Home Cars Before The Limelight: The Untold Story of Early Luxury Trucks

Before The Limelight: The Untold Story of Early Luxury Trucks

Cameron Eittreim March 8, 2024

Pickup trucks have been a large focal point of the auto industry for the last decade. What was once mainly a farm tool has become commonplace transportation for millions each day. Although some trucks will never have more than a piece of plywood in their bed, they have become increasingly luxurious. A pickup truck can now set you back far more than a top-tier luxury car used to. These oversized land yachts appeal to people who want to feel safer or just more dominant on the road.

Brands like Cadillac and Lincoln innovated the luxury SUV scene and now everyone is in the mix. In this article, we looked at the pickup truck and SUV models that innovated the segment. What started as just a leather-wrapped trim package inspired trucks that now have everything from built-in wireless internet to seat warmers and coolers. So whether you haul a bale of hay or a bunch of friends, these were the luxury trucks that changed things forever.

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

1976-1983 Jeep J10 Honcho

One of the first luxury pickup trucks ever made is a surprising one. The Jeep J10 Honcho is a special edition truck that has a unique appearance package and a posh interior. Although this truck was an off-road-focused beast, it was also more comfortable than anything that came prior. The Honcho shared a platform with the Wagoneer so this isn’t a surprise. It had a couple of engine options including the AMC inline-6 and V8 engines (via Hot Cars).

Photo Credit: Motor Trend

The Honcho package was a limited edition offering, making these trucks somewhat rare and sought after by collectors today. The people who owned one of these unique trucks got to enjoy something a lot more comfortable than your average farm truck. These days Jeep is a company that almost exclusively builds expensive luxury-focused SUV models, a far cry from its days of simple off-road ruggedness.

1978 Dodge D100 Jean Machine Pickup 16k Original Miles 2
Photo Credit: SM Classic Cars

1978 Dodge Jean Machine

Dodge is one of the companies that isn’t shy to do a tie-in with a special trim package or advertising on their vehicles. The Dodge Jean Machine was an upmarket truck model that had a special edition paint job, a jean-inspired theme, and a special edition interior. There’s no denying that this truck was a one-of-a-kind offering (via SM Classic Cars).

1978 Dodge D100 Jean Machine Pickup 16k Original Miles 6
Photo Credit: SM Classic Cars

You’ve probably never seen a Jean Machine in person because this truck was extremely rare. The interior of the Jean Machine often featured denim upholstery on seats and door panels, and sometimes even denim storage pockets, mimicking the style of jeans pockets. Options like this had never been seen on a pickup truck before and it made the Jean Machine quite a unique offering. Other models featured this special edition trim such as the Ram Tradesman Van.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

1977-1979 Ford F-150 Free Wheeling

Naturally, Ford had to get in on the rising popularity of pickup trucks, so they offered the F-150 Free Wheeling. This truck was designed to be an off-road beast but it also offered a lot of interior and exterior upgrades over your run-of-the-mill F-150. The Free Wheeling package came with a variety of vibrant color options, which were more daring compared to the standard truck lineup. Who could forget the orange and black paint scheme or the white and orange paint scheme (via CJ Pony Parts)?
Photo Credit: Auto Evolution
The F-150 Free Wheeling was one of the first trucks that showed us that the pickup could do more than just haul hay around. The look and feel of the truck was beyond what most consumers expected out of the company and it ended up being a popular ride. Unique trim packages for pickup trucks continued for decades. But this was one of the most unique options that we saw during the rise of luxury pickup truck models.

Photo Credit: Classic Cars

1974/1976/1977 GMC Indy 500 Official Truck

The rise of luxury trucks wasn’t just about wrapping a cab with leather and upgraded features, it was also about special edition trucks. The Indy 500 GMC truck had a body way before they were popular, and the truck rode completely different than your father’s farm truck. The 1977 trucks likely continued the trend of featuring special paint jobs, decals, and badging that celebrated the Indy 500. The Camaro carried on this tradition well into the 1990s for GM (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Mecum

GMC became a premium brand towards the end of the 1990s. But back in the 1970s, this was a new concept for them. The GMC Sierra had a very classic design compared to the Chevy models and it was the perfect truck to be featured in the races. Not to mention the fact that there was a potent power plant under the hood that gave the truck a great deal of performance.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1977-1981 Dodge Macho Power Wagon

Dodge wasn’t one to be left out of the mix after the success of the Demin Machine. The Macho Power Wagon was another special edition truck that added several unique features to it. The exterior once again had a custom paint job and the interior was also decidedly upmarket for the time. The main selling point of the truck was that it was comfortable off-road and had a lot of features that didn’t come on the base model. Engine options for the Macho Power Wagon included a range of V8s Dodge sold at the time (via Motor Biscuit).

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Photo Credit: Mecum

The Macho Power Wagon could be used for everyday tasks as well as recreational activities like camping, fishing, and off-roading. This was the start of pickup trucks being universally accepted by consumers as something more than just a farming tool. These trucks were versatile and very well-rounded for off-roading as well as regular city driving.

Used 1979 Ford F250 Indy Pace Truck (1)
Photo Credit: My Hot Cars

1979 Ford F-Series Indy Pace Truck

Naturally, Ford wasn’t going to be left out of the fray when it came to offering a unique truck in the 1970s. They too offered a jazzed-up Indy Pace Truck, the 1979 Ford F-Series Indy Pace Truck was very similar to the GMC offering but it had that blue oval touch to it. The difference with the Ford version of the Indy package was that they offered it on every trim level of the F-150. This meant that you could get every possible option with your Indy Pace Truck (via Motor Trend).

Used 1979 Ford F250 Indy Pace Truck
Photo Credit: My Hot Cars

All in all, the Ford Indy Pace Truck was just as unique as the GM offerings and it gave you a bit of luxury that wasn’t usually seen on these things. The Ford Indy Pace truck continued to build on the growing market of high-end pickup trucks. From the comfortable interior and the unique exterior paint job to the increased performance under the hood, this truck was night and day different than what had been on the market previously.

1970 Dodge The Dude
Photo Credit: Hot Cars

1970-1971 Dodge D100 Dude

Dodge wanted to get in on the fun again. This time they used TV legend Don Knotts to push a trim package called “The Dude”. The truck had a two-tone paint job that was unique complete with badging and a two-tone interior paint job. The truck was about as unique as you could get at the time, and coupled with the notoriety of Don Knotts the sales were quite decent. The truck was marketed as an up-marked sports truck, which at the time was unheard of (via Hot Cars).

1970 Dodge Dude Dave 7 Via Wikimedia
Photo Credit: Hot Cars

The D100 Dude was a very popular trim package although Dodge never brought this trim package back after 1971. Getting a truck that had all kinds of bells and whistles was a new concept, but many people embraced it and the sales were decent. Nowadays these are very rare models to find and you’ll rarely see one on the road in its original condition anymore.

1975 Gmc Sierra Classic Gentleman Jim Front Quarter
Photo Credit: Mecum

1975 GMC Beau James / Gentleman Jim

Like it or not GMC has always been positioned as a premium brand in one way or another. Even long before the Denali badge came into play, there was always something a bit sexier about a GMC pickup truck than a Chevy model. Likewise, the Beau James edition of the truck was a two-tone beauty that had a comfortable interior and excellent riding dynamics to choose from. The truck had just about everything that you could want in a comfortable package (via Driving).

2530200 1975 Gmc Sierra Classic 1500 Gentleman Jim Std
Photo Credit: Mecum

GMC’s introduction of these models was part of an innovative marketing strategy to test the waters for luxury pickups. The market back then was almost non-existent but the truck did manage to gain a loyal following. GMC kept toying with the idea of luxury products well into the next few decades, although this was one of the original offerings.

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Photo Credit: GM

Chevy 454 SS

In the ’90s, GM was toying with the idea of bringing back high-performance cars and one of the first models was the blacked-out 454 SS. This decked-out truck was about as menacing as you could imagine, and it had everything that a true sport truck enthusiast would look for. The 454 SS had a supersized engine crammed under the hood and a distinct black paint job, the interior was also a lot more upmarket than the standard Silverado model (via Motor Trend).

1991 Chevrolet 454 Ss Pickup
Photo Credit: Mecum Auctions

The 454 SS was the first truck that took performance to the pavement, and it ended up being very popular. Although GM retired they continued to work on different models as time went on. The truck had continued to be a popular choice with consumers who wanted something a bit different. This was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to premium trucks and it offered the right mixture of everything to appeal to younger more affluent buyers.

1989 Dodge Shelby Dakota Photo Credit Mecum Auctions 100743880 H
Photo Credit: Mecum

Dodge Shelby Dakota

The Dakota Shelby was a special edition model that was designed exclusively by Carroll Shelby. The great thing about this truck was the fact that it was vastly refined from the base model that Dodge had been selling. The Shelby Dakota was a fast truck with a lot of upgrades, but the interior and exterior were also a lot smoother than previous models that came before it. Likewise, the Shelby engineering and touches were evident in every aspect of the truck (via Driving).

Photo Credit: Motor 1

The Shelby Dakota was a first-of-a-kind truck that combined the smooth looks of a sports car with a pickup truck. The compact truck platform that was the Dakota was the perfect thing to be turned into a sports car. With the expertise of Carroll Shelby the Dakota Shelby was a unique offering that still invokes some emotion today. The price tag on these things is also quite high and it’s not the most common truck on the road either.

1989 Ford Ranger 50 Mustang Conversion Swap V8 1
Photo Credit: Barn Finds

1987-1989 Ford Ranger GT

Ford also had fun with a smooth and compact sport truck, something that was much more luxurious than your run-of-the-mill Ranger. The 1989 Ford Ranger GT is the quintessential sport truck with plenty of unique features for the period. The performance of the Ranger GT did better than most consumers thought that it would and the sales numbers were decent too. The Ford Ranger GT targeted a niche market of buyers looking for a compact pickup that didn’t compromise on performance and style (via Barn Finds).

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Photo Credit: Mecum

Having a bit of speed and luxury was enough to make this truck a sales success and it showed that there was an appetite for a pickup truck that did more than hauling hay around. The Ranger GT was just the tip of the iceberg for unique Ford pickup trucks that were going to come on the horizon. This generation of the Ranger is one of the most highly sought-after models for that reason and also the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to repair.

Chevrolet S 10 Baja 2
Photo Credit: Mecum

1988-1991 Chevrolet S10 Baja

What exactly is an S10 Baja? It was another upmarket truck that came out in the 1980s-’90s. The idea behind the truck was to make a fancier S10 model that had color-matching paint and an upgraded off-road package. Like the Ranger GT, the truck was relatively popular but it didn’t last for too long. The S10 Baja had a much more advanced off-road package than your run-of-the-mill S10 model from this era and it managed to provide quite a bit of off-road thrills (via Mecum).

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Photo Credit: Mecum

The S10 Baja was a unique offering at a time when automakers were slowly trying to evolve and change the landscape of what a pickup truck was. The truck had everything that you wanted all wrapped up in an elegant package. Today. fancy off-road trucks are all the norm with the likes of the Ram TRX and the Raptor, but back then a truck like the S10 Baja was something unique and everyone wanted to own one.

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Photo Credit: Barn Finds

1989 Chevrolet S-10 Cameo

Imagine a high-end truck that was so rare that there were only 37 of them made. That was the S10 Cameo, the precursor to the GMC Syclone. The rare truck is amazingly good-looking looking with a powerful engine under the hood. Likewise, the truck has the type of performance and style that you’d expect from something custom-made. The S10 was only available in three colors, and the candy apple red color was the rarest of the bunch (via Barn Finds).

Chevrolet S 10 1989 Images 1
Photo Credit: GM

The 4.3L V6 that was under the hood was a great engine that propelled the S10 with authority. The entire package was well thought out and anytime you see one on the street you know that it’s a rarity. The S10 Cameo was one of the most unique GM creations of the 1990s, and there were a lot of them. The truck had everything in the right package to elevate the regular pickup truck into being something quite special and it’s quite the looker today.

2002 Lincoln Blackwood 41
Photo Credit: Auto Trader

Lincoln Blackwood

Remember a time before F-150 Platinums and the high price tag of a pickup truck? Probably not, but there was a time when a luxury truck was considered some kind of a fluke. The Lincoln Blackwood was a custom luxury truck that was a blend of the F-150 and the Lincoln Navigator. The truck had a velvet truck bed and it was only available in a single color of black. Either way, the Blackwood was the pinnacle of Lincoln luxury at the time although it sold very poorly (via Driving).

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Photo Credit: Car Domain

The Blackwood was a good concept at the time, although the execution wasn’t well done. Lincoln as a brand has continued to gain popularity thanks to the Navigator and the modern-day SUV models but the Blackwood was a complete flop. The truck just didn’t resonate with consumers. Today, you’ll seldom see one on the road.

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Photo Credit: Ford

Lincoln Mark LT

The Mark LT was the precursor to the Ford F-150 Platinum that you know and love today, but the only thing was that no one wanted it. The sad part is that the truck was launched right in the middle of an economic meltdown and its high price tag didn’t help. Although people have no problem shelling out a mortgage for a truck these days, back when the Mark LT hit the market, that wasn’t the case at all. The truck proved to be a good experiment for Ford as it did have some strong attributes (via Driving).

2006 Lincoln Mark Lt.
Photo Credit: Car Domain

The Mark LT was an example of the potential that luxury pickup trucks had, it just hit the market too early. If Lincoln launched the truck nowadays it would no doubt be a successful entrant in the marketplace. Utilizing the already successful F-150 platform the Mark LT was a winning combination of style and performance. The truck was every bit the piece of luxury excellence that Lincoln promised and it showed that not every truck has to be rough and tumble.

Cadillac Escalade EXT
Photo Credit: Cadillac

Cadillac Escalade EXT

The Escalade EXT was a truck that was released in the 2000s and although it never sold in very good numbers it did become a pop culture phenomenon. The truck had the bling bling look of the decade that everyone wanted back then. The fact that it could be turned into an SUV or a truck was one of the major selling features and it shared a platform with the Chevy Avalanche. The truck was a noticeable risk for GM as the Escalade SUV was a sales success (via Driving).

Photo Credit: Cadillac

The Escalade EXT was not the success story that GM had hoped for but it was a unique offering in the marketplace. The power and luxury of the Escalade are what made it an exceptional choice and a rather unique truck for the period. It’s too bad that the EXT couldn’t hang on because it was a pretty unique ride. Trucks have changed a lot over the years and the EXT was the type of leather-wrapped beast that influenced the trucks of today.

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Photo Credit: Cars & Bids

GMC Syclone

Perhaps one of the most unique trucks in the history of the automotive world was the Syclone. The Syclone was for a long period the fastest production vehicle on the road and had a menacing look to it that still excites truck fans today. The turbocharged powerplant was very similar to the one that you found under the hood of the Grand National, and GM was very intent on turbocharging everything that they could during this era (via Driving).

Photo Credit: Hemmings

Few pickup trucks have managed to cement the type of reputation that the Syclone did. The performance of the truck was unheard of when you thought of a compact pickup truck, much less something as simple as the GMC Sonoma platform. The truck is still one of the most highly sought-after vehicles on the road and people still seek this truck out for the thrills of driving it.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1994 Ford F-150 Eddie Bauer

The first real luxury pickup truck hit the market in 1994 and it was part of a partnership with Eddie Bauer and Ford. The F-150 Eddie Bauer package was a classic two-tone treat with leather seating and a whole bunch of power options. The Eddie Bauer F-150 was a marvel of comfort and high-end luxury and it showed consumers that a pickup truck could be more than a farm vehicle (via Driving).

Photo Credit: Mecum

The F-150 Eddie Bauer was the perfect blend of comfort, luxury, and versatility. It was a nice blend of everything that you hoped a pickup truck could have and it ended up being one of the most popular trim packages for Ford. To this day, the F-150 trucks are some of the most popular used Ford models on the market.

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