Running for Cover: Evolution of the Tonneau

Tonneau: Roughneck Roots

For as long as pickups have roamed our less-than-perfectly-paved roads, a demand for truck bed protection has existed. Early on, long before the modern tonneau, trucks primarily served a functional purpose. The thought of these modern-day family toys predating anything other than lifted, leveled or slammed to the ground makes most customizers shudder in disapproval. However, pickups were the working man’s professional-grade tool for heavy-duty jobs and outdoor activity; they were work horses with an 8’ bed and a mode of uncomfortable transportation for any more than three.

Surely the old timers remember cramming into the single row of pop’s old truck, the middle seat holding a fixed reservation for the lightweight of the group. Passengers had to squeeze into close quarters unless they wanted to be open to the elements in a truck bed, which was unlikely aside from farm work, but a legal alternative nonetheless (way back when). As for cargo protection? Whatever was handy—a tarp and some tie downs would do.

Movin’ On Back

The overall functionality, versatility, and style of the truck platform was significantly increased upon OEM introduction of second-row seating. This allowed owners to include small cargo inside the cab and, better yet, accommodate more than 2-3 passengers; hence, bed-protection needs changed as well. Primitive fabric options (think covered wagons or military transport trucks) soon graduated to vinyl snap-on alternatives priced to sell. It wasn’t long thereafter that fiberglass hard covers entered the market, a steep expense at the time. Extang, Sportmaster, and Global dominated the early modern era of soft covers, while brands such as A.R.E., Leer, and Snugtop provided fiberglass lids and paint-to-match options. ABS sought to replace fiberglass and soon consumers were flooded with even more choices, such as hard canister retractable and hard folding accordion covers.

“All were finding their geographical or market niche as truck usage was growing and beginning to evolve, and truck cover penetration was low. What drove the most significant change in the design of the truck cover was the rapidly evolving use of the pickup truck and the resulting designs the OEs provided to the market,” said Kelly Kneifl, COO at Truck Hero.

“By the late 90’s, over 50 percent of all trucks had more than two doors. Today, over 90 percent of all trucks have full four doors, smaller beds, and smaller cargo areas. As second rows were adaptable to passengers, they became less inviting for hauling, and cargo was pushed to the bed. The need for truck bed covers began to grow. Penetration rates, along with growing truck purchases, fueled a new era of covers for the market. No longer was a rigid, inflexible cover that was heavy or always in the way going to work,” she continued. “Consumers were willing to pay more for improved features that added greater security and functionality to the use of the cover and ultimately how they used their truck bed,” thus laying the groundwork for the modern truck bed protection phenomenon, said Kneifl.

Competition Breeds Excellence

During the late 90’s, Agri-Cover and Truxedo introduced soft roll-up covers, changing the direction of the tonneau market. Then soft-folding covers entered the scene in the early 2000’s. Brands like Advantage and Extang started to make a name for themselves, while BAK and its hard-folding cover soon followed. Each had unique characteristics, but all of the covers had one common feature—greater functionality; they were easier to open and close when needed and conveniently out of the way when unneeded. “Extang started in the tonneau industry in 1982. Our first product released to the industry was revolutionary: the no-drill tonneau. It was the first product in the tonneau industry that did not require drilling directly into the truck’s rails,” said Steve Kelley, Vice President of Sales at Extang.

That kind of evolution is unattainable without significant advancements in quality materials, designs, and execution. Long-term commitment must give way to constantly revamped aesthetics with improved practicality and, ultimately, a greater life cycle. Lifetime warranties became common; manufacturers placed their bets, standing behind years of prized development with guaranteed satisfaction. And with success came profit.

“Increased features meant increased values and higher prices. A $200 snap cover was replaced with a $400 soft roll-up or folding cover. These led to $700-$800 hard fold-up and hard-rolling covers. Some covers in the market reached the $1000+ range with electronic opening and closing features pushing the $1500-$2000 mark. Penetration continued to grow to over 20 percent, as unit sales experienced strong double-digit growth year-over-year for several years post 2009 economic challenges,” said Kneifl.

As prices adjust to the growing complexity of designs and customization, competition to manufacture the ideal tonneau has also grown. This growth indicates that the tonneau has yet to reach its full potential. And because the pickup market is an everchanging force, owners can be sure that the tonneau will follow suit. The question is, in which direction will they go? Find out in Part II, The Modern Tonneau.

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