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Ford’s Material Strategy Risky

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GM’s composite pickup box debacle provides cautionary tale for next-generation Ford F-150.

Arguments over which automotive material is best usually are confined to engineers and racing enthusiasts, but the benefits of aluminum vs. steel likely will spill onto both Main Street and Wall Street next year.

That’s when the highest-volume vehicle sold in the U.S., the Ford F-150 pickup, is expected to debut with an all-new aluminum-intensive body.

It will compete directly with the second-best selling vehicle in America, the Chevy Silverado pickup, and other popular trucks such as the GMC Sierra, Chrysler’s Ram and others with traditional steel bodies and cargo boxes.

Given the ultra-competitive, testosterone-soaked nature of the pickup marketplace, the technical discussions could become a lot more entertaining as truck loyalists and Wall Street analysts debate the relative benefits of aluminum vs. steel.

At stake is Ford’s dominance of the fullsize pickup market and the enormous profits that go with it.

Ford is saying little about aluminum on the ’15 F-150 so far, but WardsAuto Editor Tom Murphy recently reported the light metal will be used for the entire cab, including body-in-white and closure panels.

Significantly, Murphy says light-duty F-150s also will have aluminum beds, although steel will still be used for the beds on Super Duty trucks. Frames for all F-Series pickups will continue to be steel.

Using a lightweight alternative material for a pickup truck bed is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. It’s risky because the bed is the heart of a pickup, and owners have to be confident it cannot be damaged easily. But the bed also is a big, heavy assembly. Making it lighter will improve fuel efficiency.

Ford and General Motors both tried using plastic composite beds in the early 2000s and gave up, even though the beds were lighter and rust proof.

GM was especially ambitious and got burned the worst on its adventure into alternative pickup truck materials. Its failure no doubt has made it more conservative about changing materials and should be a cautionary tale for others.

In the late 1990s, GM invested $64 million in its Ft. Wayne, IN, assembly plant to construct a 74,000-sq.-ft. (6,875-sq.-m) addition to build pickups with composite boxes. An undisclosed amount was spent developing the technology and testing it for more than 1 million miles (1.6 million km) over several years hauling gravel and subjecting it to harsh treatment.

Dubbed Pro-Tec, the composite box offered numerous benefits over traditional steel cargo beds and dealer-installed plastic bedliners.

It was co-developed with the biggest and best suppliers of the day, including Dow Automotive, Bayer, Meridian, Owens Corning and Budd Co. It was an engineering marvel.

The composite box was 50 lbs. (23 kg) lighter than a steel bed, plus it was almost indestructible. And it did not trap water and cause internal rusting like conventional plastic bedliners.

Priced at $850, it seemed like a bargain for what it would add to vehicle resale value, alone.

Instead, it was a sales disaster. After years of development, the composite cargo box was phased out in 2003 after just two model years. GM anticipated annual sales of about 50,000 units, and they were closer to 5,000.

The culprit had nothing to do with engineering, price or durability: Dealers did not order the trucks with the option because they made more money installing aftermarket plastic bedliners.

It was as simple as that. The engineers and marketing folks did not foresee the impact of new technology at the dealership level.

The introduction of the Ford Atlas concept at the North American International Auto Show was a show-stopper that sparked both anticipation and anxiety among consumers about exactly how advanced the new F-150 will be. Pickup buyers are a conservative lot.

Meanwhile, GM and steel makers are going out of their way to stress the benefits of all the advanced high-strength steel used in GM’s just-introduced ’14 Silverado and Sierra.

The ’15 F-150 likely will be an engineering masterpiece and, thanks to aluminum, the fuel- economy leader in the segment.

But great engineering and fuel economy still may not be enough for skeptical consumers whose very livelihood depends on their trucks, especially if competitors are gearing up to put doubts in their minds.

dwinter@wardsauto.com

 

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on Feb 12, 2013

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Drew Winter

Drew Winter is Editor-in-Chief of WardsAuto World magazine and a Senior Editor at WardsAuto.com. He was won numerous awards for his work in both print and digital media and has been...

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is executive editor of WardsAuto World magazine, with an emphasis on technology and suppliers. He leads selection of the Ward’s 10 Best Engines and Ward’s 10 Best Interiors...
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