The lowly tailgate, the noun not the verb. Even its name requires no explanation, derived from tail, meaning back, and gate meaning an opening barrier.
Once just a simple board that stood upright at the rear of a wagon, it’s purpose was simply to prevent objects from sliding out the back. Today, the tailgate has morphed through various iterations, but these once-basic body panels have emerged as the latest volley in the pickup truck wars.
Apparently, after all the tech and infotainment, high-output gas and diesel engines, and all the comforts of home have been integrated, the last thing to be redesigned is the last thing on the truck. It seems one of the few ways to justify spending the equivalent of a small mortgage on a vehicle that will seldom be used for its intended purpose is to make a simple part more complex.
To be sure, there is nothing new under the sun and that holds true with the latest tailgate designs. Most of the features can be traced back to previous designs or designs applied to similar vehicles.
For example, the new Ram — formerly known as Dodge and I still have trouble referring to these trucks as anything other — has a tailgate split vertically down the middle so both halves can swing open independently.
In the 1960s and '70s we called this style tailgate “barn doors” when applied to the back of a panel truck or early Suburban or International Travelall. The difference is this tailgate also opens conventionally, unlike those old barn door trucks.
Still, the dual opening tailgate isn’t a new innovation when compared to the station wagons of yore. Most major auto manufacturers offered the fold down tailgate as well as the swing open option, albeit a one-piece, long swinging tailgate — much like the new Honda Ridgeline — years before my parents bought their Chevy Kingswood station wagon in 1970. That and many other wagons in those days had a built in step, too which is another “new” feature on pickups.
Honda even offers an under bed-floor storage compartment on their Ridgeline just like our old Chevy wagon had. Honda’s new pickup is practically a tribute to the station wagons of my youth.
Ford took the tailgate step to the next level with a rung that hides in the tailgate when not in use and a handle that pops up for operator stability. Studebaker had a similar option on their 1963-66 Wagonaire, a radically forward-thinking design with, not only a fold down tailgate step, but a retractable rear roof turning this station wagon into a de facto pickup truck, almost like an El Camino and a Rambler had a love child.
The new Rivian all-electric truck has a tailgate that opens and then flips down again presumably to allow the driver to back up flush with, say, a loading dock or maybe to more easily access contents deeper in the bed. A feature that was really unnecessary when a selling point of a pickup was its rugged usefulness.
Back then it was drop the gate and back up. There was little worry of overloading the tailgate or damaging it or the chains that held it level. Trucks also sat a little lower too, their stiff springs a dead giveaway to its load-hauling capacity, unlike today's independent, progressive suspensions.
These qualities aren’t a bad thing as they contribute to a good ride and better handling, although, the current aggressively lifted stance puts the average truck high enough to require those “new” fancy steps and reaching deep into the bed is nearly impossible without climbing in.
GM has taken the tailgate battle to new limits apparently, foregoing engineering improvements to more fundamental systems. Their MultiPro tailgate features power open and close — a feature they incorporated into their “clam shell” station wagon tailgate in the early 1970s — horizontal half opening access, drop down step, a pop up panel almost like a sub-tailgate for longer items when the main gate is down, a shelf for working or supporting items, and probably some other cool gadgets that I’ve overlooked.
There’s no question tailgates have come a long way. Innovations to the back panel, 1960s style, was a simple single-handle opening system and non-adjustable supports. This convenience allowed one-handed operations for opening and closing and negated the old two-chain and hook shuffle.
By the time my 1970 IH Scout pickup was manufactured its single-handle opening and the notched hinge support to prevent the tailgate from falling to full-open position under the weight of the externally mounted spare tire were features truck buyers expected.
As manufacturers continue to up the ante on features, both useful and gimmicky, the cost of the pickup truck will continue to climb and along with it, repair and insurance costs. Some of these designs are clever while most, I’m sure, we could live without. I try to see the positive in progress but I do miss the availability of a simple, affordable pickup.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.