The Evolution of the Pickup Truck, from Work Horse to Luxury Chauffeur

Survival of the fittest. The phrase has changed drastically from Darwin’s era, now often used synonymously with “Dog Eat Dog” or “Kill or Be Killed” to excuse ruthless business tactics or embarrassing acts of history. But if we return to (a simplified version of) the fundamental idea—that things change over time in order to adapt to their changing environments—we begin to find examples of evolutionary processes all around us. Cell phone technology. Medical practices. Online dating (shudders). And yes, vehicle design. Perhaps no more so than the evolution of the pickup truck.

In years past, the pickup truck was a utilitarian work vehicle.

With a military pedigree, early versions were raised on farmland and weaned on hard labor. They were designed to haul, to “pick up” all the heavy stuff that humans were struggling to transport. What about creature comforts, you ask? HA! Many early pickups were made of wood, my friend. And they didn’t see a factory-produced closed cab until the fancy Model A rolled around in 1928. Heaters came compliments of the aftermarket. And just starting the vehicle was roughly a 10-step process.

The evolution of the pickup truck had to start somewhere. Early models were very far removed from what we know and love today.

Today, pickups are both functional and fashionable, with cabins rivaling many luxury models on the market.

They serve double duty as work horses, family haulers, weekend warriors, and/or towing machines. OEMs have modified the very DNA of these vehicles, forcing the hands of evolution, and molding the pickup truck into a machine that can serve all masters simultaneously—sometimes even autonomously.

Consumer demand is strong, with an incredible 2.94 million full- and mid-size pickup trucks sold in 2018, a 4.34% increase from 2017. And while it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many of those were purchased for fleet or commercial purposes since registrations differ among states, the point is: does it really matter? Pickups are better positioned than ever before to be everything to everyone. This is especially true of workers who require a multi-functional vehicle that can transition from the rock quarry to a wedding venue without batting an eye—or even drawing attention.

Today, pickups are both functional and fashionable, with cabins rivaling many luxury models on the market.

And the aftermarket, a prime example of natural selection in its own right, continues to aid in the evolution of the pickup truck, by providing owners with a bevy of choices to manipulate the adaptability of their ride to better suit their environment and lifestyle.

America’s love affair with the pickup truck began almost immediately.

But it wasn’t until post-war designs and the establishment of highway infrastructure that a “commercial” work truck market even began taking shape. With suburban sprawl came increased travel times to and from the city, as well as a change in the delivery of goods. And pickups evolved in response.

Performance improved, as did payload and comfort. Early crew cabs took shape and automatic transmissions landed on the scene, along with power steering and independent front suspensions. Dual rear wheel setups revolutionized towing. And as America spiraled into fuel crises, manufacturers took cues from the compact pickups of Japanese rivals, creating an entirely new market for whom ‘less is more.’

Throughout the years, all data-lazy-sizes of trucks, both gas and diesel, became more powerful, more fuel efficient, more aerodynamic, and more luxurious.

All sizes of trucks, both gas and diesel, became more powerful, more fuel efficient, more aerodynamic, and more luxurious.

Today, commercial applications constitute a billion-dollar industry producing a range of vehicles. And while we’ve reported on the rapid growth of work vans, pickup trucks still reign supreme among fleets and most businesses. The National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA) reports that despite economic uncertainties in 2019, like tariffs and a tight labor market, commercial truck and truck chassis sales will continue to grow, albeit slower than 2018. “If the forecast is accurate,” states the report, “total Class 2–8 chassis sales will reach a level of almost 463,000 units in 2019 — quite close to the record 472,000 units sold in 2006.”

And as all pickup trucks continue to evolve, displaying state-of-the-art technology, advanced performance specs, and sleek OE designs, the aftermarket is faced with two major hurdles, for both 2019 and beyond: increasingly complex platforms and increasingly demanding customers.

“Anymore, it seems to take a bigger business with a lot of people and resources in general, from technical and financial support to sound partnerships, to make a quality product that’s really capable of improving today’s pickup (because the rides have become so sophisticated),” says Cory Bride, owner of Hi-Cal Motorsports. “It’s even becoming more difficult to work on them in the shop. New vehicles with air ride require a special sequence just to lift them off the ground so the suspension doesn’t respond the wrong way when unloaded. And both the sale and installation of wheel and tire packages is becoming increasingly affected by ADAS sensors. Not to mention that many automotive technicians are finding they need just as many computer diagnostic skills as mechanical know-how to accomplish basic jobs around the garage,” adds Bride.

Additionally, “The owners of these vehicles are a lot pickier about the products they’ll use,” explains Bride. The higher prices of modern pickups call for higher-quality services, products, and warranties—especially among fleet workers who do a lot of traveling and may quickly wind up hundreds of miles away from where they had parts installed. “Making sure that the warranty and customer service follow the product has allowed us to build a really good customer base, and it brings in customers that I think otherwise weren’t comfortable dealing with an aftermarket accessory store,” he adds.

But when it comes to “survival of the fittest,” the automotive aftermarket is prepared to not just survive, but thrive.

As mentioned, the evolution of the pickup truck itself has affected how owners want to upfit their work vehicles. OEMs already offer roomy cabs and various bed configurations with unique cargo storage. Advanced towing packages are available at point of sale, as are several other choose-your-own-adventure style modifications. And tailgate designs have been innovated almost to the point of hilarity.

Despite this, a robust aftermarket continues to churn out award-winning products that are loved by not only individual customers and fleets, but OEMs as well.

Take a brand like DeeZee.

Long supplying industrial-strength, modern-looking truck accessories, it has effectively cemented itself as a staple among truck lovers. “Your truck is a true work horse, so it needs to be outfitted to get the job done,” says the company. Heavy-duty products like tool boxes, transfer tanks, bed mats and liners, running boards, bull bars and brush guards, bed caps, and ladder racks are all designed to transition from work to play—just like the modern pickups they adorn.

DeeZee’s heavy-duty products like tool boxes, transfer tanks, bed mats and liners, running boards, bull bars and brush guards, bed caps, and ladder racks are all designed to transition from work to play—just like the modern pickups they adorn.

DeeZee’s been in the game since 1977, and has remained a top name in the biz by, you guessed it, evolving. The brand has adapted to consumer trends and even set a few itself. All the while, being sticklers for premium quality and supreme ease-of-use.

Take the company’s new Hex Series. Designed with customization in mind, this series of side steps, bed rails, and truck racks is constructed of hexagonal extruded aluminum tubing that features an integrated channel design for convenient adjustability and near-endless accessorizing. With three optional finishes, the look is sleek and OE-grade, as well as weather-resistant and durable.

The DeeZee Hex Series of side steps, bed rails, and truck racks is constructed of hexagonal extruded aluminum tubing that features an integrated channel design for convenient adjustability and near-endless accessorizing.

But DeeZee innovates more than just traditional exterior accessories. The company’s new Truck Tailgate Assist safely controls tailgate operation to ensure smooth drop at the touch of a finger. Eliminating what DeeZee rightly calls, “the bone-jarring ‘thud’ from your tailgate slamming down,” the single dampened gas shock safely controls the drop rate. It’s easy to install, plays nicely with factory cables, and is backed by a 3-year manufacturer warranty.

Also doing right by the commercial work truck market is Fill Rite.

With a corporate legacy dating back to the late 1800s, Tuthill Transfer Systems understands that it can’t simply rely on its pedigree. It must expand and evolve it. “Building the industry’s best AC and DC fuel transfer pumps and chemical transfer pumps and accessories is a mission we take very seriously,” says the company. “Built into every fuel transfer pump, chemical transfer pump and meter is over 50 years of experience—and the pride and workmanship associated with the moniker Made in USA.”

The evolution of the pickup truck means the evolution of the aftermarket that serves it. Fill-Rite’s NX3200 Series is the industry’s first continuous duty transfer pump.

Long known as “the Red Pump,” Fill Rite pump systems and bulk flow meters are used daily throughout the commercial transportation and agricultural sectors, on construction sites and throughout a variety of industries. The company has spent generations developing and improving its products—and it shows.

Its NX3200 Series is the industry’s first continuous duty transfer pump, using proprietary nextec Intelligence™ to make automatic adjustments for peak performance and inform users when attention is needed. It even powers itself down after 20 minutes of inactivity. The pump is more compact and light-weight than other pumps on the market, and uses less amp draw, raising the bar for efficiency standards.

The evolution of the pickup truck means the evolution of the aftermarket that serves it. Fill-Rite’s new DF Series DEF Dispensing Pump Systems are specifically designed to provide quick, easy, and safe dispensing of DEF/AdBlue®.

Similarly, the company’s new DF Series DEF Dispensing Pump Systems are specifically designed to provide quick, easy, and safe dispensing of DEF/AdBlue®. “With 8 GPM flow rates, your choice of AC or DC power, and all-in-one systems ready to go right out of the box, pumping Diesel Exhaust Fluid has never been easier,” says Tuthill. Built for performance and durability, the DF Series can accommodate a variety of storage containers, and features stainless steel exterior hardware and special rubber seals, as well as many optional accessories like mounting brackets, hoses, fittings, and nozzles.

A brand like TigerTough has proven it understands the evolution of the pickup truck, and can grow along with it.

Providing durable seat covers, specially designed for fleet drivers, law enforcement officers, and even the average weekend adventurer, the brand knows how pickup trucks often work just as many jobs as their drivers. Recognizing the need for durable upholstery solutions that can stand up to the aggressive wear-and-tear of commercial demands, TigerTough evolved from a simple Minnesota sewing company into a respected manufacturer of top-quality, custom-fit seat covers.

A brand like TigerTough has proven it understands the evolution of the pickup truck, and can grow along with it.

The company’s IronweaveTM covers, aimed at the commercial fleet market, are constructed of 1000 denier Cordura®️ fabric that is treated with a custom urethane coating for added water-resistance. Engineered to withstand the friction of frequent entries and exits, they also repel the industrial-grade stains commonly faced on worksites. “Our mission is to help vehicle owners find and eliminate hidden costs,” says the company. “Everyone who owns a vehicle (and especially those who manage a bunch of them) knows that they’re expensive to have. If we can help lower that cost, we’ve done our job.”

A brand like TigerTough has proven it understands the evolution of the pickup truck, and can grow along with it.

TigerTough also offers a SportweaveTM line, specially designed for off-roaders and outdoor enthusiasts, as well as a line of Tactical seat covers aimed at law enforcement. Constructed with an innovative addition called the “Ironband,” these covers provide extra reinforcement on the lower third of the seat to prevent excessive wear from officers’ duty belts. Keeping things convenient and user-friendly, all TigerTough covers are machine-washable and feature a simple installation. And staying up-to-date with vehicle safety advancements, the company includes a special thread to ensure that all products are airbag-compatible.

Even something as fundamental as the in-bed toolbox has evolved alongside the pickup.

With near infinite options for consumers, truck storage has become its own market. And unique products from companies like TrailFX and WeatherGuard are leading the charge. TrailFX’s 22-gauge steel storage boxes feature an aerodynamic domed lid that’s been engineered to add strength and reduce drag, while also standing up to harsh weather, offering premium security, and accommodating single-hand entry. It comes in multiple configurations for easier mounting and a variety of colors to suit your style. And for those who prefer aluminum, the company offers a similar array of styles layered with a high-density foam and reinforced with fully TIG-welded seams.

Even something as fundamental as the in-bed toolbox has evolved alongside the pickup. TrailFX toolboxes are durable, stylish, and long-lasting.

The clever engineers at WeatherGuard have taken the traditional saddle-style toolbox and added ultra-bright LED lighting (600 lumens total) to ensure you can find exactly what you’re looking for, no matter what time of day. The light uses OEM-grade connectors with a weather seal and an easy-to-install wiring harness, promising long-lasting performance with low power consumption. The ARMOR-TUF®-coated tool box uses a contactless magnetic switch to turn the lights on and off automatically whenever the lid is opened or closed. And a tamper-resistant, retracting EXTREME PROTECTION® lock helps protect against break-ins.

The clever engineers at WeatherGuard have taken the traditional saddle-style toolbox and added ultra-bright LED lighting (600 lumens total) to ensure you can find exactly what you’re looking for, no matter what time of day.

From lighting upgrades and accessory mounts, to less traditional solutions like prisoner containment and K9 vehicle inserts, the aftermarket has determined that where there’s a will, there’s a way. And throughout the continued evolution of the pickup truck, whether it be into the realm of electrification, autonomous driving, or both, the aftermarket will remain in step, staying fit to survive.

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