COAL: 1986 Ford F-150 — Mechanical Buckboard–And A Couple Of Dodge Pickups Too

Form follows function. Squared-off and basic.

Many cars and trucks are described or defined by how they look, whether the top folds down, or where the engine is located. Others are more easily described as a simple category, with immediate recall by the reader. Light duty pickup trucks fall more easily into their category rather than in more careful description. The best brief description I can call up is the mechanical version of the buckboard wagon. Propulsive force in the front, driver’s seat up high in the middle, and an open area, for carrying anyone or anything the wagon is capable of carrying, lies in the back. This was the standard 19th century American buckboard wagon, and also the standard 20th century pickup truck. Only in the last couple of decades has the idea of a pickup truck become more blurred.

The 19th Century buckboard wagon, prototype of the American pickup truck. Those of a certain generation will recognize the car-guy at the helm of this wagon.

Returning to California from my long foray to the UK, I had pulled my “three car fleet” out of storage, and resumed daily driving my Mazda RX-3s. However, with a new full-time job, serious girlfriend, and setting up my own home, I needed reliable daily transportation, not cobbled together old cars. Looking ahead, my race car itch had not totally been scratched, and I was still loaded with cars and parts, so a pickup truck seemed to be in order. I could schlepp around parts, and also pull cars around. A pickup truck seemed an ideal choice, and I shopped our local Ford dealer, the source of the family’s Mustang, for a truck just big and capable enough to move my cars around. They had a stripper “4 x 2” F-150 on the lot. Rubber floor mats and a minimal bench seat, but also a 302 V-8, automatic transmission, air conditioning, and the ubiquitous silver painted diamond plate rear step bumper. So, not quite a stripper. About $10k, all up, taxes and license. The biggest purchase, by far, of my lifetime.

As one of the salesmen at the dealership noted, “There you go, once you go to trucks, we’ll never get you back in a car again”. Mostly true, in my case. Trucks come in all sizes, but all with basically the same proportions, and defined by powertrains and capacities. With cars, you buy it and go. With trucks, you build it out to suit your needs. One of the things about one’s first truck, if it is full-sized, is that one needs to learn where the corners of the vehicle lie, and how to interpret that in your rear-view mirrors. Many new trucks wear a mildly crunched rear corner, and that is often the code for a first-time full-sized truck owner. I am proud to say that I never crunched a rear corner of my first truck, learning where the edges were.

The Ford was definitely minimal, and I really noticed it when I took long trips. The base bench seat was very uncomfortable, after a few hours of driving. But the trade-off of metal-to-plastic in the interior was actually a good mix. Later trucks veered way over to assemblages of interior plastic, with not much metal in the mix. A real truck needs some painted structural metal in the living space, in my humble opinion. Rubber mats have qualities all their own, especially in wet weather or muddy situations. But the noise abatement properties of a stripper interior were nonexistent in the ‘80s iterations of pickup trucks. It was a noisy environment in there.

Eventually, I purchased a second-hand flatbed trailer, and I was firmly in the cars and stuff moving business. Driving the truck daily, I learned how to maneuver such an unwieldy beast at highway speeds, with some degree of smoothness and rhythm. Planning ahead and navigating the thing with gentle intention, as I had done with the old Mercury wagon, was the name of the game. I daily drove the Ford for ten years and 120,000 miles, with only one real incident that put me at the side of the road dead, and that was the failure of the notorious distributor-mounted ignition module. But marriage, the arrival of our second child (the Ford could sit three across, but not four), and a transmission that was starting to have difficulty shifting smoothly, and it was time to move on from the ‘86 Ford. The local Ford dealer had expanded to a second Dodge dealership as well, and I was seduced by the styling of the ‘90s Dodge Ram trucks. The extended cab, with the second seat, solved the “how to fit the kids in” problem. They had a V-8 with the 318 and a five-speed transmission(!) and I was sold. $20k, all up. The black exterior looked great, but keeping a black pickup truck looking clean and tidy is a full time task, especially when it lives outdoors.

Black and hot in the summer, but it looks great for at least 24 hours after you wash it.

The Dodge certainly felt more powerful and sturdier than the Ford, and the base extended-cab interior, with carpets and headliners, was much quieter inside. The Dodge got 15 mpg versus the 17 to 18 of the Ford, but there was an interesting twist to the fuel mileage. The Dodge did not care if one was carrying a load, as the mileage stayed roughly the same. The Ford obviously worked harder, and it also showed up in dramatically lower fuel mileage when carrying or towing cargo. I was happier in almost all ways with the Dodge, but the black paint and the fully plastic dashboard were negatives. The manual transmission was a great feature at first, as I loved shifting my truck when driving it.

A camper shell and a trailer hitch with electric brakes, and I was good to go.

I bought the truck in 1996, and I still own it today, with just under 200,000 miles on it. It is starting to burn oil a bit, and other than a couple of new mufflers and converters, and a couple of ignition sensors, it has been flawless. The shifting is not as much fun for my left knee as it used to be, but the truck is good for longer trips. I went back to cars for daily drivers a couple of times for a while along the way, but repeatedly came back to the truck, which was always standing by, ready to go.

A few years ago, I had a sizeable insurance settlement from having been run into in a car, and having it get written off, and the question of what to do for a daily driver came up. The truck was outside, and in good shape, but parking the thing was getting tougher (especially due to length), my left knee was not so enamored with working the clutch pedal so much, and the truck had quite a few miles on it. Plan “A” was to get rid of the truck, too, and get something new. Have you priced new trucks lately? Also, the truck beds get shorter and shorter. Having gone from an 8-foot bed in the Ford to a 6 1/2-foot bed in the Dodge had already been seen by me as a sacrifice, all those years ago, and I didn’t want as truck with a five-foot bed, or whatever they come with now if you get two seats. So I went to plan “B”, and shopped for a low mileage cheap daily driver. Lo and behold, I found a ‘99 Dodge Ram “shorty” with an automatic and “low” mileage (103k, in this case). Under $4k. Problem solved. Shorter truck, check. Relief for the left knee, check. Room to rack up some miles over the years, check. And I already knew my way around the Dodge Ram OBD-II codes, and how the ignition sensors interacted with the truck.

Similar but different. “Once you go to trucks, you aren’t going back to cars”. At least not all the time…

The white paint keeps the truck cooler, and the SLT package gives me the luxury interior. I really like the little sliding door in the back window, and it is right within reach, given the short cab. I don’t understand why people don’t use those windows more, as the sensation is like having the side window open, but without all the buffeting from the wind at speed. Sort of like how people have convertibles, but keep the top up in the summer.

The white truck has a 360, so the mileage is not good (12 to 13 mpg), but the torque is amazing. It has the all-plastic dashboard again, though there are now some close-fitting plastic dash caps available, as the plastic dashboards in these Dodges really go to pieces over time. The ‘99, over the ‘96, has a passenger side airbag, but the master computer can’t just be sourced and installed, as it can be in the ‘96. The later models must have the VIN “flashed” into the computer. I am not sure how that even works, and it goes against the grain of my “going to the junkyard for parts” ethos.

The open bed offers cargo versatility that the truck with a camper shell does not offer.

I have gone back to cars as dailies here and there, but I always return to my trucks. I like the ‘90s trucks, especially the Dodges and the GMs, best of all. If only they wouldn’t age out and deteriorate. Of course, $5+ gasoline here in California also puts a damper on things. We are actually a 1 1/2 car family now, so the trucks get used for jobs, but not every day. I run a lot of trips in my wife’s Honda. The Honda is nice to drive, but it also reminds me of why I like my trucks so much. Even such things as simply tossing things in the back, or having to “climb” into them, make me happy. I like looking down on a lot of the traffic. I like moving around my own building materials, new appliances, and taking junk to the transfer station. Bringing home the Christmas tree each year is no big deal. Firewood and furniture are no problem. Towing is not an issue. It all works for me.

The pickup is my third (of three) basic COAL. Everything else sort of fits around the edges. But unlike the Mustang, I am not sure which pickup qualifies (most likely the black ‘96 Dodge). I am attached to the function of the truck more than I am of any one truck itself (though I have never tired of the styling of the ‘90s generation full-sized Dodge). As pickup trucks are simply modern mechanical buckboards, it is the function of the buckboard that I like best of all. Any light pickup can serve as such, though I like some better than others.

In the meantime, wife and family created automotive necessities in the garage, and I had a flatbed trailer behind my truck, and still a race car itch to scratch. The four-car (three car and one truck) fleet would grow and evolve quickly now.