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America's love affair with pickup trucks

Pickup trucks: America's favorite wheels
Pickup trucks: America's favorite wheels 07:25

We Americans have long had a crush on our cars, but when it comes to a really committed vehicular relationship, it's the pickup truck that sets our hearts aflutter. Turns out things like towing capacity and payload can really get the motor running. Trucks represent about 20% of U.S. sales this year, a tad more than cars. In fact, pickups (Ford F-Series, Chevy Silverado, and Ram Pickup) account for three of the five bestselling vehicles this year.

Take Ford's F-Series. It's been America's bestselling truck for four decades. Just how important are they to Ford's bottom line?  We asked CEO Jim Farley: "F-Series is the second most valuable consumer product by revenue behind the iPhone. It is enormous.

"This is the modern horse," he told Cowan. "It's your reliable partner. You can do work on, you can have fun with, you can kind of go anywhere. It's an American lifestyle."

Ford CEO Jim Farley with correspondent Lee Cowan. CBS News

Pickups are most popular in the states you'd probably expect – Texas, Wyoming, North Dakota and the like – where construction, ranching and hauling are a way of life. But there are plenty of coastal pickups, too. Suffice it to say, you can't get sales numbers that big by selling pickups in Red States alone. According to J.D. Power, it's Millennials who buy the most new trucks these days, and yes, some have no desire to haul anything more than a bag of groceries.

One young pickup driver told CBS News, "I don't need it for anything. I could drive anything. I just drive it to get from point A to point B."

The number of women interested in pickups has been growing almost every year, too. Cowan asked one woman attending the Texas Auto Show, at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, "Do you need a truck, or you just like the way they look?" 

"I like the blue one!" she laughed.

The top three bestselling models in the U.S. have sold more than 1.2 million year-to-date.  CBS News

The midsize truck market is up, too, like Chevy's Colorado, Ford's Ranger, and GMC's Canyon. Though they're smaller, they can be just as capable. And of course, all-electric pickups are no longer a fantasy. While they're far from a farmer's friend just yet, it's another sign pickups aren't going anywhere.

But when it comes down to the question of why – why do we love something with four wheels and a bed so much – it's a lot like asking why people love hot dogs at baseball games; trucks are Americana, and like hot dogs, you better not get between a hungry fan and their mustard.

"I've seen more bar fights over what truck you drive than I've seen anything else," said Tim Esterdahl, publisher of Pickup Truck + SUV Talk. "I mean, it's competitive, right? There's no country song about a Camry!"

Esterdahl said buyers seem especially keen on the idea of keeping up with the Jones' pickup: "We want bragging rights," he said. "When Ram came up with their new truck, the Heavy Duty, has a thousand-foot pounds of torque – one-thousand-pound feet of torque! – I mean, you all want to buy that truck! You say, 'Yeah, I've got thousand-foot pounds of torque. You're never going to use it. I have no idea how to use it. But I got it!'"

Behind the wheel of the Ram 1500 TRX, you likely won't be boulder-crawling on the way to drop the kids off at school. But you've got to dig deep to own one; they start at around $80,000. And GMC's all electric super-truck, the Hummer EV, costs over $100,000. You might not need all of its off-road capability, but to people like Reka Williams, checking out a model at the Texas Auto Show, that's not the point: "It's not about what you need; it's about what you like, what you enjoy, what you deserve, OK? And you know what, honey? I deserve this!"

The all-electric GMC Hummer EV, which costs between $80,000 and $110,000, immediately sold out when it was introduced this year, and is on backorder for at least two years, as reported by GM Authority. CBS News

The biggest capacity many trucks boast of these days is the amount of luxury in tow. Esterdahl said, "I was at a press conference once for Ram. They were launching a new truck. And I went to the CEO and said, 'I didn't know if you were talking about a full-size truck or a Chanel handbag.'"

Quilted leather, heated steering wheels, and panoramic sunroofs are all riches of the modern truck that have some old-school Texas ranchers like Pat Mackey scratching their farmer's tan: "I mean, I've never seen anybody stand up in the sunroof and rope a cow out of top of it, so I don't need a sunroof and all that stuff in there."

CBS News

While big may be bigger on a ranch, it may not be better in traffic. Some of the biggest trucks these days have grills so blunt and so high, critics worry they create a blind zone, dwarfing bicyclists, pedestrians, and especially children.

CBS News

Cowan asked Ford executive Ted Cannis, "They look like they're getting bigger and bigger and bigger every year. Are they?"

"Well, over time, they have gotten bigger," he replied. "The cabs grew. Two rows of seats, better for families and transporting people."

Cannis points out many of today's trucks (including Ford's) have technologies like pre-collision assist with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking – all pretty high-tech stuff for a truck.

The trucks we used to know were as homely as a hound dog. Dense but with character, with rust offering a two-tone look. And the dash was just a place for smokes.

That legacy is still present; trucks remain a symbol of Dust Bowl determination. But these days you can dress them up (or dress them down), drive up walls or drive up Wall Street. Not bad for something Henry Ford once envisioned as simply a way to haul some hay.

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Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: George Pozderec. 

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