Stop Telling Me I Don't Need a Pickup Truck

·8 min read
Photo credit: Adam Hale
Photo credit: Adam Hale

"Do you really need a pickup truck?"

It's the rhetorical question on the lips and fingertips of many pundits these days, a prod at truck owners (i.e. the working and middle class) with the audacity to point at the pains of inflation and bloated gas prices.

To answer that question, an anecdote:

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Two weeks back, I ripped an ancient toilet from my bathroom. The bowl's wax ring, installed in 1959, had degraded to a kind of sickly brown goop, thicker than axle grease and smellier than an Ox's lederhosen. I heaved the porcelain lump into the bed of my 2020 Toyota Tacoma.

The toilet tipped, and a stream of rusty brown... something ran from the head, through a glob of that old wax ring, and down the Tacoma's tailgate. I hacked at the smell, then strapped the musky anchor into the Toyota's bed and watched the thing through my rearview mirror as it bled out all the way to the dump.

Back at home, I got out the hose. The whole incident washed away in seconds.

This was a job for a pickup truck. A dirty, gross, unglamorous job, nothing like the slow-mo Like A Rock crooning that sells the idea of a pickup. While any other form factor could've done the job in an abstract sense, you'd have to be thicker than a wax ring to plop an ancient toilet into the carpeted hold of your RAV4, where its interior would face the sloshing mystery goop of 10,000 grandma farts.

So the answer is "yes," I do in fact need a pickup truck. Because as a homeowner, club racer, and person who spends their non-working hours actually doing things, a truck enables me like no other vehicle could.

Of course, the keyboard warriors have an answer for a single anecdote. It reads more like an accusation. "Okay, but how many times do you ackshually use your truck each year?" Like most Americans who own trucks, the answer is ALL THE DAMNED TIME. (Secretly though, the answer is, "None of your damned business.")

We are a land of doers, of movers, of haulers, campers, and hard workers. It's easy to wax nostalgic about the pickup's role here, as workhorse and icon, emblematic of certain core values, Protestant Work Ethic stirred into Cowboy denim chic. That undersells how the pickup truck became a national icon in the first place. It wasn't romance. A pickup only alludes to action because it's the American vehicle most often in the thick of it.

More anecdotes: I've filled the bed to capacity probably 100 times since I bought my Tacoma in the Spring of 2020. I've used the thing to move a house full of junk across Washington state, along with a thousand other adventures. Its tailgate has served as a picnic table while hiking in Idaho's Saint Joe National Forest; Its bed and a memory foam mattress have saved countless hotel fares during Lemons racing weekends; Its cabin has proved quiet and comfortable enough for dozens of cross-state trips, with acceptable leather seats, and tires aimed at all-season comfort with more than enough purchase for mountain passes and dirt roads. Sometimes it hauls two motorcycles.

I am not an exception to the rule.

Extrapolate those anecdotes to the millions of truck owners across the country. They'll have entirely different tastes from mine here in the Pacific Northwest, but surely just as many moments wherein their truck was called to action. That's the kicker, the reason for modern trucks' ubiquity here. They're up for absolutely anything and used accordingly. We don't judge a Swiss Army Knife as a compromised corkscrew, something extravagant and wasteful, but rather a toolset for any task, including ripping open a bottle of Malbec.

That's exactly why you're paying $50,000 or more for a new full-size or 3/4-ton truck these days. Because the use case for a truck is far broader than any other vehicle, and often broader than two separate vehicles combined. No compact hauls a family of four and their things on a summer vacation in such comfort. No SUV matches a pickup bed for practicality. Plus they drive far nicer than they used to. Few luxury cars even rival the pickup for ride quality and noise isolation anymore (don't believe me, drive the new Raptor). No other vehicle tows a boat better. How all that is lost on the naysayers, I'll never know, but I'd guess it's because they don't own a truck.

(Editor's note: CAFE regulations helped pickup sales too, by allowing "light trucks" to skirt regulatory red tape that would otherwise have slowed their rise. Also once all your neighbors have giant pickups, you don't want to be the one staring up at them from a low-to-the-ground Taurus.)

At least, the "truck thing" didn't fully click for me until I owned my Tacoma. I'd never felt the need to own one, instead I spent my money on crappy German sports cars. But when it came time to buy something to have and to hold, to keep for 30 years under the same garage roof, to grow with into the coming decades, a truck was the best answer by far. So long as you don't spawn more than a nuclear family, a truck covers the hobbies and habits of every family member simultaneously.

It's that simple. A truck is never an impedance, only an enabler. It never says "no" to adventure or travel, to moving people and goods and things. If you think your hatchback can match a pickup's versatility and willingness—the argument says only tradesman really need to have a truck—you're living in a reality of your own construction. Maybe you could pull a trailer with your sedan. But then you'd need a trailer, you'd need to register that trailer, you'd need to store that trailer, maintain that trailer, and on. I'll just stuff my load of gravel in a truck bed, thanks.

Part of the problem is perspective. Many city dwellers can't park a truck on the crowded streets below their third-story walk-ups. Nor can they fit even a compact car into their lives. As a former Brooklynite, I can sympathize. When I lived there, I didn't own a car for the first time since I turned 15-and-a-half. In the land of cheap, excellent public transport, of 550 sq.-ft rentals and a restaurant on every corner, a car would've been an encumbrance to my lifestyle.

Just remember the vastness outside America's densely packed cities is a world apart. There, you can't walk to the grocery store during a blizzard. Work might be at the end of a rutted muddy road. Most people have a yard and a dog and three kids and need the right tools to support that lifestyle. These are the people who use trucks. They need trucks. If I can extend some understanding to those who would go without cars, maybe the truck deniers can spare a thought.

What appears wasteful and indulgent to some may in fact be a necessity to others; If you think contractors are the only ones who need pickups, it's probably because you call a contractor when your own toilet situation goes sideways.

Many Americans—and maybe even most Americans—don't share that spirit. The rest of us see a problem and pile into our pickups to search for a fix. We head down to Home Depot, grouch at lumber prices, then haul back sub-flooring and a brand new throne. When the checkbook is balanced, the truck owner spent far less overall, blessed with the satisfaction of their own handiwork.

Let's recognize high gas prices as a regressive tax on the middle and working classes instead of memeing at truck owners. I don't begrudge the choices of others—if someone owns a big truck and foots the gas bill, it's no skin off my back. If a hypermiler goes on a hunger strike to eke out an extra 0.6 mpg on their family vacation, more power to them.

Maybe I'm off. I'm not ignorant to the pitfalls of truck ownership at the fuel pump. I simply accept that the choice I made (buying a gas guzzler) has associated costs (expensive fill-ups). Thankfully a burgeoning fleet of excellent electric trucks are already being gobbled up by Americans. We could argue whether electric pickups are a net efficiency improvement over their ICE equivalents (they aren't, yet), but the calculus is far too complex for the tail end of this column. (How does one, for example, weigh the impact of strip mining rare earth metals in China and recharging car batteries via coal power against burning gasoline?) At any rate, I'd love to see a cogent argument against the pickup that at least acknowledges why they dominate our roads in the first place:

People actually need them, plain and simple.

I'm willing to make a concession to the inverse: the next time I rip a soggy ancient toilet from my Sixties home, you can haul the thing away in the back of your Nissan Versa. Should you feel the need to make a point, go and haul that toilet off to the dump. I'll be waiting with the hose when you get back.

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