Picking up New Roles


View Fullscreen

Ram tough. Ford
tough. Like a
rock. Clearly,
pickup trucks are not marketed
to ballerinas. The
image truck marketeers
want to convey is a product
with all the sturdy reliability
of a shovel.
Which is how the
pickup truck started—as a
simple farm implement. It
filled a role as rudimentary
as the dirt plow. It
was made to haul cows,
hay, diesel generators and
sacks of feed. And, oh
yeah, there was this little
space up front where the
cowboys sat.
No one expected much p
more of them. They required
an engine up front
(so the bed could go in –
hack) rear wheel drivc LL
(for traction and towing)
and the bed had to be
as big as would fit on the
frame rails to carry as
many large, odd-shaped
items as possible. The
passenger compartment— L……….
preferably one that could
be cleaned out with a garden hose—was almost
an afterthought. There was one size—
big—and there were few amenities.
Pickups ambled along like that fo r decades.
It wasn’t until the fuel crunches of
the 1970s that they began to play new roles.
That was when Japanese truckmakers introduced
incredibly small (by comparison) versi()
ns of the traditional American hoghauler.
These trucks—like the Chevy Luv,
the Ford Courier and the Nissan Lii’ Hustler
—all came into the U.S. market as vehicles
for first-time buyers.
“That created a youth appeal,” said Keith
Helfrich, Dodge Truck marketing plans manager.
“It became an entry-level vehicle.”
Instead of beat-up, second-hand passenger
cars, first-time buyers were handed a
whole ‘nother category of vehicle, one with
immense versatility as well as low cost.
Then, six years ago, Dodge introduced
the Dakota, which created the midsize truck
niche. Toyota will fi.11ow Dodge’s lead, and
there are rumors of a midsize Ford pickup in
the planning stages.
So today we’ve got three basic
pickups” to choose from: small, medium
and large. And, as pickup sizes change, so
do their uses. About the time the minitruck
market grew, another facet of the pickup
market—the pickup aftermarket—was born.
“Things like the slide-in campers came
into being in the ‘ôOs and ’70s, and suddenly
this farm vehicle became a recreational vehicle,”
Helfrich said. “Suddenly you could do
things with them that maybe you couldn’t do
with cars. That had a lot of appeal.”
Add the extended cab, and the pickup
truck finally got off the farm and into suburbia.
Sales took off. According to Frank Stavale,
manager of strategic marketing planning
for GMC Trucks, what began as a 10-
to 15-percent share is now a third of the
total light vehicle market, and growing.
“We’re looking at the market leveling
out at maybe 50 percent cars, 50 percent
trucks,” Stavale said. “The application of
trucks has grown from work to filling a
number of roles in the family and lifestyle
stages of the American public.”
As those roles grow, truckmakers are
scurrying to find new ways to fill them. And
with each new role they discover a new way
to make the pickup truck more appealing to
more buyers. Some marketing analysts
would call these niches.
“There are a lot of people who have a
different image of what pickup trucks do
than we traditionally think of,” said Leo
Williams, Ford Division marketing plans
manager for the F-Series and Bronco.
“These are people who are buying pickups
because they have a functional use for them
but at the same time they see there is an
opportunity to have some fun.”
For Ford that fun means Flaresides and
Nites, standard F- 150s that make their own
styling statements. Other makers have
“custom” trucks, each exploring a new
niche of the market, some quite small.
GMC’s Syclone supertruck, for instance,
can dust Corvettes off the line but can’t
carry more than 500
pounds in the bed or tow
anything. That’s a niche.
The Chevrolet El Camino
and Ford Ranchcro
were in niches. Because
they were derived from
passenger cars and could
only carry 500 pounds,
they lost a lot of the functionality
buyers seek in a
pickup, which contributed
to their demise. Turns out
it’s function that buyers
want first, everything else
comes after that.
“The problem with the Al
Ranchero was it was not a
car and it was not a
truck,” said Williams.
“If you are going to do
something like that then
you have to give people
the ability to do all of the
stork-type things they
have to do and yet still be
comfortable in the cab’s
In other words, if you
want to make it more carlike,
that’s fine, but it still
has to be useful. Enter the
extended cab.
“It gives them a capability that is unique,
the ability to do things functionally that they
can’t do with a car,” said Williams. “And
at the same time gives them the ability to
carry a family comfortably.”
And it makes it easier to justify a pickup
over a sedan as a “first car.” That and a
more car-like interior (once thought of as a
near-insult by old-timers) are pulling pickups
into the mainstream.
“I remember in the 70s working on a proposal
to put automatic door locks on trucks,”
said Dodge’s Helfrich. “It was like, ‘Who
the hell would ever want to spend that kind of
money on power door locks!’
Today there are plenty of people who
would. Amenities once thought of as “carlike”
are now standard fare on pickups.
In fact, finding a bare-bones model can be
difficult on some dealer lots.
“The distinction between cars and trucks
will continue to get smaller and smaller,”
said Williams.
But at the expense of functionality!
“Absolutely not,” Williams said.
For our 1992 SpringFile, we took three of
the new breed of pickups and ran them
through our AutoFile barrage of tests. We
chose a large, “customized” truck, the
Ford F-ISO Flareside; a medium truck, the
Dodge Dakota with the new Magnum V8
and Club Cab; and a small, sporty truck,
the GMC Sonoma GT.
Beginning on page 21 you’ll find what
we, and owners, think of the current state of
the pickup in America. •
he old dirt -banging farm implement
mes out of its shell to fill new niches
By Mark Vaughn
20 AUTO WEEK APRIL 13, 1992]