2015 Ford F-150
Ford’s all-new, aluminum F-150
Published May/June 2015

Ford’s Industry-Changing Move

How Ford secretly tested its new aluminum 2015 F-150

BYJim Prueter
For 37 straight years, the Ford F-150 has been the best-selling truck in America — and, for 32 years, the best-selling vehicle in America. And now, for the 2015 model year, Ford has made a dramatic, expensive, and potentially industry-changing move by giving the company’s crown jewel a lighter, all-aluminum body. 
 
But why change the body composition? With ever-rising fuel-economy standards, Ford wanted to build a truck that is stronger and more capable, yet lighter. The new all-aluminum F-150 is roughly 770 pounds lighter than its predecessor, so we’re talking about fuel savings amounting to millions of gallons of gasoline. 
 
The F-150 accounts for one out of every four Ford products sold in the United States, so the switch is a huge move for the company. If the bet pays off, Ford could gain an even more commanding lead in the highly profitable truck market, where it currently holds a 40 percent market share. 
 
To ensure the experiment would work, Ford had to put the aluminum body through the paces. Testing and disguising prototypes is nothing new; auto manufacturers often camouflage new vehicles to obscure them from the public during development. But with the new F-150, Ford went a step further, hiding the truck in plain sight. 
 
How Ford Pulled It Off
Back in 2011, Ford built six examples of the then-current-generation F-150, using aluminum for the most used and abused part of the truck: the rear cargo box. Ford’s three best fleet customers — a construction company in Pennsylvania and Alabama, a utility company in North Carolina, and a gold mine in Nevada — each received two of those trucks. All six looked like standard 2011 F-150s. Without revealing specifics, Ford told the customers that some element of the trucks was being tested, and to use them as they would any other truck in the fleet.
 
Wearing requisite steel-toed work boots, I toured Cortez gold mine some 70 miles southwest of Elko, Nevada, a recipient of two of the disguised F-150s. The massive open-air and underground mining excavation operates 24/7 (sans Thanksgiving and Christmas), covers more than a thousand square miles, and is supported by 1,300 workers and several hundred contractors. 
 
Last year, Barrick, the company that runs Cortez, mined 1.34 million ounces of gold, worth about $1.68 billion at today’s prices. In addition to monster Liebherr T282B dump trucks — each costing about $5 million and big enough to hold up to 300 tons of material — the company has about 300 Ford trucks in continuous use.
 
The test F-150s, secretly fitted with military-grade aluminum cargo beds, were used by the survey team, the first to arrive at a post-blasting site. This means a pounding drive over extremely hazardous routes and torturous raw surfaces strewn with mud and sharp granite. As if that weren’t enough, every manner of heavy mining equipment was thrown into the cargo bed. These trucks took a beating far beyond what any average F-150 endures.
 
Because aluminum is lighter than steel, Ford was able to use thicker sheet aluminum, making the new F-150 stronger and more dent-resistant than the old steel-bodied trucks. 
 
The Result
After much more than 100,000 miles and three years of use and abuse, you’d struggle to tell the difference between the regular Ford trucks and the two aluminum F-150s in terms of dents, dings, and scrapes. And the aluminum trucks showed zero signs of rust or corrosion, even in the areas of the bed where the paint was scratched to bare metal. 
 
Understanding that customers will liken the strength of aluminum to that of a beer can, Ford put the trucks through testing far beyond the norm, conducting more than 10 million miles of combined real-world and simulated tests. They towed bulging trailers across 120-degree deserts and hauled fully loaded beds up mountainsides in sub-zero weather. They even ran the 2013 Baja 1000 in a disguised aluminum F-150 — a risky move that seems to have paid off.
 
With a base price of $25,420, the aluminum 2015 Ford F-150 is now in dealer showrooms, and the standard-body F-150 has been discontinued. From my perspective as an industry observer, not a truck owner, it looks less like a gamble and more like a brilliant strategic move. But we won’t really know how well the torture-testing paid off until the sales numbers start rolling in.
JIM PRUETER, an automotive writer based in Phoenix, has provided reviews and advice about cars for more than 20 years.
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