By on November 24, 2015

I was having a conversation with a female friend a few weeks ago and she admitted to having “fooled around” in no fewer than four different brands of minitrucks during the Nineties and Oughties. I suppose in her case that would be the Noughties — but that’s besides the point. I should also mention that the fourth “minitruck” was really a Colorado, and the incident in question happened fairly recently.

“There’s always some kind of stick shift in the way, in those little trucks, you know?” she said.

“Those are the little crosses that empowered young women have to bear,” was my response.

The conversation could have gone in any number of directions from there, but where it actually went was to A Brief Discussion Of Mini-Trucks In America, 1970-2010. I thought it might be a conversation worth having with all of you, as well, because it showcases a rather unique phenomenon in American automotive history.courier

Much has been written about Detroit’s inability or unwillingness to take the Japanese competition seriously, but it’s worth noting that Detroit’s dealers, particularly on the coasts, didn’t share in that consensual illusion. They could clearly see the value and utility in the first generation of Japanese minitrucks to hit these shores, and they were demanding action as early as the mid-Sixties. While GM and Ford had their subcompact cars in the pipeline, there wasn’t any equivalent plan to provide home-built compact trucks.

In order to keep the dealers happy, therefore, the Big 3 reached out to their various partners in Japan. Ford was first to have product on the ground, with the Courier in 1971. It was powered by a 1.8-liter inline four that developed 74 horsepower. This compared well with the first-generation Toyota truck, although once the “classic” N20 successor appeared in 1974 with its two-liter engine, the Courier could no longer keep up. It was basically a Japanese-market Mazda truck, with minor alterations.

chevyluv

The Chevy LUV appeared the following year. There was no corresponding GMC version, perhaps because the younger buyers GM was targeting didn’t frequent GMC dealers. It was a badge-engineer job of the home-market Isuzu truck, fortified with a million tape-and-stripe packages to appeal to California surfers and dirt-bike racers. It sold anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 units a year; not enough to significantly upset the market one way or another, but it kept close to a million buyers in a customer relationship with Chevrolet dealerships instead of letting them cross over to the Toyota shop from whence they would likely never return.

The LUV, like many other Japanese-built compact trucks, came across the ocean most of the time as a cab-and-chassis, for purposes of dodging the 25-percent “chicken tax”. It was reassembled once it reached the port in a fashion similar to the way that cargo-spec Transit Connects arrived in this country with seats installed, said seats being removed after the fact. At the time, there was much lore about “Japanese beds” and “American beds” in the minitrucking community. “Japanese beds” were single-wall affairs with rolled edges and, sometimes, cargo hooks welded under the exterior rim. “American beds” were double-walled and supposedly much more resistant to rust.

The reality of it was that only Toyota, to my knowledge, ever installed “Japanese” and “American” beds at the same time. Everybody else stuck with a Japanese-made bed. All of them rusted like hell wouldn’t have it. Outside the coasts, Japanese pickups might run forever but they didn’t last forever. It was common for the single-wall beds to rust through before the last payment was made. There was a brisk business done in acid-dipping Japanese truck beds so they could be Bondo-ed and repainted.

courier2

Four-speed manuals were the most common transmission, with five-speeds coming on stream right before the second generation of the captive trucks appeared in the late Seventies. Ford beat GM by four years this time, the squared-off Courier appearing in 1977 and the new LUV in 1981. The new Courier was considerably ahead of everybody, style-wise, but by then Ford understood the benefits of having a homegrown compact pickup and was already in development with what would become the Ranger.

The same was even more true for GM, which introduced its revised LUV just a year ahead of the domestically-produced S-10. But just as two of the Big 3 were leaving the import-pickup game, Chrysler was stepping in with a variant of Mitsubishi’s brand-new first-generation compact truck. Sold as the Dodge D50 and Plymouth Arrow, the captive Chrysler was stylistically halfway between the original LUV and the squared-off successor. This was despite the fact that Chrysler was about to follow Volkswagen’s lead in building a very light-duty pickup from its Omni/024 chassis.

arrow

As a driving proposition, however, it was far and away superior to the rest of the field. Your humble author had some wheel time in nearly all of the era’s compact trucks, regrettably in more of a McJob capacity than a making-out-across-the-bench capacity, and I can attest that the Arrow truck was a Corvette in a field of Chevelles. The five-speed was positively car-like: light effort, short throw. The brakes were sharp, and the motor liked to rev. Most importantly, the seating position was low, close to what you’d get from a Seventies Arrow compact.

It’s interesting, in retrospect, to consider just how different all the captive trucks were. The Ford was the most “truck-like”, the LUV was the flimsiest, and the Arrow was the sports car of the group. All of them were much more like compact cars than the Ranger or S-10 that would succeed them. Those first-gen American minitrucks aped the ponderous, upright nature of their full-size showroom mates, even though they were much closer in dimensions to the Japanese trucks with which they competed.

Again, having driven the S-10 and Ranger of the era when they were new, it’s difficult to overstate just how much less enjoyable they were to steer and operate than their Japanese captive predecessors. As a parts driver for my local BMW dealership, I had the choice every day of a ’79 Arrow or an ’83 Ranger, as long as I got to the shop before my fellow parts driver did. I made sure to be early every day because the Arrow was a pleasure and the Ranger was a chore.

It was an era where few of the available choices had over a hundred horsepower, tires were narrow, and accommodations were cramped. Air conditioning was a rare option. While these trucks were reliable by the standards of the era, they were chock-full of untrustworthy blower motors and instrument panels and ignition systems. Yet they were a joy to drive in a way that few modern cars can approach. They had light back ends and stick axles and there was very little insulation between the driver and the road. A lot of people chose them over the front-wheel-drive compacts of the day because they were the cheapest and closest thing a budget-minded buyer could get to a sporting vehicle.

They just weren’t very good at being substitutes for full-sized trucks. Which brings us to Part 2 of this story, in which we answer the question: Just how much farther could you go in a Colorado than you could in a Courier?

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91 Comments on “A Selective History of Captive Minitrucks, Part One: When America Couldn’t Compete...”


  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    When I was in middle school and Jr. high from about ’86 to ’90, the Chevy Luv and Toyota Hilux were HUGELY popular among my teachers. There were 4-5 in the parking lot every day. One teacher whose yard I mowed in the summers taught me to drive stick in a Hilux. Rusty as hell but I remember the engine purred and the A/C was ice cold. An avid gardener, she probably still has that truck if the frame hasn’t rusted away.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Curbside Classic has been running Road & Track articles from the late ’70s. I’ve been noticing that in the comparison data panels, Chrysler’s captive Mitsubishis tended to be the quickest cars in their classes. At one point, the Plymouth Fire Arrow was one of the quicker affordable cars one could buy, able to see off any pony car after the T/A lost the 400 and quicker than any European four cylinder car.

    Isuzu and Mazda both were able to take advantage of the mediocrity of the S10 and Ranger to sell their own pickups at their own dealers successfully for a while. It’s funny that they both ended their pickup days selling rebadged Detroit-3 trucks.

    In the early ’70s, nobody was selling pickups in numbers so large that 100,000 units a year would be shrugged off. It wasn’t until CAFE forced everyone that needed capabilities out of big powerful cars and into pickups that sales took off.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    The man in the first LUV image has his hand on the bed to cover up the rust spot that had already formed there.

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      Yeah, but… OMG, hubcaps!

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        I should prefer if they were all chrome, or all color-keyed!

        • 0 avatar
          RideHeight

          That yellow one reminds me of a baby Dodge D-Series:

          http://www.allpar.com/photos/dodge/trucks/1966/1967-d100.jpg

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Oh oh! Speaking of old Dodge, big 3-car crash in front of my house last night. I’m upstairs at about 5:45 and hear BANG… BANG BANG!

            Bits of car all over the road. I got to see what happens to a new Rav4 when it rear ends a stopped Envoy hard enough to push it into the Dodge A100 van in front of it.

            I was most surprised of course, to see someone driving about in an A100. The Rav could no longer move of it’s own accord and had to be towed. The Envoy would need a new bumper and tailgate, and front grille. The A100 I suppose will need a new metal bumper back there. A100 was helped by the fact that the arse was raised due to staggered, larger rear tires.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            Sh1t, was the idiot in the RAV texting, I wonder? But YAY tough-ass old A100!

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            It was teal and white!

            I would have to assume he was texting. He looked older, and simply must not have been paying attention at all. Near dusk, that time when some people have their lights on and others don’t, though everyone should.

  • avatar
    Waftable Torque

    Good thing companies like Mazda have discovered the virtues of superior rustproofing technology! Always learn from your mistakes!

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    Walking by a parked grim survivor of the minitruck era is one of the most emphatic “F*ck, I’m old!” moments it’s possible to have.

    Accustomed as we are to modern-sized vehicles it’s almost alarming that something so tinny, fragile and eminently lunchable in today’s conditions was ever legally roadworthy.

    Home Depot and Lowe’s park bigger, heavier garden vehicles out front.

  • avatar
    Toad

    These compact pickups were a game changer but they turned out to be an evolutionary dead end. They had incredibly tight cabs and virtually no inside storage space, even behind the seats; if you needed to carry anything bigger than a lunch box it had better be weatherproof. They were adequate for hauling two mid-size people and whatever cargo that could stand being outside in the bed, but that’s it. Truly a malaise era product.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      I agree! When I hear (or read) people going on and on about how we just need compact trucks like what we had in the 70s-80s, I have to laugh. You wouldnt drive something so tiny, cheap, slow, uncomfortable, crampt and unsafe if they paid you to take one home! Can you imagine if Mazda came out with a 1970s B1600 replica today (or Toyota, or Nissan, etc)? Everyone everywhere would laugh them out of the country. People think the Mitsubishi Mirage is a joke, its a freakin’ Cadillac compared to early minitrucks.

      Dont get me wrong, little Datsun 620s, Toyota HiLuxs, etc were and still are neat little vehicles, but there is no way something similar would fly in North America today.

      People seem to edit their memories to only include positive attributes, and this is especially true of vehicles. “They should build a ’55 T-bird/’57 Bel Air/’65 Impala with airbags and itll sell great!” Uh-huh, yeah, sure. Even the moden(ish) Impala Limited rental-spec fleet queen special would put all of those cars to shame in EVERY catagory except style. Safer, quicker, more reliable, more comfortable, more features, better MPG, better driving dynamics, easier to live with and cheaper to maintain (no carbs to rebuild, no points, no cap/rotor, no 15,853 belts to change, etc).

      Old cars are great from a historical stand point. They are awesome for Sunday drives, car shows, bonding with your son/daughter with, etc. But would most of us live with one everyday? No. The 15th time youre late to work because you forgot that not only is it a bitch to crank in cold weather, but it MUST warm up before being drivable, youd turn it in for a freakin’ Suzuki Reno rather than deal with it. We are far too used to crank, throw it in drive, and youre off to go back to the way cars were way back when. I know I got sick of my carb’ed Isuzu Trooper after a while. Once the novelty wore off, I was ready for fuel injection again.

      I allow my high mileage 20 year old Taurus to complete its warm up cycle before setting off (easier on the drivetrain…actually, I let any car do that no matter if its new or older), and even doing so, its still easier to live with than the carb’ed Isuzu was. Starts on the first try, and in an emergency, I can throw it in gear and take off right away if I need to. I just get a harsh CLUNK when putting it into gear if I do, but it wont stall or run like total §#¡Г as the Trooper would if I tried that.

      • 0 avatar
        nrd515

        I drove both the LUV and the Courier for work back then, and have nothing pleasant to say about either one. Both were miserable vehicles, and unsafe as anything made in that era. They also actually rusted a little in VEGAS. When I co-worker bought one and was crippled for life after nearly getting her foot amputated, I refused to drive them anymore. The bosses agreed, as a Chevy van replaced both of them.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I don’t really recall seeing ANY of these captive import trucks as a child, but I do recall seeing a couple of Datsun _____ something or other models, with the quad headlamps on them. And maybe a beige or yellow Toyota _____ something here and there.

    I liked the rolled edges on those as a kid, and did not see those as cargo hooks. They were very clearly for a broom handle to go into. Broom storage!

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      “They were very clearly for a broom handle to go into. Broom storage!”

      The roots of and inspiration for the Odyssey Vac comes to light!

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Yeah, I never saw any of these as a kid. In SE Michigan, the salt had eaten them all away by the late 80s. I have a much greater affinity for late 80s/early 90s trucks and SUVs from the Big Three. Ram Chargers, Broncos, and Blazers are things I lust after.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        Didn’t your area see any of those 3rd and 4th gen (’78-’88) Toyota Franken-trucks with doors and beds a different color from the cab and front end? Also, lots of wooden stake beds on still sorta-there front ends, dwindling away now to maybe two or three sightings per year.

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          Yeah. I saw a number of those. When I lived in Arizona, I saw all sorts of weird old trucks that were crudely thrown together. I also knew people that had pristine 80s Japanese trucks. I had never seen a Nissan Hardbody without rust before living in Tucson.

          My friend in high school had a 1st gen Ford Ranger Frankentruck. 4-5 different colors of paint and a wooden tailgate.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            ” 4-5 different colors of paint and a wooden tailgate.”

            ZOMG.. that sounds like official Frankentruck Castle maintenance fleet!

  • avatar
    Pch101

    During the 1970’s, gas lines and inflation provided an incentive for some to make substantial efforts to save gas. Compared to the land yachts of that time, these trucks were relatively fuel efficient.

    Today’s trucks are not relative fuel sippers, and in any case, there is no fuel crisis or CPI problem to worry about. Lifestyle needs can be served by crossovers. A very different market.

    • 0 avatar
      wolfinator

      To me, there’s a key difference between the two. Compact trucks were at the very bottom of the price barrel (at least to start). I’m pretty young, but I remember seeing loss-leader ads for compact trucks that were close in price to the cheapest penalty box compact-cars.

      Crossovers are far more expensive in real and relative terms.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        That’s true, the role of the entry-level cheap vehicle is not longer served by anything with a bed. It just isn’t cost effective to sell trucks at bargain basement prices when they are expected to have seating for four and a fair amount of power.

        • 0 avatar
          Vulpine

          That’s true, the role of the entry-level cheap vehicle is not longer served by anything with a bed. It just isn’t cost effective to sell trucks at bargain basement prices when they are expected to have seating for four and a fair amount of power.
          —————-
          So don’t expect it to have seating for four. Two plus two, meaning an extended cab, makes much more sense for a true compact truck.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    To my eyes, the Dodge/Mitsubishi pickups were the best-looking of the captive import truck bunch. I could be wrong but I seem to remember that the Ram D50 could be had with the same eight-speed Twin Stick transmission as the Dodge Colt.

    I don’t have much wheel time with the captives. However, as a field technician/soils surveyor during the late 1970s, I have had plenty of both on-road and off-road experience with ’73 and ’77 Toyota pickups as well as one of the first ’79 Toyota 4X4 pickups – all stickshift. The cabins were tight but tolerable for a six-footer but the bench seats were pretty lousy on long trips. These Toyotas took all the abuse that the drivers could dish out and held together as well as the fullsize Dodges and Chevies in our fleet. They might get a little rattly and rusty with age and abuse, but they were tough mechanically. One curiosity about the Toyotas was that you could hear the brake light switch click every time the brake pedal was pressed.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I can’t say for certain that no D50/Arrow ever had a Twin Stick. But it would have had to have been a completely different transmission, because the Twin Stick in the Colt and Champ was a FWD transaxle design.

      • 0 avatar
        tonyola

        A check at Old Car Brochures and Wiki make no mention of the Twin Stick on the Mitsu trucks – the base transmission was apparently a 4 or 5 speed manual, depending on year. My bad and too bad – the Twin Stick was cool even if it was a kludge for not having a proper 5-speed manual.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    Sold Fords for a bit back in the late ’70s and remember gleefully changing my driver from a Fairmont to a Courier, the gas mileage of the Fairmont was horrific. The little Mazda was thoroughly thrashable and rather fun, given the only other cars on the lot that were remotely decent to drive were the Fiesta (one in stock at all times) and the new Fox Mustang V-8. Never particularly interested in selling Couriers, the commissions on full size truck could be literally ten times more. If you want to be fully depressed go look at the vehicles available in 1979 at your local Ford dealership. Had a few of the mini trucks over the ’80s and early’90s, if you didn’t actually need a full size truck, they were handy in a bunch of ways. But, yeah, they did tend to disintegrate.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    I recall the Luv when I was in high school here in Australia. I wanted one.

    The local Holden dealer had a 4×4 version with a 1.6 litre OHC engine in it. Adorning it were those tacky decals and stripping stating it was a fourbe. I’m glad that era ended in the 80s.

    I had a Datsun 521 ute with a 6×8 steel and wooden tray on the back which made it look ungainly.

    Most of the Australian Japanese utes ran different engines than the US. Slightly smaller and less powerful.

    If you wanted a bigger ute you could buy a Holden one tonner with a 308 V8 or even what was called a Super Roo 351 Ford ute. They had the engine out of the Falcon GT in them.

    Bigger still we had the F Series, Chev, Dodge, Fargo, Bedford, Jeep pickups. These sort of lost out in the end. Competition from the Japanese was fierce. Now Ford and Holden utes will be gone also.

    The end of the mini truck here in Australia was the introduction in the mid eighties of the D20. Japanese/smaller pickups really didn’t improve much since then until 2011.

    The new midsizers are also making the Ford and Holden ute obsolete.

    The other day at the local shopping centre I was parked alongside a 1972 Datsun ute in my BT50. They are small!

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    I learned to drive in my parents ’84 Nissan truck – king cab, 4X2 and oh so rare, automatic transmission so my mom could use it. With the 2.4L Z24 – 103hp, baby – and my heavy teenage foot, it seemed way faster than it was. Back then I managed to race two of my buddies, one in the Ford Courier, and the other in a EXP, and just managed to beat ’em even though they had manuals.

    Of course – this was the 80s, mind you – when I tried to run with a CRX Si, the Honda pulled away like I was standing still. *sigh*

    It was a good, rugged little truck that I was sad to see go. The carb (?) would act a little wonky from time to time, usually a good hard drive would “clean it out”. And the bed started to rust after only 2-3 years of ownership. I got to drive it my first year of college but it eventually got replaced by my dad since it was costing too much to fix. He gave me his ’87 Nissan Stanza with 200K highway miles. That car seemed downright luxurious.

    Fast forward to buying my first vehicle when I got out of college – bought a ’94 Nissan truck with a king cab, the K24 engine, and a 5-speed. It was a bit larger than the ’84 and was even more fun to drive, but I still thought the older one was better in handling and downright weirdness. It was an odd vehicle especially since I grew up in a Michigan “General Motors” town.

    I was nothing but a Nissan driver for years – but after my experience with a ’97 Altima, I lost interest in the company.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      As a kid in the 80s all my buddies had Mazda B2200 pickups. And because this was the 80’s they were all mostly teal in color, covered in graphics, lowered by 4″ and full of subwoofers (extra cab models). Most people bought them because they were dirt cheap, got good gas mileage and could carry various toys (surfboards, fishing poles, dirt bikes, skateboards). If you went onto a new or used car lot these mini trucks were always the cheapest thing available, thus why they became so popular. I don’t think any of my friends wanted a “truck” per say, they just needed cheap wheels and these mini trucks fit the bill.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    “They just weren’t very good at being substitutes for full-sized trucks.”

    Beg to differ. My boss had an Isuzu minitruck, we loaded it up with sound and video gear to haul to a show plenty of times. For what most people actually need a truck for–Home Depot runs and moving tall furniture–they worked just fine.

    • 0 avatar
      wolfinator

      This was especially true if you got the 3/4 ton version. (Did anyone besides Toyota sell >1/2 ton versions?)

      Those were sturdy little trucks.

      • 0 avatar
        wstarvingteacher

        I think the ad called the luv a “one ton”. No idea the actual rating.

        I think I have driven just about everything in the story. Should still probably be driving my hardbody 87 Nissan. The high school shop class screwed it up to the extent I didn’t want to spend more money on it. Contrary to the beliefs of some, I would love to have them available today. Safety probably the biggest drawback to driving yesteryears vehicles.

        Favorite was the 81 king cab automatic Datsun but liked them all. Tough and long lasting if you got away from all the salt. Lots of them still on the road in the Houston area.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      When I was 16 I worked on a small farm. The farmer bought an old D50 with a 2.2/auto that had a camper cap on the bed. The primary purpose of the farm was it’s highway produce stand, and the D50 was great for picking up/moving cartons of produce around to/from various vendors and the stand. It was actually kinda fun to drive. Much better than the early-80s GMC 1/2 ton with 3/4 ton rear springs and it’s fourth (!!!!) engine, a 400 small block with two cylinders whose collective compression could be counted on one person’s digits.

      Before I could finish rebuilding a junkyard 305 to replace the 6cyl 400cui V8 the D50, pushed into primary duty, towed a 4-wheel farm cart onto wet grass, where it promptly sheared the input shaft to the torque converter. Adequate it was not.

    • 0 avatar
      Carlson Fan

      “They just weren’t very good at being substitutes for full-sized trucks.”

      Agree!

      I remember sticking one snowmobile in the bed of my ’93 Toy compact PU facing backwards, two on the trailer hooked behind and 3 full size men in the extra-cab. Front wheels in the air – 450 miles one way up to the UP of Michigan from Minneapolis. Did that more than once. One of the guys in the group was afraid to drive his poor F150 out of town which is why I had to take a 3rd guy and snowmobile in my compact.

      I towed heavier loads more miles with that little compact Toyota than anyone I knew at the time with a full size PU.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    Notice how regardless of the automotive topic, it always comes back to “the ladies” for Jack?

    You can have a rendezvous in a Rendezvous, and you can get laid in an Escalade, but there’s no room for love in a LUV.

  • avatar

    Worked as a parts driver in the early 90’s and had a choice of vehicles, a full size Dodge van with nice seats,A/C, Auto, or a 88 D50 with a 2.6 litre Mitsubishi engine, 5 speed, no A/C, bench seat etc.
    Always went for the D50, loved that little truck; light, nimble, easy on fuel, could haul almost anything without protest and fun to drive.
    Yes, it was cramped, the interior spartan, and was stamped from tin cans but what a truck.
    Company used it until the mid 90’s and sold it with over well over 400,000 kms and still going and everyone knows how hard a parts truck is driven.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      Similar story when I filled in for the parts driver when I worked at the GM dealer. Parts truck was a late 80s Chevy long bed 3/4 ton. I hated it.

      A 95 Mighty Max came in on trade. 220K on it. I started using it instead and I loved it. It could handle any load that would fit in the bed. I really liked that truck, and would like a 90s Mighty Max as a “yard truck” (only to be used when needed, not a daily driver). For what it cost in fuel to take the Chevy to Mobile, Al (a common destination due to a large parts outfit), I could run the Max 3-4 times on the same trip. It was SOOOO much easier to get around tight loading areas, etc. The Max could turn around in the parking lot with out reversing, the Chevy required a 25 point turn lol

      • 0 avatar
        Fred

        My first truck was a 89 Mighty Max served me well, when I got a fixer upper house. When I next went shopping for a truck the midsizes were out and the price and milage differential was minimal compared to a full size V8.

  • avatar
    Xeranar

    The debate is hardly a fair one. 35 years of fuel economy improvements have made the full-size Silverado technically more efficient than the LUV (19/23 v. 18/24 and given the revised EPA measurements, for sure a Silverado wins).

    Those tiny trucks served a purpose when we didn’t have CUVs and transit connects. They were more or less BOF cars given truck bodies which is a different animal from the later Ranger/S-10 which were just shrunken F-Series/K-Series vehicles effectively. There is probably an arguable market for them in today’s world but it’s going to be hard pressed to sell more than 30-50K units and end up more like the Baja than anything currently on the road.

    Bringing back a smaller 90’s size Pickup may serve a market but with the cheapness of modern Pickups and fuel economy, really the only reason to choose the smaller vehicle is strictly dimensional limits. Working in an urban center where a larger vehicle would be a pain to park (which is where a Transit Connect comes into play) or in a really rural zone where a smaller footprint would be more effective in path carving and such (which is probably where a large ATV may be more beneficial).

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Bringing back a smaller 90’s size Pickup may serve a market but with the cheapness of modern Pickups and fuel economy, really the only reason to choose the smaller vehicle is strictly dimensional limits. Working in an urban center where a larger vehicle would be a pain to park (which is where a Transit Connect comes into play) or in a really rural zone where a smaller footprint would be more effective in path carving and such (which is probably where a large ATV may be more beneficial).
      -———————

      The fallacy of this argument is the “cheapness” statement. At an average of over $30k for an essentially stripped model, they are certainly not cheap. This totally ignores the fact that they’re so big. Not everyone can even afford a $30k pickup. Even the newest Jeep starts at less than $20k. So why can’t a “subcompact” pickup?

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    Driving dynamics aside, The Ranger was vastly superior as a truck to the Courier. Yes, it was a small F-150 and there is nothing wrong with that in the least.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      Disclaimer – an 88 Ranger was my first vehicle and an 88 Bronco II is to this day the vehicle I have the fondest memories of.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      The S10 with the ZQ8 suspension has some pretty excellent driving dynamics. And with a hp upgrade quite nice for hooning.

      • 0 avatar
        DubTee1480

        Yes. And most of the suspension parts are easy to swap over to any non-ZQ8 truck, most difficult bit is the hop shock and even that can be done with a welder. They’ll even retrofit to the first gen trucks. Bought the front sway and a rear sway off of a Blazer and installed them on my 93 Sonoma, loved that truck.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      I agree, my dad had a 70s Courior and later, an 85 Ranger (with the Mazda 2.0L lol). The Ranger was better in almost every respect. To this day, he would love a Ranger to use as a “beat around” truck, but not a Courior. He liked the Courior, but he loved the Ranger.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    ““There’s always some kind of stick shift in the way, in those little trucks, you know?” she said.”

    My ’94 Toyota had a column shifter *like God intended*.

    And an automatic, as God also intended.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      “And an automatic, as God also intended.”

      Then why is the manual transmission widely known as a “standard” transmission?

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        I imagine that bleeding patients with leeches was once referred to as a “standard” practice, too. Capabilities improve and nomenclature moves on to match them.

        I know some old coots who still refer to HCl acid as “muriatic”. Dying minority.

      • 0 avatar
        Xeranar

        Because it was once standard equipment and old folks say things wrong? RH said it much more politely…but same principle.

  • avatar
    April S

    Not sure whether the beds on these trucks were Japan or domestic built but I do recall seeing more than one Ford Courier with the cab and bed paint fading at different rates. Especially yellow. Same with first generation LUV pickups with baby blue paint.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    I learned to drive stick in a LUV and it was a fun little run about in town. Not too much later I had a job where I drove the boss’s Toyota Hi-Lux, which really was a more solid and reliable vehicle.

    I sort of disagree with your assessment of the S-10. My boss traded the Toyota Hi-Lux for an S-10 with a 2.8 liter V-6 and 5-speed. It had lot more sound insulation, rode a bit more smoothly, and was really quite pleasant to drive on long trips on the interstate. Just shift it into 5th and cruise for hours at a time. But, no, it was not very reliable. All the beautiful chrome trim was glued-on and fell off.

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    At the supermarket I regularly go to there’s often a Chevy LUV parked out front. I don’t remember them being so so small, but it looks like a toy when it is next to a modern pickup.

    • 0 avatar
      April S

      I felt the same way when I saw my first brand new Chevette (1976 Scooter) at our local Chevrolet dealership. It was like ‘wow, that car is even smaller than that tiny Vega’.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Early 80’s let drive my GF’s fathers SR5. It was a sweet ride, rwd, clutch, rack and pinion, and the man had it lowered with extra tire. I anoyed many a sports car on windy roads in that rig.

  • avatar

    “Those are the little crosses that empowered young women have to bear,” was my response.

    Hilarious!

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      Let not thy heart be baruth, Mr. Holzman.

      Implying that the total significance of female “empowerment” is the freedom to casually f*ck arrested-adolescence males until they move on to new playthings somewhat cheapens womens’ history of abandonment, impoverishment and sometimes lethal physical abuse, no?

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    I haven’t driven the trucks mentioned, but do own a ’78 King Cab Datsun.

    It’s not great in any way, but it is a straight-forward basic manual experience, and that’s a treat, every single time. I drove it over 600 miles to transport it and even that was pretty fun.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      I have never owned a Minitruck as my daily driver, but the people I know who own one, love them! For them they are something akin to a sportscar with a bed.

      One friend still drives his King Cab Datsun stick, and his has the V6 with TWO sparkplugs per cylinder. Weirdest thing I have ever seen!

      • 0 avatar
        DubTee1480

        Some of the four cylinder engines in the 1990’s Ranger models also had two plugs per cylinder. It elicited a similar response from me at the time.

        • 0 avatar
          highdesertcat

          “Some of the four cylinder engines in the 1990’s Ranger models also had two plugs ”

          Yup. I helped another friend work on his Mazda B2300, a Ranger by another name.

      • 0 avatar
        wstarvingteacher

        I have never seen a Nissan V6 with 2 plugs per cylinder. The four cylinder Naps ENGINE 8 plugs from 1980 until the late 80s for smog control. Passengers frequently thought my 81/auto Datsun pickup was a V6 but it just ran like one. Can’t find the V6 you are referring to.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I had a 85 Mitsubishi Mighty Max (twin to the Dodge D50) for 14 years and 200k miles. It had a 4 on the floor and air. Good truck and very reliable but it was not as comfortable as my 99 S-10 extended cab. I think there would be a market for a small pickup sharing a platform with a small crossover even if the truck were front wheel drive. I did everything with my Mighty Max from hauling 2 by 4s, creek rock, tile, gravel, mulch, top soil, furnaces, lawn equipment, and even pulling out a tree stump with a chain. I had very good service out of that truck. Not everyone needs or wants a full size truck.

  • avatar
    StudeDude

    The D50 and Arrow trucks were definitely the best of the bunch. I owned an ’86 and ’82 D50 with manual steering and A/C. They were willing partners in the handling dept. and got very good mileage. Mitsubishi was on a roll back in the ’80s—definitely in a different place now.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Great recap Jack! While I couldn’t fit well in the original minitrucks (6’3″, 170 at the time), I bought an ’88 Nissan SE-V6 King Cab. I loved that truck and took it to 200k+ miles before my needs went on to a 4 door with the arrival of the spud. I think it sat for all of 2 hours on the side of the road with a sign on it when someone paid $2000 cash asking price for it. Apparently they were in high demand south of the border since it was a manual.

    It was hearty, and while it certainly didn’t have the gravitas of a F-150 or Silverado, it lived through hauling trash, picking up supplies during my house remodel, pulling the fishing boat, and traipsing my bikes all over the south and east. In a ‘real’ truck these days, the rare occasion I drive one, they’re all monsters with wasted size and weight for 90% of life’s needs. I do see how they serve a workforce but that’s not in my realm.

    Should Subaru ever want to expand utilizing current platforms, they could make a shit-ton of money with an AWD extended cab pickup based on the Legacy platform.

  • avatar
    YotaCarFan

    I still remember the humorous Dodge radio ads back in the 70s/80s: They had a guy reciting in Japanese all the advanced high tech and quality features of the truck, and then sum it up with “Dodguh Lam – It’s all the Japanese you need to know!” The point was you only needed to remember the brand name if you wanted the long list of benefits. Back then, those Mitsubishi products seemed so modern and well made compared to the real Dodge wagon we had owned previously.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    I do think the title Jack has used is misleading. The US is still uncompetitive in the pickup manufacturing business…….if this is not the case then why the current requirement for the 25% chicken tax and other regulatory import barriers.

    The US still isn’t competitive with pickups smaller than a full size. I even think if full size pickups were manufactured outside of NA they would be cheaper, but there is only a niche market for full size pickups.

    Outside of the US a vehicle the size of the 1/2 ton full size would be expected to be able to carry at least 4 500lbs, and have a diesel returning good FE.

    For those who live outside of the US the new “cheap” pickups are from India and China and are the mini trucks of today. The US has sufficient anti competitive controls in place to prevent their importation into the land of full size pickups. The Japanese and Europeans now make pickups of better quality and durability. They are now on par with a full size in refinement and cheaper to buy.

    The Chinese pickups can be had for $14 000 US including all fees, taxes on road charges, aircon, power windows, aluminium flat bed, etc. They are not the best, but neither were the Japanese minitrucks of yore. So these “new minitrucks” are around $12 500USD. Which is very competitive compared to any pickup currently on sale in the US.

    Jack. The title should read “History of Minitrucks: Why America Still Can’t Compete”.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      You need an extremely selective memory to forget the chicken tax had no zero net effect on the ’80s mini-truck craze/trend.

      Ask yourself what would motivate global OEMs to climb all over themselves to join a US mini-truck market when even Nissan, once #1, hardly even competes.

      Mostly, midsize pickups are not in direct competition with fullsize pickups, especially not HDs. There’s a smallish overlap for consumers, especially the lifestyle crowd, but those considering a midsize pickup aren’t looking at other size of pickups. Same with those shopping for a fullsize pickup. There’s no replacement.

      Midsize pickups mostly compete with CUVs and other lifestyle choices, such as Wranglers, Mustangs, etc.

      I’d definitely be interested in a Chinese pickup, but even $12,000 would be laughable for a throwaway pickup. The Japaneses trucks were selling at cut-rate prices but were very reliable and built right. We didn’t know they’d rust to hell, but that’s a different story.

      No, $4,000 would be a good limit for a Chinese pickup, even with all the bells and whistles. Junk value in stead of resale value. Get a clue.

      I do buy a lot of cheap Harbor Freight Tools, but once the project is done, so are the air/power tools. I throw them away or give them away, and move on to the next project, requiring different tools.

      But an F-150 marketed outside of North America would definitely have a 4,500+ lbs payload, without changing a thing. Just the label on the door jab. Different ratings and regulations is all. Or lack thereof.

      Of course a global F-150 would have a diesel engine… You crazy????

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    So the chicken tax was in place when alll of the mini trucks in this article sold here. Now none of them are sold here. Ford sells Transit Connects. It would seem that navigating the chicken tax is easy. Minitrucks went away, because much like soccer and roundabouts we just don’t care what is popular in the rest of the world. As such minitrucks aren’t sold here because Americans don’t buy them in sufficient numbers for the manufacturer to turn a profit. Midsizer may have found a niche…time will tell but they are a far different animal from these trucks and they don’t sell because they are the cheaper option.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      The Colorado is proof that not everybody wants or even likes the full-sized pickups. The fact that Chevy is now outsourcing Safari Production to make room for Colorado assembly means they’re selling faster than they expected. To assume even now that a smaller truck won’t have a decent market would be a mistake.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I have 2 midsize trucks and can easily live with the midsize. I do think there is a market for a smaller truck but in lower numbers. Manufacturers probably could not afford to design a separate platform for them but there are many smaller cuvs and smaller vans on the market that could be used as a platform. My Mitsubishi was a good truck and I got more than my money’s worth out of it in use. I did things with it that I couldn’t do with a cuv, suv, or a car and the size was perfect for driving and parking. Granted it had a smaller cab but I was not really bothered by that especially since I had a car as well. I would have never bought a full size half ton truck and I do not need one now. The new Colorado/Canyon, Tacoma, and Frontier are a very good size for what I need and want in a truck–any bigger and I would not drive it.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    So like with all hot trends, the masses moved on. Same as with Rubik’s Cubes, bigass hair, mullets, parachute pantz, glamour rock, etc.

    Every few years, we’re ready for something else. No conspiracy necessary. Still the more ignorant here claim the chicken tax killed the mini-truck movement/society, when the tax was here all along.

    Mini-Trucks were a Hot automotive trend, like none that came before it, partly because they started at Chevette/Pinto/Starlet/B210/Justy/etc prices. You could have something *cool* for not much scratch, then personalize/accessorize it to your tastes. Sporty plus utility plus fuel efficient plus trendy plus too cheap to pass up.

    The customizer mini-truck scene took off like wildfire for more than one reason. OK, the custom “surfer van” trend/scene/craze was at least as big, but much of that madness bleed over to the mini-truck trend/scene/craze.

    3 up front, and anyone else in the bed/camper shell, was perfectly fine back then.

    Midsize/compact SUVs became the next craze in popular culture. Samurais, Amigos, Trackers, Troopers, Cherokees, Wranglers, Rodeos, Explorers, Blazers, Pathfinders, to name a few.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    You can also blame the increased safety standards and the EPA regulations that require the same fuel economy from a compact pickup as a compact car. Larger pickups don’t require as stringent a fuel standard. The new standards include the full size half ton trucks which could grow even further in size to be reclassified to a larger size with less stringent standards. The popularity of the full size half ton pickups has gotten the attention of the regulators thus making the manufacturers look for new more costly ways of making these trucks comply with the standards.

    Comparing compact trucks with Rubik’s cubes, bigass hair, parachute pants (not pantz in America), glamour rock is about like comparing a can opener to a mood ring. A can opener like a compact pickup is more useful than a mood ring. A Rubik’s cube is not regulated like a compact truck except unless parts come off of it or it is so small that it could be swallowed by a child. Also not many people bought a compact pickup to make a fashion statement but many people buy a bigass truck to compensate for physical deficiencies whether they need a bigass truck or not.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Thumbs up, Jeff

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Lots of people bought mini-trucks as fashion statements. Yes more of those people were buying used instead of new but it was very cool to have a mini-truck at one time.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        In order to even be able to buy a used model, someone had to buy it new, first. Your argument fails on simple logic.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          No not even. Yes a lot of the people who bought them as fashion statements bought them used but that doesn’t meant that people didn’t by them new as fashion statements. Regardless of the new vs used argument the fact is that a lot of them were purchased as fashion statements.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            Not nearly as many as you want to believe, scout. But just like Denver Mike, you refuse to believe truth. You make your assumptions and stay locked on them despite proofs to the contrary. Proofs that the author of this article have already presented.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            Proofs? Truths? Geeze, you were there, bought a new ’80s mini-truck, then moved on to midsize SUVs! You’re a bigger fashionista than anyone here!! Now explain to us you DON’T currently own a CUV!!!!

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    I bought a 1983 Mitsubishi Sport and have to agree with the commentary about its driveability; I loved the thing. Ever since then I’ve wanted a true compact pickup with the extended cab but while the Ranger and S-10 were still on the market, I simply couldnt afford them due to working near-minimum wage. Since then I’ve managed to do notably better for myself and have since bought nothing older than 1 year old except under extreme need for a specific type. When I purchased a 1990 F-150, it was a specific purpose vehicle and with the exception of that purpose was simply far too big for my needs and desires.

    Still, even today, despite the fact that I now own a ’97 standard cab Ranger, I’d like to have the extended version. The size is otherwise perfect for my wants and needs. It’s compact, lightweight and even after sitting for over 11 years in a garage, achived over 24mpg on an 800-mile freeway run. After a tune up and a few months of running on 89 octane gas, it now achieves 27 mpg on the freeway and 21 plus in town while the 2.3-litre makes more horsepower than when I obtained it. Now I want an updated version that is physically no larger than the existing one. I simply don’t need crew cab or a 6-8 foot bed; 5 feet is long enough.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    If I were you I would plan on keeping the Ranger for many many years. Low miles and A-1 condition it should last you a long time. It will be many years if ever before any of the manufacturers introduce a true compact size truck and if they do it will most likely be front wheel drive base on an existing cuv. My S-10 is almost 17 years old with 106k of well maintained miles. You might as well use what you have. It is amazing how many old Rangers, S-10s, and Tacomas I see on the road. The salt and road chemicals eventually get most of them (the tin worm) but in a warmer climate that would not be an issue.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      The Ranger is sticking around ’til I find a suitable replacement. I know Jeep is going to release a Wrangler- based pickup in a couple years, though I’m not a fan of the projected price of $40k. Additionally, Hyundai has all but confirmed its Santa Cruz AWD compact truck which, if it succeeds, could launch a new compact truck movement. Either of these might replace the Ranger… But not as a trade-in, rather as a private sale to use as down payment.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        Look at the intrusion of the wells for those monster goombah wheels into the Santa Cruz’ weensy bed. Gonna be hard to get much work out of that little tonka. Fine by me, but I don’t haul much mulch.

        http://tinyurl.com/gwvza6k

        • 0 avatar
          Vulpine

          Intrusion? Monster goomba wheels? An F-150 has worse! Can’t you get it through your head that not everyone needs a monster truck? It might be the perfect size for people currently driving CUVs.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    When I am finished with my S-10 it will either be donated to a high school to be used to train aspiring mechanics or go directly to the salvage yard. I will eventually get down to two vehicles.

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