Ever been on an overseas trip, say, to Australia, and watched a sweet 4WD Mazda or Mitsubishi or Toyota Hilux pickup roll by, all mudded-up and snorkeled, and thought, “Why the hell can’t I get that little truck in the U.S.?” Or maybe you dipped your toe into the mid-size pickup market, only to realize the frustration of being stuck with a Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, or the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon twins? We can buy about seven hundred different crossovers in the U.S., but just three mid-size trucks? What’s up with that? And while we’re at it, what happened to the tough little compact 4x4s and 2WD pickups of yesteryear?
The Chicken Tax happened, that’s what. A bizarre, 50-year-old tariff is why we’re mostly stuck with absurdly big full-sized trucks in the States. And the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which the Trump administration just torpedoed, would have put an end to the Chicken Tax, finally opening the borders to a variety of pint-sized off-road trucks.
It’s kind of a weird story why, but here we go.
Back in the early 1960s, Europeans became highly annoyed by the furious pace at which American poultry farmers churned out and exported chickens. Post-war Europe loved them some chicken but hard as they tried they just couldn’t compete with Big Poultry here in the good ole’ U.S. of A. There were accusations of impropriety on the international chicken market. Shit got serious. Eventually, France and West Germany slapped a tariff on American chicken. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson retaliated by imposing a a 25 percent (!) tariff on imported light trucks, brandy, potato starch, and dextrin. This became known as the Chicken Tax. Could just as easily have been called the Dextrin Tax, I suppose, but that’s not nearly as catchy. Or absurd.
Ever since, it’s cost a ton for foreign auto makers to export light trucks to the United States. The amount of batshit workarounds this has provided is comical. Remember the tiny, awesome Subaru BRAT and its open-air seats in the bed? The seats were there just to sell the thing as a passenger car and not a truck. There’s one example. A bigger workaround is that companies like Toyota and Nissan build truck factories in the U.S. just to avoid paying the tariff while still being able to sell trucks to us god-fearing Americans.
“But,” I hear you saying, “that still doesn’t explain why domestic truck makers, and their Japanese rivals for that matter, don’t make smaller trucks, does it?”
Well, yeah it does, actually.
The Chicken Tax completely took competition out of the equation. The domestic truck makers can thumb their noses all day long at experimentation or innovation: People buy Ford F-150s as if their lives depended on it. In 2015, Ford sold more than 1,900 F-150s per day. Sure, Ford’ll tinker a bit, but they have no real reason to sell a smaller truck (though they’ve announced they’re finally bringing back the Ranger in 2020). And Toyota and Nissan can play around with new designs in the European and Asian markets, but with no competition here they can do things like run out the same Tacomas from 2005-2015 or a practically unchanged Frontier from 2004-2017 (and counting).
Meanwhile, foreign markets get the:
and of course, the Toyota Hilux
The TPP was going to change all of that. We were finally going to lose the light truck tariffs! Only on some markets at first, but still! A sane loosening of a political/economic chokehold that left us all bereft of the varied and competing compact off-road trucks we’ve long lusted after. Such sweet news.
Then Trump, well…he’s had a busy couple weeks, but found time to toss TPP in the growler.
I know, I know, Hillary also pledged to withdraw from the TPP, but she’s not the president so she doesn’t get the stare of anger I’m directing toward Washington. At least we have the new Bronco to look forward to. At least there’s that.
Top photo by Peter Olthof