A Selective History Of Minitrucks, Part Two: The Empire Strikes Back, Then Gives Up

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

In Part One of this minitruckin’ history, we covered how the Big 3 provided their dealers with “captive import” minitrucks from Mazda, Isuzu, and Mitsubishi during the Seventies. By 1975 or thereabouts, both GM and Ford were convinced that the small-pickup market was not a fad and began digging their own products out of the parts bin.

The Chevrolet S-10/GMC S-15 was a sort of truck version of the A-body (later G-body) intermediate. While it’s not dimensionally identical to the older sedans, it’s possible to swap much of the running gear between those two vehicles, particularly ahead of the firewall. The Ford Ranger arrived a few months after the S-10, a few inches smaller in most dimensions and looking remarkably ungainly compared to its sleek GM competitor. Those of you who followed the minitrucking hobby in the Nineties will recall that the Ranger was conspicuous by its absence; “domestic” minitruckers were almost exclusively loyal to the S-10/S-15. Part of that was due to the Twin-I-Beam’s reluctance to accept a lowering kit and/or airbags, but much of it was the Ranger’s hokey, hick-ish appearance compared to the S-10.

So what did that mean for the captive import trucks?

The S-10 and Ranger fairly flew off showroom floors, particularly between the coasts. It’s worth noting that the mini-truck customer base had some significant demographic differences across the country. On the West Coast, Japanese pickups appealed to young people who had an “adventure lifestyle”. They were also third vehicles for middle-class families who were on their third or fourth Honda or Toyota by the late Seventies.

In the Midwest and Southwest, minitrucks were still the choice of younger drivers, but those drivers were often coming from families where the pickup truck was the sole method of transportation. If Papa had an F-250, and Mama had an F-150, then it mades sense for the kids to get Rangers. As an aside, your humble author has to confess to a bit of culture shock here: having grown up on the East Coast and in certain suburban enclaves of Ohio, when I started dating women from California and Texas and New Mexico I found it absolutely shocking when my girlfriends would tell me that they’d grown up driving a truck. In a few cases, they’d go straight from pickup trucks to Explorers or Tahoes, having never owned a car in their entire lives. The idea of a woman driving a pickup truck is still vaguely shocking and transgressive to me. In over a year of selling Ford trucks for a living, I never once handed the keys to a woman, so when I go to Houston and see twenty-five-year-old girls with their own Lariats or Silverados it induces a bit of cognitive dissonance for me.

It also became common for older people to buy minitrucks once they retired or suffered a cut in personal income. The Ranger and S-10, which always had a higher “hip point” than two-wheel-drive Toyotas or Nissans, offered an easy step-in. Just as important, they shared everything from seatbelt buckles to door-card materials with their full-size showroom mates. After all, if you grew up in a household with nothing but GM or Ford trucks, a Chevy LUV or Ford Courier would induce considerable distress just from the complete unfamiliarity of everything from the controls to the bucket seats. Whether we admit it or not, we all like familiar objects; the sense of homecoming I had when I settled into my new 330i fifteen years ago was undoubtedly due to my misspent youth in a 733i.

It didn’t hurt that the cars surrounding the Ranger and S-10 in the dealerships were slow, cramped, uncomfortable, and just plain odd-looking. Imagine that you were a rural business owner or agriculture worker, set in your ways, a “Ford man”, and the satisfied owner of a ’78 Fairmont. You’re returning to the Ford store in 1986, looking to trade in the old wreck for something new. The salesman explains to you that the big, boxy Fairmont has been replaced by something called the “Tempo”. When you see the Tempo, it looks less like a car to you than something you’d put up your ass to ease constipation. “If you’re willing to spend a little more,” the man in the cheap sportscoat tells you, “we have the Taurus”. That looks like a bar of soap.

You’re about ready to throw up your hands in disgust, but then you spot something in the corner of the showroom. It’s reasonably sized, boxy and traditional. Respectable, really. “That’s the Ranger XLT Club Cab,” you’re told. And that, dear readers, is how Ford increased the Ranger’s market share beyond that of the Courier.

Chrysler had its own smaller pickup coming, but it was planned as a “tweener” to cover the gap between Ranger and F-150. As a consequence, the Dodge Ram 50 stuck around for a few years after the LUV and Courier got the chop. Once the Dakota was a proven success, however, Chrysler decided it wasn’t worth getting Mitsubishi to engineer its third-generation compact truck for the U.S. market. And thus endeth the era of the captive import truck, in 1996.

At that point in history, the domestic minitruck had triumphed over its oppressive captive ancestors. It was also doing a pretty good job of rendering the contemporary Japanese-brand competitors irrelevant. The Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier didn’t have the mojo of their predecessors. Mostly built in America, they cost more than the domestics while failing to offer the big-bore 4.3-liter and 4.0-liter V-6 engines available in the S-10 and Ranger, respectively.

This being also the era of increasingly outrageous development costs (Ford famously spent six billion dollars on the development of the Mondeo/Contour), the smaller Japanese manufacturers were having trouble getting their next generation of small pickups to meet the increasingly divergent demands of the U.S. and “ROW” (Rest Of World) markets. The Asian markets still wanted a vehicle with the proportions of the original Toyota “HiLux”, but Americans wanted minitrucks with enough room for a pair of six-foot adults to stretch out and enjoy a long highway trip.

The solution was plain to see. It was time for a second wave of “captive imports”. This time, however, it would be domestic pickups rebranded for import dealers who needed the volume and the customer loyalty. The Mazda B2200, whose ancestor had conquered California as the Ford Courier, became nothing more than a badge applied to the Ford Ranger. Isuzu’s “P’UP” disappeared, to be replaced by the Hombre, which was a lash-up of some export body panels for the facelifted Gen 2 S-10. Some years later, Isuzu would take a variant of the Colorado/Canyon twins as the “i-Series”, as seen above.

These “captive” trucks never set any sales records, but they probably kept the lights on at a few dealers over the years. My personal impression, backed by nothing more than keeping an eye out over two decades of cross-country travel, is that they were more common the closer you got to California. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Hombre in Tennessee.

Mazda canceled the B-Series pickup a few years before Ford let go of the ancient Ranger on which it was based. The Isuzu i-Series was also canceled in 2008. The market at which they’d been pointed would no longer sustain niche minitrucks. There was even a question, which remains open today, as to whether the market can sustain minitrucks at all; the entire compact pickup market in this country, if you combined the sales of every entrant, would only be the fourth-best selling pickup truck. Our own Tim Cain notes that “The Toyota Tacoma-led small/midsize pickup truck segment grew by 31% to 29,471 units in October 2015, a U.S. year-over-year sales improvement of nearly 7,000 sales. Pickup sales continue to be dominated by full-size trucks, however, sales of which increased 4 percent to 186,995 units in October 2015, an increase of more than 7,700 units.”

We could close the story here, but to do so would be to neglect my favorite captive truck, one that sold an oddly prophetic six hundred and sixty-six units in its final year of production:

The Mitsubishi Raider was the third-generation Dakota midsizer with an Eclipse-ish front end. Both Chrysler and Mitsubishi managed to delude themselves into thinking that, nearly a decade after the last Mighty Max had sold and rolled, there would be any market whatsoever for a “Japanese pickup” approximately the size of a Seventies Chevrolet C-10. The dealers spent the first year giving them away at whatever price the market would bear. Then production was restricted to meet demand. That demand never reached ten thousand units a year.

Let’s bookend this story, therefore, with the very first LUV on one side and the very last Raider on the other. What lessons can we learn from the captive minitruck adventure, which spanned five decades and put a few million badge-engineered pickups on the American road? Well, there are probably a few, ranging from the perceptive value of brands to the tenacious stupidity of auto executives.

The lesson that I want to give you, however, is a different one, and it’s one that I hammer home about twenty times a year at TTAC: This is a business that revolves around the dealer. No matter what we want to believe, no matter what we want to be true, the fact is that dealers are the true customers of the manufacturers. You’re just the cattle lining up at the trough. And if you doubt me, then call up Isuzu and see if they’ll put your name on a truck, why dontcha?

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Nrd515 Nrd515 on Dec 03, 2015

    I find it very odd that you would find it strange dating women who grew up driving trucks, even though you're a lot younger than I am (59). I grew up in the Toledo area, and while most of the girls I knew drove smallish, and beaterish cars, there were always a few who drove their parents or grandparents hand me down F150 or Chevy/GMC truck. When I lived in Las Vegas, I didn't know a single woman who drove a pickup or SUV until just before I left, where a co-worker had the misfortune of nearly having her foot amputated when she wrecked her new Courier. When I came back to Toledo in '82, trucks and SUVs were common across both sexes, with smaller ones dominating with women. My girlfriend from 20 years ago had a Suburban since college and was about to replace it with a new Tahoe. She currently drives a 2012 Yukon.

  • Zjz125 Zjz125 on Dec 04, 2015

    Growing Up on a Wisconsin Farm I spent many years driving Beater Mini Trucks made me despise them. While I was wrenching on FWD Imports. Now as a Young Adult who had to buy his first truck commuting truck ( Non Tow Vehicle) Needed Utility first house purchase etc. I picked up an 08 Mitsu Raider Ext Cab 2WD 36k on it for 7500. In WI A joke of truck in my demographic. hence the price A Year Later Living In Miami / South Florida A 2 Inch Level Lift Full Size Ram Wheels With Wheel Spacers Fake Ralli Art Grill Badge, A tonneau cover with a JY Pulled Explorer Roof Rack Mounted to it bike racks. This Low Mile Disregarded ( 1 of 650 ) Pick Up gets the same attention and perceived value as the Sporty Model Tacomas Frontiers Colorado's etc. That people pay 20 to 30k for. Cant wait to sell if after owning it for a few years and 50K plus miles for around 2k profit. Really there's no bigger joke than the full size crew cab brodozers in South Florida.

  • Lou_BC Ironic, the Honda Ridgeline, a truck that every truck guy loves to hate is in 6th place.
  • 28-Cars-Later I keep forgetting I own it, but the space look on the ext cab reminds me of my 'Yota pickup of the same model year. I'm pretty sure there is some vintage of Hilux which features the same looking ext cab window (maybe '88?) its a shame these things are mostly gone and when available are $1,000,000,000 [INSERT CURRENT CURRENCY].
  • Sayahh Imagine if Ford had Toyota design and build a Mustang engine. It will last over 300k miles! (Skip turbo and make it naturally aspirated.) Maybe Yamaha will help tune it...
  • Sobhuza Trooper Isuzu's crime was to build some damn good trucks.Shame on them.
  • El scotto Listen, unless you were Lord Headly-Stempmoor or such when you got off the off the boat, boot in Canada, you got the short end of the stick. People got on the boat, these days a plane, to escape famine, becoming cannon fodder in yet another stupid war, or the government thought it was A-OK to let soldiers kill you. Juneteenth is just a way to right one of the more bad ideas in the American experiment. Instead we have commenters who were buying tater chips and diet soda at Wal-Mart and got all butt-hurt because they heard someone who wasn't speaking English. I'm going to go fix a couple of frankfurters with salsa and guacamole and wash them down with a lager or three