For most of its existence, the pickup truck has merely been a four-wheeled tool. A vehicle free of extraneous frills and frivolities, intended as an internal-combustion-powered pack animal. But many pickup buyers, then and now, want some individuality with their utility (We’ve already covered the performance end of the equation.), and starting in the mid-1950s, the American manufacturers started catering toward those buyers by offering style conscious, playfully-named special edition models.
These high-falutin' haulers have run the gamut from gaudy to glorious; even so, there have been so many minted over the decades that it's a bit of a chore to whittle the fleet down to the 10 most elite. Yet we feel we've managed to do just that, and you can inspect the fruits of our labor after the jump.
While crime and forensics shows seem to rule today’s TV drama landscape, it was the western that was king in the 1950s and ‘60s. To capitalize (somewhat belatedly) on this, Dodge created the Dude package for its D-series full-size pickups. Offered in 1970 and ’71, the Dude was made sportier than other Dodge trucks thanks to options like bucket seats and Chrysler’s brawny 383 cubic inch (6.3L) V8. But the most obvious upgrade was standard: The Coronet Super Bee-esque “C-stripes” along the flanks, but instead of that muscle car’s cartoon bee mascot, the stripes were supplemented by “The Dude” lettering and cowboy hat. Still not impressed? The Dude’s celebrity endorser was none other than Don Knotts. Ask your parents (or grandparents, as the case may be) about why he was a big deal.
Though somewhat incongruously sharing its name with the nickname of Depression-era New York City mayor Jimmy Walker (though if you ask us it could just as easily be the stage name of a Canadian lounge singer), this 1975-only GMC Sierra was dressed to the nines. The silver-and-blue two-tone paint, wire hubcaps, velour seat trim and a Beau James hood ornament, decals and other identifying trim items provided visual distinction from normal Sierras, while the 3/4 ton frame riding on 1/2 ton suspension and axles provided mechanical differentiation.
It seems hard to believe now, but prior to 1955, stepside beds were the only game in town as far as production pickup trucks went (car-based pickups and utes excluded). That changed in 1955, when Chevrolet rolled out the Cameo Carrier as part of that year’s all new trucks. The notion of the bed sides fitting flush with the cab sides seems like a no-brainer now, but it was truly groundbreaking at the time. It wasn’t a huge seller, but it prompted Ford and Chrysler to launch imitators. Later flush-sided pickup beds sprouted wider load floors, meaning they were also more practical than stepside beds, and the stepside pickup box lingered in agony until just a few years ago before finally going the way of vent windows and floor-mounted high beam switches.
Ford’s F-Series full size trucks may be perennial best sellers, but that hasn’t stopped the Dearborn firm from releasing special edition versions. And one of the sharpest looking, as far as we’re concerned, is the Nite, made in 1991 and ’92. Normally, black paint and exterior trim would lend a vehicle a decidedly sinister look, but the Nite’s polished wheels and colorful side stripes (magenta or blue on the ’91, gradually fading from blue to magenta on the ’92) made it look just plain cool, daddy-o.
The onslaught of emissions regulations in the mid-1970s sapped huge amounts of power from almost every new vehicle sold in the U.S., but these regulations did have some loopholes for trucks over certain gross vehicle weight ratings (GVWRs). Naturally, the Big Three were happy to exploit these loopholes, and one of GM’s entries was the Chevrolet Big 10 which, like the GMC Beau James, combined the ¾ ton C20 pickup’s springs with the ½ ton C10 model’s chassis, axles and other hardware. Throw in Big 10 stickers and other trim items (and available 454 Big Block power) and you have a mighty attractive end run around catalytic converters and other horsepower smothering gizmos.
In the late ‘70s, Ford offered a smorgasbord of colorfully-striped pickups, vans and SUVs known as the Free Wheelin’ line. The F-Series received a variety of treatments depending on the year and body style, but our personal favorite has to be the 1978 Styleside, with its blacked out bumpers and grille, slotted aluminum wheels and disco age chic “hot to cold” side stripes. The ideal vehicle for weekend warriors who also belong to a Foghat tribute band.
When Imperial Tobacco switched its sponsorship of the Lotus Formula 1 team from Gold Leaf to John Player Special cigarettes in 1972, the cars switched to a striking black and gold color scheme that would spawn innumerable automotive imitators. One of these was the Dodge Warlock (though a few other colors were available), a sister model of sorts to the mighty Lil’ Red Express Truck. Unlike that red hot hauler, the Warlock could be had with a variety of engines, with a manual or automatic transmission, and with rear- or four-wheel-drive. Alas, the Convoy-ready exhaust stacks were strictly Lil’ Red Express only.
Of course, special editions aren’t just limited to full size pickups. Compact pickups have also been dolled up by manufacturers over the years, and one of the most successful was Ford’s Ranger Splash. It featured a stepside (or Flareside, in Ford speak) bed, body-colored trim and was offered in bright colors like yellow and bright red. Just don’t drive a yellow one to the beach, unless you like being asked to rescue people every now and then.
Not to be confused with the Beau James, the Gentleman Jim was GMC’s means of capitalizing on the aforementioned black & gold craze. But the color scheme wasn’t the only classy bit; woodgrain interior trim, full instrumentation, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with 8-track player (YES!), and dealer-installed accessories like tailored tonneau cover, chrome cargo tie downs and Cibie driving lights. Think of it as the vehicle Huggy Bear would have driven if he was a carpenter.
Among the current crop of special package pickups, the Ram (nee Dodge) Power Wagon has to be one of the most capable. Sure, you get unique fender flares, roof lights, stickers and other cosmetic extras, but the big news is the mechanical tweaks. Heavy duty axles, skid plates, heavy duty cooling for the 5.7L Hemi V8 and 6-speed automatic transmission, heavy duty manual transfer case and an electric winch are just some of the fortified functional bits you’ll find on this crew cab bruiser. Makes us wish we could buy a few dozen acres out in the country just so we would have to buy one of these.
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