ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. For the first time in more than 20 years, the best-selling vehicle in America is not the full-size Ford pickup. Thanks largely to high gas prices, truck sales are sinking at Chevrolet, too, like a rock.
(Soundbite of song, "Like a Rock")
Mr. BOB SEGER (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) My walk had purpose, my steps were quick and light. And I held firm to what I felt was right, like a rock.
BLOCK: Bob Seger's vision of strength sold trucks for Chevy, and maybe for everyone else, too. Ford has been building trucks tough for decades, now. Dodge has its Ram. Toyota got in on the action, making its giant Tundra in Texas. But as strong as the truck market has been these many years, it's not invincible. NPR's Noah Adams went to West Virginia, thinking it was time to talk trucks.
NOAH ADAMS: I've had a couple pickup trucks in the past, and I think about them a lot, so I know most people have a truck story to tell. I went to the small town of Harper's Ferry. It figures in Civil War history, so there's a lot of tourists coming through. Patti Seklemian of Virginia was quick to use the word lust in the same sentence with pickup. She doesn't have a truck, but her dad back in Utah always did. The final one was a GMC.
Ms. PATTI SEKLEMIAN: After my father passed away, my mom kept the pickup truck in the carport, because it was an open carport, and she thought that she was safer if she had two cars there. People would think that she wasn't alone. But my brother had such pickup lust one day, he came and took it from her.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SEKLEMIAN: And he lived in Florida, so he took it a long ways from her.
Mr. JASON WRIGHT (Volunteer Firefighter): My name is Jason Wright.
ADAMS: Wright is a volunteer firefighter. He believes that he needs to carry three self-contained breathing devices in the back of his Chevy pickup. He knows every bolt on this truck. His answers are technical.
Mr. WRIGHT: In my truck, I'm running 35-inch tires that are 12- inches wide. So I have four feet of rubber on the ground. Right now, I'm running a V-6 Chevy 262, and I'm getting 22 miles a gallon.
(Soundbite of lawn mower engine)
ADAMS: I met a guy trimming grass, sweating, no shirt, bandana. John Garza says he's long had a fondness for Toyota pickups, owned a couple of 87s.
Mr. JOHN GARZA (Mechanic): My current one is a 89 Toyota 4x4.
ADAMS: Garza prefers the old and smaller trucks. He's also a mechanic. He likes to get deep inside the engines, because he wants to see the good numbers on the odometer. But 89…
Mr. GARZA: Hundred and sixty-three thousand. I'm currently working on - I do all my own work on it. It's got a blown head gasket right now. That's one of the problems with a 22R motor, but it's easy to work on.
ADAMS: So John Garza, he's Toyota, but Gary Mathis, a carpenter working nearby out of the back of his Ford F150 says, no, that's wrong. Ford is what you stick with. His loyalty is almost a country song lyric.
Mr. GARY MATHIS (Carpenter): My dad had a Ford, and I have Fords. So that's the way it is - and brothers.
(Soundbite of engine starting)
ADAMS: But a sky-blue motorcycle is today's ride for Ken Kelly, passing through town. He has a towing business back in Pennsylvania, lots of trucks. He's also strong for Fords.
Mr. KEN KELLY: The one I drive is a 98, but I also have a 1940 Ford pickup.
ADAMS: Do you?
Mr. KELLY: Yes, I do.
ADAMS: Tell me about the 40.
Mr. KELLY: Well, it came from North Dakota. It was a farm truck out there for many, many years, and I brought it home, and I'm in the process of restoring it. Very little rust on it.
ADAMS: What's the radio like?
Mr. KELLY: There is none.
ADAMS: No radio.
Mr. KELLY: No radio. It had one windshield wiper.
ADAMS: You mean it was made with one windshield…
Mr. KELLY: Mm-hmm. Yup.
Mr. KELLY: They didn't come out with two wipers till 46.
ADAMS: Ken Kelly has trucks for his work and the trucks for his hobby. But this year, people are making choices. There's a Subaru Forester parked here at the visitor's center. Guy said he used to have a Ford Ranger, likes the Subaru better. But no trade-in story could beat the one told bye a very lean and tan young man who glides up also to get a map. His name is Steve Eggers. This summer, he sold his truck to buy the bicycle he's riding.
Mr. STEVE EGGERS: Gas is going up, and the pickup truck just kind of seemed a little obsolete. So I figured I'd trade it in and buy a really nice bike.
ADAMS: Eggers has a hand-made Rocky Mountain Sherpa Touring Bike with everything he needs on a rack. And he is riding from Asheville, North Carolina to New York City, and then back to South Carolina for college. Figure a cost per mile: practically zero.
Mr. EGGERS: And plus, when you're on this thing, you can see the countryside. You see everything at a lot slower pace, so you really take it all in, really appreciate the miles.
(Soundbite of car engine)
ADAMS: I'm thinking about finding a pizza place for supper, but I'll need some gas before I head back to Washington. At the car rental office in the morning, they put me in a Toyota Tundra. I'd wanted a pickup for this story, but not especially a huge, slate-grey crew-cab made-in-Texas SR5 engine with a gas tank that holds 26 gallons. I bet they were happy to finally rent somebody a truck. With this thing, you get scared at the gas station.
Okay, what I've been doing - I just can't stand to see the total price. I've been putting $20 in at a time. It kind of slurps it up.
The Toyota Tundra, they'll teach this one in business school. Finally, you build a truck to line up with the Fords, the Dodges and the Chevys, put your plant in Texas, spend millions of dollars slamming it around on Super Bowl television, - and then come spring, and the price of gasoline shuts down the market and eventually shuts down the San Antonio Tundra plant. But look at this coming at me down the street: a big, white new-looking Tundra. And I see a temporary tag. I pursue the gentleman, Keith Marks, local business guy, traded an SUV for the Tundra.
Mr. KEITH MARKS (Businessman): I've had some SUVs because I always want to have something to keep my bicycle in. But with the extended cab, I can keep the bike in the bag if the weather's bad. And also, I think the SUV's, the value of them are significantly dropping quicker than the trucks, because at least the back of the truck's versatile, where in many cases the SUV is just an open, empty cavern.
ADAMS: You must have got a great deal.
Mr. MARKS: I did. I got about $9,500 off MSRP.
ADAMS: Keith Marks says, and says it in a positive way, that he's getting 16 miles to the gallon in this new Tundra. A truck, of course, is a working vehicle. Sometimes big is good, but 2008, with $4 gas, is already the year that separates truck needs from truck wants. Noah Adams, NPR News.
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