In 2018, more than nearly 12 million pickup trucks were sold in the United States. That’s about 6,500 pickup trucks sold every day, or 270 per hour.
How did we get here?
Gottlieb Daimler is widely considered the chief pioneer of the cab-and-cargo configuration. In 1896, the German industrialist strapped a combustion engine to a converted horse carriage. It was marketed under the name DMG Lastwagen, translated from the amusingly literal German as “load wagon.” Fresh off producing the world’s first motorcycle, Daimler found little fanfare for his Frankenvehicle. People just weren’t ready for load wagons. Not a single model was sold in Germany.
This being the country of beer, breweries eventually fueled demand for Daimler’s invention. Beer manufacturers were delighted to discover that Daimler’s new five-ton, 10-horsepower model, released in 1898, could carry up to 50 large crates of brew. Seven of the nine trucks produced were purchased for the purpose of transporting barley sodas. By 1912, almost half of the 5,400 trucks driving German on roads were beer wagons.
The next boom was spurred by the military. In the years leading up to the first World War, the German armed forces offered subsidies on truck purchases. Citizens who bought trucks at a discount agreed to turn them over to the army in the case of war. According to Daimler, 9,639 trucks were registered in 1914 – a 625 percent increase compared to 1908. But the vehicle draft was a mirage. Technical innovation stopped during the war. When it was over, there was no use for the old trucks and no demand for new ones. It would be another two decades before trucks were engineered well enough to compete with trains for long-haul transport.
Meanwhile in America, in 1913, the Ohio-based Galion Allsteel Body Company outfitted a modified Ford Model T chassis with a hauling crate. Like in Germany, America’s first truck was a mutant. This is essentially how trucks were built at the time: Ford manufactured the chassis and third parties would puzzle together the body and cargo. In 1918, Chevrolet put a cargo bed on its Series 490 sedan. It was the first bumper-to-bumper truck produced in-house.
In 1925, Ford took trucks mainstream by introducing the “Model T Runabout with pickup body.” The Runabout was the first factory-produced, what-you-see-is-what-you-get pickup truck. It came in colors other than black and was propelled by a 20-horsepower engine with four cylinders. Nearly 34,000 were sold in its first year. Ford’s game-changing assembly line allowed the company to keep up with demand over the following years. In 1928, Ford produced another hit with the 40-horsepower Model AA truck. Hundreds of thousands of trucks flooded America’s roads. A year later, the stock market crashed.
In the 1950s, pickup trucks took shape as we know them today. Wartime production restrictions were lifted, Americans fled cities for the suburbs, and interstates were cleared for personal and commercial trucking. Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet built roomier, more luxurious trucks that looked just as becoming in residential driveways as they did on dusty farm roads – “blue-collar identity while flaunting bourgeois prosperity,” as Smithsonian writer James Cobb puts it. People weren’t asking themselves what a truck could do for them, but rather, what a truck says about them. Thus, a formidable new American identity was born.