Ford's F-Series numbers are staggering: 37 years as America's best-selling truck, 32 years as the country's best-selling vehicle, and 33 million F-Series trucks sold since its introduction in 1948.
So, too, was the long-anticipated announcement at the 2014 Detroit auto show that Ford will be swapping steel for aluminum in the body and bed (but not frame) of its best-seller. This switch is said to account for a weight savings of between 500 to 700 pounds per truck.
Ford sold 763,402 F-Series trucks in 2013, or, as its reps were fond of telling anyone at Cobo Hall who would listen, one truck every 41 seconds. Assuming Ford sells another 750,000 Fs, two-thirds of which are the new, lighter, aluminum F-150, and you're talking about some 500,000 tons of steel taken out of the auto industry every year from 2015 until Ford switches to another material.
That may sound like a lot, but the steel industry measures output in hundreds of millions of tons, so the loss of a couple hundred thousand per year is merely a molten drop in the bucket.
Or is it? What if, as many predict, Ford's stride toward aluminum results in a sea change for the rest of the industry? Aluminum-bodied cars are certainly not new: Honda paved the way with the NSX, the first production car with an all-aluminum body, chassis, suspension, and engine. Audi made the alloy the basis of its A8 line flagships from the outset. But those are low-volume sports and luxury cars; no other vehicle in America has a bigger boot print or bluer collar than the F-150. Switching from steel rivets to aluminum welds in this best-seller is a very big deal.
The day after the F-150 reveal, a curiously titled press release went out over the wire: "Consumers View Advanced High-Strength Steel as the Answer to Safety, Performance and Fuel Efficiency According to New Market Research Report."
The report, commissioned by the Steel Market Development Institute, a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute, queried more than 3000 U.S. truck and SUV owners and "revealed at a 95 percent statistical confidence level that the manufacturing of vehicles using AHSS [advanced high-strength steel] grades increases overall automaker brand equity to the consumer. Contributing factors included steel's reputation for safety, performance, and fuel efficiency."
The release went on to claim: "According to consumer feedback, when directly compared to other automotive materials, steel is more strongly associated with strength, safety, and protection of the family, an important and personal element of a consumer's driving experience. The strength of the material used in the frame and body of the vehicle holds as much significance over purchasing decisions as brand and cost."
Of course, this runs counter to what Doug Scott, Ford's head of truck marketing, told our Detroit editor Scott Burgess: "Customers don't care what kind of material we use to build the F-150," he said. "They just want a great truck."
There is a lot we don't know about the new F-150 and whether the switch to aluminum will do great things for its acceleration, braking, payload capacity, safety, and fuel economy numbers. What we do know is this: The new F-150 has to be better in every way than the truck it replaces. It should be lighter, stronger, faster, stop shorter, get better fuel economy, yet tow and haul as much -- if not more -- than its predecessor. In fact, the new aluminum F-150 must be all these things, yet remain as close as possible to the price of a steel F-150. Why? Because while truck buyers might not care about what metal is in the F-150, they're certainly not going to shell out more silver for less.