Pickup trucks didn’t start that way.
Early on in the automobile age, people who needed to carry stuff other than passengers began to adapt car bodies to the task. If you had more riders than cargo, you just put them in the bed in the back, which some folks still do, despite laws that say they shouldn’t. Since most of the adaptations were made by farm folks, and the South had more than its share of farm folks, the association was made and it stuck. Today, in the popular mind, if not in actual sales, the good old boy without a truck is like a cowboy without a horse.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
These adaptations had limited hauling and toting value. And they weren’t safe. There were traction problems: It could “spin out in its shadow,” the saying went. Overloaded, they were difficult to steer. “Drives like a truck” was both an explanation and a complaint. Automakers took note of the changes being made to their vehicles and decided to begin making the changes themselves. Thus the pickup truck was born.
Over the decades, something happened to pickups. Tapping into a desire to cling to rural roots that were left behind when farm folks moved to town and the increasing need of suburban families for a “second car,” automakers began the redesigning that transformed pickups into the stylish vehicles that today captures half of the South’s new car sales.
So it came to pass, thanks to skillful marketing and image polishing, a jacked up, off-road ready pickup 4X4 in the driveway became a status symbol for the bourgeois Bubbas who seldom if ever took it off the road, while the more utilitarian model with an extended cab, served guys with a growing family – like me.
It also became the dream car for small town, country guys who added a gun rack to the interior décor – a convenient place for an umbrella if you didn’t hunt, though most did. Yes, guys. The target in this campaign were the Bubbas — the male, especially the southern male. Although “good old girls” can and do drive pickups, the very names of the new models drip with out-of-doors masculinity: Silverado, Sierra, Ranger, Bonanza. While slogans like “where men are men and trucks are Ford V8s” leave no doubt whose attention automakers are trying to grab. There is a Dodge Ram, but not a Dodge Ewe. Who would buy it if it was? “Dodge Trucks, Ewe Tough?”
I don’t think so.
It also made the pickup a poignant symbol of love gone bad, as in the lament, “that ain’t my truck in her drive.” The ultimate recognition of the pickup truck as a symbol synonymous with the South may have come in 1996, when the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta opened with cheerleaders, gospel singers, and “the dance of the pickup trucks.”
With approximately 3.5 billion folks looking on, worldwide, 30 brand-new, chrome finished Chevrolet Silverado pickups, with “high energy dancers” prancing in the beds, roared on to the field, and drove through an intricate routine that culminated with the trucks circling up, lights inward. How much more Southern could they get? How many of the 3.5 billion watching caught on? How many Southern viewers cringed just a bit? How many Southern viewers called out to the wife in the kitchen, “Honey, come see this. I want me one of them.”
Try as I might, I have not found out what happened to those trucks, nor can I determine if Silverado sales spiked or tanked as a result. But I like to think that not long after the Olympic torch was extinguished, out in Atlanta’s upscale suburbs, 30 chrome Chevy pickups sat in 30 driveways, and 30 good old boy wannabes were about as happy as a good old boy wannabe could get.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.