An overwhelming majority of the pickup trucks meandering American roads follow the same formula. Big, burly and strong.
It’s the basic recipe that made the Ford F-Series the nation’s best-selling vehicle for the past 41 years. There’s another side to the segment, though. Historically, auto-makers have experimented with off-beat trucks that are small, fast, part SUV or built on a unibody platform. Some sold well while others floundered. Here are some of the pickup trucks that broke the mold in North America.
Crosley Parkway Delivery (1940)
Powell Crosley turned his attention to the automotive industry after making millions selling radios and appliances. He distributed his unique breed of tiny cars equipped with a two-cylinder engine through department stores across America. They failed to catch on in an era when, broadly speaking, the American public saw fuel-efficient cars as a trend that needed to be checked rather than cultivated. Powell nonetheless branched out into the truck segment in 1940 with the Parkway Delivery.
Pricing started at $325, a sum which converts to approximately $5800 today. Though marketed as a nimble delivery vehicle for urban areas, the Parkway Delivery didn’t appeal to truck buyers due partly to its 12hp engine. Crosley made 422 cars in 1940 and 2289 the following year. It gradually expanded its line-up of commercial models until production screeched to a halt during the Second World War. Crosley made other trucks after the war, including some with an engine made using copper-brazed sheet metal, but the brand shut its doors in 1952. Note: 1950 model pictured.
Hudson Cab Pickup (1946)
Hudson saw a market for a car-like truck after the war. The company took a Commodore body, cut it behind the front seats and added a pickup box. The end result was a two-wheel drive model that sat much lower than dedicated truck designs from Dodge, Chevrolet and Ford. The line-up included half- and three-quarter-ton variants. The Cab Pickup returned to the Hudson line-up in 1947 but production ended after the company released the third-generation Commodore in December of that year.
Mercury M-Series (1946)
Ford gave Mercury’s Canadian division its own version of the F-Series to fill a geographical gap. Research showed most towns in Canada had either a Ford or a Lincoln-Mercury dealer but not both. Named M-Series, Mercury’s version of the truck differed from its Ford-badged counterpart through brand-specific emblems on both ends and, at times, a new-look grille. Both models were mechanically identical, though Mercury often offered a smaller line-up than Ford. M-Series production ended in 1968.
Meteor, a sub-brand Ford created specifically for the Canadian market, launched a re-badged version of the original, car-based Ranchero truck in 1957. Note: 1966 model pictured.
Ford Ranchero (1957)
Speaking of the Ranchero, it arrived in late 1957 with a tagline claiming it was ‘more than a car! More than a truck!’ There was no other pickup like it on the market at the time. Like its relatively restrained dimensions suggested, it traced its roots to Ford’s passenger car line and came only with rear-wheel drive. In that respect, it was much closer to the utes zig-zagging across Australia than to the F-Series.
Ford built seven different generations of the Ranchero between 1957 and 1979.
Note: 1957 model pictured.
Chevrolet El Camino (1959)
At first, General Motors didn’t know what to make of the Ford Ranchero. It could catch on or it could fall flat on its chrome-festooned face. When sales grew, the auto-maker commissioned its Chevrolet division to hastily bring a rival to the market. The first El Camino rolled off the assembly line in 1959. Like the Ranchero, it started life as a station wagon. It wore an elegant design characterized by curved a-pillars, a wrap-around windshield and fins that became bigger as they stretched from the cab to the tailgate.
Chevrolet stopped making the first-generation El Camino in 1960. The model returned to the brand’s catalog in 1964 and production lasted until late 1987. GMC sold its own version of the truck starting in 1971, first as the Sprint and later as the Caballero. Note: 1959 model pictured.
Cadillac Mirage (1975)
Well before the Escalade EXT, pickup buyers in the market for a Cadillac needed to make their own from scratch or find one of the roughly 204 examples of the Mirage built in the middle of the 1970s. California-based Traditional Coach Works performed the conversion in-house and sold the cars itself, though some historians claim a handful of Cadillac dealers distributed the Mirage, too. The truck started life as an Eldorado and became a more luxurious alternative to the Chevrolet El Camino with an 8.2-liter V8 in its cavernous engine bay.
Other coachbuilders made Cadillac pickups during the 1970s, including Formal Coach Corporation and Caribou Motor Corporation. Traditional Coach Works also converted the Eldorado into a station wagon.
Dodge Lil’ Red Truck (1978)
The Lil’ Red Truck remains the most famous member of Dodge’s dubiously-named ‘adult toys’ line-up. Based on the standard-production D150, it got a 225hp V8 with Super-Flow cylinder heads, a four-barrel carburetor and a cold air induction system. The eight-cylinder exhaled through a pair of Freightliner-like chromed stacks positioned behind the cab.
Dodge made 2188 examples of the Lil’ Red Truck in 1978 and 5118 in 1979. Highly collectible today, it blazed the path other high-performance trucks made by Dodge and its rivals followed. We’re surprised the firm hasn’t made a 21st century version of it yet.
Dodge Rampage (1982)
The homely Dodge Omni supplied its front-wheel drive platform to the Rampage, a mini-truck aimed right at the Subaru Brat. Plymouth later sold its own version of the model named Scamp, which was a not-so-discreet shot at its Japanese rival. Expensive for what it was, the Rampage retired after receiving a face-lift in 1984. Plymouth built its variant in 1983 only and never made another pickup.
Dodge Dakota Sport Convertible (1989)
You’re not alone if you think the idea of a convertible pickup truck represents the answer to the question no one asked. And yet, that’s precisely what Dodge released in 1989 when it launched the Dakota Sport Convertible. The brand added a roll hoop and a soft top to its mid-range truck to create a one-of-a-kind vehicle aimed at sun lovers with things (surfboards, presumably) to haul.
The novelty of driving an unusual convertible-truck cross came at a relatively high cost. The two-wheel drive Sport Convertible cost $15,915 (about $30,300 today) in 1990. In comparison, the base Dakota started at $10,115 (roughly $19,200 today) that same year.
Dodge Shelby Dakota (1989)
Shelby’s variant of the Dodge Dakota became the first to receive a V8 engine. It wasn’t just any V8, either. The tuner tossed out the stock 3.9-liter V6 and installed a 5.2-liter eight-cylinder that churned out 175hp, a big number for the era. Shelby built 1475 examples of the Dakota in 1989 only.
Ford SkyRanger (1991)
The Dakota Sport Convertible caught Ford by surprise. The firm enlisted the American Sunroof Company (ASC), the same people who made Dodge’s top-less truck possible, to turn the Ranger into a convertible pickup named SkyRanger. Starting with an extended cab truck, ASC cut off the roof, added a cloth soft top and tacked on a body kit that included a rear spoiler and a roll bar integrated into the bed. Ford pulled the plug on the project after ASC converted less than 20 trucks.
GMC Syclone (1991)
General Motors saw a market for a sportier, more fun-oriented small truck but it steered well clear of the convertible segment. Instead, its GMC division set out to turn the S-15 into a performance car. On the face of it, the project sounded even wilder than chopping the top off a Dakota or a Ranger.
It was, but it was better. Engineers working on the Syclone project were unfettered by rules save for those they laid down. They dropped a turbocharged, 4.3-liter V6 into the S-15’s engine bay and tuned it to 280hp. As a result, the Syclone could keep up with some of the most exotic machines on the planet.
GMC built under 3000 examples in 1991. Each one cost $25,950 (about $47,400 today), a figure that made it more expensive than the top-spec Chevrolet Camaro and placed it close to the Corvette.
Ford F-150 SVT Lightning (1993)
Ford remembers it built the F-150 SVT Lightning to take a turn, not just to sprint down a drag strip. Its 5.8-liter V8 sent 240hp to the rear wheels. The hot-rodded truck could keep up with a Mustang GT around a race course and tow one if needed, too. Visually, it stood out from the its workhorse siblings with a body-colored grille and a body kit. Ford made 5276 examples of the truck until 1995.
The Lightning model returned to the F-150 line-up in 1999. This time, it used a supercharged V8 engine with 360hp. Ford bumped its output to 380hp later in the production run, dropping its 0-60mph time to a sports car-like 5.2sec. Rumors of a modern-day Lightning based on the current F-150 surface every now and then but they haven’t materialized yet.
Ford Explorer Sport Trac (2000)
In the late 1990s, Ford explored (sorry) the idea of turning the Explorer into a more leisure-oriented pickup truck. The model needed to be much smaller than the F-150 yet less utilitarian than the Ranger, the firm’s entry-level pickup at the time. And, above all, it needed to offer something different.
The Explorer Sport Trac made its debut in February 2000. To create it, Ford stretched the Explorer and added a small cargo box behind the passenger compartment. The firm offered a tailgate-mounted cargo cage that pivoted back when users needed more space.
The nameplate returned for a second generation in 2006. Production ended in 2010 when the Explorer shifted to a unibody platform. By that point, the lifestyle-oriented truck market had collapsed.
Chevrolet Avalanche (2001)
With the Avalanche, Chevrolet invented a new niche within the pickup truck segment. It gave buyers a more comfortable alternative to the Silverado and a more functional alternative to the Suburban. The Avalanche came from the same mold as the Explorer Sport Trac but it was a much bigger truck. The V8-only line-up included half-ton 1500 and three-quarter-ton 2500 variants.
Named midgate, the Avalanche’s party trick let users fold down the separation between the passenger compartment and the bed to create a van-like loading space that could carry entire pieces of plywood. It was practical, and it was unique outside of the General Motors family, but Chevrolet sent the Avalanche to the chopping block after making two generations of the model. Annual sales peaked at over 93,000 units in 2003. The Avalanche famously spawned the Escalade EXT, the first and only factory-built Cadillac pickup.
Lincoln Blackwood (2002)
Lincoln created the Cadillac Cimarron of the pickup truck segment when it released the Blackwood. Encouraged by the Navigator’s popularity and motivated by the Escalade EXT, Ford’s luxury division borrowed an F-150, transplanted a Navigator-like front end and added leather upholstery inside.
It could have worked but it failed for several reasons. First, Lincoln only offered the Blackwood with rear-wheel drive. Second, a carpet-lined bed with a plastic tonneau cover limited its ability to haul more than groceries. In America, 2002 was the Blackwood’s first, last and only model year. It defiantly stuck around through the 2003 model year on the Mexican market.
Chevrolet SSR (2003)
A retro wave swept across the automotive industry in the early 2000s. Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler were among the companies that surfed it. Chevrolet’s first contribution to the movement was the SSR, a pickup truck inspired by the stylish Advance Design models built in the 1950s and based, somewhat ingloriously, on the TrailBlazer SUV. The SSR came with a power-retractable hard top and a V8.
Chevrolet ended SSR production after building 24,150 units, which remains an impressive number for what’s fundamentally a niche within a niche. Today, the model enjoys a loyal and growing following among enthusiasts.
Subaru Baja (2002)
Subaru tried to re-capture the Brat’s spirit by turning the Legacy into a pickup. This time, the model received four doors instead of two and rugged-looking plastic cladding over the bottom part of the body. There was no mistaking it for a run-of-the-mill Legacy. Later models benefited from more power and additional ground clearance but the nameplate never lived up to Subaru’s expectations.
Dodge Ram SRT-10 (2004)
Dodge unveiled the Ram SRT-10 as a close-to-production concept at the 2002 Detroit auto show, though it made enthusiasts wait until 2004 for the opportunity to take delivery of one. The wait was well worth it. The SRT-10 received a Viper-sourced 8.3-liter V10 engine stuffed under a hood scoop big enough to swallow a toolbox and a long list of chassis modifications required to keep the shiny side up. The 10-cylinder made 500hp, which is Mercedes-AMG C63-like today. Keep in mind that, in 2004, the SRT-10 had more power on tap than a Ferrari 360.
Nearly 10,000 examples of the SRT-10 found a home during a production run that lasted three model years. Dodge (now Ram) hasn’t made a wilder truck since. However, industry rumors indicate the 707hp Hellcat engine will find its way into the newest Ram 1500 sooner or later.
GMC Envoy XUV (2004)
The Envoy XUV propelled GMC into the short-lived sport utility truck segment. Half SUV and half truck, it offered an innovative retractable roof panel that slid forward to reveal a pickup-like box. The midgate system adapted from the Avalanche gave the XUV Sierra-rivaling cargo capacity. Production prematurely ended in 2005 after GMC realized no one took much notice. Motorists who wanted a truck bought a Sierra; those who wanted an SUV bought a standard Envoy.
Honda Ridgeline (first-generation, 2005)
When it launched the Ridgeline in 2005, Honda took pride in bringing a completely different type of truck to the American market. It wasn’t a work-focused model developed for construction sites. It took the form of a more lifestyle-oriented pickup designed for families with an active, outdoorsy lifestyle.
To that end, the Ridgeline used unibody construction instead of a tougher body-on-frame configuration. Honda stylists took advantage of the unusual packaging solution to give the Ridgeline tall bed sides. They also added a trick dual-action tailgate that could fold down or swing out and an in-bed trunk that doubled as an ice box.
Ford SVT Raptor (2009)
After Dodge stopped building the Ram SRT-10, auto-makers collectively placed the idea of a true high-performance pickup truck on the backburner. Ford decided to once again turn up the heat by building what’s essentially a street-legal Baja racer. The original SVT Raptor arrived in late 2009 with up to 411 horsepower under the hood and enough wheel travel to put a lowrider to shame.
The second-generation Raptor downsized by adopting a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 engine that provides 450hp. We drove it recently and concluded it has all the single-minded purpose of a Porsche 911 GT3, only for a very different sort of task.
Honda Ridgeline (second-generation, 2016)
Honda introduced the second-generation Ridgeline at the 2016 Detroit auto show. The model still rides on a unibody platform, and it continues to offer a V6 engine and clever features like the in-bed trunk, but extensive market research convinced the firm to make the newest Ridgeline look more like a conventional truck than its predecessor. Design clinics revealed many truck shoppers didn’t put the original Ridgeline on their list due to its eccentric looks.
Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak concept (2018)
The Honda Ridgeline presently has no direct competitors on the American market. That might soon change. Volkswagen recently unveiled its take on the concept of a unibody pickup truck at the 2018 New York auto show. Named Atlas Tanoak, the design study shares its surprisingly modular platform with the Atlas SUV, the Polo and the Audi TT, among numerous other models.
Want one? Don’t send Volkswagen a deposit quite yet. The company told Autocar the Atlas Tanoak remains a concept that hasn’t received the proverbial green light for production yet.