By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Trucks have become frou-frou.
Most of them are useless for work and can’t be driven off-road. You just don’t do that with a $40,000 Lariat or whatever. They might be capable of it, but you don’t want to scratch the thing. And while underneath all that fluffery, the 4×4 system might actually be functional, it is usually gimped by easily ripped, hugely expensive plastic “fascias” (modern-speak for what used to be bumpers) that sit too low to the ground, or at the wrong angle, insufficient clearance, inadequate tires and overall fragility.
We’ve become so enamored of technology for its own sake that we’re too god-damned lazy to engage the 4WD ourselves — or more to the point, to bother learning when it’s appropriate to engage the 4WD. Hence the proliferation of “automatic” 4WD that does it for you. Of course, the driver of such a vehicle probably has no need for 4WD to begin with. The closest he comes to off-roading is when he drives onto a grass field at the local high school to watch his kids play soccer.
But he likes to have that “4WD” badge on his tailgate. It’s the modern equivalent of the toothless muscle cars of the late ’70s — which garishly touted their toughness even as they became ever more emasculated.
We used to call them “Disco Machines.”
What should we call all these latter-day, poseur-mobile 4WDs?
I haven’t seen a truck with manual-locking hubs in years. Remember manual hubs? That was the real deal. When 4WD was called for, you stopped, got out and — by hand! — turned each hub to “lock,” in turn, then got back in and — manually! — pulled the shift lever into 4WD.
Not to someone who actually uses 4WD — and knows what it’s for. (Hint: one rarely needs 4WD on a paved road; 4WD Low almost never.)
And unlike automatic/electric locking hubs, manual locking hubs are virtually foolproof (when they’re engaged, they’re engaged; you are in 4WD… with automatic/electric systems, sometimes, you’re not), bulletproof (they rarely fail) and when they do fail, fixing them is simple. With automatic/electric hubs, nothing is ever simple. Or inexpensive.
A truck with manual locking hubs and no overteched flim-flamery can be serviceable (meaning, not just capable of being fixed but cost-effective to keep running) for 20 or even 30 years. A $40,000 XLT Eddie Bauer Edition Harley Stepside Super Lariat will be reliable just as long as the warranty lasts. At 8 or 10 years, watch out. Things will start to go wrong. And get expensive.
As Sarah Palin might say, You Betcha!
If there’s a silver lining to the economic collapse of the post-Chimp Era, it will be a return to sanity – and functionality. There are signs of this already. Toyota, for example, has announced a no-frills version of its Tundra pick-up will be offered come 2010. Nix the power-activated BS; keep the price down. Build the thing so it can work — and last. A novel idea.
What does a truck need, after all? Let’s consider the essentials:
* Sturdy frame — hopefully, a boxed, full-length, heavy-gauge steel frame — onto which the body is bolted. It should be thick and rugged enough so that when the body rots through its mounts, it can still sit on the frame for another couple of years before it’s time for the “Farm Use Only” tags.
* A suspension built to be tough and bulletproof and simple and easy to fix. Solid axle rear — no IRS, please. Leafs, coils, stamped steel control arms, maybe some girder-like anti-sway bars. That’s pretty much it, eh? (Stop it already with the hydraulically assisted, computer controlled four-wheel-steering, auto-adjusting suspension and similar BS.)
* Tough engines — ideally, a cast iron block, pushrod V-8 or six. These engines may not be as “sophisticated as overhead cam designs, but they are proven (100 years of development work behind them) and almost unbreakable designs that are also much cheaper to build, have far fewer parts, take up less space and are far simpler/less costly to maintain.
* A real 4WD system — one designed for work, and to be worked by those who know how to work it. Porsche doesn’t pussify 911s so the Dweezils out there can drive them. Neither should companies that make trucks. They didn’t use to. They can again.
* Cab, bed — that’s about it. Offer AC (sometimes, this is a gotta-have) and an automatic transmission, too. But how ’bout nixing the rest? Especially air bags, traction control and all the idiot-proofing that is riving up the cost, complexity — and weight and expense — of new vehicles? Bring back real, bolt-on metal bumpers that can take a hit. Or if they get bent a little, who cares?
Such a truck — free of the cost-padding, hassle-adding BS — could be built and offered for sale at probably one-third less the cost of an otherwise equivalent modern truck with all the kudzu they’ve been plastering on the past 10-15 years or so.
Wanna bet it would sell?
I know I’d be lined up. My ’98 Nissan’s one of the last of the old-school pick-ups that’s built, pretty much, according to the outline above. Yes, it has air bags and ABS — but otherwise, it makes the cut. Manual locking hubs, 5-speed stick. No power windows or power BS of any kind. But they don’t make it anymore (Nissan up-sized the Frontier circa 2005 and in the process, upped the electronics and idiot-proofing and “convenience” features).
Here’s to hoping the industry reverses course – and makes trucks like they used to make ’em once more.
www.ericpetersautos.com (Click on “Forum”)