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End of an Era: Death of the U.S. Pickup Truck

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- After a great ride, the days of big pickup trucks driving sales and profits for U.S. car companies is over for good, a victim of rising fuel costs, a troubled economy and changing consumer tastes.

About half of the pickup market -- the buyer who didn't need a pickup for his work -- evaporated over the past decade. That same buyer isn't likely to return as he has in the past, industry experts say.

The big pickup, an American icon, has been down-and-out many times before but has always managed to stage a comeback whenever times were good. That cheered automakers since their outsized profit margins padded earnings.

"But we do think it's different this time," said Bill Visnic, an auto-industry analyst for auto research and sales adviser Edmunds.com, discussing pickups' latest sales cycle.

That's because of the volatile economy's erosion of consumer confidence coupled with the growing acceptance that gas is never going to be "cheap" again, he said. "Even the car companies are telegraphing that now" in their product mix.

At their peak of popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, pickup-truck sales made up almost 20% of the Big 3 Detroit automakers' annual sales, said Sean McAlinden, chief economist and vice president of research at auto industry think tank Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In fact, Ford's (F - Get Report) F-series pickups have been the nation's top seller of all makes and models many times over during the past 30 years, some years selling over 800,000 trucks. To put that in perspective, Subaru sold 264,000 vehicles for all of last year.

McAlinden said he expects pickups' market share will likely remain at around 10% of total vehicle sales in the future, as tradesmen, businesses, farmers and ranchers, and the hard-core pickup lover who needs a vehicle to feed his ego or tow his adult toys around (boat, horse or snowmobile trailer), will remain loyal to them.

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