When Ford unveiled the all-electric F-150 Lightning at an event in Dearborn, Michigan last week, it was a defining moment for one of America’s most American products: pickup trucks – Ford pickup trucks, nothing less – were gone, zero emissions.

“Of course, they’re not the only company doing this, but they’re probably the most important,” said Allyson Harwood, editor of the Kelley Blue Book.

The three best-selling vehicles in America are all large trucks, she noted. But when it comes to pickups, the Ford F-150 is the undisputed king. The F-150 has been the best-selling truck in America for 44 years, and the entire F-series truck line is the best-selling vehicle of all types in the United States. It is also the pickup truck with the longest legacy.

According to Cox Automotive, Ford has sold 7.4 million F-Series trucks over the past decade, including the larger F-250 and F-350 heavy-duty pickups. The Chevrolet Silverado pickup was the second best vehicle in the country, but a distant second with 5.3 million vehicles sold during that period. General Motors has already announced that it will also manufacture a fully electric truck.

The rise of the suburbs

Ford introduced the first factory-built pickup truck with a steel bed in 1925, a version of the Model T Runabout.

There are older Ford trucks, including the heavy Ford Model TT introduced in 1917, but most of them were sold without a bed. Other companies have added these. Henry Ford had refused to build complete trucks with factory-installed beds for fear of annoying the many companies who had relied on these adjustments, according to Mike Mueller’s book “Classic Pickup Trucks”.

Trucks became so important to Ford that after World War II, when the company moved from building bombers and jeeps to making passenger cars, its first new product was the 1948 Ford F-1 pickup, the launch of what is now the F-Series.

“If you read the brochure for this vehicle, it reads the same as it does today,” said Ted Ryan, Ford archive manager F-1. “

The F-Series was just launched when America was undergoing major changes. Government-sponsored mortgage programs, veteran benefits, higher paying jobs, and new construction techniques resulted in huge new housing developments outside of the big cities. These areas weren’t exactly rural, but neither were they urban. They were suburban.

Suburbs weren’t new, of course. Areas of separate – but not too separate – houses, surrounded by lawns, bushes and fences, have existed for a long time. However, this combination of change and incentives accelerated their growth.

According to the Census Bureau, 13.4% of Americans lived in the suburbs in 1940. By 1970 it was 37%. By 2010, the trend had continued to the point that half of Americans lived in the suburbs. This has created new markets for pickups in a number of ways, some experts said, as well as changes to the trucks themselves.

In rural America, pickups were a transportation staple as they are today.

In the suburbs, homeowners with lawns and homes in repair were finding they needed pickups too, said B. Mitchell Carlson, an expert on classic pickups.

“Now I have to go to the hardware store and I have to get grass seeds and fertilizer,” he said.

With a growing number of two-car households and two-car garages, pickups could act as the second errand boy in addition to the family sedan or family car, Carlson said. Around this time the pickups got a bit nicer too.

More “comfort for creatures”

“They were actually starting to have dual now Sun visors and things like that, “he said.” They began to get more comfort for creatures. “

Trucks were starting to look more sophisticated. The 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier “easily deserves credit for introducing the country’s first really posh pickup truck,” according to Mueller’s book. The sleek and car-like Chevrolet lacked the bulging rear fenders that had long been standard on pickups.

Andy Weise, who teaches American urban history at San Diego State University, is skeptical of the notion that pickups have made great strides in middle-class suburban garages. No matter how well-equipped or beautifully designed, trucks would have been just too out-of-class for most aspiring Americans in the 1950s to want to park at home, he said.

But the rise of the suburbs created a new class of entrepreneurs who could make a living repairing the homes and upgrading the courtyards of their wealthier neighbors.

“My sense of the pickup truck in the suburbs is very much connected to the class,” said Wiese, “and I think the people who would have had trucks in the suburbs would have been workers who did so much on the job. ” especially larger properties. “

Cotten Seiler, who teaches American studies at Dickinson College and wrote the book Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America, pointed out that suburbanization wasn’t just drawing people out of the cities. Urbanization and high-paying union jobs also drew people from rural areas to suburbs and brought their trucks with them.

“In terms of social mobility, these people didn’t swap their pickups for limos, they traded their pickups for nicer pickups,” he said.

And as their descendants, who continued to drive trucks, went up economically, the trucks became even more beautiful and luxurious, Seiler said. Around the same time, pickup trucks were given special protection that helped identify them as purely American products, Seiler said.

The all-American truck

He spoke of the “chicken tax” introduced in 1964 in retaliation for French and West German tariffs on American poultry. The Johnson administration put a 25% tariff on imported trucks, which remains in effect to this day. With a protected market, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – now part of Stellantis – have made their trucks not only for transport, but also for cultural statements.

“There was a Chevy ad like, ‘This is our country, this is our truck,’ and in a way the feeling of the nation’s identification with this protected … product is crystallizing,” said Seiler.

Today Toyota and Nissan offer full size pickups as well as smaller midsize trucks. Honda is selling the Ridgeline, and Hyundai recently unveiled the Santa Cruz, both smaller, car-like trucks built in the US to avoid the tax. Still, traditional American full-size truck makers dominate the market like half-ton gorillas.

Even Ford and GM are now offering smaller “midsize” trucks, like the Chevrolet Colorado and Ford Ranger, designed to appeal to those who use trucks for play rather than work. They also appeal to more people in dense urban areas where large trucks can be a challenge to drive and park. Ford executives were open to plans for an even smaller truck than the Ranger for the American market.

Ford in particular deserves credit for making bold leaps in technology rather than simply resting in his position as Lord of Trucks, said Harwood of Kelley Blue Book.

In 2011, Ford introduced a turbocharged V6 engine option in a truck market dominated by large V8s. In 2015, a revised F-150 with an all-aluminum body came onto the market, which was unthinkable in a product when relatively heavy steel had long been associated with longevity. And it wasn’t until last year that Ford began selling the first full hybrid pickup.

When Ford recently unveiled the F-150 Lightning, the first full-size all-electric pickup truck, it showed the genius of Ford’s penchant for innovation, Harwood said. Ford focused on the real needs of truck buyers, like a 10,000 pound towing capacity and a bed designed for accessories bought for other F-150 trucks, rather than flashy things like the acceleration of the lightning bolt from zero to 60.

“What Ford is really doing is taking people on their innovation journey,” she said. “They say, ‘We’re going to push this. We’re going to go a little further,’ but what they’re doing is great, they’re creating solutions that people want.”