American pick-up trucks are an increasingly common sight on our roads, but why are they so popular?

Australia's COVID caravanning boom is driving demand for big American pick-up trucks capable of towing heavy caravans, but industry experts warn drivers should do thorough research before buying. 

Key points:As more Australians turn to caravanning during the pandemic, demand for big towing trucks has risenAmerican pick-up trucks such as the RAM, Silverado and F-150 are now increasingly popularBut towing safely needs careful calculation, with experts warning drivers must calculate their load correctly

For Australians taking a lap of the continent during the pandemic, American trucks like RAM, Chevrolet and Ford F-150s are spacious, comfortable and some can tow up to 4.5 tonnes — if you can afford the price.

Queenslander Simon Maloney — a lifelong Toyota man — is 36,000 kilometres into a tour of Australia. He has no regrets about buying a RAM 1500 last year for a lap of the country during COVID.

Speaking to ABC Radio Brisbane from Carnarvon in Western Australia, Mr Maloney said he did months of research before spending his money on a RAM.

"It's done all the Victoria High Country; it's been up through Tasmania," Mr Maloney said.

"We did 10,000km in Tasmania — it's not that big. We drove around it, over it, through it, everywhere.

"It's been up the Oodnadatta track, out through Kings Canyon, it's been all through the Territory. I can't fault this car."

A large caravan and ute on a remote outback road with a man standing at the front
Planning his tour of Australia, Simon Maloney decided on a RAM 1500 to tow a caravan.(Supplied: Simon Maloney)

Costly exercise

Straight off the manufacturing floor, an American pick-up truck can cost more than $100,000 before any modifications, and prices have only gone up as supply runs short.

A new Toyota HiLux might cost upward of $65,000, while a new LandCruiser can cost anywhere from $80,000 up to nearly $200,000 depending on the model.

Second-hand utes and four-wheel drives are also in high demand as people look for cars already modified for travelling.

Many in the four-wheel-drive industry are capitalising on the boom even as supply delays mean customers are waiting months for new trucks to arrive from overseas.

One of the first companies to export American pick-ups to Australia, Moreton Bay's Maracoonda Automotive specialises in converting those trucks to right-hand drive.

A shell of a big ute in a mechanic shop
The new vehicles are stripped out and completely remanufactured to right-hand drive.(Supplied: Maracoonda Automotives)

Director Ann Anderson said, since the pandemic began, more young families seeking a vehicle capable of towing a heavy caravan were calling up.

But demand is so high, Maracoonda is now telling new customers to expect a 12-month wait — and when the vehicle arrives, the conversion process can take 380 hours of specialist work.

Safe towing loads

One of the biggest issues, Ms Anderson said, was a lack of understanding of the complexities of safe and legal towing loads.



Tare weight

The weight of an empty vehicle

Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM)

The maximum a vehicle can weigh — including tare weight, any accessories such as snorkel and bull bar, and the payload

Gross Combination Mass (GCM)

The maximum weight for the vehicle and trailer combined


The maximum load the vehicle can carry, including passengers and luggage

Most of the American trucks are rated to tow anywhere from 2.5 tonnes to 4.5 tonnes, but Ms Anderson said inexperienced drivers could find themselves in trouble if they did not properly calculate the weight of a kitted-out caravan, gear, and passengers.

"When they're looking at towing something, there's another weight that's called the GCM and that's gross combination mass," she said.

"So that's the weight of the truck, and the payload with all those goodies, and the trailer.

"And that weight is what people really need to make sure that they're well covered, to be within that legal environment."

Drivers could find themselves accidentally voiding their insurance, exceeding their general driver's licence weight restrictions, or in further legal strife if they do not accurately calculate their towing weight.

A woman working on an air conditioning unit in a mechanic workshop
Maracoonda Automotives, in Moreton Bay, manufactures everything for the right-hand-drive conversion, including new air conditioning units.(Supplied: Maracoonda Automotive)

A booming industry

In Cairns, ute tray manufacturing company Norweld is flat out. 

Business development manager Mark Law said in the first two weeks of October, he had 22 inquiries for American truck trays.

Mr Law said the entire four-wheel-driving industry had exploded during the pandemic.

To meet demand, Norweld has expanded interstate, put on more staff, and now exports trays and canopies back to the USA.

A big kitted out hute in front of a mechanic shop
Cairns-based manufacturer Norweld makes custom canopies and trays for American pick-up trucks and other utes.(Supplied: Norweld)

"I think the American trucks will continue to grow, just because of the offering they have across the differing vehicles," Mr Law said.

"Across the Rams, the [GMC Denali], the Silverado, the Ford F trucks, they're all very capable and comfortable vehicles and they all offer different strengths.

"Australians are looking for a little bit more variety and luxury in their utes now."

In Brisbane, auto electrician Quentin Gill spotted a gap in the market.

Taking a risk, Mr Gill decided to specialise in custom modifications for American trucks, buying his own RAM as a family car and to showcase his business.

"There's a huge market for what I'm doing in LandCruisers, but every Tom, Dick and Harry is doing it," Mr Gill said.

"I thought I could see an opening as the [American trucks] were looking more and more popular. The outlook on that has exploded, so I'm happy with my decision."

'People need to do a lot of research'

But the sheer size of the American truck has its downsides.

An American pick-up such as a RAM 1500 might be 2.4 metres wide, 5.8 metres long, and 1.9 metres high.

In contrast, a typical HiLux might be just 1.8 metres wide, 5.3 metres long, and 1.8 metres high.

Monash University accident research expert Stuart Newstead said while the pick-up looked like a ute, they were closer in weight and size to a truck.

A graphic showing the different sizes of utes and American pickup trucks
American trucks are bigger, wider and longer than normal utes.(ABC News: Lewi Hirvela)

"These vehicles are incredibly long," he said.

"Some are knocking on 6 metres long, which won't even fit in a car park, and they're well over 2 metres wide."

Dr Newstead said pick-up trucks were classified as commercial vehicles and, as such, were subject to different safety rules.

One problem, he said, was that there was no single port of call for advice and information on calculating the total weight of a heavy truck and caravan correctly.

"It's an area where people really need to do quite a lot of research to make sure that the combination … they want to put on the road is actually within the limits they're designed to operate in," Dr Newstead said.

Posted 30 Oct 202130 Oct 2021Sat 30 Oct 2021 at 9:21pmShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp


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