Why We Love Trucks

Amid the crush of chauffeured limousines and fancy foreign sedans pulling up to last winter's black-tie Crystal Charity Ball in Dallas, financier Richard Rainwater arrived in style: behind the wheel of his monster truck. Jacked three feet above the pavement, replete with big mag wheels and spotlights, his black 1991 Chevy short-body pickup may not be a conventional mode of transport for a multimillionaire's night on the town--even in Texas. And certainly not the most convenient: Wife Darla Moore, decked out in a slinky, red-satin evening gown, had to "hike her dress up around her thighs to get in and out of it," admits Rainwater.

But for the financier, time spent truckin' is time well spent. "The reaction I get from virtually everybody who sees it--whether business associates or teenagers at the service station--is: `Boy, I bet that's a lot of fun to drive.' And it is!" says Rainwater, who amassed an $800 million fortune advising the Bass brothers in the 1980s and through his big stake in Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. "I don't drive it to be different. I drive it because I enjoy driving it. The truck is now evolving into this thing that it wasn't before."

COWBOY CADILLAC. And the Americans you'll find in trucks aren't the same ones you found before, either. Do trucks make you think of red necks, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer? Forget it. These days, the driver behind the wheel of that Cowboy Cadillac is likely to be a rich executive such as Rainwater, who can drive anything he wants, or a mom such as Clotilde Farrell of Katonah, N.Y.--with four children, two dogs, and a cat to haul to ski weekends and beach parties.

Why? Trucks aren't just the Spartan, workaday pickups prominent for most of this century. These days, trucks include compact pickups such as the Chevy S-10, minivans such as Chrysler Corp.'s seminal Dodge Caravan, and compact sport-utility vehicles such as the hot-selling Ford Explorer. All are defined as trucks by federal regulators, based on their chassis, weight, and towing capacity. Burly practicality is often secondary; creature comfort is in. At the same time, changes in American demographics, culture, and society have combined with baby-boomer yearnings for self-expression to transform many trucks into badges of affluence.

In fact, it's getting hard to tell the truckers from the movers and shakers. Hollywood heavyweight Arnold Schwarzenegger, author Tom Clancy, and Representative Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) have one thing in common: their trucks. Even those in the traditional limo-and-driver crowd in Corporate America have the itch to get their hands on a really big wheel: Gap CEO Millard S. Drexler, ge Capital CEO Gary C. Wendt, and Celestial Seasonings CEO Morris J. "Mo" Siegel, for instance, all own trucks. And Storage Technology CEO Ryal R. Poppa is so hooked that he owns three: a Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee, and Ford pickup.

Yet what's most telling about America's rush to trucks is just how widespread it is. From Manhattan yuppies, whose vehicles spend more time in garages than on the road, to mothers in California's San Fernando Valley, who use their minivans as veritable kidmobiles, all seem to be pursuing a mixture of utility and image that only trucks satisfy. The upshot: Americans' love affair with the automobile is fast being supplanted by its passion for trucks.

Recent sales reveal just how torrid this relationship has become. So far this year, light-truck sales have risen at double the pace of cars: 13.7% vs. 6.1%. In October alone, truck sales soared 19%, while cars edged up a scant 3%. That means trucks today account for almost 40% of all U.S. vehicle sales, up from less than 25% in 1983. And barring a major jolt, such as a spike in oil prices, underlying social trends should keep truck sales as durable as their rugged chassis for years to come. Both Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. predict that trucks' market share will eventually rise to 50%.

GOLD MINE. That's particularly good news for Detroit. Not only do U.S. auto companies hold the lion's share of the truck market, but it's unlikely Japan will challenge that dominance anytime soon. Moreover, trucks are a gold mine. Detroit pulls in gross profits of $5,000 to $6,000 on its minivans and $7,000 and up for its compact sport-utilities, depending on the model, estimates Stephen J. Girsky, auto analyst at PaineWebber Inc. And profits on GM's massive Chevy Suburban can run to an eye-popping $10,000--topping all but a very few select luxury cars. On a midsize family sedan, in contrast, carmakers are lucky to get profits as high as $4,000.

Paradoxically, some credit for the truck surge goes to the oil-price shock of the early 1980s. After Detroit responded with fleets of downsized, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive cars incapable of towing heavy loads, America's 12.5 million (then) registered owners of boats suddenly found their family sedans lacking in oomph. The same went for owners of campers, horse trailers, and anything else that needed to be hitched to a bumper. The solution: Buy a truck.

Today's truck mania is also a rebellion against both the cramped, underpowered econoboxes of the 1980s and the interchangeable ovoid family sedans that Japan and Detroit have cranked out in recent years. Many people couldn't tell a Ford Contour from a Chrysler Cirrus or a Mazda 626 from a Toyota Camry. But a hulking Chevy Suburban isn't apt to be mistaken for anything else.

Most important, truck sales are zooming because buyers are trying, through their purchases, to trumpet that they are--variously--practical, flexible, nonconformist, or environmentally conscious. That last one may be a glaring misrepresentation, notes Gerald Celente, founder of Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., since trucks get notably worse gas mileage than cars. So what? A 1994 Jeep Cherokee "reflects me and my lifestyle choices," explains 25-year-old Laura M. Maresca, who received the sport-utility from her father as a present when she graduated from University of Denver law school last spring. "I like comfort, but at the same time, I don't stay in town over the weekends. I go to the mountains. Most of the people I know my age lean more to Cherokees and [Toyota] 4Runners than to traditional status cars."

Indeed, for Maresca as for generations before her, vehicles are not just transportation appliances. "We wear them like clothes," says Michael T. Marsden, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Northern Michigan University in Marquette and a student of car culture. In switching from cars to trucks, the baby boomers who led the crossover market changed the fashion rules. The phenomenon isn't really new. Consider blue jeans, once exclusively apparel for working men out West. In the 1960s, boomers adopted jeans as a generational symbol, transforming them into everyman's dress. And by the 1970s, jeans had evolved into trendy designer fashions, sporting names such as Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt--and prices to match.

Likewise, boomers have helped redefine trucks from a blue-collar need to a mass-market want. A 1986 Ford study showed that 70% of Ranger buyers never used their pickups for business purposes. And in the 1990s, truckmakers are lining up their own designer labels through tie-ins with trendy outdoor sporting-goods concerns: the Nautica Edition Mercury Villager, the Orvis Edition Jeep Grand Cherokee.

TAMER TIMES. Boomers' soaring purchases of trucks in the 1980s paralleled yuppies' rising interest in country-and-Western music. Both "appealed to people who were looking for something authentic and American in values," says Professor Stuart W. Leslie, who observes U.S. auto culture at Johns Hopkins University. In both cases, the product was transformed. Just as country music was tamed and suburbanized, trucks were purged of their redneck overtones.

Along the way, they attracted new kinds of buyers. Big-pickup buyers, on average, are about 20% college educated and make about $50,000 in annual household income. By contrast, almost 50% of large and small sport-utility buyers are college educated, and they make about $65,000 annually. And while half of all big pickups are sold in 10 mostly Southern and Western states, sales of minivans and sport-utilities are broadly spread across America.

Fueling this appeal has been truck ads' liberal use of Old West symbols to evoke a time-honored theme of freedom: freedom to roam, freedom to overcome natural barriers, or freedom to cram an entire Little League team into your minivan. "It's the frontier, the concept of taming the land. We still believe we can tame the world through these machines," says Marsden. Agrees John Wright, a cultural historian at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.: "The image of freedom [in automotive advertising] used to come through with cars, and now it comes through more with trucks."

Even the evolution of vehicle names explains trucks' appeal. In the 1950s, Detroit lured status-hungry drivers with images of the playgrounds of the upper crust: Monaco, Monte Carlo, and Bel Air. In the exuberant, youthful 1960s, car names evoked raw animal power: Mustang, Barracuda, and Skyhawk. Today, the names of luxury cars have become as techno-esoteric and impersonal as modern life: Q45, STS, 750iL, XJ6. By contrast, the names of sport-utility vehicles summon heady images of adventure and the American frontier: Explorer, Blazer, Yukon, Laredo, Cherokee, Pathfinder. Even the ever practical minivans carry swashbuckling nameplates such as Voyager, Caravan, and Odyssey.

Of course, it's not just the names that are different. Trucks are bigger than cars, more powerful, and they often come with four-wheel drive. But here, too, the attraction is often more psychological than practical. Trucks give drivers a feeling of mastery over an uncertain, threatening world. "You turn that key, and you feel you're in total control of the environment," explains Marsden. "It doesn't matter what nature throws at people. They can go anywhere, do anything."

Truth is, most truck buyers don't go anywhere or do much with their trucks that they couldn't in a car. They just love the idea they could if needed. It's not that buyers don't appreciate the practical aspects of trucks. Farrell, for instance, feels better when it's the Suburban that her daughter, a high-school junior, is driving. "I never worry about her safety," she says. "If somebody hits her, unless it's a Mack truck, she's going to be in better shape than the other guy." And when New York hair stylist Michael Matula traded in his Volvo for a 1995 Jeep Cherokee, he knew he didn't need it for Manhattan. He wanted four-wheel drive for family drives to the Jersey shore, or for his wife's visits to her mother in the snow-bound Poconos.

Still, it's the fantasy element of trucks that sometimes provides their strongest appeal. Just ask Bradley G. Bonner, an 18-year-old high school student in Houston. Sure, his big black Chevy Z71 4X4 pickup, with 38-inch tires and a body jacked up nearly six feet off the ground, lets him carry the dirt bikes he races and take his buddies "muddin"' off-road. But the real turn-on? The truck, explains Bonner, "helps you pick up girls. I've even had girls follow me home."

PLUSH INSIDE. Today, however, truck fantasies don't apply just to men. Noticing large numbers of women buyers in their showrooms--women buy more than 40% of all Explorers--truck makers have been pitching their wares more to women. Every single TV commercial for the 1995 GMC Jimmy features a female driver, including one proclaiming how the Jimmy's lower step-in height preserves a woman's dignity. And while Jeep made two commercials for 1994 with voice-overs reading a "personals" ad for an outdoorsy type who owns a Jeep, it aired only the one with a woman's voice.

While the proliferation of more car-like, plush interiors and softer rides made trucks more acceptable to all drivers, some features were aimed specifically at women: After a female employee broke a high heel while testing a Mercury Villager prototype, Ford added extra carpets to cover the tracks for the minivan's sliding rear seats.

But manufacturers are also discovering that women are drawn to trucks by some of the same psychic imagery that has long appealed to men. Maureen P. Ouimette, 27, a West Springfield (Mass.) pharmacist, says that since she traded her low-slung Toyota Paseo for a 1994 Ford Explorer, she feels different on the road. Her new driving attitude: "Hey, you're not going to intimidate me with your big truck anymore." And when Sarah Bune of Waccabuc, N.Y., gets in her 1993 Chevy Suburban, "I turn on the country-and-Western station and think: `Thelma and Louise have nothing on me."'

Trucks have more than image going for them. For years, relatively low prices for pickups have provided some high-octane fuel for truck growth. Because trucks were not subject to the same federal regulations as cars, truck makers have not had to load them up with as much costly emissions and safety equipment. So in 1982, a shopper looking for a first car could pay $5,660 for a stripped-down Chevette--a compact sedan of dubious quality and no sex appeal--or $5,858 for a dependable Nissan pickup. That helped produce a fundamental shift in attitudes toward trucks. Says Vincent Barabba, the 60-year-old general manager of GM's Strategic Decision Center: "Someone in my generation never thought of owning a truck. But the whole baby-boom generation came in looking at trucks."

That generational difference may explain why U.S. auto makers almost missed the boat on trucks. "Over the years, we in the industry have tended to treat this historic shift in the market as a fad that would go away," admits Ford CEO Alexander J. Trotman. Ford scrapped plans to develop a minivan in the mid-1970s, for fear of cannibalizing sales of its full-size station wagons. Today, minivan sales outstrip station wagons 3 to 1--and most minivans are made by Chrysler, the only one of the Big Three willing to gamble on the concept in 1983. Even GM's GMC Truck Div., which had no car sales to lose, was held back. In the 1980s, GMC attracted crossover buyers with its aggressive "It's not just a truck anymore" and "A truck you can live with" ads featuring trucks in upscale places. Then, GMC marketers suggested an ad campaign brashly headlined "How to live without a passenger car." GM's corporate brass vetoed the idea as too subversive.

Even the former corporate owners of Jeep, the trailblazer of passenger trucks, hadn't a clue. When American Motors Corp.--spooked by tumbling sales for its gas-guzzling Grand Wagoneer during the 1979 oil crisis--launched a smaller, more fuel-efficient sport-utility to be known as the Jeep Cherokee, "nobody imagined the explosion," says David Van Peursem, then as now at Jeep's ad agency.

But after the Cherokee's launch in late 1982, sales soon surpassed expectations: 51,400 in 12 months. Strangely, car shoppers, not traditional truckers, were the main buyers. And sales first jumped not in Colorado or Vermont but in Manhattan. When amc experimented by adding luxury touches such as leather seats and power antennas to the Cherokee Limited, sales climbed even more. "It was like the market was reaching out for a crossover vehicle, something acceptable at the ranch or the country club," says Martin E. Levine, then amc's director of sales.

Stumped, Jeep marketers hired Grant McCracken, at the time a cultural anthropologist at Guelph University in Guelph, Ont., to study Cherokee buyers. He interviewed scores of them about their vehicles, values, and lives. "The Jeep managed to be several things for them at once. It was uptown and downtown simultaneously," recalls McCracken. In contrast to the conspicuous consumption of a Cadillac, Jeep represented "the effortless, old-money look of the Eastern Seaboard. In a word, people had gentrified the Jeep." After reviewing his study, Jeep ditched ads extolling ruggedness in favor of elegant ads of the Jeep in pristine natural settings.

The launch of Chrysler's minivans was not so tortured. Desperate for a hit, Chairman Lee A. Iacocca simply followed his gut feeling that buyers were ready for the highly functional haulers--just the thing for people such as dog lover Pat Thebo, of Royal Oak, Mich., who took along the measurements for two standard golden retriever dog cages when she shopped for her Plymouth Grand Voyager.

IN STYLES AND STAGES. Minivans also proved to be just the thing for attracting repeat buyers. Along with full-size pickups, they enjoy the highest owner-loyalty rates in the industry: more than 70% of their buyers return for another. By comparison, the Honda Accord's owner-loyalty rate of 40% is double what most cars can claim. Why is there such devotion? For one thing, buyers of minivans, pickups, or sport-utilities quickly get used to carrying more--and, often, messier--gear when they travel. So the next time they shop for a vehicle, switching back to a car would mean giving up some of that lifestyle. "It's a much bigger decision to get out of one of these vehicles," argues David P. Bostwick, Chrysler's director of corporate market research. "The crossover goes only one way."

Others aren't so sure. True, sport-utilities are lifestyle vehicles, but minivans are lifestage vehicles, contends Chevrolet truck marketing manager Kurt L. Ritter. Minivans may be perfect for families with children at home, but as soon as the kids are gone, so is the minivan, he figures. But Bostwick disagrees, citing the loyalty rates as proof that minivan buyers keep coming back for more. The truth is that for many minivan owners, going back to a family sedan is like selling the house and moving back to an apartment after the kids have left: Some may do it, others won't.

That gets to the big question: Will truck sales keep rising? Much depends on future government regulations. Safety and emissions rules for cars and trucks will become nearly identical by 1998, eliminating part of trucks' cost advantage. Worse, auto companies worry that Washington could up the ante on fuel economy. Any hike in the truck standard would be costly to meet, since consumers still expect truck engines to be capable of hauling more weight than car engines.

On the other hand, even a pricier truck might remain the smartest investment a car buyer can make. Thanks to strong demand and rugged durability, trucks have phenomenal resale values. An October study for BUSINESS WEEK by CCC Information Services Inc. of Chicago showed that a 1992 Mercedes 300E was still worth a solid 77% of its original price--a boffo performance for a car. But the Ford F-150 Styleside pickup held 80% of its original price, a Ford Explorer xlt 85%, and a Chevy Suburban Silverado a stunning 90%.

So what if trucks have healthy resale values? That's a dollars-and-cents argument, and most truck buyers aren't wearing green eyeshades. They're wearing ski goggles, hiking boots, fishing vests, or Scoutmaster uniforms. As long as trucks meet Americans' needs better than cars, America will keep on truckin'.

                Five of the 10 top-selling
              vehicles in the U.S. are trucks
          MODEL                 UNIT SALES, YTD 1994
       1. Ford F-series pickup         502,919
       2. Chevy C/K pickup             454,517
       3. Ford Taurus                  316,041
       4. Honda Accord                 313,851
       5. Ford Ranger                  297,938
       6. Ford Escort                  285,984
       7. Toyota Camry                 276,073
       8. Saturn                       242,665
       9. Ford Explorer                240,992
      10. Dodge Caravan                239,655
      DATA: Ward's Automotive Reports
          Trucks Of The Rich & Famous
      Les ALberthal                   Chevy Suburban and
      Chairman, President & ceo, EDS  Chevy Club-cab pickup
      Andre AgasSi                    Hummer
      Tennis pro
      Tim Allen                       GMC Typhoon
      Dick Armey                      Ford F-150 pickup
      Congressman (R-Tex.)
      Tom Clancy                      Hummer
      Kevin Costner                   Range Rover and
      Actor                           Chevy Suburban
      Doris Day                       Jeep Wagoneer
      Actress and singer
      Mickey Drexler                  Ford Explorer
      CEO, Gap
      Robert J. Frankenberg           Jeep Cherokee
      CEO, Novell
      Heavy D                         Range Rover
      Michael Jordan                  Chevy Blazer
      Basketball and baseball player
      Jerry Junkins                   Ford Explorer
      CEO, Texas Instruments
      Martina Navratilova             Ford Explorer
      Retired tennis pro
      Ryal R. Poppa                   Jeep Cherokee, Jeep
      CEO, Storage Technology         Wrangler, and Ford pickup
      Richard Rainwater               Monster Chevy pickup
      Steve Reinemund                 Chevy Suburban
      President, Frito-Lay
      Arnold Schwarzenegger           hummer
      Gary Wendt                      Jeep Grand Cherokee
      President & CEO, GE Capital
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