In these days of climate change and personal penny-pinching, US automakers are showcasing their new, socially conscious wares: smaller, more fuel-efficient, and hybrid vehicles, designed for a greening economy.
In Cartersville, Ga., Donald Ray, a shiny Bluetooth earpiece clashing with a scraggly beard, has other plans. “I’m a truck guy,” he says, inspecting a used Chevy Silverado short-bed rumbling in idle at a lot here.
Thanks in large part to $10,000 dealer incentives and (relatively) cheaper gasoline, buyers are creeping out of the deep woods and urban jungles, emptying dealer lots of a gritty, gas-guzzling American icon: the full-size pickup truck.
With all other car-sales categories as flat as a mall parking lot, sales of trucks at some dealerships jumped by more than 30 percent in December – usually the slowest month of the year. In fact, dealers reported sales matching or surpassing figures from late 2007 – before the Wall Street meltdown, the freezing of credit markets, and the federal bailout of Detroit’s Big 3.
Hope for the economy
The return of truck buyers represents at least a glimmer of hope for a battered economy – a cautious sign of rising consumer confidence among rural mud-jumpers and urban latte-haulers. But it also presents a paradox for a country that, post-auto-industry bailout, has a social and financial stake in the survival of domestic car companies: Can Detroit afford to ignore the apparently enduring appeal of what country singer Shane Yellowbird lovingly calls “my old pickup truck”?
“The problem isn’t as much the people who need the truck for work, but it’s the people who haul lattes home from Starbucks who have been the prized customers of Detroit,” says Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign in Washington, which lobbies for higher fuel-efficiency standards. “These are people for whom the pickup is a vestigial piece of the past – it’s a lifestyle choice, not something they need.”
“There are two real crosscurrents here,” he adds. “There’s a tendency in Detroit to want to do things the way they’ve always done them, and that’s brought them to the edge of bankruptcy. The risk is that they take a dip in gas prices as a signal that they needn’t change their ways.”
Along with Thailand, where the modified pickup known as the songthaew is a major people-mover, the US is the world’s pickup-truck megapower. Created in 1925, the pickup has come to embody not only America’s self-reliance and work ethic, but also the pastoral longings of suburbanites. The truck’s evolution from work vehicle to suburban cruiser, in fact, is what brought trucks like the Ford-150 to the top of the US sales charts.