Pickup Trucks, the Large Manly Ones

GM will soon be sending updated large pickup trucks, the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, to dealers’ lots across America. I commented last June on the improvement in fuel economy GM has made on its large pickups and SUVs.

Oh, Fortuna! Look at how the wheel has spun!

Last June gasoline prices (regular $2.16/gal) were easing after briefly flirting with $2.28 per gallon in April. We thought April was the cruelest month, and June looked much kinder. June turned out to be the lull before a storm (two storms, actually) of cruelty. The world looked beautiful in June. Sure, there were whispered rumors of a cell of academic scribblers that was preparing a report detailing just how vulnerable Detroit had become through its dependence on SUVs and pickups for profits. Gasoline $2.86 per gallon? Implausible. Highly unlikely. Gasoline $3.37 per gallon? Outrageous! Flat out NUTS! Those academics have been to one too many Dead concerts or something.

Gasoline in fact spiked to $3.069 per gallon in the week ending 9/5/06, and Detroit’s losses caused by three-dollar gasoline continue to mount; exceeding the outrageous worst case of the academics. Gasoline stands today at $3.00 per gallon. But hope springs eternal in Detroit. GM rolled out its new SUVs recently and is soon rolling out its new pickups. Welcome to Three-Dollar Gasoline World. Are critics questioning the wisdom of continuing to count on profits from gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups? No problem for Detroit’s spinmeisters,"Three-dollar gasoline hurt Detroit? Conventional Wisdom! Tell me something I don’t know!"

July 2005 was a very good month for pickup trucks. But July 2006 was a very bad month for pickup trucks. Sales of all large pickups were down dramatically: Ford F-Series (-46%), Chevrolet Silverado (-28%), GMC Sierra (-25%), Dodge Ram (-30%), Nissan Titan (-35%), and Toyota Tundra (-4%).

Pickups Drivers

There are two types of people, pickup drivers and wusses. Full disclosure: I had my own pickup truck for a few months, but traded it for a sedan when the guys (pickup drivers, of course) who loaded my new big-box retail purchase in the bed ridiculed me for having an undamaged bed-liner, a clear signal to a real pickup driver that here was a wuss trying to pass for one of them. I am a wuss. I don’t haul stuff. I don’t hunt, fish, or camp. Frankly, I was relieved. To thine own self be true. I study pickups and pickup drivers like Margaret Mead studied the Samoans.

Pickups, Loyalty, and Winning World War II

Pickup truck drivers are more loyal to the segment and their brand than any other group of drivers. Who but a Dodge Ram driver would stick a decal of Calvin urinating on a Ford logo on his pickup? why, a Chevrolet Silverado driver would, of course!

Pickups have a rich history. Check here, here, and here for histories of pickups by the Big Three. From 1946 to 1968, Ford Motor Co. built and sold Mercury Pickups in Canada. The pickup truck, a tough utilitarian work vehicle, had its finest hour (and highest market share) during World War II.

The War saw the automakers’ factories converted to the building of tanks, planes, and other military transportation equipment. According to this source during the War 56,128 light-duty trucks (nearly all pickups) were built for the military. Farmers complained that the shortage of civilian pickups was destroying their industry. Then, as now, farmers had powerful friends in Washington, who let GM build their half-ton 115-inch wheelbase pickup in 1945 for "qualified essential civilian users" (a.k.a. farmers).

Pickups and Cowboys

Not all cowboys drive pickups, and not all pickups are driven by cowboys, though the correlation seems very high. Here is a cowboy poem from here:
You can always tell a cowboy, /By lookin’ at his truck./ It’s like gettin’ on a 2 year old,/ You know he’s gonna’ buck./ His truck will have the usual stuff./ But no chrome or fancy wheels./ Just look upon the dash,/ And you’ll find his latest deals.

The cowboys of Brokeback Mountain drove a pickup truck. A 1950 GMC pickup. Could this have been a product placement by GM? Will we see Heath and Jack in GMC Sierra ads? A clever way to market to gays yet avoid a backlash like the boycott against Ford for advertising in the Advocate? If so, GM may want to look into hiring the Indiana father and son who won the Brokeback truck in an eBay auction. and took it on a trip to Canada. Not to imply that the Indiana father or son are gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Pickups and Seat Belts

A perhaps more manly image for GM can be found in pickup truck drivers’ resistance to wearing seat-belts. This study said that pickup occupants were much less likely to buckle-up than occupants of cars, vans, or SUVs. Drivers of pickups see themselves as the last rugged individualists, holding out against an intrusive nanny state. Americans love taciturn Gary Cooper heroes, and since dead men don’t talk…

The Decline of the Pickup and the Cowboy

When I was a five years old, I had a Davy Crockett coonskin cap that I wore everywhere and everyday until it fell apart. Some pickup drivers choose the pickup truck not because they want the rugged functionality the vehicle has traditionally offered, but for how they think it makes them look to others. In a European setting the pickup truck looks like an alien vessel, but Britons looking for an all American pick up truck can have one imported by American Cowboy. When the snobs in England start driving pickups, the end of civilization cannot be far off.

Another sign of the end times (for wannabe pickup drivers) is redneck jokes. Two suffice to make my point:

"How can you tell if a redneck is married? There is [sic] tobacco spit stains on both sides of his pickup truck."

"Dear Bubba: Three of your friends went off a bridge in a pickup truck. Butch was driving. He rolled down the window and swam to safety. Your other two friends were in the back, they drowned because they couldn’t get the tailgate down. Love Mama"

Walter is the Director of the Automotive Analysis Division of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). He studies the adoption by consumers and automakers of new powertrain (electric, hybrid, clean diesel, fuel cell, alternative fuels), safety, and telematics technologies. Walter worked for General Motors for 9 years in sales forecasting, product development, marketing, and manufacturing (1993 found him on the floor of one of GM’s component factories). Prior to joining the University, he was Executive Director of Forecasting and Analytics for J.D. Power and Associates. He earned his doctorate in Economics from UCLA in 1983.

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  • Guest

    Just a reminder to those in the hybrid world who love Toyota and…well hate GM…the all-holy Toyota Corp is also rolling out its newest, biggest pick-up truck.

    Also…GM is also introducing the Saturn Vue hybrid this month. That vehicle gets the best highway MPG of ANY suv.

  • Guest

    “…best highway MPG of any SUV.”

    But not the best MPG in the city? Not the best overall?

    As I understand it the Vue uses the same “hybrid” set up as the Silverado, meaning it’s only achieving a marginal improvement in efficiency.

    Unfortunately, I only see this as another lame attempt by GM at keeping up with the Joneses. Stick a “hybrid” label on any vehicle and maybe people will buy it.

  • Guest

    This is another one of those bash GM blogs. I came here to read something about conservation, and I don’t see these as the same things. The Toyota product mix has been getting closer to the GM product mix for years. Toyota makes SUVs. The Toyota Tundra gets worse gas mileage than the equivalent GM product. And, GM’s redesigned Tahoe is actually a hit. There’s something to learn in this…

    Car companies will sell whatever we want to buy. I think the best thing to get to our goal of conservation is to quit bashing any particular company, and look at the problem. Why do people buy big vehicles? Do they want that status symbol? Do they feel like a nerd in a gas sipper? And, how do we give incentives to move to smaller vehicles? I’ve advocated restructuring highway taxes. Currently, a lot of automobile infrastructure costs (roads, bridges, police, etc) comes out of general funds. Moving that to a gas tax, and reducing general taxes by the equivalent sounds like a good step. Fair? Use a road, and you pay for it.. yep, fair. Incentives? Use a small car, you pay less.. yep, incentives.

    That’s one idea. We can rant all we want about what car companies build. But, will that help, given someone else will simply build whatever we want? I’d hope people look at the situation and offer solutions that move us forward. Bashing a company doesn’t stop them from building a profitable product, it shouldn’t.. see, they’re called a “business”.

  • Guest

    Hey, I thought the Ford Escape got the best highest mpg (around 30) in the SUV category. Is the Saturn VUE really higher? In real world driving?

  • Guest

    The Saturn Vue is estimated to have an EPA mileage pair at 29/32, while the Escape Hybrid 2wd is 36/31. Hence, the Vue will have a higher rated mileage (32) over the Escape’s 31, or the Toyota Highlander’s 28 MPG on the highway. You’ll notice that the Escape and Highlander both get higher city ratings (36 and 33, respectively). Though I have an Escape Hybrid, it’s nice to see companies (GM) producing different options for different driving styles (focusing on improving highway mileage at the expense of city). Anything that improves mileage and reduces emissions is a step in the right direction, even if it’s later than Hybrid enthusiasts would hope for.

  • Guest

    Saturn Vue won’t best Escape in MPG. But it will come with a much smaller premium, hopefully brining hybrids to a much more mainstream customer. And they use the battery from the inventor Cobasys.

  • Guest

    “Car companies will sell whatever we want to buy”. I think one of the points of Walter’s entertaining piece was that some companies continue to try to sell what people DON’T want to buy. The difference is that when people stop buying Sequoias and Titans there is still a deep lineup of other types of vehicles to keep the companies afloat. BTW I have a pick-up with a severely dented bedliner and a Prius for my Wuss driving.

  • Guest

    Why is that all GM allies (for lack of a better word) are hyper-sensitive about any criticsim leveled at the company and completely obsessed with Toyota. Anytime somebody may level some facts at the head in the sand policies of GM and maybe areas where they could improve it always comes back to Toyota. How Toyota sells gas guzzling pick-up trucks (true) and how thye have has fooled everybody with PR about how they are a green company (partly true, although they do have their hybrids on the market, still waiting on that Saturn Vue from GM.) Stop whining about Toyota, get your own house in order.

    The truth is we need to do incremental improvements now (like GM is doing with their next generation pick-ups) and revolutionary changes in the next to twenty years, whether it be advanced hybrid systems or hydrogen fuel cells.

    It is a bit unfortunate that back in the day of cheap oil we did not have a gas tax that could have been used to fund infrastructure improvements in our decaying road and interstate system. This would have allowed money for those projects and encouraged auto companies and consumers to think more about how much energy they were really using in their cars and trucks. Now, with gas at $3.50 gallon, time for the crash course.

  • ocies

    ” Who kill the electric car ” Documentary will give an idea who is behind Big Cars and why.

  • gman5541

    Yes, this is a “Bash GM” article and there’s a simple reason for that: They’re a bunch of narrow-minded idiots! They sell us product that is mostly fuel-inefficient. HECK, except for the upcoming Vue and another vehicle, everything else they sell is worthless. And thus, we who demand better fuel efficient cars and trucks should continue to bash them, to berate them, to harass them like Michael Moore harassing Roger, to give our hard-earned money to foreign companies who sell better product . . .until they either do the right thing, get sold or die.

  • Guest

    “They’re a bunch of narrow-minded idiots! They sell us product that is mostly fuel-inefficient.” Hey, who’s the idiot? The one selling scrap or the one buying it?

  • vanandjoy

    I guess I may have somewhat of a Jekyll/Hyde personality trait because I own both an ’06 Prius and a big honkin ’99 Dodge Ram 4×4 Cummins diesel Quad Cab Pickup. Where I lived before in Colorado, a pickup was a necessity as I had to cut and haul firewood for cooking and heat, haul my own drinking water, haul off the garbage, haul lumber & building products, haul, haul, haul. This big 6900 lb behemoth still gets 21.5-22mpg IN TOWN. When one also considers the fact that I use only Amsoil synthetic products which are non-petroleum, American made, and have a far greater endurance than petroleum oils, and that I can make my own fuel (dieselsecret.com), then at least I can claim that I am totally off the Arab induced addiction to fossil fuel as far as my high-tech redneck good-ol-boy mode of transport is concerned. Which brings me to the Prius. Even at 50-60mpg IN TOWN, I still have to go down and shell out my American $ to go to some Middle Eastern cartel. So which form of transport is most advantageous to our country’s stability? I only ask this because I feel too often we immediately stereotype and categorize drivers/vehicles in a certain category and do not consider or even know all the factors involved in their decision as to why they are driving what they are driving.
    Lastly, I have to admit that my most efficient form of transportation is hanging on a rack in my garage. It is zero emmisions, foreign made, but the power to make it operate is totally home grown. Thanks for a great website. I am counting the days until I will be able to have a plug in Prius.
    Vance Phillips

  • Guest

    Gota say there is something to be said about a company (GM) that does not change after losing Billions last year. A general rule of business if it’s not making a profit kill it or change it. The question will be how long will the GM stock holders tolerate multi Billion dollar losses each quarter? They are the one who will force the change. BTW (I’m not a GM stock holder).
    As far as wuss driving is concerned, you like big pickups? Well I like a big wallet better. I would also rather send my money to the far east than to the middle east. And that is as nice as I can say it.

  • gman5541

    Is it idiotic to want, to demand a car, a van , a truck that can give at least 30 mpg in the city and on the highway? Is this impossible to achieve? How many times that companies like GM & Ford spent money to fight laws that promoted fuel-efficiency standards? And now, it looks like the “chickens have come home to roost” on these dumb moves. That’s why money-willing I will buy either a hybrid or something that will go over 30 mpg city and/or highway.