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When Ford unveiled the all-electric F-150 Lightning at an event in Dearborn, Michigan last week it marked a key moment for one of the most American of American products: Pickup trucks – Ford pickup trucks, no less — had gone zero emissions.

“Obviously, they’re not the only company looking into this, but they are probably the most important,” Kelley Blue Book editor Allyson Harwood said.

The three top-selling vehicles in America are all big trucks, she noted. But when it comes to pickup trucks, the Ford F-150 is the unquestioned king. The F-150 has been, for 44 years, the best selling truck in America and the full F-series line of trucks is the best selling vehicle, of any sort, in the United States. It is also the pickup truck with the longest heritage.

In 1917, Ford started making the Model TT, a rugged version of the Model T, designed as a basis for trucks. This photo was taken around 1924.

Ford sold 7.4 million F-series trucks in the past decade, according to Cox Automotive data, including the larger F-250 and F-350 heavy duty pickup trucks. The Chevrolet Silverado pickup was the nation’s second best-selling vehicle, but a distant second, with 5.3 million sold during that time. General Motors has already announced it will also make a fully electric truck.

The rise of the suburbs

Ford introduced the first factory-built pickup with a steel cargo bed, a version of the Model T Runabout, in 1925.

The Ford Model T Runabout with a steel truck bed is generally credited as the first factory-built pickup in America.

There are older Ford trucks, including the heavy-duty Ford Model TT introduced in 1917, but they were mostly sold without cargo beds. Other companies added those. Henry Ford had resisted building complete trucks with factory-installed beds for fear of angering the many firms that relied on making these customizations, according to the book “Classic Pickup Trucks” by Mike Mueller.

Trucks became so important to Ford that, following World War II, as the company transitioned from building bombers and Jeeps to making passenger vehicles again, its first new product was the 1948 Ford F-1 pickup, the start of today’s F-series line.

“If you read the brochure for that vehicle, it reads just like it reads today,” said Ted Ryan, Ford’s archive manager, “The bed, the towing capacity, the cab comfort, all those were stressed in the 1948 brochure with the F-1.”

The F-series was launched just as major changes were happening in America. Government-backed mortgage programs, benefits for veterans, higher paying jobs and new construction techniques created vast new housing developments outside of big cities. These areas weren’t rural exactly, but they weren’t urban, either. They were suburban.

In 1948, Ford started making the first F-series truck, the Ford F-1.

Suburbs weren’t new, of course. Areas of separated – but not too separated – homes surrounded by lawns, bushes and fences, had long existed. But this confluence of changes and incentives accelerated their growth.

In 1940, 13.4% of Americans lived in suburbs, according to data from the Census Bureau. By 1970, 37% did. By 2010, the trend had continued to the point that half of Americans lived in the suburbs. This created new markets for pickups in a number of ways, some experts said, as well as changes in the trucks themselves.

In rural America, pickups had been a transportation staple as they are still today.

In the suburbs, though, homeowners with lawns to care for and houses to fix found they needed pickup trucks, too, said B. Mitchell Carlson, an expert on classic pickups.

“Now I got to go to the hardware store and I need to get grass seed and I need to get fertilizer,” he said.

With a growing number of two-car households and two-car garages, pickups could work as a second errand-runner next to the family sedan or wagon, said Carlson. Around this time, pickups also started getting a bit nicer, too.

More ‘creature comforts’

“They were starting now to actually have, like, dual sun visors and everything like that,” he said. “They were starting to get more creature comforts.”

Trucks started to look more refined. The Chevrolet Cameo Carrier, which was made by GM in 1955, “easily deserves credit for introducing this country’s first truly classy pickup,” according to Mueller’s book. Sleek and car-like, the smooth-sided Chevrolet lacked the bulging rear fenders that had long been standard on pickups.

The Chevrolet Cameo Carrier, like the one in this 2015 photo with owner, Jim Ellis, introduced more stylish trucks to the market.

Andy Weise, who teaches American urban history at San Diego State University, is skeptical of the notion that pickups would have made big inroads into middle class suburban garages. No matter how well-equipped or nicely designed, trucks would simply have been too déclassé for most upwardly mobile Americans in the 1950s to want to park at home, he said.

In the 1960s and '70s, trucks continued getting roomier and nicer, like this 1965 F-250 Crew Cab.

But, he said, the rise of the suburbs created a new class of entrepreneurs who could earn a living fixing the homes and sprucing up the yards of their wealthier neighbors.

“My sense of the pickup truck in the suburbs is very much connected to class,” Wiese said, “and I think the people who would have had trucks in the suburbs would have been working class people who did so much of a work on the bigger properties, especially.”

Cotten Seiler, who teaches American Studies at Dickinson College and who wrote the book “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America,” pointed out that suburbanization didn’t just pull people from the cities. Urbanization and high-paying union jobs also pulled people from rural areas into suburbs and they brought their trucks with them.

This 2002 Ford F-150 was offered with a power sunroof.

“In terms of social mobility, those people didn’t trade in their pickup trucks for sedans, they traded in their pickup trucks for nicer pickup trucks,” he said.

And as their descendants, who continued driving trucks, moved upward economically, trucks became still nicer and more luxurious, Seiler said. Around the same time, pickup trucks got special protections that helped seal their identification as purely American products, Seiler said.

The all-American truck

He was talking about the “chicken tax,” which was instituted in 1964 in retaliation for French and West German tariffs on American poultry. The Johnson administration placed a 25% tariff on imported trucks that remains in place to this day. With a protected market, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – today part of Stellantis – made their trucks cultural statements in addition to just transportation.

“There was a Chevy ad like ‘This is our country, this is our truck’ and, in some ways that sort of crystallizes that sense of the identification of the nation with this protected… product,” said Seiler.

Pickup trucks can now be purchased with interiors rivaling those in luxury cars, like this one in the 2005 Ford F-150 King Ranch model.

Today, Toyota and Nissan offer full-size pickups, as well as smaller mid-size trucks. Honda sells the Ridgeline, and Hyundai recently unveiled the Santa Cruz, both smaller, car-like trucks, which are being built in the United States, thus avoiding the tax. Still, the traditional American full-size truck manufacturers dominate the market like half-ton gorillas.

Even GM and Ford now offer smaller “mid-sized” trucks, like the Chevrolet Colorado and Ford Ranger, that are designed to appeal to those who use trucks more for play than work. They also appeal more to people in dense, urban areas where large trucks can be a challenge to drive and park. Ford executives have been open about plans for an even smaller truck than the Ranger for the American market.

Ford, in particular, deserves credit for making bold technological leaps rather than resting easy in its position as Lord of Trucks, said Kelley Blue Book’s Harwood.

Ford's Chief Executive Engineer Linda Zhang unveils the Ford F-150 Lightning in Dearborn, Michigan. On the outside, the electric version of Ford's F-150 pickup looks about the same as the wildly popular gas-powered truck.

In 2011, Ford introduced a turbocharged V6 engine option in a truck market dominated by big V8s. In 2015, a redesigned F-150 arrived with an all-aluminum body, something once unthinkable in a product when relatively heavy steel had long been associated with durability. And just last year, Ford began selling the first fully hybrid pickup.

So when Ford recently revealed the F-150 Lightning, the first fully electric full-sized pickup truck, it showed the genius of Ford’s penchant for innovation, Harwood said. Ford did this by focusing on the actual needs of truck buyers, like a 10,000-pound towing capacity and a bed designed to work with accessories purchased for other F-150 trucks, rather than flashy stuff like the Lightning’s zero-to-60 acceleration.

“What Ford is really doing is they’re taking people along on their innovation journey,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to push this. We’re going to go a little bit further with it,’ but what they’re doing that’s great is they’re creating solutions that people want.”