Is Ford taking a gamble with its aluminum F-Series pickup trucks? Fortune.com dives in to answer the question and discusses how it became a concept and what it means to the auto industry.
The Baja 1,000 is considered one of the world’s most grueling off-road races, and the engineers at Ford figured the 2013 running was just what they needed to shake down their new, aluminum F-series pickup truck. Getting ready involved more than just filling the gas tank. Ford assembled a small army of 63 people, including two doctors and two EMTs; 17 support vehicles; and a nine-man camera team equipped with a helicopter and a drone for aerial shots. Some creative camouflage was also required. Fearing that competitors would get an advance peek at the design of the 2015-model truck, they built a new truck with aluminum body panels that looked exactly like an old one.
Last year’s race loop was one of the toughest in years, taking contestants over 882 miles of rocky desert tracks, dicey mountain passes, and the occasional paved road around Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Of some 300 entrants, nearly half failed to finish—among them several specially built race trucks. The disguised F-150, however, completed the course in just over 36 hours, its sole casualty a broken computer module that was stepped on by a crew member. After the race the truck was driven back to Dearborn, Mich., without incident. The only parts replaced were the air filters that kept Baja’s dirt and dust out of the engine.
That’s a lot of effort to put in for a lowly pickup, a vehicle that spends most of its days on construction sites and farms and lacks the sex appeal of a Mustang or even a Fusion. But it is not misplaced. While a lot of attention has focused on outgoing CEO Alan Mulally’s One Ford plan to unify the global manufacturer, the automaker’s profits largely depend on a beefy truck that is sold only in North America and will never find a market in Asia or Europe. Not that it needs to. The F-series has outsold every other car and truck in the U.S. for more than three decades, a record of longevity that ranks in the hierarchy of superbrands like Coke and Marlboro. Some 33 million have been sold since the F-150 was introduced in 1950, twice as many as the Model T. If the revenue from the nearly 765,000 F-series Fords sold in 2013—$31.1 billion—were that of a standalone business, it would rank around 100 on this year’s Fortune 500 list. Ranked by profits, such an F-series business would place even higher.