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Where did good ol’ pickups go?

Although basically a city gal who likes cars, I’m also a fan of pickup trucks, particularly those of full-size persuasion. Ford F-series, Chevrolet Cheyenne and Dodge Ram are names I grew up with. Older folks are more likely to recall the F100, Dodge D-series and Chevrolet C/K.

Over the years I’ve been up close and personal with these versatile vehicles, usually when moving myself or helping friends relocate to new digs. I must admit I’ve really enjoyed the whole pickup-driving/riding experience. The feeling of power combined with their superior-than-thou ride height is a definite kick. I imagine this is probably how medieval-period knights must have felt after donning their armor and sitting astride their trusty steeds.

Lately, however, I’ve begun to have second thoughts concerning this particular mode of transport. It’s not just their expanding sticker prices and fuel consumption that concerns me, but I’ve also noticed how the look is changing. Like wrestlers on late-night TV who are pumped, preened and oiled for the general amusement of their fans, certain pickups sport an over-the-top appearance that just doesn’t compute. What was once a simple, uncomplicated cab-and-box shape is now morphing into something much different, where hiked-up suspensions, bulging fenders and grilles surrounded by massive steel cages are becoming the norm. Finding one of these brutes filling my rearview mirror gives me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. But, moreover, I find myself asking what the point is. That trucks are toys?

What also disturbs me are the bumpers on some trucks, especially those plasticky painted protrusions that pass for bumpers. The fact that you dare not “bump” into anything without damaging their delicate clear-coated finishes flies in the face of the whole tough-pickup image that automotive stylists are fervently attempting to create.

Then there’s the issue of truck names. It used to be that a simple alphanumeric combination was sufficient to identify both the model and its carrying capacity. Now the name game has turned into a contest to see which manufacturer can capture the annual hyperbole prize. The Gawdzilla Gargantua Ultraraptor Xtream won this year, I believe.

My fear is we’re entering into the world of the faux truck, where image and gadgetry outweigh the true purpose for which pickups were originally intended. Real working trucks don’t have to be pretty and/or laden with interiors that would put a luxury car to shame. First and foremost, they need to be haul-anything handy. They also need to take a real beating: dust, grime, scratches, rock chips and even a few well-earned dents and dings without complaint. That’s really what makes a truck a truck. And, fortunately, some of those still exist … they’re called base models and I thank the manufacturers for still making those rolling utility boxes. You know, years ago, a pickup-owning friend told me he enjoyed his rig for its honest, no-nonsense nature. It had roll-up windows, a grille and bumper that he touched up with a paint brush every couple of years and an interior that he could and did clean out with a garden hose. For utilitarian practicality, you can’t get much better than that.

I know that modern pickups provide far more carrying capacity and feature all kinds of tie-downs, hangers, cleats and other devices to help you haul your stuff to Point B. Some of those features might actually be necessary for people who have forgotten that a few bucks worth of twine and bungee cords can essentially accomplish the same thing. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Experiments in engineering, such as the drop-down back wall on the Chevrolet Avalanche make for a vehicle that’s about as far away from the original idea of a pickup truck as you can get. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a neat “truck,” but it’s barely a pickup in my eyes. Still, it has its place in the ever-changing world of trucks, perhaps part of the reality that families can’t really afford a separate truck and car (and their related insurance premiums), but rather a vehicle that can do both, albeit not at the same time.

I guess a longing for the days of a simpler pickup truck is a secret longing for a simpler time. If today’s pickups are any indication, those days are long gone.

Among her numerous accomplishments, Courtney Hansen is the author of the “Garage Girl’s Guide,” the host of Spike TV’s “PowerBlock,” the former host of TLC’s “Overhaulin'” and a writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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