What is a Pickup Truck?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

A pickup truck, also spelled “pick-up truck,” is a light motor vehicle that has an enclosed cab in the front and a cargo area in the back with an open top. Pickup trucks almost always have rigid vertical sides with a flat bed in the back that serves as a tray for cargo. Furthermore, there is a rear gate that opens outward for easy loading and unloading. There are many different sizes of pickup trucks. In North America, full-size, mid-size, and compact trucks are all available. A full-size pickup truck is a large and heavy vehicle that generally runs on a V8 or six-cylinder engine. A compact pickup truck, on the other hand, is small and includes an inline four engine.

A pickup truck is a modified truck with an open back.
A pickup truck is a modified truck with an open back.

Generally, pickup trucks are simply designed as modified trucks with open backs. However, there are two pickup trucks that were designed from the body of a passenger car. These are the Chevrolet El Camino and the Ford Ranchero. Both vehicles were actually modified station wagons. Although these models included an integrated cargo bed, they were generally not considered to be pickup trucks due to their other structural features.

Pickup trucks are often linked with Detroit and American car companies.
Pickup trucks are often linked with Detroit and American car companies.

The first pickup truck to come off a factory assembly line was the Ford Model T Runabout with Pickup Body. Henry Ford debuted this vehicle in 1925 with a production of 34,000 units. That year, the Runabout cost $281 US Dollars. Three years later the Model A runabout replaced the Model T. Since then, the pickup truck has bee redesigned many times over by numerous automotive companies.

In this time span, the name for these utility vehicles has also changed. While they were first referred to by Ford as “Runabouts,” the term pickup truck has become the umbrella term for all vehicles in this class. The etymology of the name is simple. Pickup trucks are vehicles with which you can pick up loads of materials and supplies. Pickup trucks are used all over the world. In Australia and New Zealand, for example, they are referred to as “utes,” a variation on the term “utility vehicle.” In South Africa, pickup trucks are referred to as “bakkies,” while Egyptians refer to them as “half trucks.”

Legend has it that pickup trucks were born out of the Great Depression and the pragmatism and economical thinking that this period in history forced upon Americans. It is believed that one day, a man who was just scraping by approached an automotive manufacturer and said, “Why can’t you design something that I can use to take my family to church on Sunday and my pigs to market on Monday?” Like most legends, there is probably a kernel of truth in this one. While this exact conversation may never have taken place, the pickup truck was most likely designed for the type of man who would like to have one vehicle for both such purposes.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Head on down to the South where a good pickup truck is often more desirable than a Cadillac or whatever German car is popular at the time.

I was once showing my pickup truck to a fellow who said it was a "city truck." I asked him what that meant, and he said it wasn't four-wheel-drive, so it was clearly a city truck instead of a country truck.

Strange terminology, but he had a point.


Remember when pickup trucks were typically single-cab vehicles with suspensions that were anything but refined, metal dashboards and an all-around ruggedness that made them less than fun to drive. Thank goodness things have changed. Great sound systems, crew cabs that can seat five adults in comfort, plush suspensions and other refinements have made pickup trucks as comfortable as passenger cars.

And, yet, they are still incredibly useful, utilitarian vehicles. They have truly become the vehicles that the fellow in the legend wanted -- one that can be used to take a family to church on Sunday and pigs to the market on Monday.

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