January 13

Ford bets big on aluminum with F-150 truck

The goal is to create a truck as strong as the previous version, but with greater fuel economy and towing and cargo capacity.

By Jerry Hirsch
Los Angeles Times

While designing the next-generation F-150 truck, Ford Motor Co. secretly substituted the steel body on some of its current pickups with an aluminum shell and delivered them to business customers.

click image to enlarge

Journalists surround the new Ford F-150 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday. The new pickup has a body built almost entirely out of aluminum.

The Associated Press

The automaker was looking to test how lightweight aluminum alloys would hold up on the job, at a gold mine, an energy utility and a construction firm. So it lent out the trucks in a test program – without telling the companies what was being tested. What Ford learned from 300,000 total miles persuaded the world’s biggest seller of full-size pickups to make wholesale changes to the F-Series.

The 2015 model truck debuted Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, weighing 700 pounds less than the old one. After its introduction on the floor of the Joe Louis Arena, Ford Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields acknowledged that working with aluminum was more expensive than steel.

“But given the volume we are working with,” Fields said, “we will find some efficiencies.”

He said the new truck builds on the experience Ford has had working with aluminum in smaller amounts in other models “for a number of years.”

“We are taking it up a step into the mass production of our most important vehicle,” Fields said.

Aluminum alloys will make up the engine compartment and almost every visible metal part of the new truck – the doors, the hood, the side panels, the truck bed, the tail gate.

Being the first major truck to embrace lightweight materials represents a big gamble for Ford, said Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Capital, who estimates Ford earns about $11,000 on a pickup truck sale compared with $5,000 for a car. The F-Series trucks account for nearly half of Ford’s North American profits, he said, and the company can’t afford a misfire.

“It is the single most important product from Ford,” said Johnson.

With its secret test, Ford kept customers in the dark about the aluminum so they would use the trucks just as they would any steel-bodied pickup, said Pete Reyes, the chief engineer for the F-150.

Ford eventually took some of the trucks back and tore them apart, looking to see how they withstood the rigors of the rugged worksites. It then made some changes, such as making the inner surface of the tailgate thicker for extra protection. The companies will now learn that they were aluminum, Reyes said.

Ford introduced the first F-Series truck, the F-1, in 1948. It was one of the first commercial vehicles produced following World War II. Chevrolet was the biggest seller of pickups at the time. But Ford believed a vehicle with a bigger, more comfortable cab could be used for small businesses and farm work, but also double as an everyday driver.

The formula worked. The F-Series became the nation’s best-selling truck in 1977. It became the best-selling vehicle of any type in 1982 and has retained the title since. Ford has sold 33 million F-Series trucks since 1948, and at least 11 million are still on the road, the company said.

Last year, the automaker sold 763,000 trucks in the U.S. That’s more sales than many major brands generate from their entire vehicle lineups, including Dodge, Hyundai, GMC, Jeep and Kia.

The goal for the next truck, said Doug Scott, Ford’s truck marketing manager, was to create a truck as strong as the previous version, but with greater fuel economy and towing and cargo capacity. The new pickups go on sale near year-end.

“Our big challenge was: How do you advance the best-selling truck ever?” Scott said. “We have to do it with no compromises.”

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