Ford Ranger Vs F150

Twenty-Seven Years of Pickup Truck Design

Former Streetsblog USA writer Angie Schmitt has recently been making the point on Twitter that, despite the extremity of our climate crisis, the transition to sustainable transportation can’t be instantaneous because of our sprawling built environment. We therefore will need both EVs (maybe including ebikes, though she doesn’t address this) and smaller/safer vehicles for people who live in places where walking and transit are not realistic for most trips.

This post is about one of those two needs: smaller vehicles that make it safer for everyone who is walking and biking, combined with more conscientious driving. You may have seen this graphic that illustrates the problem with the massive personal trucks that are legal and increasingly common on our streets today:

Person between front of a large pickup truck and a car, showing truck front hits strike zone of vital organs while car hits their legs

Graphic by Don Kostelec


Pickup trucks have not always been this size, and the change didn’t happen back in the ancient history of car design. Many of us are old enough to remember not just officially smaller trucks, like the now-discontinued Chevy S10 and Ford Ranger (RIP 2004 and 2011, respectively), but also that most of the current truck models used to be significantly smaller than they are now. And that their design aesthetics were less intentionally aggressive when they were smaller, too.

When did each truck brand change its size and aesthetic? Here’s a pictorial history.

Chevy Silverado

The Silverado started out as a fairly rugged truck design — it wasn’t small (that’s what the S10 was for). It was boxy and functional-looking, though. In 2007 and 2008, the design of the front end started to change, rising higher. By 2014, check out that thick slab of metal jutting out in front of the driver. The 2019 model has an almost fully tank-like front end. And remember: the Silverado is smaller than all of the GMC trucks that GM sells.

Dodge Ram 150 or 1500

Dodge Ram was the trendsetter in adding aggression to the design of pickup trucks. (The Ram 150 is pictured through the mid-2000s, when it appears to have been magically upsized into the 1500, since adding a zero made the model more appealing, I guess). But the design change had happened between 1993 and 1994 when the snout was added, putting the “ram” in Ram. Over time, the snout became more pronounced, as seen best in the 2004 photo.

Because Dodge is the one that started the design arms race, it’s hard for me to admit that at this point, the Ram design feels less aggressive than that of the Ford F-150. But when I encounter these two different trucks on the street as a pedestrian, I know which one makes me feel less safe, and it’s the Ford.

Ford F-150

Note that the F-150 was still smallish and mostly unassuming-looking until the mid-2000s. The design started to change around the time Barack Obama became president, getting increasingly tank-like. By 2015 it was in full battering-ram mode and continues in that format today. Remember, the F-150 is the smallest truck Ford now sells (there’s also an F-250 and a F-350).

Here are a few other photos from our streets:

Red GMC truck with chrome bull bars like a fence over the front

Bull bars, as shown on this GMC truck in a Saint Paul intersection, literally add injury to the insult of the original dangerous vehicle design. Photo by Pat Thompson.


White Denali truck parked in a spot clearly labeled NO OVERSIZED VEHICLES

This GMC Denali truck is not an oversized vehicle, nope, not an oversized vehicle. Of course, it did not fit in this parking spot in any direction. Photo by Pat Thompson.


Smaller white Ford Ranger next to a large white Ford F150, almost twice as big

A rarely seen Ford Ranger, discontinued in 2011, is juxtaposed here to a newish Ford F-150… now the smallest truck Ford sells now. Yes, the larger truck hangs over about half of the public sidewalk in the back. Photo by Pat Thompson.


Graph of pickup truck weights, 1990-2018, increasing from 4000 lbs to just over 5000, peaking in 2014

Since 1990, the average weight of pickups has increased by 1,256 lbs or 32%. (Data: Oak Ridge National Lab)


The upshot of all this, in my opinion: If people need pickup trucks (instead of just driving them as if they were cars, which is all too often the case), the trucks should be, at a minimum:

  • designed at the smallest size possible, instead of being locked in an arms race of height and bulk.
  • legally required to take the front-end strike zone and blindspot into account in the design.
  • designed to meet fuel-emissions standards in step with those of other passenger vehicles (which should all be on more aggressive downward paths than they are currently).

It goes without saying that electric pickup trucks need to be brought to market ASAP…and it sure would be nice if truck design aesthetics could reflect something other than aggression and hatred (ahem, Cybertruck).


Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the Climate Committee.

76 thoughts on “Twenty-Seven Years of Pickup Truck Design

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    If they’re going to be as large as a commercial vehicle a CDL should be considered as well as passing the driver exam in this size class vehicle.

    1. Mark

      Are we forgetting the land yachts of the 60s & 70s that were the standard for decades?

      To be clear a CDL should NOT be a requirement for driving these vehicles. They’re still passenger vehicles and are absolutely not the same size as commercial vehicles. If you want to make changes for the driving test for everyone, that’s fine. Make it more robust. Do road testing every so many years. But there is nothing unique about these vehicles that requires an exclusive license.

      1. Justin H

        The land yachts from the 60s and 70s also had hoods that were lower like a conventional car and generally had less horsepower. A 1967 Chevelle, for instance had 140-325 hp, which is quite a bit less than the 290 – 375 you can get in a new F-150 today.

        The land yachts from the 60s-70s are what started a shift to smaller and rounder vehicles for safety and efficiency. We couldn’t yet build more efficient engines, so cars got smaller and less weighty, which was good for pedestrians. But they also got rounder not just for aerodynamics, but for safety. Those pointy land yachts would rip your guts open. We outlawed certain design features, like flip-up headlights, because they would hurt pedestrians. There is precedent for requiring design changes to make pedestrians safer.

        1. Mark

          Sure, lower hoods with steel front ends that would break your legs/hips, flip you onto the steel hood and give you a traumatic brain injury. And horsepower is an overhyped statistic that gets thrown around when talking about vehicle safety.

      2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        Those land yachts were low by comparison. Saying those long wide cars are anything like the roll hazard or front grill pedestrian hazard is not an honest comparison.

        Plus, the growing prevalence of lifting these trucks completely upsets the design tolerances for maneuverability and crash compatibility for crumple zones. Lifting a pickup should void the standard license.

        My throwing out CDLs is entirely appropriate because anytime folks start talking about how vehicles the size of a Tahoe and larger should be more tightly regulated (because of the hazards that they create), people show up responding that they’re all used for work by construction workers (as if nothing got built until we enlarged pickups).

        If not a CDL, then we need a new licensing because folks who initially learned to drive with a sedan with hydraulic power steering years back get these today with e-PS with tight turn radii nothing but Laissez-faire faith it works out. The rise in ped and bike injury and deaths shows it ain’t.

        1. Mark

          I agree that lifting trucks shouldn’t be allowed. It’s stupid and changes the vehicle dynamics.

          Still, a CDL should absolutely not be a requirement. As previously stated I’m fine with modifications to the existing license. Retest every few years should be mandatory. It’s absurd that we test a 16 year old and after they pass the only follow up is to ensure they can still pass an eye exam.

        2. Monte Castleman

          Some people actually do take their pickups off-roading, Things like lift kits and brush guards make them a lot more suitable for that.

    2. Mary Hartman

      I have driven a ford f-150 for the past 30 years starting with the 1987 now with a 2013, I will not drive a ”passenger car” that falls apart if it is hit in an accident. I never have been in an accident in my truck, better visibility is the number one reason why. The trucks positive attributes outweigh any negative. This article is not looking at all the statistics of truck accidents. In my opinion I am going to see over the snow, garbage cans or whatever to see the pedestrian or bike coming so less likely to hit a pedestrian or biker. Delivery trucks under 3000 lbs only needs a class d license, if you make people get them for pickups, amazon fedex usps and ups are going to have a hard time finding drivers for their trucks all class D license trucks

      1. Pete Barrett

        Do you have data that shows pickup trucks are safer than cars? Or is this just going on intuition?

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Even if your truck is safer for you (not sure it is), it’s definitely less safe for people who aren’t in your truck, especially people who are walking. They matter too, don’t they?

  2. Elizabeth Larey

    This is a great post. I never understood why trucks are still classified as cars for fuel consumption numbers. I’m always careful when driving near them. I know people who own them, and never use the back end. I don’t get it.

  3. Bob Roscoe

    I’ll make a comment here but it might not get posted. I tend to compare these oversize trucks’s only real function is to make up for something undersized by the men who buy them.

    At a much younger age I owned a 1932 Ford Model B pickup on which I did all the repairs myself. Including the time driving with my girlfriend Janet, when I heard a tingling sound and the truck slowed down and stopped. I discovered a small thin stainless steel band had broken in the distributor. I noticed Janet had a small barrette in her hair that was the same size . She pulled it from her hair and I fashioned it with a needle nose pliers into the band i needed and we drove to our supper destination.

  4. Conrad ZbikowskiConrad

    Ford introduced the Ranger again in 2019 and there is a 2020 model.

    The base model gets EPA combined around 23 mpg.

    Curb weight ranges from 3,922 to 4,441 pounds.

    270 horsepower

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard

      I’m glad to see that a) Pat made the distinction between the Ranger and the F150. Trucks ARE getting bigger, but the memes going around on Twitter that show a Ranger and an F350 side-by-side really irk the Detroiter in me. And b) the Ranger is coming back – even if it’s probably on steroids. My dad had a rear-wheel drive, manual transmission Ranger for most of the 90s and 2000s. It was right around the time that the kids in our family were moving a lot, and we used it a TON. He was really good at packing it to capacity. Of course with only a 4-cylinder it barely made it up a hill when fully loaded, but it got the job done.

    2. Mark

      That reintroduction was to the US market, it was available overseas for many years prior. The S10 has also been replaced by the Colorado.

  5. Mark

    Minor critique: I wish the pictures represented the same style of vehicle across the years. Some show a standard cab while others show the longer crew/quad cab. All models were available during those years with either option.

    1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

      I agree. You would be surprised how hard it is to find comparable photos from year to year.

  6. Anon

    I was with you until, “design aesthetics could reflect something other than aggression and hatred”

    A bizarre statement. Can you say more about how the Cybertruck’s design reflects hatred?
    Maybe the hatred being reflected is your own?

    It looks like a child’s toy to me.

    1. J

      What makes the cybertruck look so different is actually a sustainability gain.

      It was made with durability in mind and they could not mold the body panels as they do with the relatively thin gauge of material that clad most trucks.

      Many minor accidents result in a totaled vehicle which rapidly decreases the lifespan of the vehicle.

      Given the energy, emissions, and resources required to build one vehicle (especially an EV) we should welcome design changes that embrace the BIFL mentality.

    2. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

      We all bring our own cultural eras to our aesthetic judgments, admittedly. I come from the era of the original RoboCop, and when I look at the Cybertruck, that’s what I see. I admit I have not followed its launch at all closely or read its specs.

      My cursory knowledge is based on what it looks like (filtered through my personal aesthetics), combined with what I’ve heard about its materials and design (that they are intended to be bulletproof, etc.). Sounds like Robocop to me. So… maybe aggression more than hatred? I’m working for a world where we don’t all have to wrap ourselves in bulletproof materials in order to be safe.

      As far as the other trucks discussed in the article, I think their design aesthetics do reflect aggression and even hatred toward anyone outside the truck, compared to their earlier designs.

  7. Kurt

    I actually have a CDL, which I got to make me a better driver, not to drive for work. But, I do like to take road trips, and will be getting a Peterbilt with a 14 foot sleeper. My Challenger sustained over $1,000 in damage on a road trip due to a South Dakota gouge in the road, so I’m going bigger and tougher. Not just a pickup. But a Semi Tractor/RV. Heaviest front axles available, the works.😎

  8. Brian

    A common reason drivers are buying large vehicles is because they can’t see anything out of a car because there are so many large vehicles on the road. My brother bought his wife a medium size SUV because she wanted a higher driving position than her car.

    Vehicle sizing is sorta like an arms race. A bunch of people buy larger vehicles and now the drivers of small vehicles can’t see anything on the road so they go out and buy a larger vehicle and the cycle continues.

    I like driving my motorhome because the drivers sits up pretty high up and I can see a long ways down the road unless a semi blocks my view. It allows me to have plenty of time to slow down if traffic ahead is slowing.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Yes, that’s what regulation is for. People individual incentives to race to the bottom.

      Meanwhile, sitting higher means you can’t see what’s immediately in front of you.

      1. Brian

        Sitting up high does not necessarily mean the hood has to block the driver’s view. Unfortunately, many automakers are designing vehicles with high hoods.

        It is unfortunate that many drivers are buying bigger vehicles simply because they cannot see beyond the vehicle in front of them because so many drivers are driving large vehicles.

    2. Pete Barrett

      Economists call this the fallacy of composition.

      If I’m at a concert at the X, if I stand up, I get a better view. But if everyone stands up, we don’t all get a better view.

  9. Jeff

    I follow Angie on twitter and appreciate what she says about trucks and SUVs. Having said that, some of her rhetoric about SUVs is troubling, because it seems to assume that they have no functional purpose. I acknowledge that increased SUV sales probably means there are some people who drive them and don’t maximize their functionality. But we bought a three-row SUV last year, because we have three kids (10,9, and 6) who have busy schedules and we only have that one car. I suspect that if I told Angie that we own a new three-row SUV, she would shame me.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I’d like to see someone haul IKEA furniture home or tow the boat up to the cabin or get through last winter’s blizzard or take more than three kids someplace in a sedan

      1. Christa MChrista Moseng

        I’ve done all these things except “take more than three kids somewhere” in a sedan. The people with more than three kids get a pass, everyone else that doesn’t live on a farm doesn’t need a truck. 🙂

          1. Pete Barrett

            No, to family size. You’ve not heard of adoption?

            But, it is interesting you mention “female reproduction” when you could have mentioned “male virility”.

      2. Julie Kosbab


        1. I have hauled IKEA furniture home in both a Dodge Neon (hi!) and a Mazda 3 5-door. This includes the tall version of the BILLY bookcase.
        2. I drove that Mazda 3 in last winter’s blizzard. I’ve also driven it back-of-beyond near beautiful Seely, WI, to get to our cabin for the Birkie.

        3. I have driven 3 Girl Scouts + another Mom from Spring Lake Park to Eden Prairie for Aviation Day, again in said Mazda 3.

        Now, okay, if you want to mince things about the BILLY bookcase, my 3 is a hatchback. A little one. So not a true sedan. And no, I’ve never hauled a boat with it.

        But I’m going to argue that much like how many parking minimums are really about “maximum capacity we will ever use maybe 1 day a year,” driving a truck everywhere because you need one to haul your boat up to the dock one day, and back down another, two days a year? Inefficient compared to renting a truck for two days.

      3. Tim

        That’s what pretty much everyone did until the 90’s, though.

        As for the present day, while I don’t have a boat, or kids, I’ve hauled plenty of IKEA furniture home in my hatchback compact car with the back seats folded down, and my snow tires take care of winter weather driving.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Sort of like you used to have to cut boards with a hand saw and were able to do it, rather than using a much better tool for the job like a miter saw.

    2. Christa MChrista Moseng

      You bought it for its capacity, but you also bought its mass and fuel inefficiency, which are more the focus of this article than whether Angie Schmitt would make you feel bad for your choices.

      I think this is a good example of how mass consumer and marketing choices, particularly as SUVs are marketed and regulated, limit and direct individual choice, and the possibility for individuals to be as responsible as they should be. Externalized costs like unnecessary vehicle mass and fuel inefficiency are now just part of the fabric of moving a family around, and people get defensive when someone suggests thinking more broadly about different ways to accomplish those things.

          1. Jeff

            Speak plainly, please. I do take my kids on public transit, we do bike places (at least we used to before I got sick). We walk a lot of places. But here are their activities in total: soccer, gymnastics, faith formation class, wrestling, piano, lego league, and viola. Not all of those places are accessible, all the time, by bike/transit, especially with two working parents. We could have bought a hybrid, I suppose. But those are considerably more expensive.

              1. Jeff

                We routinely have four or five people in the car – oh I forgot to add, ski lessons on saturdays. The vehicle is as big as it needs to be in order to be competent in hauling us all around. We had a two-row SUV and the kids were seated all across the back bench and they fought constantly. I guess you’ll have to trust me when I say that, for our family, this size vehicle was needed. Do you have three kids?

                    1. Tim

                      Most minivans would do the trick just fine. Three rows, plenty of cargo space, but less weight and better fuel efficiency.

                    2. Monte Castleman

                      I don’t know. I guess I view most modern SUVs as basically minivans since they’re built on car frames rather than truck frames, feel like a car, and have capabilities more like a car.

                      People wanted minivans but they didn’t want to be seen in a minivan; they wanted the look of the SUV but without the capabilities and drawbacks that go with them. So the crossover “SUV” was born, which are really glorified minivans (although still more likely to have big tires and AWD, both very important in Minnesota winters).

                      My 02 Grand Cherokee I could have driven over the Rubicon trail if the mood struck me. My 09 RAV-4, Nope. (I really loved truck based SUVs but couldn’t afford a 4-Runner, so I had to compromise since I wanted a Toyota).

                  1. Megan

                    Hopefully you reflect on the real reason that vehicle mass has increased so much in recent years. Hint: it has to do with fuel regulations and how they’re calculated.

                    1. Megan

                      You made a broad claim that completely ignores the key reason for the change. Again, do yourself some favor and educate yourself on the key changes that happened in the late 2000s that changed the fuel economy requirements & calculations for vehicles and basically created a path to the increase in size we’ve now seen.

                1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

                  We have a minivan. Don’t know how it’s visibility or mass compares to your SUV. I have gently proposed going to zero cars for a while, but now that we’re increasing from 3 children to 5 I think I have lost that battle for many years to come. It has capacity for 8 seats, but the hood slopes down pretty well to see in front. Do SUVs have better/worse utility or safety features when compared to minivans?

                  1. Jeff

                    I would guess your hood has a better slope than my SUV, but (as I just noted elsewhere) it is loaded with sensors (and a forward-facing camera), which seems like it would ameliorate concerns about front blind spots

          2. Mark

            We’re adults who are allowed to make informed decisions about what we feel works best for us. Striking an attitude like that is incredibly dismissive of any intellectual thought that went into making his decision.

            1. Christa MChrista Moseng

              Please see my earlier comment where I said “mass consumer and marketing choices, particularly as SUVs are marketed and regulated, limit and direct individual choice, and the possibility for individuals to be as responsible as they should be.”

              Making this about individual choice, without reflecting on the forces that limit the nature of the things we are permitted to choose among (as is the focus of this article), absolves everyone of all the choices leading up to the constrained choice, and takes it all as a given.

              Challenging the way things are, especially the countless hidden assumptions and givens are a part of making things better, which is what this website is fundamentally about. Better, not “defending the same because we made rational choices amid the sameness.”

              1. Mark

                You say you’re challenging these things, I see it differently. You’re on a site where people are focused on making the streets a better place, making cities more livable, making everything safer. And yet you feel the need to admonish someone and question their life choices. This is absolutely about individual choices, and I’m disappointed in the ones you’ve made today.

            2. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

              Perhaps more important is how the built infrastructure does or does not accommodate these growing vehicles. We don’t expect someone to be able to park a motorhome in a standard parking spot in most parking lots. There has to be a breaking point.

              There also should be some regulations regarding visibility for the driver. Maybe there are some and I just don’t know it, but current designs lead me to think they aren’t strong.

              1. Jeff

                I’ll just point out here that our current SUV (just to be clear it’s a Kia Telluride) is exactly 8 inches longer than our previous two-row SUV. It’s not a full-size SUV but it does do a good job with leg space for our three growing kids. As for whether it has a bigger front blind spot then older cars/SUVs, maybe so, but it also has probably about 100 sensors that basically won’t let me hit anything (which is great!). I am in favor of higher standards for drivers, too.

                  1. Jeff

                    My beef with the tech is that is has a large screen for navigation and music, etc. If we want to regulate something that potentially reduces crashes, we should legislate the operation of those screens by the driver, somehow.

                    1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

                      Good point, I’ve always wondered how those in-vehicle screens are even allowed – seems very distracting.

                    2. Monte Castleman

                      In the old days it wasn’t such a big deal when a driver leaned over to turn up the blower fan or turn down the radio volume. I agree that it’s an issue those functions are increasingly being embedded in touch screen displays.

                      My old GPS unit would lock out certain programming functions if the car was in motion (although the result is a passenger couldn’t set it either). Do we need a law that cars have to provide physical knobs for the more basic functions that have to be done while the car is in motion, like radio volume and air conditioning?

    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The “market” could have provided larger vehicles in body types that are less deadly – station wagons (we had a three-row one back in the early ’80s) and minivans. But we made those “uncool” and switched to “utility” vehicles that aren’t really.

      We had to replace our small SUV and looked pretty hard at getting a sport wagon instead. Ended up with an Outback, which used to be a sport wagon but is basically a small SUV now. It’s gotten really hard to make any other choice, given what’s being manufactured.

      1. Mark

        A station wagon is a sedan with a extended hatch. The Outback is a wagon of the Subaru Legacy which is a sedan. Congrats on your station wagon, always loved our Outback.

    4. Kayse

      Why not a minivan instead of an SUV? If children were your criteria, minivans offer more features for parents than SUVs do.

  10. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    I saw a pickup truck literally hauling a (semi-truck-size) box trailer today onto 280, which is a great example of how unnecessarily over-built modern pickup trucks are.

    Thanks for putting together this comparison, it’s startling to see the side-by-side comparisons over the years. I know how intimidating and frightening being around these trucks in every day life is, and I really hope this trend doesn’t continue.

    1. Mark

      A few points of clarification. A standard semi trailer is 53′ long, towing that with a pickup would be illegal and is extremely unlikely due to multiple issues. The longest gooseneck trailer is 40′ long and empty weighs 5,000lbs. That’s not that much, and trucks for the last 50+ year can easily tow that and plenty more.

      1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

        I don’t think you can call your unsolicited comments “clarifications,” really, but the fact that it’s illegal and still possible is exactly the point.

        1. Mark

          To be clear it was the Minnesota passive-aggressive version of saying that a pickup was not hauling a 53′ semi trailer. If there was then we’ll see it on the news tonight.

          1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

            Passive-aggressive comments and sarcasm are not appropriate here, so refrain from doing so in the future.

            The detailed comment policy can give you more information on our guidelines. Continued violation will result in deletion.

    2. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      It is so so so intimidating and frightening being next to these new trucks. Being stopped at a stop light and having one of these pull up next to me… I’m 6’2 and it feels like they tower over me. Add in the massive side mirrors, it doesn’t take much for a buzz to really scare the crap outta ya.

  11. Brian

    Even pickup truck owners are commenting on how ridiculously tall the front of the new GM pickups is.

  12. Pete Barrett

    You know how the voice overs on pickup truck commercials are uber-macho? The voices are very rough & grough, manly men with manly voices. It’s not quite universal, but it is very much prototypical.

    Now, I’m neither a psychologist nor a wordsmith, but it seems to me the reason for this is that manufacturers are playing on an image of masculinity.

    I wonder if we could somehow graph the increase in the use of the uber-macho voice over in truck commercials, if it would parallel the increase in the size, & height of, the front ends of pickup trucks.

    Remember the infamous honey badger video of a few years back? Using that voice on a pickup truck commercial would be completely ironic, and we’d all get it.

    In short, it’s all about image, for 90% of truck buyers.

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