Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Picking on Pickup Trucks

It's raining today.

Which means, for many construction workers, the workday may have been called short.

Driving back from Dallas after lunch this afternoon, in a drizzle which kept everything wet between sporadic downpours, I noticed on the freeway a lot of pickup trucks with equipment haphazardly stacked in their beds.  This being Texas, where construction is a way of life, you always see pickup trucks hauling equipment, but in the rain, it seemed like there were more of them on the road than on job sites.

Indeed, most of the stretch of freeway I drive between Dallas and Arlington is one long series of construction sites, and they were all deserted this afternoon.

In addition to being a construction hotspot, Texas is also pickup truck country.  More pickups are sold here than in any other state.  All of the brands have "Texas" editions, with special badging, wheels, and options packages designed to appeal to Lone Star truck buyers.  Toyota even builds their full-size pickups here in San Antonio, although Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge still duke it out for the preponderance of market share.

It's hard getting pickup truck drivers into import brands.  After all, when you're talkin' redneck, these motor vehicle owners really do have red necks, from working all day in what's normally a brutal Texas sun.  Country music, patriotism, football, American beers, and the occasional Confederate flag.  Toyota and Nissan just don't fit, and Honda, which builds the Ridgeline, just gets laughed out of the picture.

Pickup truck owners in Texas may buy a Honda passenger car for their wife, but they lose serious man points if they pay money for what Honda calls a truck.

Then again, plenty of women own pickup trucks here, too.  And not just trucks that are all girlied-up with chrome bling.  You'd be surprised at the burly guys who claim all of that froo-froo shininess for their own pickups.

I've never owned a pickup truck, although I've come close.  A few years ago, I was evaluating a Ford F-150 Supercrew, because I loved all of the room it gave the driver, as opposed to the compressed space most passenger cars give guys as big as me.  But I was only a block away from the dealership on my test drive before I had to pull off the road and turn around - it was just too big a vehicle!  I felt like I was plowing a piece of earthmoving equipment, and was petrified I was going to hit something.

My male cousin in Finland, an owner of economy cars, couldn't understand why I'd want to buy a pickup truck anyway.  "Then you'd never get married," he assumed, speaking from a sensible European mindset.  "Who wants a guy who drives a huge ugly truck?"

Are you laughing?  I was!  My cousin obviously didn't understand how American women - and Texas women in particular - go for guys who drive pickups they either don't need or guzzle more gas than is necessary to get from Point A to Point B.  Contrary to my cousin's assumption, there's no compromising one's sexual allure with the purchase of a pickup truck here.  In fact, my Honda sedan probably is more punitive to whatever allure I hold than a truck would be.

Unless it was a Ridgeline, of course.  By comparison, I probably earn macho points by owning a Honda sedan over the Japanese brand's truck.

In New York City, the status car is probably some imported luxury sedan.  In Chicago, it's probably a loaded Cadillac.  In Los Angeles, it's probably a Bentley convertible with leather seats the same custom color as its paint job.  Here in Texas, with the possible exception of snooty Dallas, the status vehicle isn't a car, but a truck.  And it doesn't even have to be brand-new, or top-of-the-line.

Or even clean.

1970 Chevrolet pickup truck
Until his messy divorce, a neighbor up the street had an orange 1970 Chevrolet pickup.  It belched blue smoke, and this neighbor - like many of traditional truck ownership's dying breed - didn't always keep it clean, but it was still a cool ride.

Although a tiny truck by today's standards, it was the kind of vehicle I'd grown up assuming a pickup is supposed to be.  Two-wheel drive, long bed, single-cab, two doors, and all-around no-nonsense.  No-nonsense not just in its lack of frills, but in the way it acknowledged its purpose:  working.

This truck wasn't built to show off, or to make somebody look masculine, or to give somebody an air of off-road adrenaline-pumping action.  It was built to get somebody - probably a guy, but not necessarily - to a destination that had less to do with status and image and more to do with everyday work or everyday recreation, like fishing or camping.

My Uncle Arthur and Aunt Hattie drove a dark green Chevy of the same vintage in Maine - they only ever owned one pickup at a time.  No need for more than that.  Except that when Uncle became unable to drive, Aunt Hattie went into town and traded in their pickup for a more ladylike coupe!

You've likely seen pickups advertised on television that are shiny, glistening with chrome, and hauling ridiculous amounts and types of cargo while staying in pristine condition.  Meanwhile, how many office parks and shopping malls around you are full of those same $45,000 fully-loaded pickups without a scratch, dent, or clump of mud anywhere on them?

Like I said, I go past construction sites all the time when I take my regular freeway rides back and forth to Dallas, and most of the construction workers at these sites park their beat-up old sedans and coupes behind concrete barriers, and contractors drive their plain-Jane white trucks in the dirt, but I don't see many souped-up trucks like what are advertised on television as work site workhorses.

Misleading advertising isn't common just to pickup trucks, of course.  Yet increasingly, pickup truck manufacturers are selling more of an image and a perception of a certain lifestyle, instead of just a utilitarian vehicle.  The fact that you can spot non-commercial pickup trucks on the urbane avenues of New York City these days proves that.

All this, while most of the jobs for which we're told pickup trucks are designed pay a fraction of the sticker prices those trucks display at dealerships these days.

Fortunately, at least for Texans, old trucks have an uncanny ability to hold their value.  Especially the ones that didn't have all the bells and whistles to begin with.  The bells and whistles that tend to malfunction in their American-made vehicles.  Turns out, a good, honest workhorse is still a good value, whether it's the Old West, or today's Lone Star State.

If you do happen to get stuck on the job site during rainy weather like today's, however, that fancy doo-dad called four-wheel-drive probably does come in mighty handy.
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