Whatever Happened to Pickup Cars?

If you’re under 40, this may be hard to believe, but there were popular car-based small pickup trucks on the market for years.

There’s no good word for a pickup/car hybrid in American English. The Australians call them “utes,” short for utility vehicles. From the 1950s through the early 1980s there were two to four models available in the U.S. market. Where did they go? And are they coming back?

After all, the demand for vehicles with some hauling capacity has never been stronger. The Ford F-150 has been one of America’s top-selling vehicles for decades, and Chevrolet trucks are not far behind.

What’s the difference between a “ute” and a pickup? The cargo tray is integrated with the passenger car body, not separate like a pickup truck.

A forgotten era

Ford launched the trend in 1957 with the debut of the Ranchero, a small pickup based on a two-door station wagon platform. More than half a million were sold in North America through 1979.

Chevrolet answered back in 1959 with the El Camino, produced 1959-1960 and then revived 1964-1987. Some Rancheros and El Caminos are prized by collectors today, especially if they were originally equipped with big-block monster engines from the ’60s and ’70s.

Dodge and VW also came to the “ute” party. Dodge’s entry was the 1982 Rampage 2.2 and the 1983 Plymouth Scamp based on the Omni/Horizon hatchback platform.

VW built a Rabbit-based pickup known as the Caddy in other markets, and the Subaru Brat also qualified for the club, although the seats in the Brat’s bed limited its actual utility. To get around import tariffs on pickup trucks, Subaru welded a pair of rear-facing seats into the bed so it would qualify as a passenger car.

Car-based trucks were squeezed out of the market due to rising environmental regulations. The fuel economy and emissions requirements were lower for vehicles categorized as light trucks, so it was more profitable for the automakers to switch to light trucks.

Return of the “ute”

Now the trends are shifting back to favor small pickups with comfortable rides and lots of amenities and gadgets.

One thing holding back the return of the “ute” is the lack of rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame platforms that could haul and tow a reasonable amount of weight. That’s what separates the real pickups from posers – the ability to effortlessly move a whole bunch of stuff. Most candidate platforms are front wheel drive with unibody construction and four or six-cylinder engines, which limits their hauling capacity.

Still, Chrysler has been toying with bringing back an updated version of the Rampage since about 2006. Images of the Detroit Auto Show concept car have surfaced again. Fortune magazine reported that Jeep will launch a pickup based on the Wrangler. Jeep produced small trucks called the Comanche, and a Wrangler-based version called the CJ-8 Scrambler. Fiat Chrysler America announced it’s investing $1-billion to update two Jeep factories in Ohio and Michigan. A pickup version could be coming as soon as 2019.

Volkswagon is contemplating getting back in the “ute” game with the Tanoak, based on the new Atlas SUV.

Hyundai may take a crack at it as well with the Santa Cruz, planned for the 2019 model year. Designed for urban adventurers, the Santa Cruz can carry a stack of wood for a bonfire or haul the team’s gear to the game. The 2.0-liter turbo diesel with 190 hp returns about 30 mpg, and the optional all-wheel-drive system will help power through light snowfall.

Hyundai says they’re not trying to convert truck buyers but are targeting crossover SUV drivers who want a little more. With four doors and room for five, the Santa Cruz could replace the typical SUV for people who need to separate the cargo from the cabin.

We may be in the midst of an “it’s-so-old-it’s-new-again” trend, so keep an eye out for a new generation of “utes” or car-pickup hybrids to hit showrooms in the near future.

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