Pickup Sales Are Down, But The Macho Truck Is Here to Stay

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 21, 2016

I’ve never been able to bark at my kids, “Get in the truck!” Why? Because I don’t have a truck, and never did. Since my hands have proven useless for work of any kind, a pickup would have been more for show than anything.

This is no ordinary F-150. It's a Ford-approved 650-horsepower VelociRaptor from Hennessy Performance. Yes, it's possible to spend big on pickups--these start at $73,500. (Hennessy Performance)

And then there’s the utility thing: If you leave stuff in an uncovered pickup bed, it rolls around, and gets wet. To make it into a four-door, four-seater requires a vehicle so massive that it wouldn’t fit into my garage, and sub-20-mpg gas mileage is a virtual certainty.

And now the American people seem to be agreeing with me—at least for now. According to Automotive Fleet, pickup sales are very healthy—at a probable 2.16 million in 2016 (a modest gain from 2015), but they’re also essentially flat, and likely to remain so until 2018. One sign of the times is that Ford is temporarily idling production in Kansas City of its much-heralded aluminum-bodied F-150, the most popular vehicle in America. Sales were down three percent in September.

The macho truck lives. Nissan introduced this Titan Warrior concept at the 2016 Detroit show. (Jim Motavalli photo)

According to Autoweek, “Ford dealers reportedly had a 95-day supply of pickups on their lots at the end of September—a significant oversupply.” There are “continuing signs of saturation.”

The market isn’t bad, just stagnant. “Topline sales forecast is basically flat from 2015 to 2018, so growth is in the rear-view mirror for now,” said Jeff Schuster, a senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive. He predicted sales to pickup again—to 2.15 million—in 2018.

A strong housing market is one reason there’s still plenty of demand for pickups. How many do you see a day with sheetrock hanging out the back? Construction is at an eight-year high. The trucks that I see doing that kind of work are usually rusty and paint-splattered, but if there’s enough work eventually they get replaced with a new ride.

This diesel V-8, AWD XD SL Titan is not for the faint-hearted--it's priced at $56,225.

But there’s also what we might call the “dude” truck. Apparently, before the recession of ’08, there were a lot of poseurs and urban cowboys out there, buying trucks not because they needed to move anything but because they liked the image. The recession killed that market, and pickup trucks fell to 1.5 million units annually.

But rising affluence and a healthy economy means the fancy truck market is coming back. White-collar guys like to think they’re work-shirted warriors on the weekend.

This GMC Sierra 1500 4WD Denali boasts AWD, a big V-8, leather and a $52,860 bottom line. (GM photo)

Truck ads play to the image. According to Marketing-Schools.org, “There is not a lot of variety in pickup truck advertising. Most ads feature men in jeans toiling on a construction site, towing a tractor, or escaping off into the mountains for a solitary weekend of fishing. Wrapped up within these clichéd images are powerful messages about what it means to be a man in America. Work is one of the most common themes in pickup truck advertisements. A truck is a tool for work and the men who own them have important work to do. Truck ads tap into men’s desire to be productive, capable, tough and experienced.”

Demographics I found from a survey by the Maine Department of Resource Economics and Policy are interesting. In Maine, 91 percent of pickup buyers are male, with a $50,000 average household income, and only 10 percent belong to environmental groups (with minivan owners, it’s 22 percent). Forty-eight percent of these folks (average age is 52) are hunters, and 24 percent own all-terrain vehicles (versus 10 percent for those minivan/station wagon owners). Their political affiliation wasn’t asked, but my guess is a lot of ’em want to make America great again.

This isn’t a cheap indulgence. Large pickups can be expensive. Car and Driver reports, “With a little effort, you can have a luxury-lined behemoth for $60K, $70K, or even $80 grand.” A 2016 F-150 can list for up to $62,310, and a crew-cab F-450 can approach $90,000.

People are paying that kind of money for tricked-out trucks—loaded with big beds, SuperCrew cabs, trailer tow packages and all-wheel drive. In 2010, nine percent of light-duty half-ton pickups sold for more than $40,000, but that percentage went up 44 percent in just a year.

All that’s interesting in light of the fact that the Maine study shows pickup buyers with lower family income (and less education) than SUV or minivan consumers. These owners have shown a willingness to reach deep to pay for their trucks.

The big pickup is uniquely American, though companies like Nissan, Toyota and Mazda have learned how to craft product for that market, too. Pickup culture isn’t going away; this is just a temporary setback. The only thing that dealt a serious blow to pickup sales was $4 a gallon gasoline, and that isn’t coming back soon in a world awash in oil.

Here's a look at some of the most expensive trucks available on the American market. Don't worry, they're not going away:


Get the Car Talk Newsletter