For Best-Selling Truck, Ford Bets Big On Aluminum

Nov 15, 2014
Originally published on November 15, 2014 5:30 pm

The first 2015 Ford F-150 rolled off the assembly line this week, and it is no normal truck. The new F-150 pickup is the first with an aluminum body, making it hundreds of pounds lighter than its predecessors.

Ford isn't taking this gamble on just any truck — the F-150 is the company's most important vehicle. Morgan Stanley estimates the F-Series truck line and SUV derivatives represent 90 percent of Ford's global profits.

In Detroit, they take trucks seriously, but few Detroiters take trucks more seriously than Alana Strager, program management analyst for the Ford F-150.

She's not just a second-generation car person — she's a second-generation Ford truck person. Strager's dad was in charge of big commercial trucks at Ford in the '80s and '90s. Her own obsession with trucks began during her sophomore year of college, when her dad had her work as a receptionist at Ford for $8 an hour.

"I walked into the studio the first day, and there were clay models of these heavy trucks, like huge, like real, life-size clay. People were like playing with this clay and it was this big huge truck," Strager says. "And I thought 'Wow. OK, this is going to be a fun summer.' "

But the project Strager has enjoyed the most is the development of the new aluminum-bodied F-150. Her team has been developing this truck since 2009, completely retooling their factories to accommodate using aluminum alloy on a mass scale.

For example, instead of the spot welds used with steel, factories will use high-strength adhesives and laser welding. But everyone — from the auto mechanic to the dealer — has to be retrained.

All of this is happening while Ford's major competitors in the truck space, GM and Chrysler, are gaining market share. Still, in the truck world, the Ford F-Series is not the 800-pound gorilla — it's King Kong.

"It's been the best-selling truck in the United States for the last 37 years, unbroken," says Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for Cars.com. "That's just an astonishing figure."

Changing the truck has set the automotive industry atwitter with expectation. Some seem to hold more than a secret hope that Ford and its truck will, after nearly 40 years of dominance, finally fall on its tailgate.

"I do races and stuff like that, and I have it ingrained in my head that you never look back, because you lose time, you lose seconds if you look back to see where everybody else is," says Strager. "We don't look back. We carve the path."

Ford says that the new body cuts about 700 pounds off the weight of the truck, without sacrificing any capability. But the company isn't willing to talk much about the most important reason for this redesign — what kind of miles per gallon the thing gets.

Bragman says that Ford's move to aluminum is one of the biggest gambles in the auto industry in years. Will customers who identify with the slogan "Built Ford Tough" want a lighter body truck? Other questions loom large, says Bragman.

"How the truck is used by customers, how the truck is recycled at the end of its life, how it's repaired, how it's insured, will it cost more to actually have it repaired?" says Bragman. "There's still a lot of questions that we haven't quite gotten the answers to, that we're not going to know until the truck really starts to get in consumers' hands."

Bragman says the real gamble is whether Ford can maintain its profits after investing so heavily in the redesign. But Strager has no doubt that the truck will continue to deliver.

"Our future isn't hinging on the success of this truck — this truck will be successful because this truck kicks booty," says Strager. "This is an amazing vehicle. And I have no doubt about that."

While the truck is important to the auto industry all across the United States, Strager says it's success is especially vital to Detroit.

"Yeah, I'm all Detroit, the D, Rock City, Motor City," she says. "No one is going to bring us down, we are going to survive. We are going to get through this and we are going to come out on top. Detroit is still the Motor City, and it's just going to get better and better and better. So whoever thinks that's not the case, look out, because here we come."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The very first 2015 Ford F-150 rolled off the assembly line this week. Now, we don't ordinarily breathlessly tell you about every new truck and car, but this is not your average truck. This one has an aluminum body and it's hundreds of pounds lighter. The company's taking a huge gamble with its most important vehicle. The F-series truck line makes an estimated 90 percent of Ford's global profits.

NPR's Sonari Glinton profiles one of the people behind the new F-150.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: In Detroit they take trucks seriously, real seriously and few Detroiters take trucks more seriously than Alana Strager. She's showing me her truck's features as she climbs what truck folks call into the box - that's the flatbed part of the pickup.

ALANA STRAGER: So if you back up just a second because there's a sign so close to me, I can't use the tailgate.

GLINTON: What are you - oh, OK. I wasn't going to do it that way, but...

STRAGER: Well, it's easier to do it from inside the box, right?

GLINTON: So this interview was in the flatbed part of the truck, which is where Strager feels most comfortable. She's a second-generation Ford truck person. Her dad was in charge of Ford's big commercial trucks in the '80s and '90s and she started working for him as a receptionist 25 years ago.

STRAGER: And I walked into the studio the first day and there were clay models of these heavy trucks, like huge, real life-size clay. People were like, playing with this clay and it's this big huge truck and I thought, wow OK, this is going to be a fun summer.

GLINTON: Many fun summers passed and since 2009 Strager has been part of a team that's completely redesigned the F-150. Ford has also completely re-tooled its factories to accommodate using aluminum alloy on a massive scale. For instance, instead of spot welding, which is used with steel, factories use high-strength adhesives and laser welding. Now, all that change is happening while Ford's rivals, Chrysler and General Motors, are gaining market share.

STRAGER: So I run and I do triathlons. I do races and stuff like that and I have it ingrained in my head that you never look back. You never look back because you lose time. You lose seconds if you look back to see where everybody else is. We don't look back. We carve the path.

GLINTON: Ford says the new body drops about 700 pounds without sacrificing any capability - that's what they say - but the company won't talk about what's the most important part, which is kind of miles-per-gallon will this F-150 get? That's the whole reason for the redesign, better fuel economy.

Aaron Bragman is Detroit Bureau Chief for cars.com.

AARON BRAGMAN: But, I am also an editor and contributor to pickuptrucks.com, which is potentially more relevant to what we're talking about today.

GLINTON: 90 percent of global profits for Ford, according to Morgan Stanley. Bragman says that's the most important number you need to know, but there is another.

BRAGMAN: It's been the best-selling truck in the United States for the last 37 years, unbroken. That's just an astonishing figure.

GLINTON: Bragman says that makes it one of the biggest gambles we've seen in the auto industry in decades. Will customers who identify with the slogan Ford Tough want a lighter-body pickup truck?

BRAGMAN: How the truck is used by customers, how the truck is recycled at the end of its life, how it's repaired, how it's insured, will it cost more to actually have it repaired? There's still a lot of questions that we haven't quite gotten the answers to that we're not going to know until the truck really starts to get into consumers' hands.

GLINTON: Bragman says the real gamble is whether Ford can maintain its profits after betting so heavily on the redesign. Ford's Strager has no doubt that the truck will continue to deliver.

STRAGER: Our future isn't hinging on the success of this truck. This truck will be successful because this truck kicks booty, right, this is an amazing vehicle and I have no doubt about that.

GLINTON: Strager says trucks are important to the U.S. economy, but they are vital to Detroit.

STRAGER: And yeah, I'm all Detroit, the D, Rock City, Motor City - no one's going to bring us down. We are going to survive. We are going to get through this and we are going to come out on top. Detroit is still the motor city and it's just going to get better and better and better. So whoever thinks that's not the case, look out 'cause here we come.

GLINTON: Rolling in the cab of a U.S.-made pickup truck. At least, that's her hope.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

SIMON: NPR's Robert Szypko contributed to this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.