Big, Bad Trucks and the Suburbanites Who Drive Them

We love to bitch and moan about the price of gas no matter who is President, but what do we do about it? Well, we buy Suburbans.

Big, Bad Trucks and the Suburbanites Who Drive Them
It will hold a lot of Walmart bags, and then haul them across the Gobi Desert.

I confess to have always been a car nut, or as the Brits would say, a petrolhead. I mention our English cousins because in my early years, I bought so many of their whimsically assembled vehicles. How many? Oh, 2 Austin-Healeys, 3 MG's, 1 Triumph and 2 Jaguars.

Bad hair and bad pants, but a cool car.

Add in an Alfa Romeo, Fiat and a Porsche along with several VW's of various types, and I've just about covered the Old World with my careless vehicle selections. And, by the way, all of them are worth considerably more than I sold them for, so add "bad businessman" to my resume.

Costa Rica Jeep Rental | Jeep Rentals - Jeep Tours - Jeep Adventures
Actually, nicer than the one we rented.

I came home to American vehicles when on our honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, I rented an old, rusty Jeep CJ at our hotel. I fell in love, even though the passenger seat for my new bride was only held in the vehicle by the seatbelt. I think she thought about a lawyer at that point but thankfully resisted. Part of the reason I fell in love was my self image. The CJ and later Wrangler are emblematic of a rugged, lumberjacky kind of guy instead of a slick, Eurotrash poseur in a leaky Healey. So it was Jeeps from then on.

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Me on the Rubicon Trail in the Sierras. Looking pretty butch, eh?

And for around 20 years, I reviewed cars and trucks for broadcast and print (remember print?) and even did a stint handling PR for General Motors' South Central Region. And something became apparent to me that actually applies today. We love to bitch and moan about the price of gas no matter who is President, but what do we do about it? Well, we buy Suburbans.

My old bosses at GM, for example, had a good quarter. From the AP release...

Despite a small dip in U.S. vehicle sales, General Motors’ first-quarter net income rose more than 25% on strong deliveries of pickup trucks and other higher-profit vehicles.

The automaker said that while its average sales price per vehicle was down slightly from last year at just under $50,000, pickup sales remained strong, and it’s not seeing the price erosion across its lineup that other companies have experienced.

How many Facebook memes show gas prices from a few years ago with prices today to make some sort of inaccurate political point? Even though we pump more oil and natural gas now than anyone else, ever before...ever, somehow there is a war on big oil? And when we are whining, we never take inflation into account. Not the momentary current figure, but over time.

A gallon of gas in 1970, the year I owned that Triumph Spitfire shown above, was around 40 cents. That is $3,22 in today's dinero. But, of course no one thinks of it that way because kvetching is pretty much our default mood these days. But again, what do we turn around and do? Well, just look at what's selling for all the big three.

We noticed that in the early 2000's when I was at GM, no matter what the price of gas, the company prayed for high sales of Suburbans, Tahoes and pickups, because that is where the profit is. You can build a milestone electric vehicle like the Volt, but the customer likes the big trucks. And you like the money they bring in. This is true for all the automakers, domestic and foreign. So, if they like them big, make them bigger. I know, that makes no sense. For example.

1982 Dodge Ram versus the current one.

When I was growing up, pickup trucks were basically work vehicles. Rubber floor mats, vinyl bench seats, painted metal dashboards and all the comforts of Harvey Weinstein's jail cell. I have an auto writer friend who says he knew Jeeps and pickups were changing the minute they put deep pile carpeting in them. And again, despite our mewling about gas, another comparison...

 A 1970s-era Ford F-150 as compared to a modern version.
1970's Ford F150 and today's.

And notice one thing. The size of the bed on the league-leading Ford. They aren't work trucks anymore, they are "lifestyle" vehicles, destined to never go into the boonies or carry anything dirtier than bags of peat moss from the garden center. Forget cargo, look at the cabin.

1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2020.

From Axios...

  • In the 1980s, about half of pickup trucks were categorized as small or midsize. But by the 2010s, small pickups had nearly vanished as Americans increasingly bought into the big truck lifestyle.
  • As pickups transitioned from workhorses to lifestyle vehicles, their design shifted accordingly: Cabs expanded to accommodate more passengers, while beds shrank.
  • The first generation of F-150s was 36% cab and 64% bed by length. By 2021, the ratio flipped, with 63% cab and 37% bed.

For a time, more compact trucks were the vogue. A Chevy ad from the 1960.

But this is America, dammit! Try reaching over the fender like this guy now! Bigger is better so damn the price of premium, full speed ahead! Even when automakers added compact trucks to their lines in the 80's and 90's, they have grown to what used to be considered full-sized just a few years ago.

r/pics - 2022 Mid-sized pickup vs early 90's Mid-sized pickup
Yes, that GMC Canyon on the left is considered a compact truck.

Now, regulations have played a role. When you go up in weight class, the mileage requirements go down. Detroit figured that one out pretty quickly. And though engine technology has improved tremendously, these vehicles are still hogs. I was standing next to a new GMC Sierra the other day and the hoodline was at my shoulder. Forget popping the hood and leaning in to work on your truck. You'll need a ladder. That high front end extends the frontal blind spot, and trucks are now much heavier.

Graph of pickup truck weights, 1990-2018, increasing from 4000 lbs to just over 5000, peaking in 2014

Trucks are now 20% of our overall vehicle mix and pedestrian deaths have reached 40-year highs. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety research shows that as trucks and SUVs have gotten taller and heavier, they likewise have posed greater risks to those outside the vehicle. Frankly, the idea of using a 6500 pound vehicle as a grocery getter or dropping the kids off at school, seems simply harebrained.

So my initial question about the bi-polar nature of our political discourse versus our consumer choices remains. The answer is exactly what hit me 42 years ago in an old, rickety Jeep in Mexico. I looked cool in it.

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You want to know why SUV's that will never leave the pavement have flourished and minivans are scarce, much less station wagons? No guy wants to look like Ward Cleaver, that's why. And Madison Avenue is onto that, and onto you. Ergo, the butchification of the American auto market.

And it isn't just here. There is a term in Merry Olde for hipsters who parade around Sloane Square in Chelsea wearing stylishly casual threads and driving some sort of Jeep or Land Rover, that again, will never get dirty. They are called "Sloane Rangers." Over here, you see versions of these tragically hip folks in every city large and small, and the vehicle of choice for their personal Easter parades is usually some sort of SUV or pickup.

My auto writer friend who predicted that the end of the world began with deep, pile carpet, also said that any vehicle designed to go off-road should look like a rolling tackle box. So, I guess I'm making a plea for common sense. I have, for example, mentioned the blindingly bright headlights on newer cars. Now raise them up a good foot or so on new pickups and even the low beams are making you squint.

Don't get me wrong, drive what you want. But think about it a bit. If gas prices really have you in a lather, you might want something that guzzles a little less. Of course, most of the lather is political these days, so this might fall on deaf ears. But even away from trucks, the horsepower wars are on again for guys unlike me who are still into two-seaters. The price of entry for a serious sports car these days is 300-500 horsepower. I would remind them that the coolest cars in the sportscar pantheon made do, somehow, with less. The Aston Martin DB5 of James Bond fame?

6-cylinders and 285 ponies...

Aston Martin DB5 - Wikipedia

And the Jaguar E-Type, described as the "Greatest crumpet collector of all time," crumpet being a Britishism for attractive women. 6-cylinders and 265 horsepower.

Jaguar E-Types for Sale from Eagle E-Types

I've driven them both and it's one of the most incredible experiences a car guy could want, even if they have the same power as a Toyota Camry.

So, we have decided that the hell with the climate, we're going to drive whatever we damn well please. And I wouldn't change that for the world, but perhaps a bit more thought about that purchase? Whether you're the old me or the newer me, sports cars or SUVs, you can still look cool and go easier on the planet when you pull up to the pump.

And if I'm coming off as a killjoy scold, I promise I'm not. I'm just a purist.