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Top-Rated Classic American Pickup Trucks

Vukasin HerbezJanuary 8, 2019

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27. Chevrolet 490 Series Half-Ton Pickup

Chevrolet introduced the 490 Series Half-Ton Pickup based on the new 490 Sedan in 1918. Interestingly, the Half-Ton was the first specially-designed pickup in the world. This means that Chevrolet intended to present this model as a light-duty delivery vehicle rather than just a chopped-off sedan body. The power came from a four-cylinder engine, which was standard in the range. Notably, this first truck came from the factory without a body.

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That meant the customers were supposed to buy their own cab and truck bed according to their needs. Chevrolet sold a running chassis with the engine, transmission, wheels, hood, and fenders, and then buyers looked for the rest. In those days, many body shops constructed open or closed trucks per the customer’s specifications. Some trucks even had a few bodies they could switch for different applications. The 490 Series truck stayed in production for over 10 years. Chevrolet produced a big number of those, influencing other truck manufacturers to start designing similar models.

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26. Diamond T Model 201 Pickup

For those who don’t know, Diamond T was a well-known truck manufacturer that specialized in commercial vehicles, large trucks, and fire engines. And as such, the company decided to step down to the light truck market. They introduced two models featuring powerful six-cylinder engines and tough mechanics.

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They presented the Model 201 in the late ‘40s with a sturdy chassis and big wheels. And with its powerful engine, it had a better towing capacity than its competitors. But unfortunately, it was significantly more expensive than similar models, so few could afford such a big and powerful truck.

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25. Studebaker L5 Coupe

Just a small percentage of today’s car enthusiasts remember Studebaker since the company was discontinued in 1966. However, Studebaker was active on the pickup market with some of the most beautiful classic trucks the industry ever made.

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Based on their passenger car lineup, the 1938 L5 Coupe was an elegant and quality-built pickup truck, despite its name. It featured lots of cool detail and luxury equipment. Better yet, it came with spare wheels on the fenders. Even though it wasn’t a big sale success, it was influential. It showed that trucks are not just workhorses, but also elegant creations.

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24. Dodge Power Wagon

Dodge has a long history in the pickup field. One of their most famous and influential is the legendary Power Wagon. They introduced this model in the ‘40s, combining rugged truck construction with four-wheel drive.

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The six-cylinder engine in the Power Wagon wasn’t particularly strong. However, the truck was extremely capable and dependable. In fact, most customers who needed a tough workhorse loved it. It remained in production for almost 20 years, selling internationally.

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23. Chevrolet Cameo

Before the ‘55 to ‘58 Chevrolet Cameo, pickups had a step side design of the truck bed. This meant that they formed the beds with sculpted rear fenders, oftentimes with wooden sides. It was a production method dating back to the first trucks from the early ‘20s. But as one of the biggest pickup manufacturers in America, Chevrolet presented the Fleetside truck bed on the 1955 model. The Fleetside construction was revolutionary in many ways. First, the truck bed looked more elegant and flush with lthe ines of the cabin as well as the whole design of the truck. Second, the Fleetside allowed the maximum width of the truck bed, making the truck more capable to carry wider loads.

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Third, the innovative construction was more durable and stronger than ever before. The first model to feature this construction solution was the Chevrolet Cameo, but it wasn’t successful at first. The Cameo was an upscale version of a standard Chevy truck featuring a V8 engine and updated equipment but at a higher price. Some earlier versions even featured the Fleetside bed consisting of fiberglass instead of steel. Chevrolet discontinued the Cameo as a model in 1958. However, their Fleetside style continues to this day and all truck manufacturers have wholeheartedly accepted it.

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22. Jeep Gladiator

A direct descendant of the legendary Willys Jeep Pickup, they unveiled the Gladiator in 1963 with fresh new styling and great new features. However, the most important upgrade was the independent front suspension similar to the Chevrolet C/K. Jeep wasn’t the first, but it was the first four-wheel-drive truck with that kind of front suspension. It was not hard to mount a double-wishbone suspension or A-arms with coil springs to the front end of a truck, which Chevy did in 1960. It was hard to do the same with the front axle going through the suspension components and powering the front wheels.

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As an all-wheel-drive and off-road authority, Jeep was able to make it work. The result was the first truck ever with an independent front suspension and 4×4 drivetrain, which was a huge achievement. The Gladiator immediately became the best off-road truck on the market. Even the U.S. Army used special versions for various duties. With powerful six-cylinder and V8 engines, the Gladiator was one of the best, most versatile trucks of the era.

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21. REO Speed Wagon Truck

Although there is a rock band with the same name, they established the REO Company in the early 20th century. It stayed in business until the late ‘50s, producing all kinds of commercial vehicles, mostly trucks. But during the late ‘30s to late ‘40s, the company produced a popular light truck called the Speed Wagon.

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It was the main competitor to Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge. However, the REO Speed Wagon was more attractive than the rest of the trucks in the field. And best of all, it had decent mechanics and was high quality.

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20. Ford Ranchero

By the late ’50s, pickup trucks were an established car class with numerous models from several major manufacturers. Trucks were mechanically similar to each other with straight-six engines and those newly introduced V8s. Also, most had a ladder-type chassis and a live axle in the back. Always at the forefront of the market, Ford realized that there was a niche for smaller, more car-like trucks. They would attract customers who needed a used vehicle, but who didn’t haul heavy loads or need the ruggedness of a regular truck. The solution was simple: turn a full-size passenger car into a small pickup truck by chopping the body and adding a truck bed.

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Ford introduced the Ranchero in 1957. It was an immediate hit featuring Ford passenger car styling and appointments, along with a payload like those full-size F-Series trucks. With the Ranchero, Ford customers could enjoy the drivability of a regular sedan with the usability of a proper pickup. And that was something the market had never seen before. Ford even offered a long list of optional extras. Customers could get a big V8 engine, a two-color exterior, a radio and seatbelts. Ford offered the Ranchero until 1979 in seven generations.

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19. Dodge Lil’ Express Truck

The muscle car era affected trucks, as well, resulting in a few special versions. And that included more powerful engines under the pickup hoods. But there was nothing more until 1978 when Dodge introduced the Lil’ Express Truck as the first full-size muscle truck in the world. The secret of the Lil’ Express Truck and its importance lies in the strict rules of the late ‘70s, which robbed those V8 engines of power and vehicles of their performance. But Dodge found an interesting loophole in the regulations that declared pickup trucks didn’t need a catalytic converter. This meant Dodge could install a more powerful engine to have it breathe easier. The result was the ability to deliver more punch than their previous models and competitors.

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And that is how the Lil Express Truck came to be. Dodge took a standard D Series short bed truck and added a 360 V8 engine. And then they put big truck-like stacked exhaust pipes right behind the doors and added a durable automatic transmission. Best of all, they used a red color scheme with signature decals and details, as well as lots of chrome trim. This wild-looking special model pumped out 225 HP, which was considered a lot in those days. Most notably, thanks to the revised drivetrain, it was the fastest-accelerating domestic vehicle in 1978. Just as a reminder, this Dodge pickup truck was faster than all the Mustangs, Camaros, and Corvettes in 1978. The Lil’ Express Truck was back in 1979. But although it remained famous, the overall production numbers were relatively low at just under 3,000.

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18. International Harvester Travelette

For those who don’t know, a crew cab configuration means that a truck has four doors and a truck bed. Today, the crew cab is a common option, so most new models, full size or compact have it as standard. But, back in the day, trucks only came in a single cab configuration with two doors. Back then, no one could imagine a truck with more than two doors that could carry more than two or three people inside.

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But, in the early ’60s, International Harvester presented the Travelette version of their C-Series truck, which changed the industry with the first crew cab. Today, International Harvester is the famous producer of agricultural machinery and big trucks. But during those days, it was active in the pickup truck market. Their products were always heavy duty for professional users. They came with tough mechanics, big engines, and durable components. The idea behind the Travelette was simple. Allow a group of six workers to travel together with their tools and equipment in the back of the truck.

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17. Chevrolet Half-Ton

In 1938, Chevrolet introduced another revolutionary model they called the Half-Ton. Under the hood was a potent six-cylinder engine with a chassis and suspension they designed to withstand tough everyday use. In those days, Chevrolet was famous for their quality and dependability with a 20-year old reputation for making the best work vehicles in America.

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The 1938 Chevy truck was also important since it was one of the first trucks to feature its own design. Chevrolet recognized the truck segment as one of the most important ones in the car market. Because of that, they did their best to present a fresh and recognizable look for their products. Chevy gave their new Half-Ton an upgraded interior providing more comfort. Also, customers could choose a car radio, which was a big deal in the late ‘30s, making it the symbol of ultimate luxury.

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16. Dodge Dude

Back in the late ‘60s, western-themed TV shows were a big deal in America. Sp Dodge figured out how to use that popularity in their favor. In that period, Dodge had a D Series line of pickup trucks. They were sturdy and dependable machines, but not as popular as Ford or Chevrolet products. However, Dodge did have a faithful customer base, which kept production going. Trying to warm up their aging D Series line, Dodge presented one of the most legendary special edition pickup trucks they called the Dude. The Dude was a regular D Series truck, but with a few important features. It had bucket seats, a tachometer and an improved interior.

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But what customers loved was the choice of lively colors. And the best feature of all was the powerful 383 V8 engine. It came as standard with over 300 HP, providing a significant performance. One feature that most car fans remember the Dude for is the big black “C” stripe on the sides. That was reminiscent of the Dodge muscle cars of the period. The Dude is also interesting for being the first special edition truck for the older crowd who watched western shows on TV. Yet it was popular with the younger people who were into muscle cars and performance, too.

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15. Kaiser Jeep M715

This interesting vehicle is primarily a military truck. But they sold a few of them to civilian customers. They based the M715 on the Jeep Gladiator pickup, introducing it in the late ‘60s for the U.S. Army. The engine was a dependable, strong six-cylinder with just 130 HP.

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However, it had a lot of torque, which was necessary to move this three-ton truck. They built the M715 to be easy to service and extremely durable, which it proved in the Vietnam War as well as several other conflicts. Kaiser Jeep produced over 30,000 M715s until 1969.

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14. Chevrolet El Camino

In 1957, Ford introduced the Ranchero. It was a half car-half truck they built on their passenger car design and chassis. It was an interesting alternative to a regular truck since it offered a decent payload. Yet it offered the drivability and size of a standard car. The Ranchero caught Chevrolet by surprise, so they didn’t have an answer for this model. The Ranchero became relatively popular, so Chevy needed something to fight Ford. Their answer came in 1959 in the form of the El Camino.

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They built this beautiful truck on an Impala frame featuring the same looks, engine, and cabin. Most customers immediately embraced it since the El Camino offered all the goodies of the Chevrolet main passenger lineup with a half-ton capacity. In fact, they made the El Camino more upscale than the Ranchero. It featured a better option list as well as more powerful engines. The straight-six was standard, but many customers optioned for the V8.

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13. Plymouth PT 125

In the Chrysler Corporation, Dodge was the truck division responsible for almost all memorable Mopar trucks. However, during a few short years, Plymouth offered a pickup truck they based on the Dodge architecture they named the PT 125. They presented the PT Series truck in 1937, and it was almost identical to the Dodge offerings of the same period.

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The production numbers were solid, so buyers seemed to like the new Plymouth truck. However, Plymouth ceased production in late 1941 when WWII halted passenger car manufacturing in the U.S. But it is unclear why the Plymouth didn’t restart this truck line after the war. Sadly, most people have forgotten the PT 125 truck today.

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12. Willys Pickup

Although most people associate the Willy name with Jeep and all-wheel drive trucks from the ‘40s onwards, the company produced several pickups before it. And they based one of the most popular designs they introduced in the late ‘30s on their economy car chassis.

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The main feature was the front-end styling, which was controversial by the standards of the day, but it made the Willys Pickup recognizable. Unfortunately, the other features were ordinary and the drive train was the same as on standard passenger cars.

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11. Chevrolet C/K Pickup

Back in the day, basic pickup construction was extremely simple. It included a ladder chassis, live axles on both ends, and rear-wheel drive. However, with the introduction of the Willys Jeep Pickup, the truck market got its first four-wheel-drive model. After that, a four-wheel-drive was something all the car manufacturers later accepted. The truck manufacturers of the ’50s only concentrated on trucks that could haul heavy, large items. But in 1960, Chevrolet introduced an all-new model they called the C/K.

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They produced it in various trim lines. The “C” in “C/K” meant it had rear-wheel drive, and the “K” stood for four-wheel drive. These trucks proved to be a sales hit, but they had one interesting aspect first. The 1960 Chevrolet C/K had an independent front suspension, which replaced the old and rugged live front axle. The “C” models with rear-wheel drive got the independent front, but “K” models with 4×4 retained the live axle. Today, all trucks have this type of suspension, but in 1960, Chevrolet was the first. The advantages of this were numerous. First, the truck handled like a passenger car and was much more pleasurable to drive, the steering was easy and precise, and driving a truck on rough terrain was not a punishment but an enjoyable experience.

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10. Ford F-150 Lightning

The Ford F-150 Lightning is a legendary truck. It wasn’t the first of Ford’s limited-edition trucks but it was the best. Ford made the first generation they sold from 1990 to 1995 a true automotive icon. The basic idea was to make a muscle truck using a regular F-150. Ford put a lot of effort into designing and producing the first generation F-150 Lightning.

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First, there was the engine, a 5.8-liter V8 unit with GT40 heads, and a special camshaft. The power output was 240 HP with 340 lb-ft of torque. But, the Lightning had a revised suspension and transmission that translated to awe-inspiring acceleration times.

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9. Chevrolet C30 Dually

Chevrolet presented the C30 Dually in 1973 as a part of their major offensive on the global truck market. In fact, the C30 One-Ton Dually was the first crew cab Dually Chevrolet ever offered for sale and the first heavy-duty truck ever.

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Back then, nobody offered a Dually model with space for six passengers, heavy-duty components, and a long bed. However, in 1973, Chevrolet offered those exact models Also, they offered this truck with Chevrolet’s biggest 454 V8 and a four-speed transmission. The automatic was also available.

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8. Dodge Ram Cummins

There were diesel trucks before the ’80s-’90s Ram Cummins, but they weren’t as good as this one. Under the hood was a venerable 5.9-liter straight-six diesel engine with only 160 HP but a healthy 400 lb-ft of torque. However, for the 1991 model year, Dodge updated the truck, giving it more power and options.

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As a matter of fact, most diesel truck fans consider this to be the best year in the series. The power and torque figures seem low considering today’s engines, but this is an old truck with old technology. However, old technology doesn’t mean that the ’91 Ram Cummins is not a capable vehicle. With a 4×4 drivetrain, it is an extremely good truck.

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7. Chevrolet Task Force

After the successful Advanced Design generation, Chevrolet presented the Task Force in 1955. Afterward, they continued to improve the product with more options and better designs. Capturing the essence of America’s ’50s styling, the Chevy Task Force was better with the introduction of two V8 engines, the 265 and 283 CID. It also offered automatic transmission as an option.

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The venerable 235 CID six-cylinder was standard. Also, buyers could get three truck bed lengths and various trim levels. They included a basic working truck or the luxurious Apache with four headlights, a heavily-chromed grill, and a two-tone exterior. The Task Force generation showed that Chevrolet viewed the truck segment as equal in importance to the passenger car line up. This is because they invested heavily in designs, equipment, engines, and options.

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6. Dodge D-Series High-Performance Package

Back in the early ’60s, the Dodge lineup of trucks was behind Ford and Chevrolet. That was because their competitors offered newer models, more options, and wider engine choices. But Dodge didn’t give up. Instead, they introduced an interesting special edition, available from 1964 to 1966, that took the pickup world by storm.

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They called it their High-Performance Package and it featured a lot of go-faster goodies from Mopar. First, there was the mighty 426 Wedge V8 engine with 375 HP. At the moment, it was the biggest, most powerful engine they ever installed in a pickup truck. Also, it came with bucket seats in the interior, a 6,000 rpm tachometer, racing stripes, and a high-performance transmission.

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5. Chevrolet 454 SS

The basic idea behind this model was to offer the biggest available engine in the lightest full-size truck. It was basically the muscle car philosophy in a truck form. That is why the Chevrolet engineers took an ordinary 1990 Chevy 1500 pickup truck with the short bed option and added a massive 454 V8 engine. The enormous 7.2-liter V8 was good for 230 to 255 HP, which was a diminutive number.

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But it also had 385 lb-ft of torque, which made it fly down the road. Chevy borrowed the big-block engine from their heavy-duty truck lineup. The 454 SS was a durable but thirsty machine. But on the outside, the 454 SS was low key without any wild graphics or color choices.

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4. Shelby Dakota

The Dakota was a compact pickup truck from Dodge they sold between 1987 and 1996. It was dependable, tough-looking, and came with a wide arrange of engines and trim levels. But Dodge wanted more, so in the late ‘80s, the company decided to build a performance version. They wanted to have the legendary Carroll Shelby create it, who was working with Chrysler Corporation at the moment.

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Shelby took a regular production Dakota and installed a 5.2-liter V8 engine with 175 HP. Although the power output was relatively small, the Dakota was light and had lots of torque. And all that meant this compact truck had a convincing performance. Shelby also dressed up the Dakota with a special paint job and trim. Then, they added a roll bar and wheels, which made this little truck stand out on the streets.

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3. Chevrolet 3100

Despite the fact that all of America’s car industry was involved in the war effort from 1942 to 1945, Chevrolet’s designers planned ahead. So in 1947, Chevy introduced the 3100 series truck. It one of the first truly modern vehicles presented in post-war America. The 3100 was a revolutionary model in many ways.

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It featured modern styling with integrated fenders and a tilted windshield. It also had a bigger truck bed and wider track for better stability. Besides that, the 3100 offered three engine choices and three payload sizes of the truck. The buyers could choose three engines, again all three six-cylinder units: 216,235 and 261 cid and three payload levels: half-ton, three-quarter-ton, and one-ton. There were short and long-wheelbase versions and a panel van option. All of that gave it the nickname “Advanced Design,” which showed how innovative those trucks were. The Advanced Design Chevy managed to outsell Ford trucks several years in a row, too.

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2. Chevrolet Greenbrier Rampside

In the late 50’s Chevrolet presented the Corvair, a revolutionary compact car with a rear-mounted air-cooled flat-six engine. Despite the promising sales and initial reception, in the mid-60’s they discovered the Corvair was unstable. This killed its sales and gave Chevrolet bad press. However, before that happened, Chevrolet introduced the Greenbrier, a van they based on the Corvair. Using the same floorplan, engine, and drivetrain, the Greenbrier was a cool-looking and decent performing compact van.

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The engine was underneath the cabin or truck bed if you chose the pickup version. It could carry up to nine people or half a ton of weight. Since the floor was flat, Chevrolet introduced a practical Rampside version with a side ramp for easier unloading of the cargo. However, they only offered the Greenbrier for four years, from 1961 to 1965. Despite its qualities, the market simply favored more conventional models from Dodge and Ford.

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1. Chevrolet C/K “Square Body”

Chevy introduced the third generation of their popular C/K trucks in 1973. It was one of the biggest, most important trucks in their history. Not only it was advanced and well-engineered, but it also featured many firsts for Chevrolet and for the entire truck segment, as well. Chevy called it the “Square Body” for its boxy design. This third-generation C/K featured a computer-designed body with more space and comfort than ever before.

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The truck was bigger and tougher due to the new platform, revised suspension, and tougher axles. Customers had numerous cab configurations, special editions, engine options, and details to choose from, too. This made the third-generation C/K one of the best trucks in the world at the time. Chevy produced the C/K from 1973 to 1991 in the U.S. They also produced this model was in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and South Korea. During the long production run, Chevrolet introduced a diesel engine as an option. This proved to be a highly popular choice in Europe and South America.

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