It took Ford engineers and designers several tries before they got it right with the Atlas concept pickup, which offers a glimpse of the next-generation F-150 scheduled to begin production next year.

Unveiled amid great fanfare at the 2013 North American International Auto Show, the Atlas went through several iterations before the final version was decided upon, says Gordon Platto, chief designer of the concept.

“Before you put pen to paper, you go out and have discussions with customers and try to understand what their underlying needs and passions are for trucks and what may make their life easier, and you gain information that way,” he tells WardsAuto.

One insight that emerged from the consumer workshops was that pickup owners use their vehicles for more than just work. During the height of the recession, auto makers claimed casual-use pickup owners were a thing of the past, and most customers were buying them strictly for work purposes.

Not so, Platto says: “For the features and functions for Atlas, we tried to make sure they served dual purpose for work and lifestyle. Pickups are not cheap, so if they can serve both purposes, why not?”

Before the Atlas concept was finalized, it went through several design iterations, including one dubbed the “Bullet Train,” which had a smooth and aerodynamic shape. The other, called “Locomotive,” by contrast, had a boxier, industrial and angled design.

The final Atlas concept blends features of both the Bullet Train and Locomotive, but its design leans more toward the latter.

“Exploring and pushing boundaries is how Ford has stayed ahead of the game and in that (pickup) leader position,” Platto says of the two early design iterations.

A number of possible feature concepts also were tested early in the Atlas design process, including a windshield that extended to the sides of the roof, leaving the center solid steel. The idea eventually was scrapped in favor of a rubberized strip down the center of the roof that provides a place to secure large cargo.

“Early on we had concepts with a full-glass appearance, but they weren’t strong or tough- looking,” Platto says. “One of the things we had to keep in mind is that Ford trucks had to be tough. (The glass roof) made it look weak and not purposeful.”

Designers also studied several options to provide maximum storage space. One concept was a hollowed-out space in the rear tailgate for storage. That idea never came to fruition because designers decided making the vehicle’s existing tailgate step into a dual-purpose cargo cradle for positioning large loads was a better use of the space.

“One (Atlas) feature getting tons of interest is the next-generation step gate,” he says. “The concept can carry long items and still free up the box so it’s useful and functional.”

To increase fuel economy, designers experimented with a number of features on early versions of the Atlas, including wheels with a flat surface that cut down on wind resistance.

Ultimately it was decided the design wasn’t a match for the concept, so designers turned to active-wheel shutters that are concealed when the truck is parked or at low speeds to improve style, and automatically close at highway speeds to improve aerodynamics.

External lighting was another area studied by designers. An early solution was to include lights from the top of the cab that shone into the bed. But it was decided lights within the walls of the bed would better illuminate cargo.

With all considerations on the board, Platto says final decisions on design features and technologies were made based on what best would remain true to the long-established F-150 brand.

“Truckers are very traditional, so you have to be careful not to push too far,” he says. “With Atlas we think we got that balance right. The feedback has been amazing.”

bpope@wardsauto.com