DETROIT – Ford pickups have been doing the country’s work for 66 years. They’ve hauled grain, towed logs and plowed snow. They’ve cleared debris after tornadoes and pulled floats in the Rose Bowl parade.
They’ve shouldered those loads with parts forged from steel. Until now.
On Monday, Ford unveiled a new F-150 with a body built almost entirely out of aluminum. The lighter material shaves as much as 700 pounds off the 5,000-pound truck, a revolutionary change for a vehicle known for its heft and an industry still heavily reliant on steel. The change is Ford’s response to small-business owners’ desire for a more fuel-efficient and nimble truck — and stricter government requirements on fuel economy. And it sprang from a challenge by Ford’s CEO to move beyond the traditional design for a full-size pickup.
“You’re either moving ahead and you’re improving and you’re making it more valuable and more useful to the customer or you’re not,” Chief Executive Alan Mulally told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Ninety-seven percent of the body of the 2015 F-150 is aluminum, the most extensive use of aluminum ever in a truck. And this isn’t just any truck. F-Series trucks — which include the F-150 and heavier duty models like the F-250 — have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for the last 32 years; last year, Ford sold an F-Series every 41 seconds.
The key question for Ford, and the people who sell its trucks, is: Will customers embrace such a radical change? Dealers who have seen the new F-150 say they expect to encounter some skepticism, but the change had to be made.
“We’re aggressive, stretching the envelope,” said Sam Pack, owner of four Ford dealerships in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “I think you have to do that. If you don’t, then you get into that predicament of being a ‘me too’ vehicle.”
Still, it’s a big risk. Ford makes an estimated $10,000 profit on every F-Series truck it sells, making trucks a $7.6 billion profit center in the U.S. alone last year. And the company has had some quality issues with recent vehicle launches, adding to dealers’ worries. The 2013 Escape small SUV has been the subject of seven recalls.
The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late this year. While aluminum is more expensive that steel, Ford truck marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-Series will stay within the current price range. F-Series trucks now range from a starting price of $24,445 for a base model to $50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.
It’s difficult to calculate how much more aluminum costs, since there are different grades of aluminum and steel. Pete Reyes, the F-150’s chief engineer, said Ford expects to make up the premium by reducing its recycling costs, since there will be less metal to recycle, and by slimming down the engine and other components, since they won’t have to move so much weight.
Aluminum was used on cars even before the first F-Series went on sale in 1948. It’s widely used on sporty, low-volume cars now, like the Tesla Model S electric sedan and the Land Rover Evoque. U.S. Postal Service trucks are also made of aluminum.
Ford has spent decades researching the metal. Twenty years ago, the company built a fleet of 20 all-aluminum experimental sedans. Later, it used aluminum on exotic cars from Aston-Martin and Jaguar, brands it used to own. But up to now, Ford limited the aluminum on its trucks to the hoods and used steel for the rest.
New government fuel economy requirements, which mandate that automakers’ cars and trucks get a combined 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, are speeding the switch to aluminum. Chrysler’s Ram is currently the most fuel-efficient pickup, getting 25 mpg on the highway. The current F-150 gets as much as 23 mpg. Ford won’t say what the new truck’s fuel economy will be, but says it will trump the competition.
That could be an especially important incentive for landscapers, carpenters and other small business owners focused on their bottom line.
“I think that’s going to outweigh the aluminum part of it,” said Brian Jarrett, a Ford dealer in Winter Haven, Fla., who hasn’t yet seen the new truck.
Improvements in aluminum are also driving the change. Three years ago, for example, Alcoa Inc. — one of Ford’s suppliers for the F-150 — figured out a way to pretreat aluminum so it would be more durable when parts are bonded together. Carmakers can now use three or four rivets to piece together parts that would have needed 10 rivets before, Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said.
And Ford is able to take more risks. When the F-150 was last redesigned, in the mid-2000s, Ford was losing billions each year and resources were spread thin. But by 2010, when the company gave the green light to an all-aluminum truck, Ford was making money again. CEO Alan Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive who joined Ford in 2006, encouraged his team to think bigger. After all, it was Mulally who led early development of Boeing’s Dreamliner, which replaced aluminum with even lighter-weight plastics