By: editors at Edmunds.com
Date Posted 06-09-2003
Detroit's "Big Three" automakers were blindsided by the popularity of small imported pickup trucks during the 1970s. While Ford, GM and Chrysler sold millions of large pickups every year, they never seemed to even consider that there might be a market for smaller trucks in the United States — or that those trucks could actually be considered "fun." In fact, they were so unprepared for the success of Datsun (now Nissan) and Toyota's tiny trucks that the only way they believed they could respond rapidly was to import Japanese trucks and rebadge them as their own.
But that's hardly the end of the story. Because the small pickup market isn't just a story of import success, but the eventual conquest of that market by larger products designed for, and made in, America by both domestic and Japanese manufacturers.
A good example is Chevrolet.
First-Generation LUV (1972-1980)
General Motors was still the world's largest corporation and the dominant force in the American car and truck markets in the early 1970s. But the company was sensitive to any erosion in those positions and the popularity of small import pickups — particularly among young, entry-level West Coast buyers — was developing into a threat. After all, it's not like GM wanted the youngsters to get used to buying Toyotas and Datsuns.
GM's immediate, minimal-hassle, low-cost, no-brainer answer to the Japanese truck challenge laid in its partial ownership of Isuzu Motors Ltd. of (no surprise) Japan. By simply buying trucks from Isuzu and slapping some Chevrolet badges on them, GM had a somewhat viable contender in the mini-truck melee. The too-adorable name it pinned on this new "trucklet" was LUV for "Light Utility Vehicle."
In fact, this was such an easy solution to the import threat that Ford was doing exactly the same thing at almost exactly the same time by launching a Mazda-made pickup it rebranded as the "Courier."
The LUV went on sale in March of 1972 in select Chevrolet dealerships, serving markets with a high percentage of import truck buyers and was instantly recognized by the press as nothing special. "As a truck, the Chevy entry is quite similar to the Ford entry," wrote Road & Track, "even down to an identical payload rating of 1,400 pounds, just as the Ford-bought Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) truck is similar to the Datsun and Toyota trucks."
Conventional in its engineering, the 102.4-inch wheelbase LUV was built atop a ladder frame with the suspension consisting of unequal A-arms up front and a solid rear axle on leaf springs in the back. The four 14-inch wheels were wrapped in skinny bias-ply tires and sat outboard a quartet of drum brakes. The steering was by a recirculating ball system. The only engine was an SOHC inline four displacing 1.8 liters which, breathing through a two-barrel carburetor, was rated at just 75 hp at a screaming 5,000 rpm and 88 pound-feet of peak torque at 3,000 rpm. The sole transmission was a four-speed manual.
Despite its extreme ordinariness, for a limited-release product the LUV sold well for Chevrolet. By the end of calendar year 1972, dealers had put 21,098 into customers' hands.
Except for some slightly reshaped (squarer) bezels for the four headlights, the 1973 LUV carried over intact from its inaugural season and calendar year sales rose to 39,422 trucks as availability expanded to more Chevy dealers.
For 1974 the truck's taillamps moved from under the rear bumper to the fenders and were now vertically oriented. Beyond that there was a new "Mikado" trim package that included striped upholstery and a three-spoke steering wheel. Sales drooped to 30,328 units during the calendar year. Still, there were virtually no changes to the LUV for 1975.
A three-speed automatic transmission was available on the LUV for 1976 which, when combined with new front disc brakes and revised trim, led to an increase in sales to 46,670 trucks during the calendar year. Though there were few changes to the LUV for 1977, a new bed-less chassis cab version was offered to attract mini-motor home builders and buyers who wanted, say, a small stake bed truck. Revisions to the carburetion also had output of the 1.8-liter four rising to 80 horsepower. Sales rose again to 67,539 LUVs during the calendar year.
Substantial revisions came to the LUV for 1978 as the headlight count dropped from four to two (in a new grille), and the number of bed lengths increased from one to two. While the standard six-foot box rode on the same 102.4-inch wheelbase as previously, the new 7.5-foot bed was atop a new chassis that put 117.9 inches between the front and rear axle centerlines. Inside the cab was a new instrument panel. Sales reached a robust 71,145 trucks.
Four-wheel drive was added as an option to the LUV line for 1979 and that addition was so impressive that Motor Trend named LUV 4x4 as the magazine's second "Truck of the Year." "One of the heavy components in many four-wheel drives is the transfer case," Motor Trend explained. "The new LUV has the standard four-speed transmission and two-speed transfer case combined in a single unit housed in a die-cast aluminum case. It is very quiet, free of the usual whine of the front-drive gears and shifts easily with the floor-mounted control lever that is clearly marked for four-wheel high, four-wheel low and two-wheel high."
Unlike the pioneering Toyota small 4x4 pickup that was introduced a few months before it, the LUV 4x4 used an independent front suspension similar to its two-wheel-drive brother incorporating torsion bars as a springing medium. "With the unsprung weight greatly reduced and the geometry of the independent front suspension," Motor Trend wrote, "the LUV handles like a small sports car. The rear end with no load aboard can be flipped about at will, but the driver still has a lot of control of just how much he wishes to 'hang it out.'"
Truck of the Year or not, the LUV 4x4 was less than swift. Motor Trend measured it traipsing from zero to 60 mph in a bleak 17.4 seconds with the quarter-mile going by in an unbearable 20.7 seconds at just 64.3 mph. By the standards of the 21st century, the LUV was incredibly slow. Except, that is, in showrooms, as Chevy dealers pushed 100,192 of the tiny pickups through them during the year.
Changes were scant for the 1980 edition and, in the ninth year of its U.S. run, the archaic nature of the vehicle was undeniable. Car and Driver drove a two-wheel-drive LUV that year as part of a small truck comparison test, ranking it seventh out of seven. "Worse yet," wrote the magazine after complaining about the LUV's scant interior features, "the 1.8-liter engine (no alternative), matched to an automatic transmission, set up a horrible boom during 70-mph cruising, registering an annoying 86 dBA on our sound meter. Furthermore, the LUV has one of the crudest rides this side of a farm wagon, partly due to its bias-belted tires. And its interior volume lies at the low end of this class. Ventilation is only fair." Sales dropped to a still respectable 88,447 trucks.
Love for the first LUV was practically nonexistent by the end of 1980. But a new LUV was on the way.
Second-Generation LUV (1981-1982)
If there was anything endearing about the first LUV's appearance, the second LUV buried it under sheets of bland, featureless metal. No truck has ever been more generic-looking than the 1981 LUV.
While the boring (if antiseptically clean) skin was new, the substance of the new LUV was familiar. Up front, the same 1.8-liter four making 80 hp was still the only engine available. Underneath, the standard wheelbase now stretched 104.3 inches (up 1.9 inches), but the suspension was still A-arms in front and a solid axle on cart springs in the rear. Fortunately, some of that additional wheelbase was used to extend the cab, slightly improving legroom. The long-bed models still used a 117.9-inch wheelbase, and the 4x4 models carried over as well.
"Though we're sorry a bigger engine was not on their list," wrote Car and Driver about the new LUV, "Chevy designers took time to make a few functional improvements to this year's LUV. Rubber has replaced plastic in the front suspension bushings, so it hurts to be in the LUV somewhat less than it did before, especially if you leave the hay bales at home. The front disc brakes are larger this year, and the LUV now has electronic ignition, doubling spark plug longevity to 30,000 miles."
Nevertheless, with minimal changes overall, the second LUV was no match for its import peers, and Chevy was pulling back on promoting it in anticipation of its replacement. So, to no one's surprise, sales of the Isuzu-built pickup dropped to 61,724 units during the calendar year.
The LUV would live to see 1982 almost unchanged from the previous year and with almost no one caring. With its replacement already selling alongside it, sales dribbled down to just 22,304 trucks and some LUVs lingered on dealers' lots well into 1983.