1973 and ’74 were big years for Chevrolet, as these were the years that set the tone for the majority of the next two decades. Debuting in mid-1972 as a ’73 model, the redesigned C/K line of Chevy trucks was like no other pickup truck that the world had seen before. GM called the styling “Rounded-Line”, and the theme can be seen all over the truck. The rear of the box rounds off to allow for wraparound taillights, the front fenders are rounded to increase the effect of the curved shoulder line that runs down the length of the truck. The roof of the cab, corners of the windshield, and doors are all rounded off as well. Together all these curves made for improved aerodynamics, which in turn increased fuel-efficiency to a slightly more tolerable level. These trucks were capable of getting anywhere between awful, and not quite so terrible, miles per gallon. They were also safer thanks to the addition of major innovations like a standard passenger sideview mirror, and a steering column that was less likely to impale you.
Though automotive historians may, and likely will, disagree, I look at 1973 at the beginning of the push to make pickups palatable to everyone. There had certainly been advertising aimed at attracting buyers outside of the usual truck audience prior to ’73, but this was the year that GM in particular really kicked things into high gear. Their new trim lines offered more choices than ever before, and those choices brought with them a new standard of luxury. GM had begun to add some comfort features to their trucks starting with the ’68 model year, but it was not until ’73 that they began playing up the luxury aspect. In just 5 years the transition from a singular purpose vehicle, to a multifaceted staple of American roads was complete. No longer were pickup trucks tools of the trade, they offered comfort, and convenience to everyone.
In addition to being more comfortable, the Third Generation C/K pickups offered more stylish options, both inside and out. The look of these trucks is so indicative of the era, that I think it is fair to say that GM was legitimately hip. Inside you could get houndstooth nylon cloth, or stylized vinyl seats, a color keyed headliner, heck you could even get carpeting! Doesn’t seem like a big deal to us now, but offering carpeting in a pickup was a huge statement. It said that this truck wasn’t just for people with dirt caked onto their boots, it was for everyone, even people who wore sandals.
The exteriors featured eye catching chrome, aluminum, and polished stainless-steel trim pieces. This kind of bravado would mark the beginning of the modern pickup era, an era in which a pickup is a vehicle to been seen in. The custom pickup scene existed prior to the ’73 C/K, but it was a very niche affair. With the debut of these trucks, and the advertising that came with them, the scene rapidly expanded. As the pickup enthusaist scene grew, so did the perception of trucks on the whole, and it wouldn’t be long before some pickups were status symbols.
In addition to the improved comfort, and styling aspects of the C/K line, Chevrolet pushed their capability as well. Outdoor recreation was at a fever pitch in the early 70s, as people wanted to escape the increasingly depressing realities of daily life. Take a look at Chevrolet advertising from the 70s, you’ll find two major themes, the opulence of city life, and the wonderful simplicity of the great outdoors. From cramming yourself into the back of a Vega, to living like a king in the Big Dooley, Chevrolet was doing their best to get people looking at their vehicles as a ticket to freedom. If you take a look at todays advertising, not a whole lot has changed.
These early years of the long running C/K line of pickups are of particular interest, because this is where the battle lines were drawn, where loyalties were declared, and where legends were born. Prior to this era, the pickup market was not the competitive segment that we think of, just a necessity, an afterthought. People who bought Chevrolet cars would most likely buy their trucks, that was just about all the thought that was given to it. That line of thinking began to change in the late 60s, and throughout the 70s it would become more apparent that the trucks themselves could inspire fierce loyalty. They were no longer an after thought, a guy who owned a Cheyenne Super would likely be interested in a Camaro, and Chevrolet would begin to capitalize on that. GM made their trucks part of the family before Ford, or Dodge had the good sense to do the same thing. C/K trucks fit in with the brand landscape, and changed the way pickups were sold in the process. The F-150 may have outsold the C/K line, but of all the truck owners I’ve talked to over the years, the Chevy guys are always happier with their trucks.