There's Something About a Truck, but What Is It?
Americans treasure the pickup truck, yet its powerful symbolism isn't easily summed up.
To paraphrase a recent country song, there’s somethin' 'bout a truck -- an old pickup truck, with hay in the bed, slight rust patterns along the bottom of the body panels, a big gun rack mounted behind the driver's seat, and the farmer’s daughter riding shotgun dressed a whole lot like Maryanne from Gilligan's Island. There, I just wrote a new verse for Kip Moore’s next hit single.
Totally serious, now: Pickup trucks are a serious thing. Together with SUVs, they account for more than half of the vehicles sold in the U.S. market. They’re the only vehicle segment that foreign brands have failed to dominate. For the past 30 straight years, the Ford F-Series has outsold everything else in the U.S. They’re tough equipment for tougher jobs, the backbones of a life spent sweating for a living. Like blue jeans and white tees, pickups are a purely American symbol. How does that not compel a guy to write a song in tribute?
However, photographs capture the pickup's spirit with more nuance.
In his work “Partially Painted Pick Up Trucks,” photographer Jeff Brouws doesn’t have one shot of an old truck in a cornfield or a barn, like billions of other photographers have done. Instead, he shot 25 pickups from the side and arranged them onto a 5-by-5 grid, composing what he calls a “rolling abstract colorfield painting.” Looking at it, I can get a deep picture of rural American life without even touching soil there.
(Courtesy the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston)
But for Brouws, a San Francisco native, this is not a tribute to the old pickup. “The project was about discovering art in commonplace objects,” he said, noting that he was inspired by Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations.”
“These distressed pickups were found in depressed rural areas. It's about how commonplace articles can be material objects that make reference to cultural and socio-economic conditions,” Brouws said.
But money or no money, what compelled some of these owners to color them as they did, to even keep these trucks running so long? I think there has to be something more to it.
A few months ago, I spoke to Bob, a Massachusetts man I met through the Antique Telephone Collectors Association (no, I didn't get his last name and yes, I have a rotary phone on my desk from 1951) who has a collection of antique telephone service trucks from the 1940s and '50s. He owns several of them, like this Chevrolet 3100 in Bell Telephone trim:
Or there's my writer friend down South, who bought a used F-350 in the Boston area, drove it 800 miles to his home and is now transplanting its diesel engine into a Ford Bronco (I can't say much more, only that you'll read about it soon). To sports-car aficionados like me, pickups make people like him do unimaginable things.
Take my hometown neighbor, Pablo Iannone, a college professor and esteemed author with a doctorate in philosophy. Iannone drove a mid-1980s Nissan pickup, powder blue with a bed cap, for nearly 20 years. Had his wife replaced it with a cushy automatic Lexus, he'd have been packing the next morning.
A few blocks away from my condo, in a rather well-off part of town, sits an ancient Land Rover on a stone driveway. Admittedly, this is not a pickup, but like the trucks in the Brouws collection, it’s a stumpy block of rusted iron and knobby tires just begging you to ask its owner all sorts of questions. Like, why?
I won’t completely understand. I was once given the keys to a Ram 3500, a red dually with mud flaps, cab roof lights, a diesel engine and a 6-speed manual transmission. I had no idea what to do with it. Another thing: People are salivating over Jeep’s retro-styled pickup concepts, and I’m not.
I am impressed, however, with how the pickup truck has evolved and branded itself in American culture, how it rooted itself in hard labor and now, thanks to King Ranch Fords, has also come to be the family man’s ride on a Friday night. Also, don’t tweet that sentence to Toby Keith, because he’ll steal my line.
Pickup Trucks are America. I am a girl and I learned to drive my Dad's Dodge Power wagon in 1960 when I was 13. From then on I always wanted a P/U because I always felt safer in them. When my first husband wanted to take me to California, In 1967 I wanted to take our Ford 4x4 not our Mustang. When my second husband wanted to take me on trip I always wanted to take the truck. I feel so much
safer out on the Freeway in a truck than a car. When I got some money from my parents and need to buy an auto, I went out and looked at pickups. I bought a Dodge Dakota 4x4.
I am one of those who love pick-up trucks, mine is a 1963 gladiator lilac and panther pink, wanted it to be different, and really i get tons of complements from other women, so for me its perfect, for the guys, it has a 455 engine.... so she is just as strong willed as me.
Ahhh!! The Pickup Truck. Every home owner should have a pickup in their auto fleet. Once you drive a truck you always drive truck weather it's an SUV or a pickup. My wife used to drive a sedan, she now drives an Explorer and will never go back to a sedan. My 2-daughters started driving sedans and now both of them drive an SUV and will never go back. Trucks are the beast of the auto industry.
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