Here’s Why Trucks are Popular . . . and Cars Aren’t

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One of the reasons people buy trucks rather than cars is because new cars can’t do the things you didn’t used to have to buy a truck to be able to do. 

Like pulling a trailer, for instance.

Today, you have to have a truck – or an SUV that is built like a truck – in order to be able to pull even a small trailer because there are few, if any, new cars that can pull more than 1,000 pounds. The latter figure being what the current Dodge Charger is rated to pull – and the Charger is one of the very few new cars that isn’t small and still comes standard with at least a V6 engine. It is also one of the very few new cars you can still buy – outside of the high-dollar luxury car segment – that is rear rather than front wheel drive.

There was a time when you didn’t need to buy a truck to pull a trailer. It was the time before the federal government asserted that car buyers were unable to express their interest in fuel-efficient cars by not buying cars that weren’t.

Even though there were many fuel-efficient cars available for them to buy, if that is what they preferred.

The government said it was necessary to decree that all new cars be fuel-efficient. Which it did via  establishing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that all new cars would have to meet else their manufacture would be punished in the manner government usually punishes – via taxes styled “fines” for “guzzling” gas.

These taxes made “guzzlers” more expensive, which made them less affordable. That made them harder to sell, which “incentivized” the car companies to stop making them.

CAFE is why there are almost no new cars that are larger than the Charger – which is a mid-sized car by current standards and a small car relative to the size of the typical American car before the federal government decreed that all new cars must be fuel-efficient.  

To make the point, a typical family car of the early 1970s such as the Chevy Impala sedan – which was also a family-priced sedan – was 222.9 inches long. A full-sized car. American families routinely possessed cars such as this, before the federal government decided they needed its “help” to be able to buy more fuel-efficient cars, like the much smaller Chevy Nova that was also available at the time. And the even smaller VW Beetle and similar cars that were also available at the time.

Which anyone who wished to do so was also free to buy at the time. As oposed to being fored to buy something smaller and lesser.

The current Charger is only 198.4 inches long. That is a difference of more than two feet in length vs. the ’72 Caprice – and a difference of less than a foot in length vs. a ’72 Nova, which was classified as a compact-sized car when it was new.

Another difference is that the ’72 Caprice was built like a truck, on a full-perimeter steel frame, upon which the body was bolted. This gave the Caprice of that era the strength of a truck. The heavy steel frame bore the load, including the load of a trailer hitched to the back of it. Modern cars – even the Charger – have lighter-duty frames that integrate the body with the frame in order to save weight – in order to “achieve compliance” with the federal regulatory apparat’s decrees regarding fuel efficiency.

Which has served to limit their capabilities.

For the same “compliance” reasons, few new cars offer even one V8  – and that will soon include the Charger, Dodge having recently announced the cancellation of the Hemi V8 option.

Back in ’72, Chevy offered Caprice buyers their choice of four V8s, ranging from a “small” 350 (5.7 liters in metric-modern speak, same size as the current Charger’s Hemi) all the way up to a big-block (literally) 454 cubic inch (7.4 liter) V8 that had the strength to tow what no modern car – even one with a V8, like the Charger – can.

A 1972 family sedan like the Caprice could also do something else that you need a modern truck to be able to do: Carry six people – without need of three rows to do it.

It – the Caprice – could do that because of its size and because of its seats. Chevy offered three-across seating in both of its rows, which is something no new car offers. They seat five – and not especially comfortably because even the largest of them are only mid-sized by the standards of what once-was.

There were also wagon versions of big sedans like the Caprice, back then – and these could comfortably carry as many as nine people. There was plenty of room for a family of four, plus the friends of your kids. Today, you need a truck (or an SUV) if you want to be able to carry more than five people.

Is it any wonder why trucks (and SUVs) have largely replaced cars as the vehicles of choice for American families?

The irony is that most of these trucks and SUVs are about as “fuel efficient” as the full-sized, V8-powered sedans and wagons they replaced. But at least you can still buy vehicles capable of carrying – and pulling.

For the time being.

. . .

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45 COMMENTS

  1. This article is claptrap.
    According to Edwards’ data, 75 percent of truck owners use their truck for towing one time a year or less (meaning, never). Nearly 70 percent of truck owners go off-road one time a year or less. And a full 35 percent of truck owners use their truck for hauling—putting something in the bed, its ostensible raison d’être—once a year or less.Clover

    In my experience, other than commercial pickup trucks towing a trailer filled with lawn mowers, it is very rare to see a personal pickup truck pulling a trailer.

    • “75 percent of truck owners use their truck for towing one time a year or less (meaning, never).”

      Meaningless… since if you own an RV, stock trailer, or whatever, you need to have the truck available for the occasion when you need to pull it. Yeah, maybe I get to take only one vacation a year in my RV. If I didn’t have the truck, that would be zero.

    • Richard,

      People buy trucks (and SUVs) because they are useful and practical – which cars no longer are. Towing capability is merely one aspect of this. Others are passenger and cargo-carrying capacity.

      So much for “claptrap.”

      You either didn’t read the article – or you have poor reading comprehension.

      • But, Eric, the all-knowing experts told him it is so, “According to Edwards’ data”! Don’t you see!?

        This fella, ‘Edwards’ knows all about every truck owner as all owners report exactly how they use their trucks. I know I fill out every form shoved in my face or my mailbox & every text survey I get! I always truthfully list how I use things in great detail, right down to the name of my cat!

        Psft! Who doesn’t spend a great deal of time answering questionnaires truthfully and as accurately & detailed as possible?

        And, we ALL know, the sample observations we make in our own neck of the woods is always a perfect reflection of the entire whole nation,… unless of course, it’s not a reflection of what the experts are saying, then, it’s wrong, somehow.

        Like, in my neck of the woods, where I see probably over 300 trucks pulling all kinds of various trailers every day, and maybe only one or two out of 300 are pulling a trailer with a lawn mower in it… even then, it’s almost always a single Garden Tractor, not a lawn mower, or mower(s).

        I often see a lot of mud on the trucks, I wonder how it got there?

        My observations do not reflect what the experts are saying, therefore; from now on, I’ll just put it out of my mind and avert my eyes when I see them.

        America – “In Experts, We Trust.”

        Partial /Sarc Off.

        P.S.

        I’m going to the farmer’s sportsman’s auction today where I expect to only see one (if that) face diaper in the big crowd today.
        My better half hit up some grocery stores in the nearby bigger city and said face-diapering is way up, from 10% last time I went along, to near 40% yesterday.

        I wonder what’s going on with the increase? Maybe we should ask ‘Edwards’?

  2. It’s funny in retrospect FWD being pushed as advanced technology in the 80’s when the real motive was packaging. The fact very little was putting out more than 200hp helped mask some of the deficiencies of the layout. So many of the smaller SUV/CUV make no sense to me as they don’t hold shit period (and are towing zilch with the eco-turbo). Four people aren’t particularly comfortable and the cargo room is tiny unless you fold down the rear seats and hold 2 people. A few years back, it blew my mind when packing my mom’s Q5 for a trip noticing my M4’s trunk had 50% more cargo space than her.

  3. Last chance to buy a Crown Vic Police Interceptor. I liked it enough to buy another. You have your normally aspirated V8 and a full frame that out handles a ’72 Chevy. Mine are 38k and 52k miles. I do not expect to wear them out.

  4. Eric sez “The latter figure being what the current Dodge Charger is rated to pull – and the Charger is one of the very few new cars that isn’t small and still comes standard with at least a V6 engine”

    Just one hour ago I saw an older Dodge Charger maybe about 10 years old or so pulling an older Chevy Suburban. This was on an interstate going about 65 mph. At first I didn’t believe what I saw but when I passed them up I saw that he had the Suburban hooked up with chains or such. I’m pretty sure the dodge didn’t have a V8. I said to self WTF !!!!

    • Hi Euro,

      I think the tow-limiting factor with the Charger is probably the car rather than the engine. The V8 is certainly strong enough and even the V6 isn’t weak. But the lighter-duty chassis/attachment points for pulling are another thing!

  5. At one point, I bought my friend’s dad’s ’72 Old 98. I used to shove my dirtbike in the trunk. It fit with only the wheel sticking out in back. It’s trunk was literally the size of of a 4 door F-150’s bed these days.

    A family friend had a Caprice wagon, a ’74 I think, back in the day. We’d load it up with my, me buddy, his parents, and the dog for a trek to their lake house in New Hampshire. Towing a trailer, as well. It had room for all that and towed a trailer just fine.

    When it wore out, they bought a Chevy van, and still towed the trailer.

    I have to admit, of the two, I’d take the van for long distance travel any day. But they weren’t the only ones. As these cars disappeared, most families I knew bought trucks. Back in that era, 1978 or so, trucks were stupid cheap.

    I’d die to find one of those wagons, or a buick, or an olds vista cruiser now. They’d be crazy useful.

  6. This “full sized car substitute” theory helps explain something I’ve often wondered about. Why do so many of today’s jumbo trucks have comically small, vestigial, five to five and a half foot load beds?”

    Perhaps it’s because many new truck buyers just wanted the “full sized car” package. They don’t really miss a useful sized bed, because they so rarely use it as a truck.

    • Hey Mike,

      Somewhere on my phone I have a wonderful picture of a jumbo truck taking up two parking spaces. No, not the jerk who doesn’t want you to ding their new ride. No, a guy with crew cab and full length bed (dually too) and it took up two spaces end to end. Driving that thing must be like driving a large box truck with it’s long wheel base.

      However; the people with jumbo trucks with small beds are probably able to use trailers to make up for the times they don’t have enough bed alone. My Taco has a 5 foot bed (I wouldn’t classify it as a jumbo truck) and when I need to move something that won’t fit in the bed, I just use a trailer.

      However; you are still right. As Eric is right. When the availability of options shrinks, people are driven towards other options. Think of all the people hurt by the Firestone/Exploder fiasco. These people, many of whom were not ready to drive trucks, bought them because they were driven from their large cars. I never owned an Exploder, but I got to drive one from time to time. I don’t believe this vehicle should have been owned by over 1/2 the people that owned them. Like Eric’s article about the Stang from back in the day, you had to know how to drive it. It wasn’t supposed to be for everybody and thus the answer to this problem arose, the crossover.

  7. I started to comment that the old boats rode really well, because there is no substitute for wheel base. But there is. A computer to “regulate” your suspension to make a short wheel base ride better. Which presents another piece of digitality that costs a LOT to repair.
    One of the last stories my late father told me was of driving from mid Missouri to Albuquerque in the late 50s in a 54 Chevy. He had the tires turned to round before the trip, back in the pre-radial days, and said it was like sitting in a comfortable chair in your living room.

  8. Chevrolet Impala & Caprice
    Buick LeSabre & Electra 225
    Cadillac DeVille & Fleetwood
    Oldsmobile Delta 88 & 98
    Pontiac Catalina, Bonneville & Grand Ville
    Chrysler Newport, New Yorker & Imperial
    Dodge Polara & Monaco
    Plymouth Fury
    Ford Galaxie 500 & LTD
    Mercury Monterey & Marquis
    Lincoln Continental

    There will never be cars like them again… those that have survived (like my own personal ’68 Plymouth Sport Fury convertible) must be preserved…if, for no other reason, as a remembrance of happier times.

    They have become very valuable and collectible.

  9. I’ve always believed that Tahoes, Armadas, Sequoias and Expeditions are nothing more than the old land yachts on stilts. I remember my grandfather was a Chev-uh-lay man and they always had a gigantic Impala that had a no-substitute V-8, by God rear wheel drive and body-on-frame construction. Loved those cars.

    My wife has a Highlander and it rides very nicely, but there’s something to be said for a old school truck like those aforementioned SUVs. My old man has a Yukon and that thing rides so smoothly on the highway. Just put on the cruise and soak up the miles on the interstate.

    And it tows like no one’s business.

  10. I’ve always liked smaller, nimbler cars myself, and would rent a bigger car when I needed something large, but recently took one of the last opportunities to own a powerful V8, and man oh man, I love this thing. I bought a used, slightly broken Porsche Cayenne Turbo and fixed it since I’m handy with modern cars. This thing is a unibody, but it can tow 7,800lb (I only need 4,000, but that excludes most SUV’s and even some trucks!). When you hit the gas and feel the smooth surge of 520 V8 horses, it’s something else. This is my first V8, and it’s so nice to drive something both smooth and powerful. Small sized powerful engines are not smooth.

    • I’d be interested in knowing something about the reliability of those. I like the styling and the specs on that thing. Are they going for a lot of money these days?

      • Swamprat, you can have a Cayenne Turbo for < $50k in really good shape. The first generation is the 955 and 957, all of them have proper AWD and a low/high transfer case and lockable differentials. They're from model years 2003-2010 and really cheap now. The next generation, from 2011-2018 is called the 958 generation, it had a styling refresh in 2015 that's called the 958.2. They do not have a low/high transfer case, but instead, rely on the torque converter and prodigious torque for offroad crawling. The newest generation from 2019 onwards is the 9Y0. All these cars, if you get the V8, have really good engines, really solid Aisin automatic transmissions, however, their weak spot is the AWD transfer case, many fail. They're good cars overall. Very complex, and expensive to fix, though, if you rely on dealers or mechanics. I can fix most things myself, so it's just a matter parts cost.

  11. Next Truck’s gonna be a Taco, since it still offers stick.

    Remember when trucks came with sticks? I sure do, I was the only lot attendant at the dealership I worked at who could drive it, drove a ’98 F150 without a tach about 16 miles to this old couples house, fun times.

    Drove a 2nd gen and 3rd gen Taco since it was one of those “Drive our cars and get a $50 gift card” experience. 2nd Gen was ho-hum, 3rd Gen reminded me of my Audi clutch wise, but larger and with wonky brakes (rear drums). Shame I never got one, but I wouldn’t be where I am if I did.

    Yeah, shame big trucks don’t have sticks, be much better and more engaging if they did

    • “ Remember when trucks came with sticks?”

      Yep, drove a coworker’s 1990 GMC occasionally a nice setup. The 5 speed, no sloppy external linkage, crisp positive shifting. Decent clutch.

      • I really wanted a Taco when I needed a truck, but C’est La Vie.

        Always the classics though for a stick truck, or a Taco. Never thought the Japs would be the one’s keeping the stick trucks around though, but again, C’est La Vie

    • There’s something to be said for torque converters when you tow, though. I was considering a Taco recently, since I love manual transmissions, but it seems that it would have been a pain to get started with a trailer. Torque converters exceed at that sort of thing, since they actually multiply torque when they’re slipping.

      • Opposite,
        There’s a trade off between ATs and MTs when towing. ATs excel in tight quarters and starting, MTs excel on the road. ATs make heat on the road, MTs burn clutches in close quarters and starting. ATs MUCH more expensive to work on. Pick your poison.

  12. As always, you nailed it Eric. I drove those 70’s boats and loved them. I fought through the downsizing (on the road salesman) with FWD, etc… and hated every minute of it. Was forced into trucks and hated them only because of the ride and bad interiors for a long time.
    Not today, we are fortunate that I can buy a Ram crew cab with the longer bed that’s 20ft long, and rides arguably better and has tremendous more capability than the old boats. The back seats are even bigger and have a slight recline option, wow. Love them more.
    Yeah, the bed rails are high, and you have to have a running board to get in. Minor inconveniences relative (to me).
    We’ll see what the future brings with little sixes double blown, compared to the relative awesomeness of the old-school 5.7 hemi. I know the new double blown engines won’t get me any better mpg cause of the way I drive………….
    And no, they won’t last as long, but I’ve been getting new trucks every 3-4 years for 20+ years, so there’s that.

  13. Back in the day…70’s my Dad was a GM of a wholesale food distributorship in Oakland CA. They would order direct from Ford a Van style front with a 460cu/in motor and long frame. Ship it to Florida where an insulated box body was installed with a Thermo-King low temperature cooling unit installed. This was their fleet of delivery trucks that serviced 7/11’s up and down CA into lower Oregon. When the motor wore out…they had mechanics swap the motor and go for another 100K.
    Was any of this engineered and approved by Ford…I think not, but you could do want you wanted or willing to risk back in that time.
    Not anymore.

    • Morning Hans. I remember seeing something similar, except it was a Scooby Doo-style Dodge A-100 van with a cooler on the roof, delivering to stores when I was lad. So many choices for cheaper/better-fit options back then for folks doing real work, families, teenagers…

  14. Another thing changed the landscape forever, the 1973 politically-effected oil supply shenanigans. That, and the awful economy in the late 70’s from the “Oil Shock” and other smoke-filled-room decisions made by bigwigs, similar to the Mob, but with less control on their ambitions than the Dons. By the time I started driving, no way could I afford to fill up a Dodge Polara-sized car, so it was little British cars for me. Most of my generation, same story. Some got Camaros and other V-8 cars, but usually on smaller platforms, not the big C-Bodies and B-Bodies of the 60’s and early 70’s.

    IMHO, 1967 was the last year of unfettered automotive development in the US. After that point, emission and NHTSA rules made each model year less Detroit (or Kenosha) and more D.C.

  15. When I was a younger man, 20-30 years ago, I briefly worked at an RV dealership. I recall watching an elder Olds Delta 88 tow a 30′ Airstream off the lot. On a bumper hitch. Yeah, it squatted pretty badly, and so I would not have wanted to drive it 70mph, but it didn’t hesitate in the least.

    • Hi John,

      Yup. It was common (and easily done) in those days to add a set of air shocks to the rear, to compensate for the load. Do that and you’re ready to go, good as you would be with a truck.

      • I remember my dad adding air shocks to the back of a 1979 Chrysler Lebaron Town and Country (yes the fake wood paneled one) station wagon. And that wasn’t even the biggest wagon available back then. It was the mid size!

        It was a sharp car when it was new, but it sure didn’t last very long. Was traded for a Caravan when those came out in the 1980’s. It’s 360 V8 blew a lot of blue smoke, and all the body panels were rusted through at the bottom, on a 6 year old car. Not a great period for Chrysler.

  16. Also….those cars were sooooo much easier to maintain. In a state without salt? 20-30 years of service, no problem if properly taken cared of.

    • Hi RA,

      Yup – they were. Even if they needed major work. One could drop/replace the transmission at home, in an afternoon, using basic tools and some gumption. Try that with a modern car.

  17. ‘the Chevy Impala sedan was 222.9 inches long. The current Charger is only 198.4 inches long.’ — eric

    Much of that two-foot reduction in the typical sedan’s profile came from chopping off the L-O-N-G trunk protrusion behind the rear wheels.

    In effect, cars got their tails bobbed.

    And with bobbed tails, the only way to recover the lost trunk space is to raise the roof all the way back, as in SUVs.

    This is not all bad: 19-foot land yachts were a hassle to park. But probably automotive profiles would have evolved in this direction anyway, without the whip hand of CAFE and countless other diktats from fedgov dickheads, most of whom (like Transportation ‘secretary’ Pete Buttbonk) aren’t car people and have zero expertise to order others around.

    Away with these bogus little emperors!

  18. My old Chevy survived by it being a 454 / TH400 car with a trailer hitch. I bought it in the 80’s and still have the old hitch for it (might even reinstall it one of these days). Heck just try to fit a larger package or small appliance into a new car now, is it any wonder people aren’t buying cars now.

    • Lndru,
      In the late model smaller cars, cargo capacity is sooo small.
      I’m getting too old to remember exactly when, but it was back when Toyota made station wagons instead of crossovers. My Ex had a one of those station wagons, and brought home a new clothes dryer in it. In the box.

  19. Funny. Voting with their feet. Lotta pickups in our county. Most guys drive one. You rarely see a man driving a sedan around here unless its a Tesla and they are woke or normal sedan if they are elderly. hubby finally switched his suv out for a Raptor and is never going back. That thing is even more comfy to ride in too and gets just as good gas mileage. If you go to the bay area you still see more subaru suvs and sedans.

  20. Instead of owning nothing and being happy, in autos, we are owning less (capability) and being happy.

    I remember when it was an oddity to know someone with a truck. Those were for contractors and farmers.

    But everyone had a station wagon you could pack full with a month’s worth of groceries, dog, 4 kids and a swingset.

    • Station wagons yep every family had one and if you were a kid you could stretch out in the back for a nap on long drives. Or throw all the kids in the back and let them hang out with the back window down.

    • Dan,
      “I remember when it was an oddity to know someone with a truck. Those were for contractors and farmers.”
      And trucks were CHEAPER than cars. Then the goat ropers came. Driving trucks to account for their “short comings”. Walk through a parking lot and look at the beds of trucks you walk by. I’ll wager a modest amount most of them don’t have a scratch in the bed.

        • “….Or never taken down a dirt road..”

          It’s not just about wheeling in the dirt and rocks anymore. Having the capability to get out of a dangerous situation or somewhere you don’t want to be is uber important now since society is determined to self-destruct. Some of the driving skills overlap from off-road to urban crawling. Paved ditches and man-made structures take practice.

      • The great CAFE extinction event of 1985 killed off almost all the full sized sedans. The SUV ‘craze’ started immediately thereafter.

        After 1985 there was just one platform left for GM and one for Ford. GM’s ended in 1996. Ford’s in 2011. The Panther platform only persisted because it’s 1979 design could be updated cheaply until it couldn’t be.

        The funny thing is that with cross-overs to do light towing and smooth dirt road duty it’s an evolution back to 1940s cars. Although probably with less off paved road ability and with unit bodies probably less towing too despite greater horsepower.

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