Jon Rullkoetter, 43, poses for a portrait alongside his recently purchased Ford F-150 Fx4 Supercrew at Sunset Ford in Waterloo, Ill., on July 9. Confident that the economy is bouncing back, Rullkoetter decided the time was right to splurge on the new truck. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

WATERLOO, Ill. — He’d been eyeing the truck for weeks, ever since he dropped by the dealership for a free car wash and drove right past that black beauty. That truck got in his mind. Jon Rullkoetter couldn’t shake it.

The truck was sharp. Tuxedo black. Bumpers painted to match. Darkened tail lamps. The Ford F-150 Fx4 Supercrew, stickered at $53,900, sat preening just outside the showroom doors. He couldn’t miss it. And that was by design.

“I call it getting the juices flowing,” Sunset Ford salesman Brett Bergman said with a smile.

But Rullkoetter was a salesman, too — he sold locomotive parts — and he recognized the game at hand.

So he carefully weighed the cost, what his payments might be, what his wife would say, how his job was going. Maybe he could wait. Or find a better deal. He really didn’t need a new truck, especially one that cost as much as a BMW and got 19 miles per gallon to boot. But he was feeling better about his job. Locomotive parts seemed to be moving again.

Now, he was back in the showroom. He sat in a manager’s office. The door was closed. Bergman, hopeful, stood just outside.

“I could feel this was coming,” Bergman said.

Buying a pickup is affirmation that times are good — or at least getting better. Few buyers really need a hulking truck, a vehicle that has evolved to become a modern mix of basic utility and luxury handbag — plenty of torque and towing power, plus heated seats and premium speakers. If would-be truck owners are downshifting into cheaper cars, that’s not a good sign for the economy.

So pickup sales are a closely watched barometer, a sign of where the the country is headed, especially coming out of a recession. Constructions workers buy pickups. But so do insurance agents, salespeople and factory workers, among the half of all F-150 buyers who use their trucks mostly as personal vehicles.

“Trucks outselling cars is an important short-term indicator, for the next year or so,” said Haig Stoddard, an analyst at WardsAuto, which covers the auto industry.

And this year, light trucks have had an edge over cars.

The F-150 leads the way. It remains the most popular vehicle in the nation, having outsold every other car or truck model every year since 1981. That’s an astonishing run. And the F-150 is not some downmarket ride. The average price is $39,000.

Just as analysts look to pickups to gain economic insight, Ford, too, keeps tabs on certain sectors to predict sales. The automaker tracks the number of oil and gas wells. It tallies tractor-trailer sales. The automaker has found housing starts, which have slowly risen since crashing in 2009, are strongly connected to pickup sales.

When the housing market crashed in 2008, “that was really reflected in our business,” said Doug Scott, Ford truck group’s marketing manager.

Even before the housing bubble burst, auto analysts were talking about the possibility of a fundamental shift away from gas-guzzling trucks because of high prices at the pump. Then the recession hit, and their fears were multiplied. Auto showrooms, such as Sunset’s sleek glass and steel building erected on converted farmland 25 miles south of St. Louis, became deal-making dead zones. U.S. pickup sales dropped 56 percent in four years, to 1.1 million in 2009.


Sunset Ford of Waterloo. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

That’s when Bergman, now 30, was just starting out. He had sold cars before, working at his dad’s dealership in North Dakota. But he felt lost in Waterloo’s deserted showroom. Longtime managers tried to reassure him that the Sunset dealership, started in 1912, had survived the Great Depression — surely it could ride out the Great Recession. Bergman, in turn, used that line on the few people who ventured in the door.

Bergman made it through, and so did the U.S. auto industry. Pickup sales rebounded to 2 million last year. Bergman sold 256 vehicles himself. He has been Sunset’s top salesman for four years running. When he closes a sale, he snaps a photo of buyers posing with their new vehicles.

He loves sharing these images. Here’s one of a veterinarian with a blue F-150. And here’s a couple posing with a white F-150 Platinum. The woman, Bergman said, is a real estate agent. “And you know her job is very sensitive to how things are going out there, if people are buying houses,” he said, understanding all the factors that affect whether he makes a sale.

Now, Bergman was hoping to close the deal on that F-150 Fx4.

Rullkoetter, 43, took the morning off work to go truck shopping. He’d talked it over with his wife. He wore a blue short-sleeve shirt, khaki shorts and gray sneakers. His first stop was a Dodge dealership, where he test-drove a blue Ram 1500. “They had me almost hooked,” he said. But his mind kept wandering back to the black F-150.

He didn’t need a new truck. He already had an F-150, a blue Lariat edition. It was only four years old. He was close to paying it off.

“Maybe I’m addicted to car payments,” he said.

In some ways, Rullkoetter fits the target audience for the F-series truck. The typical buyer is in his mid- to late-40s, according to Ford. Ninety percent are men.

The model that caught Rullkoetter’s eye, the Fx4, was among the most expensive of Ford’s 10 F-150 models. The seats were gray leather. The console held a navigation system and back-up camera. With a push of a button, the engine started or the oversize side-view mirrors swung closed. Sitting in the driver’s seat felt like being perched inside an exclusive clubhouse.

“The luxury market, especially the higher end of that, is doing exceptionally well,” said Stoddard, the industry analyst.

Ford helped sustain its pickup sales with several moves. It improved fuel economy with the debut of the high-tech Ecoboost V6 engine in the 2011 model year. Fuel economy should get even better with the 2015 model that will feature a lighter aluminum body.

And, in 2009, Ford rolled out a new entry-level F-150. Scott, the marketing manager, pushed for creation of the STX line, a spartan truck intended for craftsmen who won’t miss the lack of chrome flourishes. The truck starts at $26,300.

“It’s 100 percent a tool for doing a job,” Scott said. “Nothing flashy.”

Rullkoetter didn’t plan to use the black F-150 for work. He works from home, just three miles from the dealership. But he likes to go camping, to haul his jet skis down to the Lake of the Ozarks, to take his ATVs out to go four-wheeling.

He runs a sales office and is part owner of TNT Power Products, a small operation offering locomotive parts to customers around the world. He judges business by how many calls for price quotes result in actual sales. Five percent is bad. Thirty-five percent is great. Today, it was about 15 percent, much of that coming from South Africa and Brazil.

Last year was “a semi-crappy one,” he said. “This year is the first year I’ve seen some signs that give me confidence” that things are turning around.

Now, he emerged from the manager’s office and sat down at Bergman’s empty desk. Bergman, certain the sale would go through, had driven the Fx4 to fill the gas tank at a local station. Rullkoetter, fresh paperwork in his hands, went over the details. The truck was listed at $53,900. But he worked the price down. The truck already had a couple of thousand miles on it, logged by a son of the dealership’s owner. There were rebates and discounts. And Rullkoetter traded in his truck, which held $8,500 in equity. Final price: $45,000.

In the end, his monthly payment fell almost $70, to $632. He owed several more years in financed payments, but he was comfortable making that number.

Bergman returned. The two men shook hands. This was the third vehicle Bergman had sold to Rullkoetter — the two trucks and a used car for his daughter. Bergman flipped through a set of orange placards until he found the number three. He mentioned that he had now sold 1,000 vehicles in his career.

“Wow,” Rullkoetter said.

“Three of them are to you,” Bergman responded, smiling widely. “Take some credit.”

They walked over to the Fx4, parked by the showroom doors.

“It’s so clean,” Rullkoetter said.

Bergman spotted bird droppings on a door. He pulled out a white rag and began buffing.

“Oh, man, you don’t need to do that,” Rullkoetter said.

They walked around the car. Rullkoetter climbed in the driver’s seat. Bergman jumped  in the passenger side and pointed out some features, such as how to use the navigation system. He told Rullkoetter to drop by or call if he had any questions.

They descended from the black pickup. It was time. Bergman handed over the orange placard. He stepped back and pulled out his camera.

“I’m excited,” Rullkoetter said.

And Bergman snapped away, adding to his collection.

Todd C. Frankel is a reporter covering people and policy. You can follow him on Twitter: @tcfrankel.