The American pickup truck has long dominated auto sales in the US. It suits our self-image. (Ford)
The American pickup truck has long dominated auto sales in the US. It suits our self-image. (Ford)

The question is simple enough: Why do Detroit’s Big Three dominate pickup truck sales?

Through the first three months of 2013, Ford’s F-Series was the top-selling vehicle in the United States with 168,843 sold. That’s the top-selling vehicle overall, not just the top truck. The best-selling passenger car in that period was the Toyota Camry, No. 3 overall with 100,830 units sold.

But it’s not just a case of Ford doing well.

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Chevrolet’s Silverado pickup was No. 2 with 116,649 sold and that doesn’t include another 40,796 units of its sibling, the GMC Sierra. The Ram, still celebrating being named North American Truck of the Year, was seventh overall with 77,594.

Our domestic automakers fiercely defend this bit of sales turf.The Ram is new this year; Chevrolet and GMC are in the process of rolling out the new Silverado and Sierra, and Ford is readying the next generation of the F-150. The F-series trucks have been America’s best-selling vehicle overall for 31 straight years and the top-selling pickup for 36 consecutive years.

In April, according to Automotive News figures, the Detroit Three sold 144,000 pickups, while combined sales of the Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan were 9,314, dropping the non-Detroit share of the full-size segment a point to 6 percent.

To John Wolkonowicz, an independent automotive analyst, the answer is plain: The issue is brand loyalty.

“The person who buys a full-size pickup has a blue collar mindset. I know because I have one, too. In a blue collar world, guys drive trucks. To them, the full-size pickup is the only answer. “These are people who believe in buying American,” says Wolkonowicz.“They’re union members and they’re also extremely brand loyal. For years it’s been to the point where a Ford pickup owner considers a Chevy a piece of junk, and a Chevy truck owner feels the same about a Ford.”

This deep-seated loyalty isn’t something new.

“Trucks are the meat and potatoes of the domestic manufacturers,”says Herb Chambers, whose dealerships sell virtually all brands. “And a Ford guy is a Ford guy. You may get him to switch his car brand but not his truck brand.”

“Ford’s F-Series status as the best-selling vehicle overall for the past 31 years didn’t happen by accident,”says Doug Scott, Ford Truck Group marketing manager.“It happened because we set the standard for durable trucks each and every generation, proven by the fact that F-Series pickup trucks won the R.L. Polk Household Loyalty Award 15 of the past 17 years. Everyday, we see customers who have only purchased a single brand of truck.”

It makes the US market hard to crack.

“New entries into the truck market simply don’t have that same longstanding relationship and equity among drivers in the United States and North America,”says Scott, noting that Ford is adding a third shift and 2,000 jobs to an F-150 production facility near Kansas City, MO.

That doesn’t mean the imports don’t make an effort.

Toyota brings the same reliability ratings to its full-size Tundra and mid-size Tacoma pickups as it does throughout its car line.“Toyota builds a great truck, but it’s proven to be a tough segment of the business to break into,” says Chambers.

“Toyota focuses on the light-duty retail (or non-fleet) portion of the full-size pickup segment where there are more personal-use buyers,” says Andrew Franceschini, Toyota’s national truck marketing manager. “That segment represents 63 percent of the full-size pickup market, andTundra sales are just under 10 percent of those sales.

“These often are younger families who use their vehicle for fishing and outdoor activities,” he says. “The increased number of crew cabs is a sign that people who might have had SUVs find the crew cabs to have the space and capabilities they need.”

Toyota, with a new Tundra ready to launch in September, looks to continuing growth in the segment. “Pickup trucks are the fourth largest segment in the industry,” says Franceschini. “As the segment has evolved, we see more demand for premium grades. That’s why we’ll have a five-grade strategy for the 2014 Tundra—SR, SR5, Limited, Platinum. and the 1794 Edition.”

The 1794 Edition is named for the ranch, founded in 1794, where theTundra plant is located in San Antonio.

Interestingly, Chevrolet picked San Antonio as the site to launch its new Silverado. The Silverado and sibling GMC Sierra are just hitting the market now.

But the pickup wars are serious—especially since industry analysts say automakers realize far bigger profits on pickup and large SUV sales than on passenger cars.

“GMC goes back more than 100 years,”says Roger McCormack, GMC marketing director, “and we’re raising the game again with the 2014.”

McCormack points out that the new Sierra will retain functionality such as the bumper step and grab handle for ease in climbing into the bed plus standard adjustable tiedowns, easy-up and down tailgate, and LED bed lighting.

“But we’ll also set the standard for upscale interiors with soft-touch materials, comfortable seats, and technologies such as Intellilink infotainment system, natural voice recognition, touch screens, and apps like Pandora that function seamlessly.”

GMC brands itself as a premium professional grade vehicle, a step up from the Chevrolet Silverado.“It’s a way this person approaches life, focusing on doing things as well as they can, and taking the same approach with their truck,”says McCormack.

The pickup industry is about image, too. “The image of a brand can be more important than the product itself,”says Wolkonowicz. “For example, BMW is about image and performance (“The Ultimate Driving Machine”) and the two reinforce each other. US truck makers focus on doing that, too.

But changes could be coming.

Hyundai has let it be known it’s considering adding a pickup to its lineup.

“I think the Koreans are going to try the US market,”says Wolkonowicz. “They have a tremendous amount of ambition. I’ve got a lot of respect for them. They could build them over here.”

And US makers have let opportunities slip away, too. Ford discontinued the Ranger at a time when we’re looking at a mandated 54.5 miles per gallon fleet average by 2025. Now the company is building a new Ranger overseas, but will run into an old problem in importing them to this country.

That was a 25 percent tariff imposed in 1963 by President Lyndon B. Johnson on potato starch, dextrin, brandy, AND light trucks. It was in response to tariffs by France and West Germany on US chicken imports. Chicken, it seems, was a luxury in those countries. Thus the term “chicken tax.”

Now, 50 years later, the only remnant of that tariff is the part on light truck imports. However, there are ways to get around the chicken tax and level the playing field. Toyota (Tundra,Tacoma) and Nissan (Titan, Frontier) build their trucks in North America. Indian automaker Mahindra planned to export its trucks as kits to be assembled here. Years ago, Subaru put plastic seats in the bed of its compact Brat pickup and exported it to the United States as a passenger car. Ford uses that strategy today in importing theTransit Connect, removing flimsy interiors upon the vehicles’arrival.

But there is a reason for the present state of affairs.

“Detroit’s pickups are very good. And they have been for a long time,”says Wolkonowicz.