This Is What Makes A Truck A Truck

What is a truck? A question a child might ask, but not a childish question. We see trucks every day, but do we actually know what the criteria is that makes a vehicle a truck? This came up earlier this week, when a commenter asked this deceptively simple question about a vehicle I described as a truck. Since I like making up rules for things automotive, I figured we may as well settle the question of What Is A Truck once and for all. Hold on tight.

Fundamentally, a vehicle is defined by the sorts of jobs it has to do. In the case of trucks, that job is moving stuff around. More specifically, it’s moving often bulky stuff, and stuff that doesn’t necessarily need to be enclosed.

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If you want to move stuff and protect it from the elements, you want a van. While a truck can be configured to protect its cargo from the elements, there are some crucial design differences.

I think the category of truck can—and should—be quite open and flexible. A truck, as a vehicle that’s designed to work for a living (even if they never actually do work and just take people to Target) will by necessity spawn a huge variety of designs and sizes and configurations based on the tasks it needs to perform, and the restrictions it must work around.

That’s why, after much careful consideration and many simulations and analyses run on the Jalopnik Mainframe (recently upgraded to a cluster of Atari 5200s overclocked and submerged in a thermally-balanced tank of Mensa members’ urine) I have distilled down the fundamental rules of Truckhood to three fundamental rules:

  1. The vehicle’s primary design goal is to haul cargo
  2. There must be some sort of cargo bed, which may be a flatbed, an open-topped tub (like a pickup truck), or an enclosed structure, box-like or otherwise, made from any number of materials
  3. There must be a physical divider between the passenger cab area and the cargo area.
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That’s it, really!

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Whether or not the truck is body-on-frame or unibody doesn’t matter. Whether the bed is separated from the cab doesn’t matter, just as the size doesn’t matter or if it has three or four wheels or the location and type of engine or motor. The loading area can raise up on a scissor lift or dump like a dump truck or incline down like a ramp. All are just brushstrokes on the grand canvas of truckery.

A truck can be an electric, three-wheel design with a bed made of bamboo (that’s motorized and dumps, even) and an open roof as long as it meets those basic criteria.

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This means that box trucks, flatbeds and F-150s, Piaggio Apes, and El Caminos, Mighty Boys and Jeep FCs are all trucks. The category of truck allows for a pretty vast amount of variation and specialization, but I do think those key criteria—made to move stuff, some sort of load area, and a division between people and cargo—are key.

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That means some vehicles that seem quite truck-like, and may, in fact, do many of the same things trucks do, may not actually be trucks if they lack those key criteria.

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Perhaps the most notable criteria is the division between cargo and passenger areas. Vehicles like the old Jeep Scrambler, Citroën Mehari, and the Volkswagen Country Buggy, which all have generally truck-like shapes and can be used much like a truck, are not trucks because they do not divide their space between cargo and people areas.

I would consider vehicles like these, with their undifferentiated interior spaces, to be Utility Vehicles.

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There are a few vehicles that can straddle the line, and make themselves meet the criteria or not. Vehicles like the Chevy Avalanche and the Toyota bB Open Deck:

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Both of these vehicles have an open truck-like bed, but their dividers between passenger and cargo areas are removable. This makes them highly flexible, and also lets them dance in and out of the definition of what makes a truck.

A big rig or semi-truck with a trailer I think is a truck, though a sub-category of truck, as its division between the cargo area and passenger cab is even more pronounced, as its an entirely separate unit. I think it’s still in the category of truck, though.

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This is a broad definition, but I think it should help clarify some long-standing questions, like is a Ranchero or El Camino a truck? They are.

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Trucks are not about size or looks or how big an engine is or ground clearance or anything like that. Trucks are about the honest, humble need to get something done. And that’s why I respect trucks—all trucks—so.

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)