It wasn’t because of their, er, sportiness. Or even their utility. It was because they provided a way to get the size (especially under the hood) that American buyers wanted but which the government was doing its damndest to deny them via fuel efficiency mandates.
The story goes like this:
In the mid-late 1970s, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE, in government-ese) standards began to bite down. Government bureaucrats and politicians, in their usual secular Puritan we-know-best way, decided – then decreed – that new cars – generally – weren’t “efficient” enough.
It wasn’t that there weren’t numerous high-mileage cars available on the market for people who valued fuel economy more than other attributes (size, power, etc.). Granted, they were mostly imports – models like the VW Beetle and Honda Civic, Datsun B210, etc. But the point stands: Fuel-efficient cars were available.
The problem – from the government’s viewpoint – was that not enough of them were being made.
The bureaucrats and politicians felt that all cars should be more “efficient” and ordered it be so – regardless of market wants and needs. And regardless of the destruction and distortions this might impose on the car industry.
CAFE was enacted.
Henceforth, every car company would be required to achieve a certain “fleet average” miles-per-gallon, the number decreed by political-regulatory fiat. Compliance was determined by averaging the mileage of every car an automaker produced. The presence of even one “gas guzzler” in the mix lowered the automaker’s overall CAFE number and put the automaker in danger of being fined, the fines passed on to the buyer. Which made the “gas guzzler” models less attractive to buy.
Initially (in 1978) the CAFE mandatory minimum for passenger cars was 18 MPG – ascending as the years rolled on to 27.5 MPG by 1990. This put enormous pressure on the industry – especially the American car industry – to downsize the cars it sold.
To make them smaller and lighter, so they’d use less gas.
Almost overnight, the entire domestic car industry shifted from producing large numbers of big cars with big engines – what had for decades been the traditional American car – to lots of smaller cars with smaller engines. Rear-wheel-drive and V8 power became the exception rather than the rule. And the imports – the Japanese, in particular – gained a huge and artificial competitive advantage over American car companies, because the Japanese (at that time) didn’t build big cars with big engines. They specialized in small cars with small engines.
Meanwhile, American car companies struggled to recoup the huge losses incurred as a result of the forced/premature retirement of whole lines of cars. The quality of American-brand cars suffered as the Big Three rushed the new generation of government-compliant small cars into production to meet the Japanese threat.
It was a disaster on the order of Stalingrad – with the American car industry playing the role of the German Sixth Army.
While passenger cars were required to meet an ever-increasing mandatory minimum MPG average, there was a different CAFE standard for what the bureaucrats styled light trucks. A more “lenient” (god, there it is again) standard. All the way through the ’80s and into the ’90s, the CAFE standard for these light trucks (that is, 1500 series and smaller trucks) trailed about 7-8 MPG behind the CAFE standard for passenger cars. This amounted to tacit acceptance of the fact that for a truck to be a truck – that is, useful and capable for work – it would need to have a bigger engine, heavier frame, and so on.
Even the bureaucrats realized that expecting a truck to be as fuel-efficient as a car without becoming a car would be as preposterous as expecting an Emperor Penguin to become a barn swallow – and still be able to survive winter in Antarctica.
Anyhow, this more lenient CAFE standard provided the loophole. One day, itt occurred to someone – a latter-day John DeLorean type, I suspect – that, hey, why don’t we just sell what we used to sell (i.e., big rear-drive sedans with big V8s and lots of room for people and stuff) except we’ll call it an “SUV”? The pick-up truck’s bed was enclosed in sheetmetal, seats were added and – voila.
A star was born.
From 1991 through 2010, the CAFE standard for passenger cars held steady at 27.5 MPG while the standard for light trucks stayed at 20.7 MPG until 2004, then rose slightly to 23.5 by 2010.
This period – early ’90s through the first half of the first decade of the 2000s – was the Golden Age of the SUV. Sales boomed. Even the Japanese – formerly the kings of Small Car Hill – had to rush big SUVs (with big V8s) into production, to meet the market demand for these vehicles.
Naturally, this expression of people’s free choice could not be tolerated.
And so, CAFE mandatory minimums for light trucks are to be upticked – first to 28.8 MPG (higher than the previous 27.5 MPG threshold for passenger cars) and from there to an average in the mid-high 30s by 2020.
This probably will not be possible to achieve without either radically downsizing (and de-powering) light trucks, or by equally radical engineering alternatives such as aluminum bodies and small displacement but heavily turbocharged “on demand” engines that don’t use as much fuel as big V8s when not tasked to do work such as towing (or, frankly, when run hard for the fun of it).
This is the real reason why the new Ford F-150 (reviewed in depth here) has an aluminum body – and tiny (for a truck) twin-turbo V6 engines.
A V8 is still available – for the moment – because many buyers simply won’t buy a V6 truck, turbo’d or not. But it’s an afterthought, almost – and clearly on the endangered species list.
All to eke out an additional 2-3 MPG – the actual difference between the “EcoBoost” turbo V6 engines and currently available V8s. And not because truck buyers were clamoring for it – but because government has pushed Ford (and soon, everyone else selling trucks) into finding a way to achieve it.
Now here’s where it gets interesting – where history is likely to repeat.
The CAFE rigmarole does not apply to 2500 (and 3500) series trucks – which are far from being light trucks.
Another “loophole” has presented itself.
And it may well result in yet another grotesque distortion of the market.
Because CAFE pressures do not apply to not-light trucks, Ford does not sell its small turbo V6s in its 2500 and 3500 series F-trucks.
It sells two big V8s.
Can you see where things might be headed?
As light trucks become less and less appealing to the market, that is, to buyers – due to either the absence of V8s or the complexity/cost of the CAFE-friendly turbo’d V6s that will likely soon become commonplace – perhaps more and more 2500 and even 3500 series trucks (bigger, heavier, thirstier) will be sold.
Instead of being “niche” vehicles made for and purchased almost exclusively by roughnecks and contractors and other serious people – as light trucks once were bought before they morphed into “SUVs” – maybe they will become mass market vehicles. Maybe we will witness an even more bizarre mutation of the car market – courtesy of the government – than we witnessed during the SUV boom.
If so, it’ll be karmic good fun.
I’m kinda looking forward to it!
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