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Old Trucks for New Money

One evening last fall, a man in Marble Falls, Texas, listed a 1989 Ford F-250 for sale on Craigslist. Not long ago, the boxy, brick-nosed pickup might have drawn the interest of a bricklayer or a roofer looking for a cheap work truck. Even to Ford fans, the truck was nothing special. “They’ve always been less desirable, because they have this ugly front end. It’s just super eighties, but I dig it,” Stephen Billick, a thirty-nine-year-old filmmaker and old-truck enthusiast, told me. The truck was listed at 8 P.M. on a Saturday, for twenty-three hundred dollars—twice as much, approximately, as it would have sold for just a few years ago. Billick scrounged up the cash and showed up at the listed address at six the next morning. He handed the seller a wad of hundreds without bothering to take the truck for a test drive. By the time the transaction was done, a half-dozen interested buyers—several of them “Austin hipster types,” Billick said—were there, glaring at him. “I’m the bad guy because I got there first. But that’s how cutthroat it is,” he said. “It’s a lot like Austin real estate.”

Billick grew up in Austin. In high school, he drove a late-model two-seat Nissan with a subwoofer in the trunk, and dreamed about escaping to somewhere things actually happened. “Austin felt like this mediocre city,” he said. “It might as well have been Amarillo.” When he lived in New York, in the mid-two-thousands, everyone dressed like a lumberjack from the Pacific Northwest, and he felt like a weirdo in his Wranglers and roper boots. He moved back to Texas in 2009, and worked as a builder for a boutique hotel for a few years. His boss drove a short-bed early-nineties Ford F-150. “All of us who worked under him, the first thing we did was try to find a truck like John’s, because he was the coolest guy,” Billick said. On Craigslist, he spotted a 1991 F-150, which he bought from a stonemason for twelve hundred dollars. “It never let me down,” he said fondly. “Well, it did, eventually.” He kept scouring the Internet for cheap trucks. He and his father would wrench on them together—the first step was usually peeling off the N.R.A. bumper stickers—and sell them for enough to justify buying a couple more.

Meanwhile, his home town was becoming rapidly less mediocre. Between 2010 and 2020, Austin and its suburbs gained more than half a million new residents, making it the fastest-growing big city in the country. Many of the newcomers work at the tech companies that have opened headquarters or satellite campuses in the city, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Tesla. The influx spiked during the coronavirus pandemic, when the average price of a house in the city went up a hundred thousand dollars in twelve months. “Now it feels like the nexus of everything,” Billick told me—and his denim-and-boots aesthetic was suddenly, discomfitingly, on-trend. Truck flipping became a lucrative business—buying a vehicle for a few thousand dollars in one of the small towns on Austin’s periphery, then driving it into the city and unloading it for two or three times as much. “People are moving from L.A., and the first thing they do is they go to Maufrais and get a Stetson, they go to Tecovas and get boots,” Billick told me. “Then they start looking around on Craigslist for a truck. And they can afford more than most of us can.”

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While it’s keenly felt in Austin, the hunger for beautiful old trucks is a national phenomenon. Prices for vintage trucks rose more than fifty per cent in the past four years, twenty per cent more than the vintage-vehicle market as a whole, according to data from the collectible-car-insurance company Hagerty. The trend was evident well before the current microchip shortage sent used car prices through the roof. “It’s the romance of the Southwest, the adventurer, the four-by-four, camping, weird ghost towns,” Blake Quinn, who travels between Austin, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, selling imported vintage Mercedes-Benz G wagons, told me. “Everybody wants to be a cowboy, right?”

The cowboy dream has created a booming market in prestige ruggedness. In 2008, you could buy a functioning 1970 Ford Bronco for around twelve thousand dollars; since then, the price has gone up more than sevenfold, while top-quality seventies Broncos sell for more than two hundred thousand dollars. The classic-car auction house Barrett-Jackson hosted its first Texas sale this fall, in Houston, where a 1956 Ford F-100 sold for more than a quarter of a million dollars, and several other pickup trucks sold for six-figure sums, including a 1972 Chevrolet K10, a 1968 Ford F-100, and a 1956 Chevrolet 3100.

Randy Nonnenberg co-founded Bring a Trailer, an online marketplace for collectible vehicles, in 2007. “There’s a meaningful upswell in enthusiasm around these vehicles, and visibility around these vehicles,” he told me. In mid-November, he visited Austin. “It was eighty-two degrees and a brown CJ-7 Laredo drives by, with the top off,” he said. “The hotel I was at has a Scout parked out front. There’s a coffee shop there and people were pulling up in vintage Toyotas. It’s just all over the place.”

Trucks and S.U.V.s became ubiquitous during the nineties, formative years for millennials and Gen X-ers, the age groups driving the truck boom. And, if an Italian sports car brings to mind a baby boomer in the throes of a midlife crisis, a thirty-year-old Land Rover or Chevy Blazer connotes a different kind of escapism: road trips, national parks, off-road adventures. “These younger enthusiasts, they want to do something with their vehicle,” John Wiley, a Hagerty senior analyst, said. It’s also still far cheaper to buy a Bronco as your status vehicle than a Ferrari.

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A Ferrari, of course, is also a marvel of engineering in a way that an F-150, for all its utilitarian charm, is not. “I’m not a car guy in the sense of, like, people that are in it for the love of internal combustion,” Quinn told me. “I’m not a car mechanic. For me, it’s more about the aesthetics and the romance of it than the actual knowing how the machine works. Why would I invest my time into being an internal-combustion-engine expert when they’re going to be out of the way in ten years?”

In Austin, as in the Bay Area, Nonnenberg told me, tech workers make up a large share of buyers. “People are spending a whole bunch of money to buy a 1964 Ford pickup truck, which is so rudimentary in its construction and design and capability,” he said—they’ll joke about spending a fortune on what amounts to a tractor. “But, frankly, I think that extreme analog nature is appealing for people sitting in front of a screen all day.”

The old-truck enthusiasts I spoke with tended to agree that cars became vastly less appealing in the nineteen-nineties, a time when manufacturers further embraced standardization and automation to decrease costs and meet new safety guidelines. Designs became more generic; systems were computerized. Today’s cars are vastly more safe, efficient, and comfortable than the vehicles of thirty years ago—and, enthusiasts would argue, less soulful. The more that our lives are given over to the rounded corners and sleek efficiency of the digital aesthetic, the more we seem to fetishize the clunky, the rumbly, the defiantly inefficient.

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The romance of old trucks and S.U.V.s thrives on Instagram, where filters give everything the kind of patina that an old truck comes by honestly. Influencers have, unsurprisingly, bought into the trend; scroll through the #roadtrippin or #campvibes hashtags and you’ll come across images of International Scouts in meadows or at the edges of cliffs. This is the new life of the old truck—still a workhorse, after a fashion, but instead of manual labor the work is content creation.

One afternoon, Billick took me for a drive in his most recent purchase, a 1990 Dodge D250 that was originally owned by the artist Donald Judd. (The glove box still contains paperwork from a dealership in Midland, filled out in Judd’s blocky, slightly awkward handwriting.) The truck had a broken odometer and a warm, sunbaked patina, earned from years of sitting out in the West Texas sun. The truck was undoubtedly analog, with a noisy engine and a broken radio. Billick fiddled with the knobs, frowning: “Put that on the to-do list, I guess.” We cruised through the back roads of the Texas Hill Country as Billick scanned for potential projects. When we went over a bump, the radio fuzzed back into life. “There you go,” Billick said, grinning.

Despite the glut of buyers, there were still plenty of prospects sitting in weedy yards and gravel driveways, waiting for someone to give them love. “You try to buy them and the guy always says, ‘I’m working on it, I’m about to put a new engine in it,’ ” Billick said. We slowed down to admire a coppery, square-body mid-eighties GMC Sierra Grande, its hood speckled with rust; restored, it could go for fifteen grand. Billick also saw potential in a nondescript red GMC 1500—“it has a certain normcore appeal,” he said—and a forest-green Eddie Bauer–edition Bronco. “No one wanted the nineties Bronco, because that was the O.J. one,” he said. “But you’re going to get priced out of the coolest thing in the world, so you have to lean into the next-coolest thing.”


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