The time was when pickup trucks were a status symbol only for the redneck farmer down the road. Tradesmen -- plumbers, electricians, carpenters -- drove them, but they really were known as the workhorses of the farming and ranching communities.

Now, it seems, they're in with everybody. Doctors, lawyers, congressmen. John Riggins drives one. And if there was any question, it should have been laid to rest last Christmas when Ronald and Nancy Reagan treated themselves to a shiny red pickup truck for Rancho del Cielo.

Pickups have spread from the country, through the exurbs and the suburbs, into the city itself.

Drive through Chevy Chase, Potomac, McLean, even Old Town Alexandria and Georgetown, and you'll see dressed-up pickups parked next to the signature Mercedeses, BMWs and Volvos.

Americans have been buying pickups in increasing numbers over the last several years (Ford's F-series pickups have outsold all other vehicles -- car or truck, domestic or foreign -- eight years straight), but it's only recently, with the introduction of the so-called compact pickups, that sales have zoomed.

Pickup sales in 1984 topped 2 1/2 million, and estimates are that more than half were sold to consumers for their personal use. In the first five months of this year, compact pickup sales are ahead of conventional pickups for the first time ever. (Around 45 percent of the pickups sold last year were compacts.)

Gerry Murphy, president of the National Capital Area Automotive Trade Association, says that sales of light pickups ("just about everything except dump trucks and 18-wheelers") in this area jumped from 37,000 in 1983 to 55,000 in 1984.

Pickups still show up outside country-western bars -- they fit the macho image of the urban cowboy -- but you're just as likely to see them in the supermarket parking lot. Weekdays, dressed-for-success commuters on their way into Washington can be seen driving along in their pickups, umbrella on the gun rack in the back window. On weekends the trucks often are pointed in the other direction -- umbrellas replaced by fishing rods.

Television commercials feature on-the-rise singles and couples, oohing and aahing over their new (any brand) pickup. Viewers hear words such as "tasteful," "comfortable," "economical" and "sensible" above the background music.

These days, says psychologist Jack Feldman, "An ordinary station wagon isn't quite yuppie enough. A fancy pickup truck, with a roll bar and everything, is. Couple that with people having fewer children and needing less enclosed space, or a large group of relatively young, single people, who need a two-person vehicle but also like Weekdays, dressed-for-success commuters on their way into Washington can be seen driving along in their pickups, umbrella on the gun rack in the back window. to move things around . . . the pickup fills that need."

Feldman, a professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville, adds that pickup trucks "are like anything else. The more often you see something, the more you tend to feel favorable toward it. There's a momentum effect."

People also are using the smaller pickups as second cars. "You'd be surprised," says Jim Wilson, sales director at Koons of Manassas, "at the number of trucks we sell to the guy who just drives to work by himself."

Women, too, are going for the compact pickups. "Even though they aren't the ones coming in to buy the truck," asserts Wilson, "once they find out how easy they are to drive and how economical they are, well, you just about have to pry them out of the trucks."

Katrina DeBardi, who handles intradealer vehicle exchanges for Alexandria Toyota, bought her compact pickup because "I needed it, I like trucks and they're real handy." DeBardi, who is 27 and single, says it's just right for her and her Labrador retriever, Gus. "We live out in the country and it's nice to put him in back her truck has a camper shell and just take off.

"Three of my girlfriends talked to me about my truck and now they're going to buy pickups, too."

"We're getting a lot of women customers," says Tysons Toyota general sales manager Cliff Cummings. "They come in here and say, 'I want a four-wheel-drive truck. I've always wanted one and I'm going to get one now.' A lot of our male customers used to tell us they wanted a truck 'but my wife will kill me.' "

Now those men can justify the truck purchase on several grounds: It's no more expensive than a small car, it's sturdier, has low maintenance costs, high mileage and, "who can argue," says Cummings, "with a $6,000 purchase that's going to last five or 10 years?"

Federal employes Ed Gomez and Christina Van Fossan, who live in a Northern Virginia high-rise, cite good mileage, economy and utility as reasons for choosing a compact pickup over a second car. "I grew up out West where we always had a pickup around the house," says the 35-year-old Gomez. Adds Van Fossan, 31, "I'm a very practical person and the truck appeals to both of us from that standpoint."

Practicality aside, "it's fulfilled a fantasy for me," Van Fossan says with a laugh. "It feeds into my fantasy as a kid when I was playing with little trucks. It makes me feel like Bronco Time!"

Utility and fantasy aren't the only reasons for pickups' success. Conventional and compact sizes alike come with options common to cars: air-conditioning, power steering, power brakes, tilt-wheel, cruise control. "They're no longer just work trucks," says Alan Szymkowiak, general sales manager at Ourisman Chevrolet. "They're dressed up, fancy and eye-appealing."

Dan and Adele White of District Heights chose a full-size "custom deluxe" pickup over a compact truck. The larger vehicle, White explains, more closely fills their needs -- to haul firewood and to transport the sound equipment he uses for disco parties.

"We had a station wagon we used to move the disco equipment," says White, "and we depended on friends for getting firewood. Now we can do it ourselves."

Indeed, conventional pickup trucks offer even more space than the compacts. But, says Lustine Chevrolet vice president Lou Kairys, "some people have the mistaken impression they can't handle them."

Until earlier this week, that was half the case with the Whites: "I like it fine," Dan White had said, "and Adele likes to ride in it. She's nervous about driving it around, though."

Told that women all around the country have overcome similar nervousness, Adele White gave it a try. "Now we both enjoy this thing. I may become just as enthusiastic as Dan about driving it!"

There's also a sense of security that comes with driving a big pickup along the thoroughfares and streets around and in the District. Even in rush-hour traffic, a pickup puts you at a certain distance from the cars jockeying for position around you.

"If I had to drive in a big city," says psychologist Feldman, "I'd want the biggest, ugliest four-wheel-drive pickup truck I could find."

They're out there, too.