Cold Start: Was This Peak Rationality In Truck Design?

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You know the eighth (8th, or maybe 8nd or 8st or 8rd) generation of Ford F-150 trucks? It was the only one to feature a remarkably pure Late Cold War-Era Car Face, and I think it may be one of the most pleasingly rational and clean-looking of all F-150s, which are now on their 14th (!) generation.

These F-150s looked substantial and capable, but were also interestingly unassuming. Where modern trucks feel the need to shout about how tough they are and all the shit they can do, I feel like it’s trucks that look like this that are getting the work done behind the scenes, and would be embarrassed if you called them out.

This generation of F-150 has styling that feels, compared to modern truck, strangely modest. There’s humility in this truck design, a certain agreeable practicality and freedom from pretention and bullshit, qualities that are just about extinct in modern trucks.

These were so common that they once blended into the very grain of society. Now that there’s less of them, I think they stand out, at least a bit, though I bet they’d hate to know that.

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67 Responses

  1. Bought an early model year 1989 F150 off the dealer lot, was around $12k. White over blue, just so nice. Seat was a big cushy sofa. 302 with 5speed, perfect. But. The clutch pedal had a long throw, and zero feedback from the clutch. I could never isolate the point where the clutch would engage, and I was forever stalling and lurching. I’ve driven farm tractors, dirt bikes, HD hogs, hopped up Mustangs, over the road trucks, and GMC 4104 motor coaches, all with manuals, and could shift smoothly with or the clutch. Not that truck. Sold it, bought a new late year 1989 Silverado, 350 automatic. It was a dream truck. Quick as hell, very comfortable. The seat was firmer, flatter, and nicely contoured. Loved it. Now have 2000 Silverado, 4.3, love it, except for the cheap ass dash.

  2. I think peak rationality came in the 90s with rounded edges, sure they had a bit more stuff going on but the superior aerodynamics matter a lot to someone who needs it as a tool, a quieter cab and better fuel efficiency are very objective things. The aeroded trucks look less practical, but simply are.

  3. This was the F-150 that ate cereal in water.
    This F-150 alphabetized its tape collection.
    This F-150 collects and sends in UPC labels.
    This F-150 put the skim in skim milk.
    This F-150 believes hair should be parted in the middle.
    This F-150 is divisible by 10s.
    This F-150 ate the green beans that came with the square pizza in middle school.
    This F-150 may or may not be the father, but is still mostly okay with paying the kid’s expenses.

  4. I used to work for a company that had an ‘89 F350 box truck for carryingthe big stuff. There was no bullshit to that beast. It had the IDI 7.3 diesel (not the later 7.3 Powerstroke that everyone splooshes over), non-turbo. It had a top speed of about 65 and did 0-60 in whenever the hell it felt like it. At anything above idle the cab was so loud that you had to shout to the guy next to you to be heard. It always reeked of diesel, and by the time we had it the rust was dangerously close to David Tracy’s approval level.

    Man, it had character though. That old slug hauled like a train no matter how much crap you threw in the box. The whole cab shook like a wet dog when you turned off the engine. The radio still worked, not that you could hear it when driving. It was the kind of truck you’ll never be able to buy again because we expect so much more from our work vehicles now. This truck came from an era where nobody drove the work trucks outside of business hours. It lived in its parking space whenever it wasn’t out making money.

    1. This was Ford’s halfhearted response to the GMT400s. Technically this was on the market first but Dearborn knew what was coming and expected it a couple years sooner (most late ’80s GM new launches had been delayed something like 2 years because of Roger Smith’s shitshow of a reorg in ’84-85 or thereabouts).

      1. ‘Technically’? the mk8 f150 predates the gmt400s by 2 years.

        Personally I find nothing halfhearted about it… I fully agree with Torch. my ‘rich friend’ in high school had an 89 xtended cab, and it was freakin awesome.

    2. Eh, looks are subjective but this gen of F-150 and the GMT400 trucks are cut from the same exact cloth. Personally if given the choice I’d got the F-150 as the interior is better built and an overall nicer place to be between the two IMO. I’m also biased as my Grandad had a blue 1991 F-150 that I learned to drive in. I stupidly sold it after he passed and I’ve regretted it ever since.

      1. I’ve had both and you’re not far off. Where GM tried to go wild with digital climate and radio controls, the Ford’s cabin was warm and inviting, comfortable, usable and durable.

        They’re both great trucks, basically the only two games in town until 1994.

        1. I’m not a fan of the buttons (I have an ’89 Chevy), but what really annoys me is the non-standard radio design. I still have a basic two-speaker AM/FM radio in my truck, because anything fancier requires me to lose the cubbyhole in the center of the dash and reach waaaay over to get to it, or spend $400 on a stereo that fits in the almost-square hole where the factory radio lives. Thank goodness for those FM aux input thingies.

          What’s amazing about the buttons, though, is that at 32 years old and 206,000 miles, the first 2/3 of which were US Forest Service duty, everything in my truck still works. That climate control design sucks, but at least it sucks for a long, long time.

      2. When I test drove a late 90s F-250 against an early aughts GM 2500 I couldn’t believe the difference in interior quality. The Ford was basic, but clean and solid. It had just enough color contrast to make navigating at a glance easy. The GM’s interior sucked. It was a sea of sticky buttons and misaligned hard plastics that were all black. The GM was more pleasant to drive though. Pick your poison, I guess.

      3. In the early 80’s I worked for a place that had both Ford and GM in the fleet. All base commercial models. They felt so similar it was if they came from the same factory. It didn’t really matter which one you grabbed from the lot, except on hot days. Then you wanted a Ford. Both had vinyl benches, but the Fords had this weave that made it much less sticky in the heat and the interiors were lighter colour. None of them had AC.

        Also, for some reason the GM tailgates always needed fixing. The latches were crap. You would think in a work truck that would be an item that would have gotten a lot of design and QC attention.

    3. I was coming here to say this myself. Same Era though, so its what it is if you prefer Ford or Chevy.

      Both were good looking trucks and much better than what we have now aesthetically.

  5. I briefly dated a cowgirl when I was just out of high school; she had a blue one of these with blue interior, a bench and zero equipment. Me and my friends all dreamt of Acura Integra GSRs but I knew that truck was cool nonetheless.

    1. I had a blue interior on blue/white exterior 88 F250 (loaded XLT) , it was a good truck for truck stuff, but what finally made me decide to get rid of it was a long trip I took to get a family heirloom 69 Ford Mustang to my house. I finally rode in the passenger seat and realized while the driver’s seat had enough room, the passenger seat was very cramped because of the strangely shaped floorpan. That and the 10 mpg didn’t help (88 was the last year for the C6, so no overdrive.) I replaced it with a Lincoln Navigator because I thought the truck’s primary use was towing, but after driving the Lincoln for a couple of years I realized I actually did need a bed for various things, so now I’m in a Hemi Ram, which gets far better gas mileage with nearly twice the HP of my 88 F250.

  6. My broke (private) high school had a ’97 F-250 it used a lot for maintenance stuff, and a similar year F-350 with the 7.3 PowerStroke. Inexplicably, I look back on them fondly. At any rate, yeah, a simple, practical design/aesthetic. They both had the roof clearance lights too, which looked pretty sick.

    Also, that 7.3 diesel is one of the only engines whose sound will instantly make me devolve ~4,000 years of human evolution (e.g., “ENGINE LOUD, SOUND COOL”)

  7. 9th is so much better from a looks standpoint without getting into the soft aerosionized model of the 10th and up
    Although I have a soft spot a flare side 8th gen.

    Need to rebuild my engine, but my 93 has given me about 18 years of steady uninterrupted truckitude. Almost at 400k on it.

  8. At a summer job back when, we had a base model one, manual transmission. Want to say it had the straight six (they still offered those then, right)?

    I distinctly remember the front “EFI” badge, as it always struck me as unusual for a vehicle to have a front “adjective” badge (that is, a badge that describes something about the vehicle, in contrast to the usual “noun” badges that say what it is).

    It was ugly blue, so much vinyl, but it got the job done, and it (and a beat to hell dumptruck) were my first introductions to the wonders of stick shifting.

        1. On the contrary, it was extremely popular. The only reason it didn’t graduate to the new-for-97 bodystyle was because in crash tests, it sliced through the cab like it was a sharp knife through hot butter. Nothing they did could counter this, so it was replaced by a horrible, nasty V-6 that ruined base model F-150s for a decade or so.

          1. Interesting – had no idea. I would have figured it’d been the victim of the general affluence of that time period.

            But then again, I guess maybe the truck-as-predominantly-a-lifestyle thing didn’t become prevalent until a little later?

            1. Old guys always liked nice trucks, and you’d be surprised at how many 1987-1996 Lariat or Eddie Bauer F-150s I’ve seen that had the 6 and a 5 speed manual.

              That’s what I wanted, although it certainly didn’t have to be the loaded model, when I ended up with my ’74 Chevy with the 250 Inline 6. As it sits in the shop, AGAIN, for carburetor issues (I’ve lost count how much has been spent “fixing” this problem), part of me wishes I’d held out for an EFI Ford.

    1. Drove one with the I6 with the auto-tragic for a summer job. Always thought it sounded anemic. Of course I was comparing it to the 350 in my Dad’s Suburban. 1993 was a great summer to drive around unsupervised. Fantastic music on the radio.

    2. The EFI badge sits in the same place as the 4×4 badge. Basically it sounds like they decided to put a 4×4 badge on the front to show off but didn’t want to bother having two front trim panels so slapped the efi on it because it was new to the line when this body replaced the bullnose. I’m not entirely sure what they would have done on the 86-87 460 2wd trucks though as those were still carbureted.

      1. Didn’t want to bother making a piece without holes (which would be an incredibly simple change in the stamping process), so they commissioned TWO MORE badges to be made instead (“EFI” and “DIESEL”)?

        Basically it sounds like you created a problem 30+ years after they created the solution.

  9. There was a brief moment of my childhood where I had veered from sports cars to being truck obsessed. During this time, I believe my mom was getting her second slightly used Taurus station wagon, and there was a F-350 dually in the showroom. The sheer size and capability of it was awesome. Future generations of the F-series I think have lost their way catering to the Bro-Dozer crowd IMO. Ironically I live in suburban Houston, and see trucks like this used for the school/mall/grocery run exclusively.

    1. Hey I had one of those phases, too! During the very tail end of college and the start of my working years, I took a break from sporty Japanese hatchbacks and spent a couple years with a V6 5-speed Dodge Dakota Sport.

  10. My dad had an F-150 of this generation when I was a kid, his was a blue single cab long bed one. I remember the window switches were at the bottom, front of the door and little me was too small to be able to reach them from the seat so I used to use my foot whenever I wanted to put the window down. My dad was fine with it until I eventually kicked too hard and broke the switch. Surprisingly he wasn’t really mad but I lost my window opening privileges. He eventually sold that truck before I got big enough to reach the switches normally.

  11. I would prefer whatever was the newest to have standard-size headlights, so I can replace them with proper Hella or Cibie e-codes and actually be able to see at night. But otherwise, I love old trucks. Make mine hose it out spec with the I-6 and the OD manual, with the only option being A/C. Had a job in High School maintaining cemeteries where I got to drive such. Also got to drive the ’74 Cadillac Hearse on occasion too – my best friend’s family owned a funeral home.

  12. Imma go with the 7th Gen as peak rationality. After that, the bean counters started de-contenting regular trucks. The 8th was where we started seeing lifestyle malarky like the 1991 blacked out Night Edition. It makes me shiver just thinking about the commercials. Gahhh…

  13. I don’t know when it happened or which manufacturer did it first but I blame the invention of the interior side view mirror adjuster for all the truck bloat that came after.
    There is something about rolling down the window (rain or shine) and manhandling that big rectangular mirror into the perfect position to back up a trailer that says “this thing is for work” and nothing else matters.

  14. If we’re comparing old Ford trucks.. I think I prefer the OJ-era F-150 which I believe was the one that immediately followed this one? I had a ’96 Bronco (I think OJ had a ’94) and it was just an absolute champ, so I have to assume the F-150s of that same year-span were champs too.

    Hey… ALLOW PICTURES IN COMMENTS PLEASE!!!

  15. I’d say the early 90s was peak rationality in Truck design. Everything had ABS, everything had just enough airbags, had relatively simple EFI systems on durable and proven engines, simple emissions controls and OBD 1&2, had improved aero without compromising driver visibility, usability, durability, etc., and we still had compact pickups!

    The Ford Maverick Pickup is supposed to be a “compact” pickup but my 1994 Toyota pickup that seats 5 (legally not comfortably) and has a 6ft bed is narrower than the Maverick by 5.9 inches (66.5 vs 72.4) and shorter than the Maverick by 6.6 inches (193.1 vs 199.7)!

    It does seem like Kei Trucks have stayed mostly as rational as they were in the early 90s but the tax laws that made Kei Trucks and Kei Cars worth it are said to be going away, and so will end the era of Practical Trucks.

    With how expensive, complex, and fragile modern Trucks are Honestly unless you need a 5th wheel hookup I’d just get a practical car that can tow the trailer you need. I don’t feel bad when a work trailer of mine gets scratched or dinged, I do feel bad if my car does. For my usage a Modern Toyota iQ remade as a hybrid with AWD-e would be able do 99% of the towing I need to do and it would be infinitely more practical for me to drive around when not towing than my pickup is.

    I just need said remade AWD-e Hybrid Toyota iQ to have a tow hitch (at least as an option), to come in a tire size you can get snow tires for in the US, to seat 3, and to turn as tightly or nearly as tightly as the original while getting 35+ MPG.

    The only reason I could see myself buying a new pickup is my old Truck has given up the ghost and I need a summer to acquire another old Truck then rebuild everything to my specs, and in that case I’d probably get an XL Maverick Hybrid and put tons of miles on it and tons of stuff in the bed, using it like a driven trailer.

  16. My dad had one of these for our farm. I drove it quite a bit on the farm and then a few years later when I was moving it was my DD for about a month as I was traveling back and forth moving stuff between two cities. That thing served me very well and was easy to drive and handle.

  17. The only pickup trucks (other than the Dakota convertible) that ever caught my fancy were the Toyotas and Datsuns circa 1970. IIRC, each of these two manufacturers sold a nice red color that went well with their pickups. Of course, I am three years older than dirt so my fondness for smaller and simpler vehicles may just be nostalgia.

    1. i mean, i love these f150s, but I’m grudgingly going to agree. I learned to drive in an orange 76 toyota long bed. what an absolutely amazing, indestructible machine. that 20R is still maybe the most awesome, simple, nuke-proof motor ever built…

  18. I would actually argue the 9th gen “aero nose” F-Series represents peak design. Simple, purposeful design, both inside and out, but with just enough of a modern feel that you don’t feel like you’re in a really old truck (even though you are).

  19. I own a 96 Eddie Bauer but have had and prefer the 8th gen for all but the dash. The 9th gen added multi speed wipers which I very much missed but does have the left foot brights which I rather prefer. The i6 with a 5 speed (the maligned Mazda or the zf5) have both treated me very well.
    I have also mentioned before half my family is GMC and the 400/800s have been stout and robust for them as well, mostly in suburban form. These trucks are really getting hot both Ford and Chevy so grab a clean one while you can. Take care of it and it’ll outlast you.

  20. I had one of these F150’s, bought as an old beater. Had no good use for it, only bought it because pickup insurance was cheaper than anything else, but it was simple and charming, and given that I eventually pretty much gave it away, there’s a part of me that wishes I still had it, although rationally I still wouldn’t have much more use for it. GMT400s are better looking, but I’m still fond enough of these.

    I do want to recognize though, that the GMT900s were an admirable late attempt to make a simple, honest looking truck. It’s a little tall, a little thick around the middle, but it doesn’t look like it would corner you at a party to ask about how much you lift, bro.

  21. I will always have a soft spot for these trucks and the Gmt400’s. My grandfather had a late 8th gen f250, 460, 5spd, 4wd with a bale spear in the bed. Bought a year or 2 used. Every trip to the farm included some early morning runs to check cattle and drop a bale. Up and down muddy tracks. That truck never let him down and I can still smell the interior to this day. The cloth seats, rubber floors, bit of mud and crap, and old leather work gloves. Eventually it became the yard truck and he bought something nicer for daily use. Old thing was still running well after he died.

    The Gmt400’s are near and dear because 1 or the 2 cars I learned to drive in, was a 92 2wd Suburban. Good way to improve your parallel parking skills, mirror adjustments and blind spot awareness driving one. Would eat the miles like it was nothing and took no real special work to keep running. It died at 220k miles with all original engine and trans, due to a drunk driver rear ending my dad. Bent the frame down more than 3inches. Insurance saw the frame bend and just sent a check.

  22. I guess I’ll have to be the contrarian removing his rose-colored glasses about this era of F-150. Prior to buying a 1990 F-150 my father had owned a ’77 Dodge with a 318 and 3-on-the-tree (in which I learned to drive stick) and an ’82 Dodge with a 318 and 4-on-the-floor (a truck which I loved unreservedly). The ’90 F-150 with a 302 V8 was the biggest piece of junk pickup my father ever owned. This man who never replaced a clutch in his life on his other pickups while running several of them over 100,000 miles was on his third clutch and second transmission within 50,000 miles. Ford had the temerity to tell him it was how he drove and refused to take care of him under warranty. That, and the motor was absolutely anemic. With the I6 things might have been ok, but wow, that truck was awful. He only kept it for three or four years.

  23. My first new vehicle was a 1989 F150 XLT Lariat regular cab shortbed, It had the 4.9 six with a 5 speed, in those days even though it was a Lariat, it still had manual crank windows (power was optional) I liked the looks of the GMT400 trucks, but they were more expensive and I didn’t like the dashboard in those. It was a great truck, the 4.9 was bulletproof, I hauled a pallet of bricks for a friend and it barely squatted. Got hit in the truck and had it repaired but it was never the same afterwards, I replaced it with a 98 Regular cab shortbed 4.6 V8 5 speed. The 98 really did make up for the pitfalls of the older truck in terms of ride and comfort, the cab was roomier, but it wasn’t as much of a truck as the 89. Hauled a load of drywall in the 98 and it squatted like a lowrider. Had that one for 15 years, but reluctantly sold it as the Michigan salt was taking its toll on everything (gas tank, brake lines, exhaust manifolds, etc). Currently have a 18 F150 regular cab shortbed (now they’re a unicorn of trucks) with just the 3.3 V6, surprisingly it has decent power (290 hp), when driving in the mountains you need to run it in sport mode or it stresses. It feels so much bigger than the earlier trucks. My favorite would be the 98, but I wouldn’t mind another 89 for just around town stuff.

  24. Do not disagree that this era of Ford trucks are better than the later models.
    But I favor the bumpside ford (67-72). Two of the three single cab pickups in my fleet are of this flavor, with the 1/3 truck being a 92 chevy.

  25. I just miss simple single cab trucks that are meant to be used as trucks. I’ve got a 97 Ranger with a V6 & 4WD . It does everything I want it to, other than having the passenger side speaker work all the time. I only use it for truck things like hauling stuff or camping if we need 4WD to get to a campsite. By today’s standards it’s small, but I like that because it’s large enough to be useful, but small enough that it’s not a pain in the ass to drive. With proper maintenance it will probably last me the rest of my life, unless I can no longer buy gas for it some day.

  26. It probably was the most rational design but I personally prefer the ones right before this, up to I think it was ‘86. Either way the 70s-80s was peak pickup truck for sure and it’s been a gradual slide from there.

  27. I have a fondness for these and similar vintage Rangers and S10s. Dodge trucks can eat a fart, but something about the simplicity of the 80’s trucks is something I pine for. There’s like, 6 parts that could possibly fail on them and 4 of them can be kept spare behind the seat. Not that I’d give up my cushy home, but if I was forced to van/car life? I think I’d put a camper cap on the back of one of these and hit the road.

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