Ford bets big on lighter, more fuel-efficient F-150 pickup

Ford Motor Co. took a calculated gamble when it decided two years to rebuild its biggest selling pickup truck with an aluminum body, better fuel efficiency and improved performance.

On Tuesday, the first F-150s came off the production line at its Dearborn, Mich., plant, set to roll out to dealerships in about one month.

The bold move to redesign the F-150 cost Ford $1 billion to retool, plus months of downtime at two of its plants.

‘It was a very calculated and informed risk that gave us the confidence that we were going to get this done’– CEO Mark Fields

And it’s a risk, because there is no guarantee customers will embrace a lighter, more fuel-efficient pickup.

CEO Mark Fields said the new truck has been through 10 million miles of testing, which is more than any other vehicle in Ford’s history.

 “Were we recognizing that it was a risk? Sure,” Fields says. “But it was a very calculated and informed risk that gave us the confidence that we were going to get this done.”

Ford has yet to release its fuel economy estimates for the new model. But Fields says truck buyers often ask for better fuel economy.

Aluminum harder to work

“These vehicles are not just vehicles to our customers. They’re tools to help them do their job,” Fields says. “This thing has to deliver.”

Ford New Pickup

The 2015 F-150 rolls off the assembly line at the Dearborn Truck Plant in Dearborn, Mich. on Nov. 11. (Paul Sancya/ Associated Press)

Aluminum is more expensive, but harder to work on a production line than traditional steel, which is why it used for premium cars, but not mass production models.

It’s also lighter, which means the 2015 F-150 will be 700 lbs (320 kg) lighter than other pickups.

Sparks used to fly from the noisy robots welding steel in the Dearborn body shop. Now, 500 new robots quietly rivet aluminum parts together. At Ford’s Dearborn stamping plant, new machines collect and sort aluminum for recycling, which couldn’t be done with steel.

Dealers retrofit and train for new F-150

 Ford also helped dealers with the $30,000 to $50,000 cost to retrofit their repair shops, says spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt.

Around 700 of the company’s 1,500 dealers who do collision repairs have gone through company training on aluminum, along with 700 independent repair shops.

Ford New Pickup

Clark Barton works the new Ford F-150 truck at the Dearborn Ford truck plant. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Weigandt says Ford designed the truck to minimize repair costs. Because of the way the aluminum is sectioned, for example, the roof doesn’t have to be removed to repair to the B-pillar, which sits just behind the front doors.

Morgan Stanley estimates F-Series trucks, which have been bestsellers in Canada and the U.S. for 37 years, account for 90 per cent of Ford’s global automotive profit. Ford sold 885,727 F-Series pickups in Canada and the U.S. in 2013.

Truck buyers tend to be loyal to a brand, but any suggestions of quality problems or production hiccups could slow sales early in the life of the truck.

Doubtful buyers

Ginny Pruet, who runs a wedding rental business in Rockwall, Texas, recently traded her 2012 F-150 for the 2014 version because she wanted a backup camera.

Pruet, 54, has checked out the 2015 version at auto shows, but said she is concerned about the higher price of the truck. Ford has raised the price of the base model by $395 to $26,615, though some models are up to $3,000 more expensive than their predecessor.

Pruet is concerned that aluminum is untested and not worth the extra cost.

John Krafcik, the president of the car buying site TrueCar.com, says the F-150 can carry more cargo and haul heavier trailers than some competing brands. It can tow up to 12,200 pounds.

Ford’s net income dropped 34 per cent to $835 million in the third quarter, largely due to the cost of launching the pickup. And revenue was lower as it didn’t have many F-Series trucks on hand to sell in the summer season.

But the F-150 redevelopment has the potential to put the company well ahead of its competitors in preparation for tighter fuel economy guidelines in 2020. And having invested in the shift to aluminum, it will have proven technology to build on that edge.

“If Ford masters the art of delivering an aluminum vehicle at the level the F-150 sells, they are going to be able to expand that to Mustangs, Edges and Lincolns,” says Karl Brauer an analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

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