Richard Truett
Richard Truett
Technology and Engineering Reporter

Ford's work with aluminum-bodied vehicles goes back decades

The experimental 1993 Mercury Sable AIV showed Ford how much weight an aluminum body can save over a steel one.
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Ford Motor Co.'s dalliance with aluminum-bodied vehicles goes back at least two decades.

The aluminum body of the 2015 F-150 pickup debuting Monday at the Detroit auto show has its roots in the experimental 1993 Mercury Sable AIV (Aluminum Intensive Vehicle) and the Jaguar XJ that came in 2003. Ford owned Jaguar at that time and switched to an aluminum body to save weight and to elevate the British luxury sedan to the front of the pack in terms of technology.

When Ford sold Jaguar, it retained the patents it developed in the bonding and riveting of the XJ's aluminum monocoque body.

But it is that 1993 Sable that showed Ford how much weight an aluminum body can save over a steel one. The Sable's body-in-white was so light, two engineers could lift it. The total weight saved was 400 pounds -- a 47 percent weight reduction over the standard steel body.

The new aluminum-bodied F-150 could shed as much as 750 pounds from the current steel version.

Ford built 40 aluminum-bodied Sables for testing. The company measured how aluminum bodies held up in real-world use, how the cars performed in crash testing, how the dramatically reduced weight affected fuel economy and emissions, and how the vehicles performed. Interestingly, all of the test Sable AIVs were built with the high-performance 24-valve Yamaha V-6 from the Taurus SHO, and four-speed automatic transmissions.

None of the special Sables were offered for sale to the public, but 20 were leased for testing. One went to the Argonne National Laboratory for six years. Two researchers wrote a detailed paper on how the car held up. Aside from some paint separation, the aluminum body showed no abnormal wear and tear. The researchers compared the Sable AIV with three similar-year, regular production Sables and found that rust had formed on several of the body parts of the regular production Sables.

"There was no structural failure of any aluminum part, and no body noise or rattles developed," the Argonne report says.

The Sable AIV's body-in-white was so light, two engineers could lift it.

Researchers were unable to determine exactly how much better fuel economy the Sable AIV delivered compared with the standard Sable. Ford never made a regular production Sable with the SHO engine. But one Argonne staff member owned a Taurus SHO. The fuel economy of the Sable AIV was about 22 percent higher.

A few years ago, Ford found one of the Sable AIVs in a warehouse and has preserved it.

Ford executives probably hope the conclusion of the Argonne paper will offer a glimpse of what consumers can expect from the new aluminum F-150: "The experience during six years of operation demonstrated that the AIV was a very practical car with great performance and a fuel economy advantage over a comparable steel body car."

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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