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Originally published November 11, 2014 at 5:14 PM | Page modified November 11, 2014 at 6:40 PM

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Ford’s bet on aluminum pickup shifts into drive

Ford is doubling down on aluminum, which is lighter and more expensive than steel, for the latest model of its iconic best-selling F-150 pickup.

The Associated Press


DEARBORN, Mich. — Russell Barnett, a Ford dealer in Tennessee, is ready for aluminum.

Ford is using the metal almost exclusively in the body of the 2015 version of its best-selling F-150 pickup, which starts arriving at dealerships next month. Barnett is already answering customers’ questions. And he’s updated his repair shop not only for the F-150, but in anticipation that other Ford brands such as the Mustang will eventually switch from steel.

But, just in case, he ordered some extra steel-bodied 2014 pickups.

“There will be some people who won’t want to change for a while,” says Barnett, who says pickups make up half of the annual sales at his dealership in rural Winchester.

Ford is doubling down on aluminum, which is lighter — and more expensive — than steel but just as tough. The new truck is the company’s response to customers’ requests for a more fuel-efficient, nimbler pickup. Ford hopes the advantages outweigh customer doubts about the durability of aluminum or potential repair costs for the pricier metal.

It’s a big risk. So far this year, one out of every three vehicles Ford sold in the U.S. was an F-series pickup. Morgan Stanley estimates F-series trucks account for 90 percent of Ford’s global automotive profit.

On Tuesday, it kicked off production of the new truck at its Dearborn Truck Plant, four miles from the company’s headquarters.

“Yeah, this is a risk, but it’s one well worth taking.” said Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, as he stood alongside the assembly line. “For our customer, this is a big, big leap forward.”

The trucks have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for 32 straight years; last year, Ford sold nearly 100,000 more full-size pickups than General Motors.

Ford is spending more than $1 billion to retrofit both assembly and metal-stamping plants. It also helped dealers such as Barnett with the $30,000 to $50,000 cost to retrofit their repair shops, says spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt.

Ford took steps in the design of the truck that minimize repair costs, Weigandt says. 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.

Aluminum isn’t new to the auto industry, but this is the first time it will cover the entire body of such a high-volume vehicle. Ford made 647,697 F-150 pickups at its two U.S. plants last year; that’s one every 49 seconds.

If Ford’s bet pays off, it could pad its lead in the lucrative truck market. More importantly, aluminum “future-proofs” the truck, and the company, in an era of rising fuel-economy standards, says Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

Ford says the 2015 truck will have from 5 to 20 percent better fuel economy that the current version. A figure in the higher end of that range might sway some buyers, says Jesse Toprak, chief sales analyst for the car-buying site

“If I own a business and if I look at the numbers, and it’s going to add up over time, then I’ll think twice about it (switching brands),” Toprak says.

Ford will announce the truck’s fuel economy figures later this month. That could determine if it steals customers from the Silverado or Ram. Truck buyers are among the most loyal in the auto market.

Ford has the disadvantage of introducing the truck as gas prices are at a four-year low, with the national average now below $3 a gallon. But CEO Mark Fields says that even when gas prices were $1.25, truck buyers still asked for better fuel economy.

“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.”

Toprak believes that Ford’s biggest risk with the truck is simply the unknown — truck buyers don’t know how an aluminum body will hold up over time.

As with any new vehicle, marketing will be key. Toprak says Ford should promote a key advantage of an aluminum body: It won’t rust.

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