In the early 1990s, the development of plastic cargo boxes for pickup trucks appeared to have crashed and burned.
Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. had made the investment a few years earlier to produce several hundred trucks using a plastic pickup box and tailgate, both from sheet molding compound and reinforced polyurethane.
But by 1990, those experiments had been scrapped, consigned to the dustbin of history.
The reasons were vague, as were the rumors. Some said the materials would not hold up to impact or heavy loads in the cargo area. Others whispered that the decisions came from an automotive industry resistant to change or seeking planned obsolescence. If their steel-bodied pickups rusted, consumers would buy new ones.
And times changed. Gasoline became cheaper than bottled water, crimping the need for lightweight, fuel-efficient trucks. Pickups and sport utility vehicles sold like hot cakes and became profit leaders for automakers.
But something strange happened on the way to pickup heaven.
Automakers become worried about imminent fuel-efficiency standards imposed by the government, starting with new laws in California. SUVs got some bad press as weighty, road-hogging monsters that cause traffic accidents.
Industry needed to protect their precious light-truck market share. And General Motors Corp. — the company that launched the plastic-bodied Saturn cars in 1990 — started work to develop plastic pickup boxes around 1995. Ford soon followed.
Shortly after the turn of the century we could see as many as five specialty models of pickups with plastic back ends. More could be coming, if all goes well.
The plastics industry should not break out the Dom Perignon just yet. Sure, there is a lot of plastic in those new pickups, well over 100 pounds per vehicle in most cases. And the growth of composites as a viable body material could make a dramatic breakthrough in a high-volume pickup.
But the consumer will be the ultimate arbiter. Will a plastic pickup box deflate the rugged, macho-man image of those trucks? Will country singer Alan Jackson, in commercials warbling how crazy he is for Ford trucks, hold up as a spokesman for a plastic-bodied pickup?
Automakers will tout the new truck's low gas costs, resistance to dents and rust, and durability. After all, the consumer will not even need a protective, cargo-bed liner, they will say.
But a marketing blitz will have to reach the minds of pickup consumers, who might not connect plastic with their gritty road warriors. After all, a truck buyer is not typically the same person shopping for a Saturn.
One thing is certain: The auto industry does not want to rock the boat for its star performers. If consumers show reluctance, car companies might again drop the curtain on plastic pickup boxes.
Still, automotive suppliers have renewed hope in an area once thought lost to time. If nothing else, the developments at Ford and GM confirm that plastics can work for a large body part.
Now, we will see whether they will work with consumers.
Pryweller is Plastics News' Detroit-based staff reporter.