Wood worker and boat builder Bill Thomas had had it and finally located a 1980s VW Bus/Syncro (bullet hole-free) pickup in Bosnia and had it shipped to England, where it traveled via freighter to Maine. After a total rebuild, he had a vehicle with an 9-foot bed, fold-down sides, and a capacious lockable storage compartment underneath.
My cabinet- and guitar-making buddy Jim is nursing his elderly Ford Ranger long bed — fun to drive, efficient, maneuverable and very fuel-efficient with repair parts and tires quite reasonable. Whenever I have to haul a heavy boat out up a steep ramp, it’s my 1954 Willys pickup I go to: It's heavy duty, low range and collectively, offers 42 leaf springs in the suspension. It’s tougher than a boiled owl and reliable.
So what is this passion for elderly trucks? Nostalgia?
No, rather it’s the undeniable fact that in the nation that developed the utility, myth and mystique of the small utility truck, manufacturers have now decided to discontinue building them and to throw the working person who depends on these unique vehicles over the rail for profit.
That’s not to say those vehicles aren’t out there in the rest of the world. On every continent outside of North America, you can still find real “work” trucks. Efficient, reliable tools that make their owners money. But here, alas, we are forced to select from a profit-enhancing array of lookalike, jumbo versions of a small child’s Tonka truck. Big-wheeled, rotund pickups equipped with more bling and easy to break distractions than used to be found in a pink 1955 Cadillac Seville with white leather seats driven by a pearl-wearing, silver-haired dowager named Maude.
Even the venerable and utilitarian Jeep has developed a middle-aged paunch rivaling in size of the Rubenesque Hummer — ready to be dolled up with available snorkel, winch and industrial jack for those dangerous missions to the mall.
But what of all those plain but hard-working imported cousins that used to be ubiquitous: the VWs, the Toyota Hi Luxes, Isuzus, Ram 50s and Datsuns? Alas, all were collateral damage of the infamous “chicken wars”. In 1963, the United States under Lyndon B. Johnson, reacting to European countries placing tariffs on U.S.-grown chicken, enacted a 25-percent tax on brandy, dextrin, potato starch and pickup trucks.
Over the years, most of the “chicken tax” tariffs were lifted — with the noteworthy exception of those on imported pickups — much to the delight of American builders who feared competition in the American market. One has to wonder why it is possible for Australian drovers, Guatemalan revolutionaries, Central African missionaries, and even ISIS can get a reliable small pickup and we can’t.
In many ways, it has all been a conscious attempt by corporate managers to eliminate an entire class of vehicles to enhance their bottom line. Manufactures croon — “But American consumers don’t want small trucks!” Not so, Pilgrim!
In reality, it’s that their simple and single goal was to dissuade consumers from even considering a small truck. There's big money in big trucks. While there might an advertising blitz for the manly F-150, the robust Silverado or the Godzilla Ram there was rarely seen a TV or print ad for a sporty Ford Ranger or S10. Indeed, when I shopped for my current Ford Ranger, one dealer didn’t even have a single one on the lot to test drive. The next dealer asked, "why would you want one?"
Next it was argued, "you don’t want the base model, you need the FWD with the big engine". After ordering, I was told the model I wanted didn’t exist anyway but they would gladly sell me a more expensive one. In short order, I found the one I wanted online and told the salesman if they didn’t bring it here at their own expense, they would never see me again.
VW with flowers. Photo by Bill Thomas
Of course, there was a bit of collusion with motor reviewers who would bemoan the horrifying notion that the small vehicles looked, and worse, rode like trucks and lacked the power to accelerate as quickly as a BMW to get onto the parkway. Purple prose on color schemes, Bluetooth connectivity, finely color-coordinated interiors and the size of the knobs on the on board entertainment system carry the day. Not so much ink spilled on utility and reliability.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Not every innovation is bad. All manufactures need to do is actually have someone on their advisory panel who actually works (or at least knows someone) in the trades to get the design team back on track. The components are there — all that is lacking is the will.
A few recommendations for our benighted but short-sighted manufacturers: Today’s engines are far more reliable with less required maintenance. But one does have to ask, what’s with the giant engines that now come standard with every suburb-bound pickup? Not everyone needs the fuel-guzzling power necessary to haul a trailer filled with 40 head of well-fed Holsteins over the great divide in a blizzard. Keep the standard transmission. There are still many of us who actually like driving a vehicle.
Today’s brakes are far superior to those in the past! Airbags really work and I am glad for them. And I don’t want to go back to vacuum-driven windshield wipers. I wouldn’t mind a return of fly window ventilation though (losing those little vent windows was a setback for civilization).
That said, enough with the bed that’s only big enough for two bags of dog food and a sack of “weed and feed”. Bring back the long bed. It is disingenuous to claim that no one wants a long bed and then offer (at extra cost) a “bed extender”. The frame is obviously there — now just used to accommodate the little-used club cab. Bring back exterior tie-down hooks on the bed — they are successfully used all around the rest of the planet. We should have them here.
Galvanize the frame! What good is a spiffy aluminum body on a rotting iron frame? Do we really need expensive headlight arrays that rival the landing lights on an Airbus that only serve to annoy oncoming drivers? I think not.
Lose the valueless $300 "smart keys” that everyone hates. Studies have shown, even today, Americans are still capable of inserting and turning a mechanical key that takes$2 to reproduce at the hardware store. And deep six the goofy, blacked-out stealth paint packages that only have appeal for Darth Vader wannabes. That Latin American death squad look is so 1980.
I believe the nation that built the navies of Liberty ships, the Interstate highway system and put a man on the moon also has the ability to build a hard-working small truck that can handle bales of hay, lumber, and bags of concrete. You can do it! It’s great to keep building the Mucho Gordo Grande El Camino, Ranchero Forrestal and the Dodge Hindenburg for the Scarsdale and Levittown crowd, but don’t forget the tradesmen, ranchers, fishermen and farmers who brought you to the dance.
And it might just be a good business strategy. After all, the manufacturer of Bill’s Syncro had pretty good luck taking on Big Iron and gas guzzlers in the 1960s with a simple slogan: “Think Small”.
Photo by Bill Thomas
Greg Rossel builds and repairs small wooden boats in Troy, Maine. He also teaches boat building, writes about it for several magazines, is the author of Building Small Boats and The Boatbuilder Apprentice and produces a weekly two-hour world music radio program on WERU-FM which (thankfully) has nothing whatsoever to do with boats.
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