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'Continuing the legacy:' Ford F-150's roots go back to early 20th century

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

When Ford Motor Co. debuted its F-Series truck lineup in 1948, advertising campaigns proclaimed the trucks were "Built Stronger to Last Longer."

Today, the messaging is remarkably similar: the Dearborn automaker declares its trucks are "Built Ford Tough." In the decades-long history of the F-Series and all its permutations, the design and amenities of the trucks have evolved with the times, but the promise of the lineup has remained consistent: Utility. Reliability. Functionality.

The result has been the growth of a loyal customer base that has made the F-Series the bestselling vehicle for decades running not only in Ford's lineup, but in the entire country, and the perennial engine of the automaker's revenue and profitability.

A 1948 Ford F-1 pickup truck.

On Thursday, Ford will open the next chapter in the series' history with the reveal of the new, 14th-generation F-150 pickup truck. The redesigned model will be unveiled at 8 p.m. via livestream on YouTube, and the truck is scheduled to go on sale later this year.

Details of the new truck — slated to come in hybrid and, eventually, fully battery-electric variants alongside the usual complement of gas-powered models — have been kept under wraps. But experts expect a new-and-improved take on the vehicle that has kept customers coming back year after year.

"It hasn't changed. That's the beauty of the F-Series truck," said Ted Ryan, Ford's archives and heritage brand manager. "All the others change and change and change. The F-Series has its North Star."

Dana Sturtz stands next to her 2019 Ford F-150 in front of her Huntington Woods home, June 24, 2020.

Dana Sturtz is a mother of two who used to buy minivans and SUVs before switching to a truck. Now the 45-year-old teacher from Huntington Woods counts herself among the F-150's dedicated customers.

"I feel like I've been missing out for years," said Sturtz, who began leasing the pickup late last year. "It's the best car I've ever had. I'm in love with it. I don't think I'll ever go back. It's just an awesome, awesome vehicle for our family."

She never saw herself in a truck until the staff at the Village Ford dealership in Dearborn convinced her to try it. The size of the four-door's cabin blew away her preconceived notions. The vehicle has proven to work well, even for carpooling with a 16- and 13-year-old.

Plus, when the family goes camping Up North, the bed provides plenty of space for all their gear. And Sturtz thinks the gas mileage is an improvement on the Ford Explorer the family had before.

The 1918 Ford Model TT, one-ton stake bed truck.

She raves about the vehicle to friends and is looking forward to seeing the redesigned version: "I'm so content and happy. I think anything they add would just be a bonus."

That's just what the guardians of the Blue Oval want to hear. Ford's first truck, the Model TT, debuted in 1917, 14 years after Henry Ford founded the company in Detroit. The inaugural truck was true to Henry Ford's philosophy of building strictly utilitarian vehicles.

"He didn't care about style. He didn't care about beauty," Ryan said. "He was trying to build the best cars in the world that were economical and useful."

So when the need for a flatbed truck arose, Ford essentially tacked on a flatbed to its Model T: "It was the most Henry Ford of all the Henry Ford things," Ryan said.

Henry Ford's vision to create a vehicle with a cab and work-duty frame capable of accommodating cargo beds and third-party upfit equipment proudly endures a century later in the Built Ford Tough F-Series lineup, from F-150 to F-750 Super Duty

Three decades later, in 1948, Ford launched the F-Series with a half-ton vehicle called the F-1. Looking back on advertising brochures from the era, you will find phrases such as: "'Hard-working.' 'There for you.' 'Heavy capability,'" Ryan said. "That 1948 brochure reads like a 2020 brochure."

Some of the most significant milestones for the lineup came in the 1970s. In 1974, Ford introduced the SuperCab, giving customers who were increasingly buying trucks for personal use, and not just for work, the option for a roomier ride. Then, in 1975, Ford debuted the F-150; a few years later, in 1978, it sold a record 864,000 F-Series trucks.

In the 1980s, the lineup underwent a significant redesign and added diesel pickups. In 1999, production began on the F-Series Super Duty.

The 1975 Ford F-150 pickup truck.

The current-generation F-150 launched in 2015. The 13th-generation model featured a first-of-its-kind military-grade, aluminum-alloyed body. The launch was the culmination of at least five years of research and development as Ford overhauled the building process, from exterior painting to interior design, to incorporate the lightweight but costlier material.

The changes the series has gone through over the years have responded to customer preferences while staying true to the F-Series' roots, Ryan said: "The design has changed to make them, A, more comfortable, and B, to infuse technologies that make it easier for people to work or place. (Ford has built) different features into the cab, the liners for the beds, the hooks — anything that can be done to make them more utilitarian more useful."

With the new F-150, "I think we're continuing the legacy we started in 1917 and enhanced in 1948," he said.

The 2019 Ford F-150. A first-ever offering from Ford, the off-road leveling kits bring FOX shocks, exclusive Ford Performance tuning, 2-inch front lift, new front coilovers, vehicle-specific upper front mounts and locking spring pre-load rings

The F-150 consistently leads the increasingly competitive light-duty, full-size pickup truck segment, which has carved out a crucial — and lucrative — space in the auto industry.

The F-150 made up 22.6% of new leads in the segment on CarGurus.com, as of earlier this month. And, according to data from Edmunds.com, Inc., the F-150 makes up about one-third of U.S. light-duty truck sales; Ford sold nearly 600,000 F-150s last year, compared to about 450,000 of the No. 2 Chevy Silverado 1500.

The truck also has generated higher-than-average loyalty among customers. A recent CarGurus survey of current and former pickup truck owners found that 27% of Ford full-size pickup owners would not consider purchasing another brand, compared to 17% among full-size pickup owners in general.

1980 Ford F-150 Custom pickup truck.

A successful launch of the new F-150 is crucial for Ford, as it grapples with the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis. Pre-pandemic estimates by Morgan Stanley have pegged the value of the lineup at more than the company as a whole.

"The F-Series launch is a pivotal moment for Ford," said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds' executive director of insights. "This truck has been Ford's cash cow for years and a bright spot during this pandemic, but it has also been in need of a fresh redesign as the truck wars have grown more heated."

The F-150, she said, "is what pays the bills," so "Ford needs it to succeed the most to get through this economic crisis and beyond."

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

Staff Writer Breana Noble contributed.