A century ago, Ford Motor Co. bolted a hefty frame onto a Model T, enabling the vehicle to carry heavy loads and giving birth to the pickup truck.
Wednesday is the 100th anniversary of that innovation. The Model TT, as the truck was dubbed, created a new automotive market and culture.
Ford’s F-Series pickup, the Model TT’s descendent, has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. since 1977. The Model TT sold exactly 209 units in its first year. This year, Ford is on track to sell more than 800,000 pickup trucks.
The modified Model T represents “the most successful configuration of the automobile ever created,” said Eric Noble, a professor of vehicle technology at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and the president of the Car Lab, an automotive consulting firm.
Today, pickup trucks pack considerable technology and capability into their frames and have become classic Americana icons. Some even boast 900 pound-feet of torque, enough to tow 25,000 pounds, about the weight of a bulldozer.
They are ubiquitous in popular culture as symbols of patriotism and the subject of countless songs. Carrie Underwood sings about destroying a lover’s truck in her Grammy Award-winning song “Before He Cheats.”
A century ago, pickups were little more than rudimentary cars on a half-naked chassis.
“The most common modification by Model T owners was removal of the bodywork on the back half of the frame and replacing it with a wooden wagon bed,” Noble said. “Ford was the first to recognize this and put it into production.”
On July 27, 1917, Ford began selling the Model TT with a stretched wheelbase for the commercial market. The Model TT could carry 1 ton of payload and retailed for $600, about $11,500 in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation. Ford had a hit on its hands and sold 1.3 million of the trucks by 1928.
Others chased the pickup scent. Chevrolet debuted its 490 Light Delivery truck in 1918. And by the time Dodge launched a ¾-ton truck in 1924, the pickup war was on.
“In 1924 the market exploded,” Noble said. “I mean massive.”
Ford responded with the Model AA in 1927 with a heavier chassis and two wheelbases. Its configuration allowed owners to use trucks for more than work.
“Customers could use them on the farm, yet still take them to church on Sunday,” said Bob Kreipke, Ford historian.
When America entered World War II, all three automakers pivoted to military production.
Horses remained the leading method of transportation during the war, but trucks played an important role, Noble said. Automakers learned to build heavier-duty chassis and to implement four-wheel drive.
“Pickups took a huge technological leap forward,” Noble said.
The trucks that followed were profoundly modern. Dodge introduced the Power Wagon in 1946 as the first production four-wheel-drive pickup truck. In 1947, Chevrolet debuted its Advance Design trucks with an aerodynamic design and roomier interior.
Ford introduced its F-Series line in 1948 and began to focus on a smoother ride and new creature comforts such as armrests, an automatic transmission and attractive two-tone paint. The radio and heater were improved. Ford built its first factory four-wheel-drive truck in 1959.
Ford used the F-Series to transition pickup trucks from the farm to the driveway. The introduction of the F-150 in 1975 was another step toward making trucks more versatile and comfortable.
“With all the features that were available in cars, it just opened the door to this incredible marketplace for trucks,” said David Cole, a founder of industry marketplace AutoHarvest.
Since 1977, Ford has sold more than 26 million F-Series trucks.
The New Luxury
In recent years, Ford trucks have led an effort to transform the pickup yet again — this time into a luxury vehicle. In the 2000s, it added carlike features such as bucket seats, navigation and a floor-mounted shifter.
Upscale trims such as the F-150 King Ranch and Platinum were created to appeal to buyers who want a pickup truck without sacrificing comfort. Again, the idea was a hit.
From 2012 to 2016, the average transaction price of a full-size pickup truck increased from $32,444 to $39,125, according to J.D. Power. Pickup trucks and SUVs have become increasingly important to Ford and other automakers, as well, because they deliver high profit margins.
While an automaker earns about $1,500 to $2,000 per sale of a new passenger car, it makes $10,000 or more on a pickup truck, said Jeff Windau, an auto industry analyst at investment house Edward Jones & Co.
“Trucks are not inexpensive vehicles,” Cole said. “But that’s driven by the fact that consumers view these as extremely valuable.”
The popularity of pickup trucks shows few signs of slowing. Sales of pickup trucks topped 1.3 million through the first six months of 2017, an increase of 4.4 percent compared with the same period last year, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp.
Pickup trucks accounted for 15.8 percent of U.S. auto sales through the first half of this year, an increase from 14.8 percent in the same period a year earlier. The segment has been at the forefront of a dramatic shift in consumer preferences from cars toward trucks and SUVs.
“We believe this will be a sustainable and permanent trend,” price forecasting firm ALG wrote in a recent report.
Still, there will be some gyrations.
Sales of full-size pickup trucks such as the F-150 are actually expected to decline from 2.65 million vehicles in 2017 to 2.11 million in 2022, according to projections by IHS Markit.
The midsize truck market, however, is expected to increase from 448,000 sales in 2016 to 491,000 in 2022. Ford has confirmed it is reviving the Ranger nameplate to produce the midsize truck beginning in late 2018.
More changes are coming. Ford also announced it would produce a gas-electric hybrid powertrain and a turbodiesel V-6 engine for the F-150 by 2020.
Yet it all started with the Model TT, essentially a motorized buggy with a wooden wagon bed installed in the back.
“Since then, cumulatively the Ford pickup is the best-selling vehicle in the history of the world,” Noble said. “Hands down.”
Editor’s note: This article includes reporting from Trucks.com contributor Zac Estrada.