Automotive History: Losing The Plot? The History Of The American Pickup Becoming More Civilized

Any feature about a pickup seems to be accompanied by comments lamenting the loss of basic pickups.  Despite these perceptions, basic spec pickups do still exist although they have become overshadowed by their more endowed siblings.  The advent of ever higher feature content has been real.

This leads to the question of when did the manufacturers begin incorporating ever more content in pickups?  Some may think it’s a recent phenomenon but it isn’t.  The inclusion has been gradual but constant.  And it all started over a century ago…

Let us begin this journey and set our benchmark by looking at General Motors.  If one moseys over to, they will find this, the oldest General Motors commercial vehicle to be found, an ancestor to the new Silverado seen in the lead picture.  What is this?  It’s a 1911 Buick.  That’s right, Buick.

Given its abundance of character and lack of any extras, this Buick could be ideal for some, even today, with its basic bench seat, abundant cargo room, and two-wheel drive.  However, the 22 horsepower two-cylinder engine and chain drive may be too antiquated for most.  So might a cab and a differential be the first steps toward conspicuous decadence in the pickup world?

The $1,000 ask doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that amount from 1914 (they only go back so far in time and there have been two world wars in between) translates to $26,570 in October 2020.  For comparison, a new 2021 Ford F-150 XL with an 8′ bed and an enclosed cab has a base price of $29,240 – and it makes about fifteen times as much power.

So perhaps at that time, as has happened since, one paid a premium for the Buick name.

A new Ford chassis cost $380 in 1923.  But one still needed to put a body on it.  Thus a price comparable to $5,400 now was only the entry fee.

Chevrolet also had their Model T that year.  It had more power and an electric starter.  But one has to pay for such luxuries as that $1,095 is comparable to nearly $17,000 today.  This Chevrolet T also had a much higher payload than the like-named Ford.

In 1929, things (d)evolved further.  Chevrolet introduced a six-cylinder engine for their pickups and GMC had a 72.5 horsepower Buick engine as an option.

The year 1929 is also a good mile marker as that is when Ford introduced the Model A.  One of the features of the Model A was the availability of an enclosed cab pickup.  For the staunch die-hards who thought an enclosed cab to be fit only for the weak-willed or flagrantly spending buyer, an open cab model was still offered.

Interestingly, this Model A might be one of the earliest examples of short bed excess.  Some express disbelief at the 5.5′ beds on some current pickups.  This Model A has a 55″ inch bed – which equates to 4’7″, significantly less than its newer relations.  Plus it only carried two people versus up to six.

While there was also a much heavier duty Model AA available, this Model A is more in line with being the spiritual predecessor of the current half-ton pickups which have captivated the buying market.

The wretched excess continued at Ford for 1932 (1934 shown) with the introduction of an eight-cylinder engine – four times the cylinder count of our benchmark Buick!

Dodge brought about a V8 for its pickups in 1954 with Chevrolet trailing both by doing so in 1955.

By 1938 Ford was touting their padded seats.  The following year, Chevrolet was advertising their luxuriant windshield defrosters; two years later (shown) Chevrolet was offering leather seats (proving what is old is new again) along with bragging about the ability to get fuel without the driver being required “to dismount or raise the seat cushion.”

Then World War II happened.

It’s at this point we need to consider a few things relevant to the pickup, primarily its history in North America, particularly the United States.

The United States has long been a highly agricultural country which has been no small player in the many factors of pickup popularity.  According to US Census information, there were nearly 7 million farms in the United States in 1940 although this had dwindled to 2 million by 2010.  To provide context, if the US agricultural economy were made to stand alone it would be the sixteenth largest economy in the world. Forty percent of the land mass in the United States, approximately 900 million acres, is devoted to some type of farming.

This 900 million acres calculates to 1.4 million square miles, an area over five times the size of France.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture says there are 95,000 farms in my state covering two-thirds of its nearly 70 thousand square miles.  Just among the people with whom I work, a not inconsiderable number of them farm, or are part of a family farming venture, that covers over 100 acres.

Anyone who has set out to accomplish any type of task knows they need the right tool.  Thus the pickup.  No sedan, van, or minivan is as adaptable to umpteen different, and frequently messy, needs.

While this has been an intentional diversion, it seemed best to illustrate just one factor in why pickups exist here in the quantities they do.  In current times there are admittedly many other factors, such as comfort, towing, and simple adaptability, but the basic utility of a pickup is imprinted on the mind of anyone having even a modest degree of positive exposure.

For 1953 Ford introduced an automatic transmission for their pickups, two years after introduction on their passenger cars.  The availability was limited to certain half-ton models, but it was there nonetheless.  No doubt some opined about how sloth would overtake the world.

Ford was also so bold as to proclaim driver comfort was a feature on their pickups.  Again, the curmudgeons likely bemoaned the softening of society.

Chevrolet followed Ford’s automatic transmission lead by introducing the Hydramatic into pickups in 1954.  Being a year late to the party, Chevrolet had to outdo Ford by offering it in half-, three-quarter, and one-ton models.  The take-rate was marginal but the availability remained.

The next year Chevrolet beat Ford to the punch with a styling component that remains to this day.  When Chevrolet offered the Cameo for 1955 (1956 shown), it was the first pickup to offer a bed without the step-sides, making the flanks smoother and more visually pleasing.

Ford followed suit for 1957.

Dodge joined Ford that year although the end result wasn’t quite as organic in appearance as was the others.  Like with gift-giving, it’s the thought that counts.

Smooth sides proved to be the future of pickup styling.

While Dodge may have been late to the styling party, they leapfrogged the pack in regard to interior features and power.  In 1964, Dodge offered the Custom Sports Special for half- and three-quarter ton models.  Inside it was equipped with bucket seats, a console, and a carpeted floor.  Under the hood there was the typical Dodge pickup offerings of the time although one could also opt for the High-Performance Package that initially included a 360 gross horsepower 413 cubic inch V8.  That engine was soon replaced with the 365 gross horsepower 426 cubic inch Max Wedge V8.

From what can be determined, this was the first half-ton pickup from the Big Three with over 200 (gross) horsepower in half-ton configuration, let alone with over 300 horsepower.  For some, the pickup world was going to Hell in a hand basket tucked inside a cab with carpet and bucket seats.

Only 50 pickups were built with Dodge’s High-Performance Package over three years however, this package cast the die for better performance while the Custom Sports Special, which had a much higher take-rate, was a new dimension for comfort in pickups.

Despite Dodge being a trailblazer in personal comfort, their Custom Sports Special pickups lacked one key element of creature comfort – air conditioning.  Of the Big Three automakers, Chevrolet was the first to have air-conditioning as an option, doing so for 1965.

The slippery slope had just gotten steeper.

Ford had air-conditioning as a factory option beginning in 1968.  While air had been available for a number of years, it had been a dealer installed option.

Due to elusive information, it has been more difficult to determine when Dodge introduced air-conditioning in their pickups.  However, we do know air-conditioning was on the options list for 1970, if not a year or so sooner.

General Motors, as did both Ford and Dodge, continued to offer more niceties throughout the 1970s.  A tilt-steering column, long available on GM cars, first saw use in a Chevrolet pickup in 1971.

For 1975 Chevrolet introduced the Silverado trim option, a name so popular it is currently applied to all Chevrolet pickups.  The initial 1975 Silverado package consisted primarily of a more thickly padded seat along with bright trim and sound insulation.

Not to be left alone, GMC, the General Motors complement to Chevrolet’s pickup line, offered the Beau James.  As the ad states, “Beau James was created for those who like the special things life has to offer; the extra touches, the small refinements, the quietly appreciated subtleties”.

Given the very atypical interior presentation for the time, it appears GMC was ahead of the curve and trying to appeal to Cadillac clientele.  GMC had other special edition pickups also, such as the Gentleman Jim which was also available in 1975.

Whether GMC’s Beau James was named after the former mayor of New York, or was simply a pleasant sounding name, has not been able to be determined.

Somewhat like Dodge’s Custom Sports Special, the Beau James lacks what would soon become a common element that is now nearly standard equipment – power windows and locks.  That option didn’t come along until 1977.

Meanwhile, at Ford in 1975, cruise control was now an option.  Upon close inspection this brochure reads like cruise control is only available with the 460 V8.  Given the strangulation air quality standards inflicted upon Ford’s pickup engines, this was likely the only engine Ford engineers were confident could maintain speed on any type of incline.

An AM/FM stereo radio was also available, that first shaky step toward the infotainment systems found in current model pickups.

Dodge, being Dodge, took a different path for 1977 with the Sky-Lite Roof.  The moonroof which can be obtained on a new Dodge Ram for $1,500 had a direct ancestor.

This Dodge brochure also illustrates another component in the pickup’s march toward greater civility, the extended cab.  Among the Big Three, Dodge offered an extended cab in 1972 with Ford following suit soon thereafter.  GM missed the memo, not offering an extended cab until 1988.  We’ve classified this failure as a Deadly Sin.

If mentioning extended cabs, one needs to also consider crew cabs.  International had the first crew cab in 1957; among the Big Three, Dodge followed suit in the early 1960s.  Ford followed suit a few years later with GM bringing up the rear by doing so in 1973.  More about that can be found here.

Like everything else in the automotive kingdom, there are continual changes and evolving philosophies in pickup execution.  Ford, the pioneer in putting a V8 in a pickup, began moving toward an all V6 lineup a decade ago.  Manual transmissions, still common in many pickups as recently as the 1990s, are extinct in half-tons as well as most of the higher capacity light-duty trucks.

Power in base models is way up, as well as efficiency.  For a very long time, Ford’s standard 300 cubic inch (4.9 liter) six coughed out around 115 horsepower; the base 3.3 liter V6 found in a 2021 F-150 pumps out 290 horsepower.  Dodge Ram is at 305 horsepower as standard; GM trails the others at a mere 285 with its 4.3 liter V6.  General Motors has also gone full circle by offering a four-cylinder engine in its half-ton models.

More changes are coming; Ford will soon be having a fully electric half-ton, Dodge Ram has a mild hybrid, and GM has been offering a hybrid periodically since 2005.  The future of transportation, particularly the pickups for which there will always be a need, is truly exciting.

Basic pickups still exist.  “Basic” just has a broader meaning these days.