Saturday, April 23, 2011

Life-Style Pick Up Trucks: A Badge of Honor?

Between sips of coffee a couple of mornings ago I was watching a news report of Barrack Obama giving a speech somewhere or other, talking about the importance of reducing our dependency on foreign oil.  Among other presidents who have given similar speeches were George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy (I think Kennedy said something like that).  Over this period, America's foreign oil dependence has increased from 36% to over 66%. That’s another way of saying this isn’t an altogether new idea, and suggesting it isn’t helpful unless it is followed by concrete actions to do something about it.  

President Obama has stated he intended to meet his goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil by one third by 2025, partly by increasing domestic oil and gas production while creating incentives for more alternative energy production and reducing consumption through greater fuel efficiency standards.  He’s offered a carrot to the Republicans (more oil drilling, which will only help the oil companies selling it to India and China and do nothing for the rest of the US) and one to progressives (improved fuel efficiency standards and wind, solar and biofuels).  Better than a sharp stick in the eye, but not much.

One way of reducing the need for domestic as well as foreign oil is by reducing consumption.  We all have our favorite pet peeves about wasted energy, from more efficient light bulbs, to better insulation for our homes.  My bellyache is about something we, you and I, dear reader, can actually do something, that would have a big impact. It does not require action by the hopeless Republicans in the House of Representatives, who are opposed to nearly all governmental institutions, and who are striving to turn the country back to Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding’s policies that produced the first great Depression (oops, shouldn’t have said that!). No, it is about driving gas-guzzling private vehicles, pickups, SUVs and other trucks for no practical reason whatsoever.

US roadways are clogged with over 251 million private motor vehicles, including automobiles, pickup trucks, SUVs and vans and truck-like vehicles.  Around 41% of them are pickup trucks, vans, SUVs and other larger truck-like vehicles (   Until some time in the late 1960s, pickup trucks and coveralls were mainstays of farmers and other people in rural America. Rural Americans needed them for their daily farm work. City slickers like most of us tended to look with amusement at such icons of country culture.   

Interestingly enough, it was the Hippie counter culture movement beginning in the late 1960s that changed that, making wearing coveralls, especially without shirts, extraordinarily cool, and driving old used vehicles, including colorfully painted Volkswagen vans and rusty pickup trucks, a badge of honor.  Young people with beards and long hair and peasant dresses and sandals stood on main street in a small town in rural Minnesota gawking at a farmer in coveralls chewing on a piece of Timothy as he filled his gas tank, and whispered, “Hey, look at that guy, he’s way cool! I bet he’s living off the land.”

The 1970s spawned “Life Style” Pickup Trucks.  Don Bunn of Pickup Truck.Com, defines the term "1970s Lifestyle" pickups as being those designed to cater to Americans who were immersed in travel and camping (the dreaded first energy crisis did not hit until late in 1973). Pickups, SUVs and station wagons served as tow vehicles for the family's travel trailer or camper trailer.  That was followed shortly by the Glamour Pickup Era, in which Chevrolet pickups made the transition from being merely utilitarian, to high-styled "personalized" pickups.  This was followed by the even more outlandish “Life Style” pickups of the 1980s, like the hot Shelby Dakota pickup, powered by a 318, which was capable of tearing up the asphalt in style.  Think Macho.

By the 2000s pickups had changed again. Making a lot of money and greed had become fashionable.  Showing off your affluence by the vehicle you drove became a necessity.  But instead of Caddies and Porsches, lots of upper middle class Americans chose fancy pickup trucks as their version of peacock display.  Almost half of light truck and sport-utility vehicle (SUV) sales are called “cross over vehicles”, ¼ are large pickup trucks, SUVs account for 15% or, small pickup trucks and large vans accounting for around 10%.  Men in business suits and women in dresses with brief cases were driving shiny “fashionable” pickup trucks to work. It became cool to climb down out of a very uncomfortable vehicle without falling while wearing high heels when you arrived at work.

According to the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association, there are two types of pickup-truck buyers: the mainstream consumers and the enthusiasts. Mainstream consumers typically purchased pickups for work or utility purposes, such as tradesmen (carpenters, plumbers, roofers), businessmen who need to haul and deliver products and farmers.  The remainder are called “enthusiasts,” who tended to buy pickups simply because they loved trucks. Enthusiasts are more likely to own toys that need to be towed to the deserts, lakes and race tracks, and are most interested in accessorizing their vehicles with chrome wheels and exhausts and decorated Tonneau covers on the back. My interest is in the “Enthusiasts.”

According to Mike Accavitti, Director of Dodge Brand Marketing and Communications for Chrystler, “The biggest problem for truck sellers is that a lot of truck buyers never needed trucks in the first place…. these truck buyers used their mighty 4x4s for the crucial task of “hauling air,” …. That means they never tow, they never haul, and they never go off-road,” he said. They might occasionally haul a load of mulch or shuttle a kid off to college, but that was the extent of their truck use. 

When I park my Camry Hybrid in the parking lot by Borders Bookstore or Walgreens, I do my best to peer over and around the huge trucks that surround me on all sides as I negotiate my way into a parking space,  which is all but impossible.  Parking has become a nightmare because of these behemoth vehicles parking in places meant for automobiles.  As I exit my low profile Camry, I peer into the truck beds on either side expecting to see bales or hay or maybe a steer trussed up.  They are usually empty, but occasionally one contains a flat of daisies for the garden and a bag of soil mix, or depending on the season, their kids’ soccer gear.  Those SUV’s?  Right, the family drives them up North to the cabin or over to the St.Croix River a couple times each summer pulling the boat.  That’s right a couple of times. The rest of the time, it’s trips to the Cub store and schlepping the kid to speech therapy once a week.

While some men buy cars solely with the hope that their ride will get women to look at them, other guys buy machines designed to make everyone stare. Whether it’s an uncorked Harley, a Maybach or a Fly Yellow Ferrari some vehicles are purchased only for their ability to turn heads. [Soda Head: Top 10 Reasons to Buy a Pick-Up Truck]

Then there are women pickup truck and SUV drivers.  Sport utility vehicles are quickly becoming women's cars -- 40% of all SUV sales are to women, and the proportion is growing.
-(Mother Jones Magazine, 1999).  "A lot more women are buying a pickup truck for themselves, for their lifestyle," said automotive journalist Courtney Caldwell, of American Women Road and Travel…. "l have guys that wave to me and I don't even know who they are," she said. "They just wave because they see the truck and they see who's driving it and they're just amazed." "That's what it is. It's about lifestyle."  Actually it’s about getting guys to look at you.  [Dean Reynolds, Ford Marketing Trucks to Women. ABC News].

Oh, then there is the little matter of fuel economy.  Most pickup trucks get 15 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway, while some like the GMC Yukon and the Chevy Suburban LT2500 have much worse mileage.  Let’s not even consider the basic Hummer that gets 12/18 miles per gallon.  But I guess mileage isn’t every thing.  You’ve seen all those ads on television showing these rough and tough vehicles like the Chevy Silverado heavy duty pulling a freight train, a Toyota Tundra towing a trailer over a giant see-saw and a Ford F-150 stopping a landing C-123 cargo plane.  Or maybe you’ve seen the Dodge Ram careening wildly across an untamed desert or a creek bed with mud flying in all directions, you know, just the kind of stuff you typically do on Saturdays between dropping your kids off at dance lessons and a trip to the dry cleaner.

My Camry Hybrid gets about 32 MPGs in town and 36-38 on the highway.  I know that’s backward from what Toyota says should happen, but what can I say.  That pales alongside the Ford Fusion’s mileage is 25/45, the Honda Insight gets 29/45 and and the Prius is 45/48, about 2-3 times better gas mileage than the “Life Style” guzzlers. Within the next 5-10 years there will be at least a dozen electric cars available in the US.  It isn't as though American drivers have no good options. 

About 41% of all motor vehicles driven by individual drivers in the US are pickup trucks, SUVs, vans and other larger trucks, all of them getting appalling gas mileage. Read that: dismal, awful, terrible, , grotesque, inexcusable or worse.  A lot of those gas-guzzlers are driven by city slickers or suburbanites like me, who don’t need them for any real practical purpose. I’m not a carpenter or roofer, like that woman over there in the pickup wearing a frilly dress and pearls who is driving her daughter to school. I’m sure she needs her pickup for her job at the boutique in the Galleria. 

The time is long overdue that it becomes socially fashionable to drive a vehicle that gets reasonable gas mileage.  Self-indulgence is no longer a badge of honor in a country in which 16.8% of the people are unemployed or underemployed.  

There are better ways to get a woman or guy to look at you than driving a pickup truck.  


  1. Great post Travis! I was looking up Rocky Ridge Survivor ( a pick up truck that my husband wants) when I came across your post. I am glad I did because this was very interesting. I had no idea that almost half the cars of the road were big trucks and SUVs. I will have to send this to my husband, thanks for sharing.

  2. Do your operations take you outside the city where the rugged, rough terrains call for heavy-duty trucks or will your business be mostly conducted in the city where the roads require effortless handling? Will you need a larger bed and bigger payload capacity to transport heavy items? Check this out for more info.