Fred Diaz, head of Chrysler’s Ram truck brand, pitches the new fullsize ’13 Ram  pickup as a perfect people mover for mom, dad, the kids and their stuff.

The truck as a family hauler? Didn’t we go that way before? Yes, it dead-ended on Recession Lane four years ago.

Until then, auto makers touted 4-door pickups as versatile vehicles for all-American families. The original roomy crew cabs, dating to the 1950s, offered extra seating to get workers to job sites, not kids to school.   

Many people buy pickups out of need. But for a while, the segment saw a surge of buyers who didn’t need them but wanted them.

They felt bold driving their dressed-up pickups to the office. During an occasional do-it-yourself project, they even put plywood and such in the beds. When providing kid-transportation services, they liked arriving at the soccer field in a truck rather than a bland minivan.

But that crowd of personal-truck buyers began bolting from the segment when fuel prices spiked and the economy sank in 2008.

Fullsize-pickup sales peaked at 2.5 million units in 2004, according to WardsAuto data. By 2009, sales had bottomed out at 1.1 million. They rose to 1.5 million last year, but that’s still far from the glory days.

One reason for the dramatic decline was that people who relied on trucks for a living were looking for work more than looking for a new pickup.

Another reason was that those people who didn’t need trucks stopped purchasing them. Many industry observers thought those buyers were gone forever. 

Many of those former pickup people “were buying them because of the ‘cool’ factor,” industry analyst Raj Sundaram told me in 2008. “It started in the 1990s, when gasoline was under $2 a gallon.”

Does a white-collar office commuter really need a $35,000 extended-cab pickup with four doors, an upscale sound system and fine-grain leather seating?

“No,” Sundaram said. “And that is the type of buyer who is not coming back to the segment. That buyer is history.”

But, remember, history repeats itself. Today, some of those casual truck buyers of yesteryear may be returning. Not all of them, but enough that auto makers are tying yellow ribbons around the old oak tree.

“Demographically, we are going after anyone who has an interest in a truck,” Diaz says of marketing for the refreshed Ram 1500 that goes on sale in September.

“We’re finding that more and more people are starting to look at a truck as a primary family hauler because there is so much space, especially for teenagers who are growing,” he tells me.

Ram is targeting a wide range of consumers, including teenagers old enough to buy a truck, not just sit in the back seat of dad’s.

“We’re trying to appeal to the entire market, from a kid, 18, right out of high school or 22, right out of college,” Diaz says of the new 1500. “All the way up to somebody in their 40s, 50s, 60s, even someone in their 70s, for commercial use, work or play.”

Even some dealership staffers drive pickups as personal-use vehicles.

“We have two or three managers that drive trucks, though they don’t really need them,” an employee of a Salem, OR, dealership says. “But, then again, we’re in truck country.”

I’ve heard that before in Texas, Montana, Indiana, Louisiana and elsewhere around the country. Except for spots such as New York City or Boston, much of the U.S. seems to see itself as “truck country.”

Many workers who buy pickups out of need make use of them during after-hours playtime, says Brad Hampton of the Stevinson Auto dealership group based in Lakewood, CO. 

“Our Chevy store sells a lot of Silverados to folks who utilize them at job sites but accessorize them for fun and offroading,” he says. “We recently had a guy trade in his work truck, and it was full of empty shotgun shells and beer cans. We assumed that stuff wasn’t work-related.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com