NEW ORLEANS - It wasn't your typical convention display: a color-coded body-in-white cutaway of the Ford F-150 pickup that looked like an oversized Fisher-Price toy.
But Ford Motor Co. was using the toy store approach to make a serious point to dealers: The economics of an aluminum truck - both the repair costs for the customer and the body shop operations for the dealer - make sense.
"We've made a lot of really significant changes for repairability," Jim Farley, Ford global vice president of marketing, sales, service and Lincoln, said at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention here. "They will help save a lot of labor costs."
For those with an engineering bent, the display provided a fascinating first look at how construction and repair of the nation's top-selling vehicle will change with the aluminum redesign.
Take apron tubes for example.
A pickup has two of them, one on each side of the engine compartment. The tube runs from the A-pillar to the radiator support frame and helps support the front fenders.
If the tube is damaged on the current
F-150, technicians have to remove the instrument panel to get the tube out - a job that takes six to seven hours, said Gerry Bonanni, a senior body engineer at Ford. That's because the end of the tube wraps around the bottom of the A-pillar and is welded to the body behind the instrument panel.
In the redesigned truck, the apron tube is riveted to the bottom of the A-pillar and does not wrap around the bottom. So a technician can remove it simply by pulling the rivets.
Ford took a similar approach with the floor pan. If the current truck is damaged, the technician might have to replace the entire floor structure, said Bonanni. With the new truck, technicians can remove individual sections.
"So the advantage to the technician and body shop is they have repair options they would not have had," he said.
With all the unknowns surrounding the aluminum F-150, Ford wanted to reassure dealers as quickly as possible. And the
NADA convention, just two weeks after the truck debuted at the Detroit auto show, provided the chance.
The message to the 20 percent of Ford dealers who have body shops: Ford's modular design will simplify work, saving repair technicians many hours.
Ford COO Mark Fields said the company thought carefully about repairs in developing the F-150.
"As soon as we publicly announced the vehicle, NADA was the perfect place to talk to dealers about the investment in their facilities and training so they're ready to go," Fields said.
Ford's display included new machinery, tools and other gear that dealers with body shops will need to repair the truck.
Ford announced a 20 percent rebate on the estimated $30,000 to $50,000 investment that will be required in tools. And it had a platoon of experts from Ford's Rotunda tools unit and from suppliers on hand to answer questions.
Ford collision repair engineers worked alongside Ford's product engineers throughout the development process to trim repair labor costs, Farley said. Those savings could help offset an increase in parts costs, since aluminum is more expensive than steel.
"We worked with insurance partners to find ways of repairing the vehicles that will save labor," says Paul Massie, Ford collision marketing manager. "We're still working on those things."
The stakes of customer acceptance to the aluminum makeover are huge for the company and its dealers. The F-150 is Ford's best-selling vehicle by far and crucial to Ford's profits.
For all of 2013, Ford reported net income of $7.2 billion, up from $5.7 billion in 2012. The company already has warned that profits are likely to drop in 2014, in part because of a heavy launch schedule, which includes the F-150 and another company cornerstone, the Mustang.
Dealers and operators of independent collision shops will have other opportunities to see the aluminum F-150. It will appear at the International Autobody Congress & Exposition show July 31-Aug. 2 in Detroit; the 2014 Northeast Automotive Services Show at the Meadowlands in New Jersey March 21-23; and the SEMA show in Las Vegas Nov. 4-7.
Randall Reed, owner of World Class Automotive Group, a Dallas-based group that owns six Ford stores, said he already had done a lot of research on the aluminum truck before he came to New Orleans. But seeing the color-coded body-in-white helped bring it home to him.
"That really opened our eyes," he said. "It will also be a lot more efficient and easier to repair than steel."