History of American Trucks: Past to PresentLast Updated August 8, 2023 | Alison Smith
How Did The History of Trucks in America Begin?
Nearly a century ago in November 1918, World War I ended, spurring massive economic growth in America. With the economy thriving, the automotive industry grew rapidly. At the forefront of this automotive boom was a man named Henry Ford, an American automobile manufacturer, who developed the first moving assembly line that transformed the industry. After forming the Ford Motor Company in 1903, Henry Ford had a vision to convert the military pickup truck into a vehicle for civilians. In 1917, Ford had produced what may be considered the first pickup truck made in America — the Ford Model TT. However, Chevrolet was not far behind Ford in its endeavors to produce a pickup truck. In 1918, Chevrolet came out with the Model 490. Both of these vehicles only came with a chassis, the truck bed itself had to be built or installed by an outside company. With the introduction of these two vehicles, the history of trucks in America began. These early models have paved the way for the truck industry as we know it today.
First Pickup Trucks in America
While the original Ford Model T could be modified to add a cargo box, the 1917 Model TT chassis was built to haul heavier loads, with a sturdier frame and a one-ton rating. Perhaps the first pickup truck in America, the Model TT included the chassis of the truck only. If you wanted to put a bed on the body, you would have to build it yourself or have another company install one. The Ford Model TT cost $600 and sold 209 units in the first year of production. By 1928, that number escalated to over 1.3 million trucks sold. Although this wasn’t a conventional pickup, the Ford 1917 Model TT represents the beginning of American truck history.
Founded in 1911, Chevrolet produced its first pickup truck seven years later in 1918. Dubbed the Model 490 due to the vehicle costing $490 when the first generation came out in 1915, the 1918 Model 490 was the first truck chassis offered by Chevy. This early model car required the addition of a truck bed, cab, and body. The 1918 Series 490 was available in a half-ton chassis, also known as a light-delivery vehicle.
During the same year, Chevy also offered a commercial one-ton chassis option, the 1918 Chevrolet Model T. Both of these models required you to either build the truck bed yourself or have an outside company install one.
In 1925, Ford released the Ford Model T Runabout. This was the first time in American truck history that you could go buy a factory-built pickup. Equipped with a four-cylinder 40 horsepower engine and heavy-duty leaf springs in the rear, the Ford Model T Runabout was priced at a reasonable $281. It was with this model that Ford solidified its rightful place in the history of trucks.
With the Ford Model T Runabout, Henry Ford revolutionized the truck. Instead of having to modify your car and add a truck bed, Henry Ford created the first official pickup truck that was ready straight from the factory. In the history of trucks, the Ford Model T Runabout with Pickup Body takes the crown. In the first year of production, Ford sold 33,800 pickups. Chevrolet didn’t start offering factory-made American pickup trucks until 1931.
The Ford F-Series: America’s Best-Selling Truck
By the 1930s, Ford had already established itself as a major automotive manufacturer of both cars and trucks, but what’s next? Fast forward to 1948, the year that Ford set itself up to become one of the top three automakers in America. With the release of a brand new line of pickups dubbed the F-Series, Ford built a vehicle that would end up becoming not only the best-selling truck in America for decades but also the top-selling vehicle overall.
Throughout the years, Ford has released a whopping 13 generations of the F-Series truck:
- First Generation: 1948-1952
- Second Generation: 1953-1956
- Third Generation: 1957-1960
- Fourth Generation: 1961-1966
- Fifth Generation: 1967-1972
- Sixth Generation: 1973-1979
- Seventh Generation: 1980-1986
- Eighth Generation: 1987-1991
- Ninth Generation: 1992-1997
- Tenth Generation: 1997-2003
- Eleventh Generation: 2004- 2008
- Twelfth Generation: 2009-2014
- Thirteenth Generation: 2015-present
With its first debut in 1948, the Ford F-Series was a line of pickups to serve a multitude of purposes, advertised as the “Bonus Built” trucks by Ford. Encompassing both the light-duty pickups and the heavy-duty trucks, the Ford F-Series had a truck for everyone. These trucks featured a fresh, new appearance with a redesigned cab, updated front end, and a one-piece windshield. Ford’s first post-World War II truck lineup included models all the way from an F-1, a one-half ton light-duty pickup, to an F-8, a heavy-duty three-ton truck. The grille and grille cavity, front fenders, hood, cab, rear window, and dashboard received upgrades a few years later in 1951. Other changes for that year included two cab trim options and a wooden floor for the pickup bed rather than a steel floor. A new engine came a year later in 1952, with the new 215-cubic inch inline six-cylinder engine with overhead valves replacing the old flathead six engine.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, 1953 was an important year for the F-Series. Instead of being known as the “Bonus Built” line, Ford switched their slogan and began marketing the second-generation F-Series as the “Economy Truck Line” instead. Receiving a complete redesign, the new F-Series trucks sported a longer hood and a larger glass area in the cab. Ford also added a “00” at the end of every model name, so the F-1, F-2, and F-3 became the F-100, F-200, and F-300, respectively. An automatic transmission became available on the F-100, though it wasn’t available for the F-250 and F-350 trucks until 1954. With 1953 being the final year for the flathead V8 engine, the overhead-valve V8 engine, known as the “Y-Block” engine, took over. The 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1956 F-Series trucks all had slight variations in the grille, making them easy to differentiate.
Ford unveiled the new Super Duty truck models for the third-generation F-Series line in 1958, which had a massive 534 cubic-inch V8 engine under the hood. But it was in 1959 when Ford offered its first factory-built 4x4 pickup for the F-100 and F-250 models. In 1965, for the fourth-generation of the F-Series, Ford introduced the Twin I-Beam front suspension with coil springs to the light-duty two-wheel-drive models, complete with their own emblem that was added to the front fender.
The next major shakeup for the F-Series came in 1975, when Ford added the F-150 model to the sixth-generation lineup. Created as a midway between the F-100 and F-250, the F-150 addition seemed like a fairly minimal change to the F-Series lineup. Little did Ford know, this would soon become the best-selling vehicle in America. In 1976, the F-series was crowned the best-selling truck in America, a title that it has held for the past 41 years. The “Built Ford Tough” campaign began in 1979, a slogan that has defined the brand and stood the test of time.
Ford’s first diesel truck was released in 1983, available in the seventh-generation F-250. Navistar produced the 420-cubic inch, 6.9L V8 diesel engine capable of putting out 175 horsepower and 318 lb.-ft. of torque. Due to the massive success of the F-150, Ford dropped the F-100 for the 1984 model year. In 1985, a fuel-injected engine option was available for the F-Series and by 1988, all engine options had fuel injection. Within the ninth-generation F-Series, Ford released a new truck model for performance. The 1993 Ford F-150 Lightning came equipped with a 5.8L V8 engine, a sport suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, bucket seats, and a front spoiler. With 240 horsepower, the F-150 Lightning replaced the F-150 Nite package. The Eddie Bauer edition was released in 1995, with more creature comforts including air conditioning and stereo with cassette player. Also new for 1995 was a 7.3L turbodiesel “Power Stroke” engine packing 210 horsepower and 425 lb.-ft. of torque, available for the Heavy Duty F-250 and F-350 pickups.
A complete redesign of the F-Series trucks took place starting in 1997, with some F-150 models released early alongside the 1996 models. Shortly after, the redesigned heavy-duty F-Series truck became available in 1998 as 1999 truck models. Now called Super Duty trucks, the F-250 Heavy Duty and F-350 had both crew cab and SuperCab options as well as several different engines to choose from, including a 7.3L V8 turbodiesel with 235 horsepower and 500 lb.-ft. of torque or a 6.8L V10 engine with 275 horsepower. The tenth-generation Ford F-Series also saw a new Harley Davidson special edition truck and a return of the Lightning model, complete with a supercharged 5.4L V8 engine with a hefty 360 horsepower and 440 lb.-ft. of torque.
While the eleventh-generation F-Series boasts some structural changes, this generation also saw the introduction of the Triton engine. More appearance changes came for the twelfth-generation of F-Series trucks, with improved strength and comfort. A V8 engine became standard in all F-Series trucks and a new six-speed automatic transmission was offered. In 2010, Ford unveiled its first truck created for off-roading, the F-150 SVT Raptor. Equipped with Fox Racing shocks, upgraded suspension, wider fenders, higher ride height, 35-inch all-terrain tires, and an updated stability-control system, the 2010 F-150 SVT Raptor was a beast designed for desert racing and trail riding. With the initial model sporting a 5.4L V8 engine with 310 horsepower, the engine was upgraded to a 6.2L with 400 horsepower a year later. Ford began offering a more fuel-efficient, yet powerful 3.5L direct-injected twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 engine for the standard F-150 in 2011, only available with an automatic transmission.
Beginning in 2015 and still in production today, the thirteenth generation of F-Series trucks received a number of updates, including a new military-grade aluminum-alloy body for the Ford F-150. By using aluminum, Ford was able to remove 700 pounds of weight from the truck. The Super Duty truck lineup received the same aluminum-based bodies in 2017. The second-generation 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor can now come equipped with an EcoBoost V6 engine with 450 horsepower and a 10-speed automatic transmission. Crowned as the best-selling truck for the past four decades, there’s no denying that the F-Series holds a special place in the history of trucks in America.
The Chevrolet Silverado
If there was ever a truck to compete with the Ford F-Series line, it would be the Chevrolet Silverado. Introduced in 1975 as a trim for the Chevrolet C/K pickup trucks, the Silverado is the second best-selling pickup truck behind the F-Series. Although the Silverado hasn’t been around as long as the F-Series, Chevy trucks have been around for almost just as long as Ford trucks. In 1998, Chevrolet revealed that the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado would replace the Chevy C/K pickup.
First-Generation Chevy Silverado: 1999-2007
Based on the luxurious trim option for the Chevy C/K pickup truck, the 1999 Chevy Silverado ended up replacing the C/K line, creating a new series of Chevy pickup trucks. With the light-duty models denoted as the Silverado 1500 and 2500, there were several Vortec engine options available for the first year of release, including V6 and V8 choices. The Silverado, close cousins to the GMC Sierra, launched an SS performance model in 2003, based off the 1500 truck. Equipped with what Chevy called the Vortec High Output or “VortecMAX” engine, the SS edition had 345 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft. of torque. In 2004, the hybrid version of the Silverado and the GMC Sierra was launched. Also available for the Silverado and Sierra were three heavy-duty models, based on the light-duty models — the 1500HD, 2500HD, and 3500HD, each with their own different engine and transmission options.
Second-Generation Chevy Silverado: 2006-2014
Released in late 2006 alongside the 2007 models from the first generation, the second-generation Chevy Silverado had better aerodynamics with a redesigned exterior, suspension, and frame. Several different cab sizes and engine choices were available for the line, including a new 6.2L V8 performance engine with 403 horsepower and 417 lb.-ft. of torque for the Silverado LTZ trim. A two-tone hybrid was introduced to the Chevy Silverado line in late 2008. However, the Silverado Hybrid was discontinued after the 2013 model due to poor sales performance.
Third-Generation Chevy Silverado: 2013-present
With an aluminum hood and a high-strength steel frame, the third-generation Chevy Silverado is still in production today. The new generation Silverado 1500 came out in mid-2013 as a 2014 model, with the heavy-duty trucks released in the beginning of 2014 for the 2015 model year. With the third generation, Chevy introduced its first luxury edition, the High Country, complete with a saddle brown leather interior. In 2016, the Silverado was redesigned with a fresh-looking grille, new front fascia, and updated headlights. While the Silverado doesn’t hold as much history as the F-Series, Chevrolet created a tough competitor for the best-selling truck in America with the Silverado.
The Dodge Brothers: History of the Dodge Ram
Having previously worked for Oldsmobile and Ford, John and Horace Dodge formed the Dodge Brothers Company in the early 1900s. Shortly after, the Dodge Brothers began working with another automobile manufacturer called the Graham Brothers to build trucks with a Dodge chassis and parts. It wasn’t until 1981 when the first-generation Dodge Ram was born.
Named after the Ram hood ornament that appeared on earlier models of Dodge vehicles, the rebranded Ram truck was supposed to represent strength. According to the RamZone blog, sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks created the Ram symbol for Dodge back in 1931. After suggesting a few other animals, Fairbanks decided on a mountain sheep. "When the engineers read that the ram was the ‘master of the trail and not afraid of even the wildest of animals’ they became enthusiastic about the symbol,” Fairbanks recalled in a magazine article years later. Thus, the Ram truck was born as a symbol of ruggedness, able to conquer anything and everything, just like the mountain sheep.
First-Generation Dodge Ram: 1981-1993
For the first-generation Ram truck, three different model options were available. The one-half ton, three-fourths ton, and one-ton trucks were represented as the 150, 250, and 350, respectively. In 1989, the Ram truck received its first diesel Cummins engine, helping revolutionize the truck industry. A few diesel trucks were on the market before Dodge, but the Cummins engine was something else entirely. An engine built for heavy-duty hauling, the 5.9L 12V Cummins turbodiesel engine greatly surpassed the Navistar engines used by Ford or GM’s in-house built engine. The six-cylinder, turbocharged engine with direct injection put out 160 horsepower at 2,500 rpm with 400 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,700 rpm. With the first-generation Ram truck, Dodge established itself as a major player in the truck industry and helped create a larger market for diesel engines.
Second-Generation Dodge Ram: 1994-2001
In 1993, Dodge introduced the second-generation Ram pickup and dubbed it the T-300. With a redesigned front end, the 1994 Ram T-300 boasted a fresh, new look that helped shape the appearance of modern-day American pickup trucks. Sales for the T-300 soared from 78,000 units sold in 1993 to 480,000 units sold three years later in 1996. Also in 1994, the 150, 250, and 350 model designations switched to 1500, 2500, and 3500, respectively. New features for some of the second-generation models included an updated interior with larger cab space, an 8.0L V10 engine, and a new six-speed manual transmission for the Cummins diesel-powered trucks. In this time period, Dodge grew from having only a slice of the truck market to one-fifth of the pie.
Third-Generation Dodge Ram: 2002-2008
When the third-generation Dodge Ram truck launched in 2002, major updates were made to the suspension, powertrain, sheet metal, and frame. A new 5.7L Hemi engine joined the lineup, which added 100 extra horsepower in comparison to the 5.9L engine found in previous models. For 2006, a new Mega cab was available in the Dodge Ram. By shortening the eight-foot-long pickup box to six feet and three inches, Dodge added an extra 20 inches to the cab space, creating room for six passengers to sit comfortably. A year later, Dodge added a 6.7L Cummins turbodiesel option for the 2500 and 3500 Ram truck engines. Replacing the original 5.9L Cummins, the new diesel engines were equipped with a six-speed transmission that bumped the torque up 40 lb.-ft. and added 25 extra horses.
Fourth-Generation Dodge Ram: 2009-present
The fourth-generation Dodge Ram was released in 2009, complete with a new crew cab option, updated suspension and interior, and more engine options. In 2010, the Dodge Ram became known as Ram Trucks, a newly-established division under Chrysler. Another redesign took place in 2013, with the Ram truck sporting a new grille and headlights. The automatic transmission became standard, with an optional 8-speed Torqueflite 8 Automatic that optimizes the V6 Pentastar engine. While the fourth-generation Ram Trucks are still in production today, Fiat Chrysler is working on releasing the highly anticipated fifth-generation in the near future. With news of the redesigned 2019 Ram 1500 becoming available next year, some speculate that this will be the next generation of Ram Trucks.
Progression of American Trucks
Since the early beginnings of American truck history, pickups have progressed significantly. When pickup trucks were first created, they were mainly for military or agricultural purposes. Since the introduction of the first pickup trucks in America, the consumer base has grown rapidly. With more individuals and families purchasing trucks for everyday use, truck cabs and interiors have expanded to allow for more passengers and enhanced comfort. Truck beds have increased in length and can be enclosed to protect cargo from the outside elements. More options have become available over the years, including the choice to purchase a two-door or four-door truck. You can also decide between a smaller, more fuel-efficient truck versus a larger pickup capable of towing more weight. Whether you need a vehicle to drive daily or plan on taking off-roading trips, there is a truck out there to suit your needs! To this day, trucks dominate the automotive industry, with the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ram Truck being some of the best-selling vehicles available.
History of American Trucks Infographic
[click the infographic below]
Sources: History of Dodge Pickup Trucks 1921-1953, AllPar | History of the Ford F-Series 1948-1999, Blue Oval Trucks | The Glorious History of the Ford F-Series Truck, America's Best Selling Vehicle for 36 Years, Business Insider | Viewing Gallery: Chevrolet Trucks Historical, Chevrolet Pressroom | Ford Celebrates 100 Years of Truck History-From 1917 Model TT to 2017 F-150 Raptor | 95 Years of Chevy Pickup History | Cummins Ram History, Cummins | | Image Credit: Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, RamTrucks.com, Edmunds.com