Not for Urban Cowboys

Sub-Mini Vans and a Couple of Pickups at Auto Salon

Paris:- Wednesday, 9. October 1996:- Thirty-two years ago one of the first things I noticed in Europe was the absence of pickup trucks. I landed on the Costa de Sol in the middle of a monster building boom, and the closest thing to this sort of light truck, was a modified Vespa scooter - with a total of three wheels and a small box behind a driver's cabin. Skillfully loaded, it could and did carry a huge amount of building bricks. Some building sites used donkeys instead.

Except for an overnight stay in Lyon, I skipped France that time - on the way to be a 'gastarbeiter' in Munich - which was also in the midst of a building boom. There I saw VW vans with sort of pickup beds, but not holding much more than the Vespa.

Later, in France, I saw that Peugeot had attached a pickup bed to a 404 sedan front end, and you can still see some of these around. All this building, or re-building, and no pickup trucks to speak of.

Some time ago, Japanese auto constructors decided that pickup trucks could be marketed, not as trucks, but as 'recreational vehicles.' Americans, who had been making the utilitarian pickup truck since Ford's T-model, stood by helplessly as Japanese versions of this handy workhorse were mutated into urban fantasies - trucks for 'drugstore cowboys,' with power steering and air conditioning, that are never used for anything heavier than carrying the week's groceries, which is mostly packaging anyway.

This marketing coup - a lot of people overlook the fact that without this, the Japanese would be as helpless as everybody else - has resulted in 'recreational vehicles' capturing something like 40 percent of the US market for new cars.

This is not yet the case in Europe. Still, in the middle of Paris traffic you do occasionally see imported pickup trucks, mostly oriental in origin, and some of them even have four-wheel drive. Although there is a lot of 'off-road' in France outside of Paris and other centres, you are not allowed to drive on it - and it is seldom done, except by farmers on tractors.

So my line of questioning today at the current auto salon in Paris is aimed at finding out who makes pickup trucks in this country; and if they do, do they also make the urban cowboy versions?

The answer, my friends, is sort of 'no' to both questions. 'Sort of' because Peugeot and Citroen do have new models that are mini-pickups - the Peugeot 'Partner' and its sidekick, the Citroen 'Berlingo.' Renault may also have one, but I didn't see it exactly.

What passes for a 'pickup' is generally a truck chassis and cabin, which a third-party manufacturer adds a pickup bed to - and one small Renault I saw had a pickup bed that was only a container for a tippable mini-dumpster to rest in - all done by a third-party of course.

Although I am self-limiting myself to French makes, for continuity's sake I would like to add that Piaggio, the company that makes the Vespa, also has a new ultra-mini pickup- the Porter - this time with four wheels - in addition to a prototype four-wheel-drive version, now on view at the salon.

All of these are utility vehicles. According to Alain Scordia, of Peugeot, the French do not like pickup trucks because they are easy to steal from. The French prefer the enclosed 'fourgonette,' which is a van, usually based on a small car chassis. The rest of the world should take at look at these - especially those whose market is the service industry - because these handy little jobs are just right for transporting a service man and his tools or one hot pizza, and La Poste uses them all over the country for mail pickup and delivery.

Again, it is not the main manufacturer's who lift these work-horses - or should I say, donkeys? - out of their daily rounds into the realm of 'recreational vehicles.' The others that do it, do it only rarely. For example, there used to be a Simca 'Ranchero' which was a fourgonette with windows and a slightly popped-up roof, and with some doo-dads attached. It looked okay, but it must have been about as handy as a mail-delivery truck with luggage rails on the roof and grilled fog lights on the front bumper. I think it was made by Matra, the space and telephone company.

Just before leaving, kind of empty-handed, Patrice Gallois of Fiat utility vehicles asks me to guess where their quite nicely-fashioned mini-pickup is made. I know it is a trick question, so I give in and get him to tell me. "In Brazil," he says. Logo! In Brazil, people need pickups - any kind; even modified Fiat sedans. I look underneath the rear, and sure enough, it has leaf-springs - able to hold up more than a couple of bags of feed or cement or half a cow.

Sometimes on a major story - 40 percent of the US market after all! - I will keep going - so I go over to the hall with the four-by-fours. Between the two buildings there is a muddy parking lot, where the test trucks are turned around. Mud in Paris! You get a ticket from a stand and you can try one of these tricked-up things out on some mud hill around the corner; but I've seen mud before and I go into the building instead.

Here are the usual Toyota, Jeep, Land Rover, Nissan, Mercedes, Lada - you know their names - and I have to check the whole vast building to find the French, even though they are shown on the direction panel as having fair-sized stands.

Where Peugeot and Renault are supposed to be, I find Aro. The little Aro has a Renault diesel and the big Aro, with four-wheel-drive, has a Peugeot diesel. Both of the Aro's contain 75 percent French parts in addition to their motors, and both are assembled in Romania, and have been for years. The 'beach' Aro in the photo is based on a plastic one once made in France. There are about 80 dealers in France, and none of their names include Renault or Peugeot.

At one time, I had a landlord who had a very large Dodge pickup with a winch on the front, four-wheel-drive and a seven litre V8 motor. His business was buying logs from beachcombers and he had a very powerful, self-designed, turbo-tubed, mini-tugboat to push the logs around with, before turning them into chips for pulp mills. One night, in a fierce blizzard, he got a call - the fire department didn't have one of these trucks - to go out to the Indian reservation, on the other side of the inlet at the end of an unplowed dirt road, to provide transport to a hospital for a seriously ill person.

When he got off the main highway, to where the snow had drifted to depths of a metre, he lit a cheapo cigar, pulled down his Gate's Towing cap, put the monster in all-wheel drive, put it in a low gear and ploughed his way like a sprinting bulldozer to the village without slowing down or stopping. Coming back out was easy.

My landlord was not well-liked in that little town. Other citizens had trucks to go hunting with once a year; but none of them had a truck that could do the heavy-duty stuff. I think of him every time I see one of these replica run-abouts in Paris.

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