Datsun, Toyota, Ford: these once great light trucks have come and gone. But has the time come for them to stage a comeback? We’re not the only ones who think so.

Where Have All the Tiny Trucks Gone?

In America, light trucks have figuratively (and in some cases literally) been eclipsed by their larger mid-size and full-size truck brethren. Folks wanted to haul more, tow more, get lifted higher, get muddier, and do it all with more passengers. Today’s trucks resemble some sort of amalgamation of the rugged F-Series and C10s of yore with sumptuous sensibilities and nifty tech of modern luxury cars. Long gone are the days of simple, dependable, tough, and, dare I say, plucky light trucks we grew up with.

And yet we still see a lot of these light trucks out on the road today. These relics of the 80s and 90s have withstood the vicissitudes of time, of rust, and of irresponsible overloading. This is largely because of the durability and reliability of these trucks, they take a lickin’ better than a Timex watch. Don’t take my word for it. As Jeremy Clarkson demonstrated on Top Gear over 20 years ago, little trucks like the Toyota pickup are darn near impossible to kill.

Given our love for these tenacious little trucks, we decided to take a look back at a few of our favorite models from the recent past. And we’ll also take a peek into the future and a return of the classic form to the US auto market.

Ford Model TT

Before we jump into the Radwood worthy light trucks of the 80s and 90s, we wanted to give a little historical credit to the light truck that started it all, the Ford Model TT. No, I didn’t stutter, the Model TT was thus dubbed because it was, you guessed it, the truck version of the Model T i.e. the Model T truck.

Ford Model TT –  |  Shop Ford Model T on

Beginning in 1917, Ford began producing modified Model T chassis with heavier frame and a longer wheelbase, up from 100 inches to 125 inches, for use as truck. Initially, Ford didn’t do the body work for these trucks. Instead, bodies were custom built by the purchaser, with many bolting on a traditional wooden wagon bed to the back. The Model TT had top manufacturer recommended speed of 22mph and sold for $600.

Ford Ranger 1st Gen. 1982-1992

In the late 1970s, Ford faced twin challenges of increased competition from Asian automakers and demand for a more fuel-efficient fleet thanks to the OPEC oil embargo. And while Ford had been relying on the Mazda-built Courier for a light truck, they decided it was time to build their own.

1985 Ford Ranger –  |  Shop Ford Ranger on

In 1982, Ford debuted the Ranger with options for two 4-cylinder engines, a V6, and a 4-cylinder diesel. Importantly, the Ranger was incredibly efficient for its day, with a fuel economy rating of 21 city and 30 highway mpg. The Ranger came in two wheelbases, a shorter 108-inch version with a six-foot bed and a longer 114-inch version with a seven-foot bed. It could haul up to 1,600lbs.

You can still find plenty of affordable first and second-generation Rangers in decent condition. The rebadged Mazda B-Series (1994-2009) should also be considered.

Toyota Pickup 1968-1995

The Toyota pickup, the truck so good Toyota didn’t even bother giving it a name. In 1968, Toyota brought over their RWD Hilux pickup to America. Diminutive yet capable, the Toyota pickup was the perfect truck for spendthrifts who needed a small, more affordable truck but still wanted to help their friends when they moved.

1981 Toyota Pickup –  |  Shop Toyota Pickup on

In North America, the first-generation Toyota pickup ran a 1.9-liter inline 4-cylinder engine making 84hp. It had a payload 1,640lbs. and a towing capacity of 3,500lbs. The second generation saw the introduction of a long (7-foot) bed, larger engines (a 2.0 and a 2.2-liter), and RV conversions (the Mini-Mirage). By 1973, the Hilux name had been phased out completely in favor of the Toyota pickup moniker.

The Toyota pickup was immensely popular in its day. So much so that by the mid-90s, Toyota felt it deserved to have a proper name again. And thusly, in 1995, the Toyota Tacoma was born.

Nissan D21 “Hardbody” 1985-1997

The best way I can describe the Nissan “Hardbody” is to liken it to the dino-bird missing link Archaeopteryx. That’s because the Nissan D21 is the evolutionary bridge between the Datsun 720 pickup and the Nissan Frontier. Both classic tiny trucks in their own right.

1986 Nissan D21 Hardbody –  |  Shop Nissan Pickup on

The Nissan D21 is in some ways the quintessential light truck of the 80s and 90s. When it debuted in 1985, it featured a modest 2.4-liter inline-4 paired with a 5-speed manual making 106hp. 1990 saw the introduction of the KA24E engine, a SOHC engine with 3 valves per cylinder, upping the Hardbody’s output to a whopping 134hp.

Like the Toyota pickup, the Hardbody D21 wasn’t exactly discontinued, it just received an upgrade to its name with other updates in 1998 when Nissan premiered the Frontier. But the Frontier wasn’t the only Nissan the Hardbody spawned. The Pathfinder had seen its beginnings in 1986 as a two-door SUV built on the same architecture as the Hardbody.

It’s hard not to love the Nissan D21 Hardbody, so tough and durable, so elegant in its simplicity. You still see them in traffic, they’re a little rusty around the edges, the suspension is a little saggy from years of hauling loads well past the manufacturer’s recommended capacity. And yet, there they are, in the words of Jerry Garcia, still truckin’ after all these years. I know the Z-boys will cry blasphemy, but for my money, the Nissan Hardbody might be the greatest thing Nissan ever built.

Chevrolet S-10 1982-1993

Though the Model TT might have been the first “light truck”, the Chevrolet S-10 is considered the first compact pickup from Detroit’s Big Three. Debuting in 1982, the redesigned Chevy S-10 was initially offered in 2WD with a choice of an 80hp 4-cylinder engine or a slightly more powerful 110hp V6. “Intra-Trac” four-wheel drive followed in 1983, along with larger 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and a 2.2-liter diesel engine. Beefier suspensions were added a year later, and in 1985 the 2.0-liter was dropped in favor of Pontiac’s 2.5-liter “Iron Duke” inline-4. A further upgrade came in ’88 with the addition of the 4.3-liter Vortex V6.

1983 Chevrolet S-10 –  |  Shop Chevrolet S-10 on

Like the other trucks on this list, the S-10 was also responsible for the creation of not just its badge swapped GMC S15 twin, but also the Chevy S-10 Blazer and GMC Jimmy. But the family tree continues to split from there, with the GMC S15 morphing into the GMC Sonoma in 1991 and the short-lived but legendary GMC Syclone.

Not only did the S-10 spawn a cadre of other GM classics, it led a varied life of its own with a number of memorable trim lines. These include the Back Country edition, the Top Gun and Cameo editions, and most spectacular of all, the Baja edition featuring a roll bar, skid plates, brush guard, and off-road lights. GM marketing had done some great work giving the S-10 added character, but none of these special editions were as audaciously titled as the GMC S15’s Gypsy Magic trim package which dropped exterior chrome and had “truck” embroidered on the seats and door panels.

Honorable Mentions

Jeep Scrambler

1982 Jeep Scrambler -
1982 Jeep Scrambler -

Jeep Comanche

1986 Jeep Comanche -
1986 Jeep Comanche -

Dodge Dakota

1988 Dodge Dakota -
1988 Dodge Dakota -

Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup

1981 Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup -
1981 Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup -

A New Ford Light Truck?

Like you, I was a little disappointed with the recent return of the Ford Ranger. Not because it wasn’t a good truck, because it is. Instead, the source of our collective disappointment came from the fact that Ford chose to bring back the Ranger as a mid-size, rather than a light-duty, truck.

2020 Ford Ranger -
2020 Ford Ranger -

But rumor has it, we’re going to get our cake (the mid-size Ranger) and eat it too (a light truck). Targeting the low end of Ford’s lineup, the new unibody light pickup will slot under the Ranger and alongside the EcoSport as an entry level vehicle, starting right under $20,000.

Ford Courier -
Ford Courier -

It’s possible the new truck will utilize existing architecture from the overseas Ford Courier, and many have assumed it will likewise carry on that name. But rumors are swirling as to another Ford namesake. A leaked rendering of a Ford tailgate sports the Maverick name, another historic nameplate from Ford. There is also the possibility that this Maverick tailgate could end up being attached to a Raptor-esque variant of the Ranger, exciting in its own right.

Compact Ford Truck prototype spied recently -
Compact Ford Truck prototype spied recently -

But whatever it gets called, we’re excited to see Ford’s resurrection of the light truck. We’ve often lamented Ford’s decision to abandon passenger cars in favor of crossovers, SUVs, and trucks. But the exchange might end up being worth it if we get goodies like the Mustang Mach-E and the Courier/Maverick.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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