Minitruck Roots: How Japan & Detroit Teamed Up to Build Small Pickups in the '70s
Given the unmatched popularity of pickup trucks in America, it’d be natural to think the whole pickup thing was basically homegrown. But it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, back in the early 1970s when the small pickup market started to boom, all three of Detroit’s major automakers partnered up with Japanese companies who built and exported re-branded small trucks from Japan.
This was in response to the popularity of the small and affordable Datsun and Toyota pickups in the US market. Rather than engineering their own, Ford, GM and Chrysler saved time and money by going straight to the source in Japan.
Here’s a quick run down of the big players that helped grow the segment into a powerhouse:
First to hit the market was the Ford Courier, which debuted in 1972 which was developed as a partnership between Ford and Mazda and imported into the US from Japan.
By that point it had already been offered in Japan for a while as the Mazda B-Series truck, although its popularity in North America would soon overtake its home market by a big margin.
The Mazda-built Ford Courier would last for two generations before being replaced by Ford’s own Ranger compact pickup in the early 1980s.
At the same time GM wanted a piece of this new and growing small truck market, so in 1972 it released the Chevrolet LUV or “Light Utility Vehicle”.
The LUV was built in Japan by Isuzu, a long-running partner of GM's and was also offered in its home market as the Isuzu Faster.
A second generation Isuzu-built Chevy LUV was introduced in the early 1980s, though that model was short-lived as Chevy debuted its own S-10 pickup a short time later.
Dodge Ram 50/Plymouth Arrow/Mitsubishi Forte
The last of the American big three to get into the mini pickup market was Chrysler, who released the Dodge Ram 50 in 1978. Chrysler called on its partner Mitsubishi to build and export the Ram 50 from Japan where it was sold as the Mitsubishi Forte.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just Dodge who sold this imported pickup at its dealers. Plymouth also had a nearly identical truck that was known as the Arrow Pickup.
The Ram 50 was actually the longest running of these Japanese-built pickups, being offered at Dodge dealers until 1994 as re-badged version of the Mitsubishi Mighty Max. By that time Dodge had also introduced the mid-size Dakota, meaning they were two different “small” trucks you could choose from for that period.
And that also gives us a little tease at the second part of this story where we will look at the flip side of this equation that came a little later—American-built trucks that were sold under Japanese brand names.