May 30, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Ford put aluminum F-150 to customer test early

Beginning in 2011, at job sites including a Nevada gold mine and a Pennsylvania dam, as well as in servicing power lines in Appalachia, six prototype F-150 pickups with high-strength, aluminum-alloy cargo boxes have been quietly tested in the hands of longtime Ford fleet customers. (Ford Motor Co.)

In an unparalleled move, Ford Motor Co. distributed early versions of its aluminum-bodied F-150 trucks to some fleet customers 2½ years before the Dearborn automaker officially unveiled the new model.

What’s more, the automaker allowed those customers to use the trucks in their work environments — and told them to drive it like they stole it — without telling them about the added aluminum.

The trucks looked identical to the current generation F-150 available since 2009, with one major exception: The cargo bed — which for those in the mining and construction businesses gets beaten up more than any other part of the truck — was made of aluminum.

Most automakers will often test future vehicles or elements of future vehicles in small research groups. But Ford’s testing strategy is unheard of and admits its the first time it gave customers prototypes this far ahead ahead of production. The F-150 goes on sale later this year.

The automaker chose three longtime fleet customers from across the nation — gold miners in Nevada, construction workers in Alabama and a utility company in North Carolina — but did not want those customers to know what was different, said Larry Queener, program manager for the new F-150, in a statement.

The six trucks accumulated more than 350,000 test miles. Ford modified the cargo bed and tailgate before introducing the final product at this year’s North American International Auto Show. The biggest difference: The aluminum beds didn’t rust.

Ford Racing previously said it had entered a stealth aluminum F-150 in the 2013 Baja 1000, one of the toughest off-road races in the world.

The 40th-anniversary F-150 will be up to 700 pounds lighter than the current truck. About 70 pounds of weight savings are the result of a new high-strength steel chassis; the rest comes from an all-aluminum body and bed.

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