Crain News Service
General Motors and Ford Motor Co. plan to produce pickup trucks with plastic beds and tailgates.
Within two years, as many as five pickup models could be equipped with the specially molded pickup boxes.
Initial plans are modest - generally between 40,000 and 70,000 for each of the pickups during the first year of production.
But sources expect total volume to multiply quickly.
Officials at Ford and GM will not talk publicly about the shift. They've asked parts and resin suppliers to keep a lid on developments.
Privately, however, eight sources representing both suppliers and automakers discussed specifics with Plastic News, a sister publication to Automotive News.
Plastic industry sources estimate the market size for plastic pickup boxes to generate more than $100 million in annual sales for suppliers within five years.
Pickup trucks accounted for 19.5 percent of U.S. light-vehicle sales last year.
The plans serve as another example of automakers shifting materials as they seek ways to cut costs, trim weight and improve quality.
Plastic has been picked for some high-volume projects - most notably, the body panels on Saturn cars. But it is not used widely for vehicle surfaces.
The pickup boxes could change that. They could cut the weight of a bed by at least 25 percent, contributing to greater fuel economy. The boxes, resistant to dents and corrosion, also could eliminate the need for a plastic or rubber liner to protect surface finishes.
'Even though (plastic) boxes will cost a little more than ones with steel, they might cost less when you throw in the cost of a liner,' said one supplier.
Ford is expected to take the first step. This fall, the automaker will launch its Explorer Sport Trac with a plastic pickup box, according to sources familiar with the model.
The Sport Trac will mix the styling of a sport-utility with the cargo bed of a pickup.
The vehicle will come standard with a 4.5-foot plastic pickup box, sources said.
At this month's Detroit auto show, Ford placed a lockable tonneau cover over the bed to keep the new concept under wraps.
Ford plans to make as many as 70,000 pickups with the plastic box during the 2000 model year, sources said. Budd Co.'s Plastics Division will compression-mold the boxes using sheet molding compound.
Ford also plans to put sheet molding compound-based pickup boxes on a custom version of the four-door F-150 Crew Cab due out in 2001. Cambridge Industries Inc., of Madison Heights, Mich., will mold the box's outer and inner panels.
In addition, the automaker is working with supplier Decoma International Inc. of Concord, Ontario, to put a plastic bed and tailgate on its Lincoln Blackwood luxury sport-utility.
The vehicle will include an enclosed, 4-foot box that also serves as a trunk. Decoma, a unit of Magna International Inc., is considering molding the box in polyurethane using structural reaction injection molding, according to sources. The box will be integrated with decorative trim and taillamps.
GM is expected to take a different approach by assembling a plastic box for its highest-volume vehicles, the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickups. The automaker produces about 800,000 of those pickups annually. A spokesman would not comment on GM's plans.
GM will offer the 6.5-foot plastic box as an option. About 40,000 trucks with plastic boxes will be made initially, starting in the 2001 model year, sources said.
According to sources, the automaker pushed the use of molded-plastic technology to make its boxes. The technology involves mixing polyurethane and then spraying the material over a fiberglass mat to create a preform mold.
Cambridge plans to mold the boxes at its Huntington, Ind., plant. Budd, of Troy, Mich., will mold the other panels.
GM's current plastic-box project actually started before Ford's current project. But GM has had trouble making the preform molds, sources said. That has pushed the project back from 2000 to the 2001 model year.
'It seems to be on track now,' said one supplier. 'They're making prototypes right now for a test run.'
GM developed the first prototypes for its pickup box in the mid-1990s. In 1997, GM put the project up for bid, and Cambridge won the contract.
In comparison, Ford developed the first prototype composite boxes, for its Ford Ranger pickups, about a decade earlier. But the carmaker scrubbed the program in 1989 because it did not think the technology was ready for commercial development, sources said.
Even today, the industry still is moving cautiously.
'There's a big uncertainty how well consumers will pick up on this,' said one supplier. 'But once they see that they don't rust, don't dent and you can throw anything in the back, plastic pickup boxes could take off.'