Reading Pickup Trucks on the road
Pickup trucks used to be simple. When I was first starting to drive cars or (better yet), ride motorcycles, if you were enjoying a sporting day on a winding back road and came upon such a truck, you knew what to expect. A basic and utilitarian vehicle meant for work in an agricultural enterprise or as a work vehicle for some sort of labor. It would usually have an in-line six engine with little horsepower designed to run for decades with little or no maintenance. If something did go awry it could be repaired with basic tools – a few wrenches, a screwdriver or two, and perhaps a hammer.
When you caught up to it, and you would, there would be a hopefully short pause before you zoomed by on your much faster motorcycle or car. Almost any motorcycle or car.
That was in a straight line. In corners such a pickup would heel over like a frigate in a gale, the narrow tires offering not much grip, so cornering speeds would be low.
For a visual, review in your mind the final scene of Easy Rider. In the movie, the two anti-heroes approach an old pickup truck on their Harley choppers, which were no great shakes in a straight line or a corner themselves. Ahead of them are two men, partially hidden by the gun rack in the rear window of the truck. A disagreement ensues caused by the raised finger of one of the riders, and he, and then the other, are made very dead by shotgun blasts. Remember that scene?
Picture this. The movie came out in the fall of 1969. I saw it in November. On December 19th I rode south from Seattle on my pristine 1969 Honda 450 Street Scrambler, headed for the Bay area. This was a very ill-advised idea. In fact, one of my teaching colleagues told me this could not be done, and that I would die in the Siskiyou mountains. I had never heard of them, so how bad could it be?
Very. They closed the pass 30 minutes after I rode over it, soaked and shivering with the onset of hypothermia, with snow beginning to fall.
But the return trip continued what many have termed “Preston luck.” I chose to ride up the coast on Highway 101, and the weather was sunny and clear and close to 50 degrees.
In a twisty section, I came upon…an old pickup truck. Two guys, and a gun rack in the rear window. The movie was still fresh in my head, and I was alarmed. Then the driver waved his hand out the window, motioning me to pass! I felt that I was about to die.
I passed them all right, and continued at unwise speeds for about half an hour. They probably wondered what was up with the nut case on the motorcycle.
But today it has all changed. When was the last time you could purchase a new pickup truck that was small? Almost twenty years ago? For a time in the early 2000’s I had an ancient little Ford Courier pickup that was perfect. I drove it for errands and such every two weeks. Sometimes I left it parked at the motorcycle dealership where I worked at for weeks at a time. It was cheap and cost nothing to operate. I once left the keys in the door lock overnight at the dealership and nobody touched it!
Somewhere in those years the draw of luxury and power and size began to infiltrate the pickup truck market, much to my dismay but much more to the delight of customers and the financial status of the manufacturers.
This became evident to me in 2016 on Highway 20, which runs from Fort Bragg, California to the little town of Willits. I was having a great time exercising my Fiat 500 Sport. That car had an optimistically claimed 104 horsepower, but the Sport version also had bigger wheels and fatter tires and did not weigh much. I was driving it with “con brio,” as the Italians say, which was also proclaimed on the vanity plate. Such a fun car. Endless hairpins and sweepers and curlicues; more sorts of corners than there are words to describe, and both of us were in our element. Then… I noticed something in my rear-view mirror. It was a pickup truck. A big one. And it was getting closer.
When he got to tail-gating range I pulled over to let him by, because I am aggressive but try to avoid stupid. It was a big pickup for sure. A Dodge. As he zoomed by, I discovered he was hauling a trailer. And on the trailer – a huge backhoe!
With my ego in tatters I followed him meekly. I found I could keep up with him easily. Pretty sure it was a local who knew the road well and drove it often and had been using my brake lights as cornering reminders. Worked well in reverse, and by the time we got to Willits I wanted to thank him for the guidance.
Fact is that new pickups vary from too big to grotesquely large, and can have as many luxury features and tech toys as cars – or more. They also have engines that run from powerful to grotesque as well, (you need 600hp in a truck?), as well as much larger wheels and tires about three times wider than those back in the day.
End result – if you are enjoying a spirited romp on a back road in your car or on a motorcycle and have a modern truck catch up to you, it is a good idea to let them by. Now you have someone in front of you that will be a “rabbit” to be snared by any law enforcement minions eager to present a performance driving award, lowered risk from deer strikes, and also a handy brake light guide to corners, especially on roads you may not know well.
Caveat: this for certain varies on what you are operating. On the Kawasaki ZX12R I owned, or the two BMW K1300S models I was assigned to ride for two years, progress would not be impeded for long by – pretty much anything on two wheels or four.
I was on a road trip in my Ford Focus ST three weeks ago, to Fort Bragg coincidentally, and I used this technique between Grants Pass and Fort Bragg in both directions. Going West early in the morning a hot shot truck made me more at ease at 5am from deer, and enhanced my enjoyment. I would let him charge ahead on the straight sections and then enjoy the brakes and handling of my Ford Focus ST as I hauled him back in on the curving sections.
On the way back there was heavy fog and a winding road with cliffs to the right and the ocean to the left- a long way down. A big pickup served as my guide, and I appreciated it.
Times have changed. But I still want a small pickup…
Copyright 2020 David Preston