Mark Fields, Ford Motor’s chief executive, on Tuesday insisted the company had silenced sceptics after it started production of a new, aluminium-bodied version of the vehicle analysts believe accounts for a majority of its global profits.
Mr Fields was speaking at the ceremony where the manager of the company’s Dearborn Truck Plant drove off the production line the first aluminium-bodied F150 pick-up truck. Sceptics have been dubious that the company would successfully switch production from steel and that conservative-minded pick-up truck buyers would accept the change.
The company has introduced the new body – which has cut the vehicle’s weight by 700lbs and should reduce fuel consumption by between 5 and 20 per cent – as part of meeting its obligations under the US government’s Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency rules.
The rules, introduced in 2012, require carmakers to nearly double their fleets’ average fuel efficiency from the 27.5 miles per gallon level in 2012 to 54.5 mpg in 2025.
“We said this was going to change the industry. The proof here is in what we’re doing right now,” Mr Fields said.
The switch to aluminium has been regarded as especially high risk because the vehicle, the best-selling vehicle in North America for the last 32 years, accounts for a disproportionate share of Ford’s profits. The company declines to break down its profits by vehicle lines but some analysts have attributed as much as 90 per cent of the company’s global profit in recent years to the F-series vehicles, of which the F150 is the flagship.
However, Mr Fields insisted that the eventual decision to switch to aluminium – taken in 2010 – was “not difficult”.
“The team did a tremendous amount of work over a period of two, three years,” he said of the exploratory team who examined the issue. “When we made the decision, we all went round the room and everyone agreed.”
He also insisted that recent drops in fuel prices made no dent in the case for making the change, saying pick-up drivers had been frustrated for 25 years at their poor efficiency.
The chief executive made no secret of the critical nature of the changeover for the company. “It’s about as important as they come,” Mr Fields said. “It’s important not only in terms of the volume and the profitability but in terms of the image of the company.”
The announcement was made at Ford’s historic River Rouge factory, set up a century ago as an integrated factory to build Ford’s Model T. Bill Ford, executive chairman and great-grandson of Henry Ford, the founder, spoke at the ceremony.
The switchover for the F150 has caused particular concern among the US’s steelmakers, who insist that the latest, high-strength steels can achieve just as significant a weight reduction as aluminium, at a third of the cost.
Russia’s Severstal in July announced it was selling its plant on the Dearborn site – a legacy of Henry Ford’s integrated production philosophy – to the US’s AK Steel, in a move that has been linked to the falling demand for steel on the site.
Mr Fields declined to comment directly on how the switch to aluminium and the increased raw material costs would affect Ford’s profitability. He pointed out that profitability depended on other issues, including volumes and the costs at which vehicles were sold, as well as raw materials.
“The F150 is a big profit contributor every year and we expect it to continue to be so,” he said.
Get alerts on Ford Motor Co when a new story is published