Why Society Has Deemed A Crappy Truck Cooler Than A Crappy Car

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David likes to call me up and ask about the old 1989 Ford F-150 he bought for me, because even if he decided he didn’t have the time/space/energy to deal with yet another old beater (well, we know how long that lasted) he can definitely enjoy it vicariously through me. So, he’ll call and just want to know how the truck is doing and when I drove it last and how it felt and speculate on the issues with the clutch and have me describe the feel of the vinyl seats in detail or the smell of the exhaust. If he could just say “hey, put the F-150 on the phone” and talk to it directly, I think he would, and I think it would end up in one of those “no, you hang up first” kind of situations.

Anyway, during one of these calls, David and I were talking about the truck and realized something significant about trucks and the culture we live in: when it comes to level of shittiness, cars and trucks are not judged the same way. Trucks get a pass for coolness in ways that cars simply don’t, and this is an idea worth exploring, because I’m not entirely certain what’s going on. In simplest terms, it’s this: a beat to shit car is embarrassing, but a beat to shit truck is cool. Why?

Just so we’re all on the same page here, let me break down exactly what I’m taking about, using my own truck as an example, a 1989 Ford F-150 with a lot of wear and a very clumsy and peeling hand-brushed purple paint job. Let’s just break down some basic facts about this truck: it’s rough in a lot of places, it has broken trim parts inside, it’s scratched up and dented and as I mentioned, the paint job was done by hand and is peeling so badly on parts of the hood it looks and feels like stucco.Marshall2

This truck is also common as boogers in nostrils, a Ford F-150, the best-selling vehicle in America for years and years. It can make zero claims of exoticism or rarity. Everyone has seen these, all over the place, all the time. Seeing one is a non-event.

The transmission is agricultural and grinds going into reverse and first, and, let’s be honest, potentially any gear, of which there are only four. There are all kinds of evidence of weird fluids that have been spilled in the bed. It’s the opposite of elegant or refined or sleek, it doesn’t telegraph wealth or overt status or anything like that at all. Oh, and the muffler is currently banging around loose in the bed.

And yet, somehow, it’s cool.

Now, let’s compare this truck to another vehicle in Ford’s lineup from 1989, something non-truck but as close as we can get in other ways, another mass-market big-selling car, like the Taurus. The Taurus sold for a bit more than this F-150 did (the F-150 went for about $11,000 in 1989, while the Taurus started at about $15,000) but we’ll call that close enough. If you had a 1989 Ford Taurus in exactly the same condition as my F-150 – a common, non-exotic or inherently that interesting car, runs basically well, transmission makes awful grinding sounds sometimes, some interior trim broken off, dents, hand-brushed purple paintjob, muffler banging around in the trunk – and you pulled up somewhere and got out of that car, nobody would think you were cool at all. They would think look at that poor bastard, and they’d spend a moment imagining all of the miserable life decisions you’d made to get you to the point where you were rolling around in a sloppy purple Taurus with your muffler in the trunk.

6186661 1989 Ford Taurus Std

Keep in mind, in this thought experiment everything else about these two vehicles is the basically the same – same manufacturer, same badges, same condition, same color, same everything, except one is a four-door sedan and one is a truck. And one immediately casts you as a loser who probably does weird shit like eating ketchup sandwiches or drinking beer through a straw while the other subtly implies you may be a cool sort of person who does interesting things in their spare time, possibly including chain-saw sculptures.

Still not convinced? Okay, look at this picture I took of my truck yesterday:

F1501

It’s just my shitty truck. But it looks kind of great out there in the verdant greenery, basking in the sun. How would this exact same photo look with that Taurus? Or a similarly-battered Honda Civic or a Nissan or Chevy or whatever non-truck? It wouldn’t be nearly as appealing, it’d just be some shitbox rusting in a field, as opposed to something that manages to evoke ideas of carefree summer nights and honest work and the occasionally intoxicating smell of sweat on skin any number of idealized, romanticized ideas about a life that we may never have even ever experienced.

This isn’t unique to Ford or any particular carmaker. Here’s another example: I went to Copart and looked for two late-1980s Toyotas, one a car and one a truck, and grabbed two of the first results I found. Here they are, a 1989 Toyota Camry and a 1987 Toyota Pickup, both in about equally shitty condition:

Toyotaexample

Which of those would you rather be seen in? The Camry feels like a car you’d be driving because you had no other choice, and the truck feels like something you might drive because it helps you do things you want to do. The truck feels intentional. 

Of course, this isn’t really rational, though we can come up with some reasons why it may be the case: trucks are, ideally, designed to do rugged, hard work that can have the side effect of taking a toll, visually, with scraped and dents and other evidence of use and wear. Our idea of a truck is one that can accept physical imperfections and consider them character, while our idea of conventional cars like sedans or hatchbacks or even SUVs and Crossovers is one that regards any wear or visible damage as an actual flaw, something that only devalues instead of adding charm or character.

If you need more evidence that this double standard is real, think about fashion shoots you may have seen with cars, in catalogs or on billboards or wherever. Cars do show up in these shoots as backgrounds or props, and those cars are either charming, interesting, usually vintage cars like classic Minis or Beetles or Fiat 500s or Citroën 2CVs, and those can sometimes be in rough condition, but their unusual, appealing looks and relative rarity give them a pass.Fashionshoots

 

There is also plenty of fashion photography that uses lovingly-maintained vintage cars, or even rougher ones, but only if they’re old enough or interesting enough to have a following. If it’s a mainstream, common vehicle in fair to crappy condition, no fashion photographer is going to use it. Nobody is draping a model over the hood of a 1991 Chevy Lumina with surface rust and mismatched door.

But they might get a model to perch on the open tailgate of a slightly rusty 1991 Chevy C/K 1500 truck with t-shirts for seat covers, and that would be just fine.

Whatever is going on here says a lot about our society, because it doesn’t stand up to a lot of empirical scrutiny. A beat-to-shit hatchback or sedan can have accomplished as much tireless, important work as a pickup truck, and there are plenty of pickup trucks that have spent lives hauling nothing more rugged than grocery bags. But the truth doesn’t matter here, it’s all about perception, because cars and trucks aren’t really rational things.

The fact is that wear and tear and evidence of hard living turn into character and dignity on a mainstream, common truck, and shame and disgrace on mainstream, common car. One suggests a life of honest, gritty work that ends with the driver squinting into a sunset, satisfied and at peace, and the other suggests a life of poorly-paid jobs, indignities, and a day that ends drunk and asleep face-down in a bag of Cheetos. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m just saying that’s how it seems to be.

So, the take away here is that if you don’t have a lot of money but are sensitive to how your car makes people perceive you, you can get away with a hell of a lot more with a shitty truck than a shitty car. And all it costs is more gas money and everyone asking you to move their couches.

Not the worst deal.

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118 Responses

  1. Think about the kind of song that includes the word truck or pickup truck.
    Now think about the kind of song that includes the words “old car”.
    I’m sure the former conjures up a lot more imagery than the latter.

  2. If you want to get philosophical about pickup trucks, see the below video from Regular Car Reviews. It’s all great, as are all of his reviews, but start at 10:54 for the literary analysis.
    Prior to that, “The American pickup truck gets romanticized as a symbol of freedom and patriotism, ignoring all the evidence of its basic function as a work vehicle.”

    Regular Car Reviews
    2000 Ford F 250 Superduty 7.3L Powerstroke Turbo Diesel
    Sept 13, 2021
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y__y3K1g7y8

  3. Trucks have that blue collar hard work aura, so a beat uo truck that runs is a champ. A taurus is just a bummer of a car. I feel like we see trucks as something that can get abused and the more beat up it gets, if it runs, we just want to cheer it on. We see an old beat up sedan and maybe we think it could be an ok car for a 16 year old to drive to school in. And sedans and such are kind of just people movers. Trucks are the everything mover work baby.

  4. An old truck is *supposed* to show some evidence of hard use. Hard use is the reason it exists, so that patina is expected. Not so much with a “nice” passenger car. Those are supposed to be well cared for and kept clean and shiny so the neighbors know how well you’re doing.

    Also weird: A pristine Taurus of that vintage would be a Cars and Coffee darling, as would the equivalent F150. It’s a weird double standard.

  5. Nah, old beat to hell cars can be cool, you just have to have the correct car. I think it mostly comes down to materials- that old F-150 is pretty much all steel, and it wears it’s dents and scars with a dignified patina that is characteristic of steel. The Taurus is a fantastic plastic mess, and plastic in any condition other than pristine looks like shit.

    I had a buddy in college with an early 90s Cadillac, don’t remember the model but it had the big V8 northstar, massive wings, and suspension that bounced for days. It was also beat to hell, with nary a body panel without an actual puncture. Most of the electronics didn’t work, the AC only functioned up front, and the radio was scratchy as hell, but it was cool. You could fit like 8 people in the back seat in relative comfort and trundle around town on an extended beer run enjoying the whole experience. The key difference is that thing was a beast new, and has aged into the cool old uncle, whereas the Taurus was always a bit dribbly.

  6. Maybe you should look into latin american double cab and offroad family vehicles. Rastrojero and Ranchero and many others are easily advertising stars in 3rd world economies! The Rastrojero even made it from Argentina to Canadá and back using only 5000 liters of “gas-oil” (diesel) and had a lovely old pencil drawn add in magazines!

  7. As the owner of a 94 F-250, a lifted 4th gen 4Runner, and a hard top convertible, I get into more conversations and admiration toward the F-250. Every one loves it. I mean, everyone is fascinated by watching the hydrolics do their thing on the vert and gasp as the tuned power. The 4Runner is not over the top but has cool wheels for those who don’t understand all that was entailed to get it where it is. But the regular cab long bed gets the most looks. It has faded paint, original steelies with the hubcaps, really good condition interior…and 84k original miles. It just looks like it is ready to tackle anything.

  8. Not true for me. I hate trucks. I hate looking at them. I hate driving them.

    I wish 3/4 or 1 ton SUVs were more common. Without having a wall between the passenger compartment and cargo area, either can be much larger.

    When I borrow a truck, it’s for the towing capacity (to tow a car trailer, really not pushing the limits). I do not want a 75 foot long barge, with the interior space of my Celica.

    I’ll admit, there are some people for whom they work well. But I do not think they’re cool, and most people who own them do not need them.

    When I make a run to the dump, or the scrap yard, or haul a refrigerator (the things that truck drivers brag about), I use a utility trailer. Lower deck height and easier access than a truck bed. And I can still easily bring both my kids, have a comfortable ride, get decent mileage AND have a reasonable turning circle.

    I am in the process of fixing up a conversion van, which should do most of those things. Except the mileage and turning circle.

    1. You are describing a van, Ford Econoline or similar.

      I’m not the only Econonerd on here, but speaking from experience the low deck height of van is so superior to the pick-up for loading things, especially the kind of things that you load for a dump run. You also enjoy the upside of keeping more delicate items from being subject to the elements as you do with a truck.

      As a bonus a removable bench seat or two and you have an excellent human mover, capable of moving the local little league team infield or Jedidiah and his team of barn raisers, with equipment.

      I’ve done all of the above, save for the last two, and moved sheets of drywall and plywood in the rain in a 45 year old Econoline, and while I cried when I sold my ’83 K10 it wasn’t because of any loss in utility.

      You’re a vanner, embrace it.

  9. Talked with DT about this when I visited with him Sunday. Like others have said the truck continues to be a functional tool well after its intended lifespan. I also think that media has made the old truck a cowboy cool item that has Marlboro man status.

  10. It’s not just cars, SUVs can fall into this also. A few years ago I decided I wanted 4×4 and actual power. Both things my 1998 Dodge Dakota Sport with a 2.5 four lacked. I really liked it (other than gutless and 2WD) so I looked at selling it and getting a 4×4 Dakota with a V-6. That dream died a quick death until I started looking at Durangos. (the result of a Dakota and a Caravan getting together one night) Ended up selling the stripped down (and I mean stripped. the only option other than the “sport” stickers was the extended cab) Dakota for $2200. I then turned around and picked up a fully loaded 1998 Durango SLT with 4×4 and a 5.9 and less miles for $2200. I basically did a straight across trade of a no option truck for a fully loaded SUV that was based on the truck I had. Similar Dakotas at the time were going for two or three times the price. The only explanation I can come up with is that the truck is seen as cooler than the SUV.

  11. I think part of it is that they literally don’t make them like this anymore. Stylistically, trucks got a lot rounder in the 80’s/90’s. I don’t think you can get a manual transmission in a truck anymore. And you don’t see a lot of trucks that are basic but maybe a little better trimmed than a white fleet grade truck with plastic bumpers and rubber flooring. You also don’t see a lot of single cab or even supercab trucks that don’t have a full size back seat and traditional door anymore.

  12. A beat to shit truck speaks to it’s purpose.
    An off-road 4×4 lowered onto it’s low-pro street tires speaks to the owners misunderstanding of this salient truth.
    A beat to shit car is just…..a beat to shit car…

  13. I was looking for a used Honda Fit or Kia Soul. What I actually bought was a 2004 Ford Sport Trac pickup because it was a good deal..
    Now interestingly I’ve always driven junk, an old Subaru wagon, an old Sienna minivan. In Douglas County CO these stand out as loser-vehicles. The cops are bored because there’s no significant crime in this rich white neighborhood, they spend their time harassing high school kids out after curfew (really, there is a legal curfew for under-18s here) and pulling me over to check that I’m not a criminal in my loser-vehicle. I’ve never been pulled over since getting the pickup.. although objectively it’s in worse shape than either of the previous vehicles.

    My wife gets the Sundance catalog. The models are frequently draped over old pickups, but I’ve never seen a car behind one of those skinny lanky girls..

  14. I appreciate that when you guys write articles like this, you actually give your answer for the question in the headline. Feel like a lot of corporate content mills would just ask the question and then leave it up to the comments, then do a slideshow about it later.

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