.

It began with the pickup truck and those quaint originals of the late ’40s and early ’50s. Elementary devices with pressed steel dashboards, rubber floor mats, three speeds on the floor and a straight over the head six that shook like a wet dog attempting to start. The windows had cranks, the seats were primitive slabs little differentiated from bleacher seating. No air, no power seats, a pickup to haul hay, pull wagons, seed, feed and fertilizer, an engine whose output wouldn’t match a modern state-of-art snowmobile, if the kitchen blender.

The technical merits of pickups compared to the originals of half a century ago are nothing short of astounding. Every gadget and convenience, coupled with engine longevity and performance, traction control and four-wheel drive. Machines of genius and invention far beyond the original “turd hauler,” still utilitarian but luxuriantly so, with power everything. Remarkable is the word efficient, if sustainable is now more popular, personally I like efficient because the method is revealed.

Sometime in or about 1950 we caught a mutual disease, in raw terms of horsepower per square foot, the Center for Disease Control will not list it as an epidemic, but it was. Everything we touched for the next two generations had more torque than the previous model. Commercially, productively there is an oceanic difference between what a 1950 tractor could accomplish and a 2009 model. An Allis Model WD cannot pull a loaded four-row potato planter. In short what we traded for was participation, fewer farmers if more and bigger tractors. Which of these is the egg, which the chicken is anybody’s guess, but in delivering WPA funds to communities during the Great Depression it was decided to leave more of the work to hand labor so to employ more people.

When it comes to pickup trucks our objective is to save General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, and while we’re at it put a suture on the planet. It is not necessary to believe in global warming to propose a makeover; what we drive and how we recreate needs to change because they aren’t efficient (substitute sustainable if you want).

To posit a thesis, imagine the next generation of the pickup truck and while we’re at it, the bass boat and family camper. To start with camping, by my reading Scripture says tents, the tabernacle was a tent if likely because God can’t stand walls. Include here the Revolutionary War, the Civil War also Korea as fought and waged in tents; Hemingway wrote from Africa in a tent, remember the scene, there was white wine, a comfortable chair and a reading light. How much more cool can camping get? Tents fold, self-erect, repel wind, rain, snow, and fit on the back of a VW. Architecture can have more fun with tents than it ever had with aluminum, and a north-woods vacation suddenly doesn’t require a three hundred horse truck; besides, we might look at the woods differently.

Bass boat. Isn’t it time for America to go oaring, put another way, cardio pulmonary, time to give the beer cooler to a real purpose, give our rivers and lakes something back, the thing we thought we lost forever, the quiet.

Pickup. A simple truck, a chore truck, wheel clearance is nice but not to require a step ladder. Personally I want the slab seats back and a rubber floor mat. And the radio doesn’t have to look like it knows how to cook. As said, a chore truck, if I want a truck to pull a spin-spreader with five ton of K-mag attached I’ll use another truck.

Is the American pickup mentality ready for the Global Warming Edition, a plain-jane, no-air, no power windows truck? Can we rebuild GM one simple solution at a time? Perhaps the real question is, are we ready for simple?