Automobiles were essentially invented as currency in the “he who dies with the most toys wins” battles among the late 18th century’s wealthiest; trucks, conversely, have always been a way to make work easier for the less affluent. Through two World Wars and several decades of development, lifted trucks have evolved from workhorses to art forms and back again.
In the earliest days of steam-driven road transport, vehicles with the physical size to accommodate the massive engines were necessarily drays or buses, not cars or carriages. In 1769 a Belgian engineer, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, built the world’s first self-propelled vehicle. A steam-engine-driven three-wheeler, it was built with the paired axle at the rear, below a freight area designed to transport cannon; it was a truck.
For nearly two decades after Carl Benz patented his Motorwagen in 1885, purchasers wanting a road-going transport vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine were essentially left to their own devices. Things would, of course, change: Jack and Augustus Mack bought a carriage-making factory in 1893, and seven years later opened a bus manufacturing plant to produce their first commercially successful vehicle -- a 20-passenger bus with a 40-horsepower engine. Henry Ford gave the commercial world its next great innovation on April 25, 1925: the first ever factory-produced pickup, formally known as the “Ford Model T Runabout with Pickup Body.”
The idea of the lifted truck took root in the middle of the 20th century. Automotive designers and adapters saw civilian applications for experience and technology gained through both World Wars. The massive wheels and extended suspensions used for delivering heavy weaponry to remote wartime locations could also serve the construction and freight industries.
Taller tires permit greater clearance beneath the differentials, thus allowing vehicles to traverse muddy or adversarial terrain with less likelihood of bogging down or trapping. Wider tires increase the truck’s footprint, allowing for greater weight dispersion and increasing the chances that at least one tire will find good purchase and traction. Powering such large wheels and tires requires heavy-duty axles, differentials and transmissions. By the 1970s, most large auto manufacturers were offering a four-wheel-drive vehicle of some sort, most with up-rated drivetrains. It was only a matter of time before art would imitate life, and a sport was born.
Monster trucks evolved from necessity; heavy winters in the North and swamps in the South both taxed designers’ ingenuity to devise off-road vehicles that could perform reliably over extreme terrain. Mud-boggers and truck-pullers exaggerated that technology for their sports and endurance tests, and in the late 1970s Bob Chandler -- located in the St. Louis area of Missouri -- began using his for-the-time enormous four-wheel-drive Ford truck to advertise his business, Midwest 4WD. The truck and the driver earned a nickname that remains sacred to lifted truck fans everywhere: Bigfoot.
Evolution Onto the Highway
Chandler initially marketed his truck only to gain exposure for his business, but specialist magazines soon evolved to perpetuate and encourage enthusiasm for monster trucks and contests, called “jams.” Tugs-of-war evolved into races and car-crushes; then “popping” the front axle off the ground led to wheelies and jumps onto other vehicles. Weight was shed everywhere practicable, and custom-fabricated chassis, roll cages and suspension setups became the norm. From this technology has life imitated art, with lifted trucks now a common sight on roads. Technologically advanced, model-specific lift kits are available for most four-wheel-drive vehicles from manufacturers and aftermarket suppliers alike.
- University of Houston: About Trucks
- Notable Names Database: Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot
- Mack Trucks: Mack History, 1900 - 1910
- PickupTrucks.com: Ford Trucks; The Model T Years 1925-1927
- Mud Life Magazine: The History of Monster Trucks, Part 1
- Mud Life Magazine: The History of Monster Trucks, Part 2
- Mud Life Magazine: The History of Monster Trucks, Part 3
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images