(first posted 9/13/2012) For years, the pickup truck has been the best-selling vehicle type in the U.S. Even before that, pickups could be found across the country in the service of farmers, ranchers and tradesmen. But just when did the kind of pickup we know today come into existence? It’s a tough question–and I nominate the Model A pickup.
The pickup truck has existed for a long, long time. In the early years, a pickup truck denoted a vehicle with an aftermarket pickup bed attached to a factory-built chassis/cab. Apparently, the first actual factory-built pickup truck was built by the Ford Motor Company, in 1925, near the end of the Model T’s long run.
It should come as no surprise that Ford first identified and mined this market. Henry Ford was a product of rural, agrarian America whose Model T had been put to work on farms and in business all over the country, if not the world. A purpose-built pickup truck was an easy proposition then–it would simply be a variation atop the same frame that undergirded every other Model T body style. That said, it might well have been the first factory-built pickup, but one far from modern.
In any case, the Model T pickup must have been a success, as its body style was continued after the Model A succeeded the T, in 1928. Still, a pickup with a folding fabric top and lacking roll-up windows is like nothing being made today.
The Model A pickup should not be confused with the much heavier-duty Model AA truck. The AA, like the Model TT before it, was the Super Duty Ford of the 1920s. But not everyone needed the AA’s capabilities or wanted to live with its punishing ride. For them, the standard Model A pickup was just the thing, and it proved to be plenty durable in its own right.
Despite their eventually popularity among collectors, the first Model A-roadster pickups lacked a lot in practicality. The enclosed cab version, introduced late in 1928, quickly became the most popular; in fact, this factory-built closed-cab pickup truck would be the prototype for almost every one that followed.
Here at CC and elsewhere, much has been written about the 1928-31 Ford Model A. (Paul Niedermeyer’s piece on the Model A’s development is first-rate, but will not be repeated here.) The Model A was similar to the Model T in its use of a four-cylinder engine mated to a rugged frame suspended by a pair of transverse leaf springs. This basic configuration would define Fords through 1948; in its execution, the Model A may have been the finest flowering of Henry Ford’s famous design.
There have been many light trucks based on passenger car underpinnings, but this is surely one of the last “real trucks” mechanically indistinguishable from its passenger counterpart–not because it was light-duty, but because the basic Model A was so famously overbuilt.
We have seen some spirited discussions here at CC (here, for example) over what defines a luxury vehicle. Is it comfort and convenience? Sophisticated engineering? Top quality components? If you’re in the third camp, then you might consider the Model A to be the world’s first luxury truck. Henry Ford is remembered, mistakenly, as the father of the cheap car; in truth, Ford insisted that everything in his cars be of the highest quality. Their low prices came from distilling each piece to its simplest form and high-volume manufacturing. Henry Ford had no idea what the car cost to make, but deeply believed that by building best car he could, people would buy enough of them for him to make a profit.
My favorite Model A story (recounted in Beverly Rae Kimes’ book The Cars that Henry Ford Built) tells of the proposed use of a Zenith carburetor to replace the Model T’s Holley unit. Henry Ford looked it over and concluded that the 14 bolts connecting the pieces together made assembly far too complicated. An engineer took it back to Zenith and went to work on it. He proudly brought it back, this time with two bolts. Mr. Ford looked it over and declared that it still had too many bolts. The Zenith carburetor that ended up on the Model A was held together by a single, centrally located bolt, and with no compromise in function. Everything about the car was like that. The choke and mixture were adjusted by a single control: pull for choke, turn for mixture. The fuel gauge screwed directly into the fuel tank, which was right behind the dashboard and fed the engine by gravity. And every one of these little pieces was indescribably sturdy.
Every chassis part was forged from the highest quality of steel. There would be not a single piece of stamped steel in this car’s chassis. The Model A was also the first car in its class to use double-acting hydraulic shock absorbers (the same units used in Lincolns) and a safety-glass windshield. Even when early hot rodders massaged the 200 cu in (3.3-liter) engine to two or three times the original 40-horsepower rating, its internal pieces proved completely up to the task.
There may never have been another passenger vehicle better suited to truck use. Certainly, the stock engine’s 1,000 rpm torque peak was helpful for hard work. What’s more, these trucks offered good looks to match their utility. The Model A passenger cars were beautiful vehicles, due to Edsel Ford’s influence and good eye. Although the Ford stylists probably did not style the Model A with a pickup body in mind, its Lincoln-like lines and proportions looked just as good around a truck bed as any of the other body styles. Ford built over 48,000 pickups in 1930. Chevrolet launched its own factory-built pickup in 1931, starting a virtual war that rages to this day.
The Model A was famously durable, with many remaining in daily, or at least occasional, use well into the 1950s. My mother’s aunt and uncle were Minnesota dairy farmers whose younger children drove a Model A coupe as everyday transportation as late as 1967.
By the 1960s, the old A had become far less appealing, a victim of the vastly enhanced performance and comfort features of contemporary vehicles, including hydraulic brakes, synchronized transmissions, and solid-steel roofs that eliminated the leaky seams around the fabric inserts. And certainly, postwar engineering eliminated many of the more tedious maintenance schedules, such as recommended lubrication of a bazillion grease fittings every 30 days.
Ford has a lot invested in the idea that their modern trucks are “Built Ford Tough” and, for the most part, that’s been the case. Sure, today’s trucks offer countless advancements over their 1930s ancestors, but is there one as tough as this old-timer? That’s high praise for a purpose-built pickup truck made over eighty years ago–and even higher praise for one that is, in fact, simply a re-bodied Ford sedan.
More Model A’s at CC: