Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, the name of Ed Jolliffe, owner of Gorno Ford in Woodhaven, Mich., was misspelled.
DETROIT -- The aluminum F-150 pickup has gotten all the publicity, but it's not the only high-stakes truck move the Ford brand is making this year.
The 2014 Transit Connect Van and Wagon are arriving in dealerships now. And the full-sized 2015 Transit commercial van goes on sale this summer. Together, the Transit van family represents a change for Ford almost as significant as the shift from steel to aluminum in the F-150.
With the rear-wheel-drive Transit, Ford is replacing the body-on-frame E series, the market leader and a profit machine for nearly three decades. In its place will be a unibody commercial van that was designed in Europe and adapted for the United States. Gone are the two V-8 engines and the 6.8-liter Triton V-10, replaced by two V-6s and a five-cylinder diesel.
As with the F-150, Ford is taking a big chance, replacing a proven market leader with something radically different -- but not totally new. Ford has sold more than 7 million Transits in 119 markets since introduction in 1979.
In the United States, the E series has been shouldering the load for Ford's commercial and large passenger van business since Richard Nixon was president, dominating the market almost as much as the F series rules the pickup field.
In 2013 Ford sold 125,356 E-series vehicles -- 102,705 cargo vans and 22,651 Club Wagons for passengers. Ford held a 48 percent share of the full-sized van market last year, a slight drop from 2012, when it had 49 percent. Ford has been the leader for nearly three decades.
"Many people have asked me, with E series being so successful, why are we making a change," says Minyang Jiang, brand manager for the Transit, Transit Connect and E series.
There are a number of answers. Under Alan Mulally's One Ford plan, Ford is consolidating its offerings around the globe onto a few common platforms. The Transit is a global vehicle and fits that plan, while the E series has been primarily a North American van.
"Taking a successful product strategy and leveraging it across multiple regions, instead of having to design unique offerings for different regions, that's a big advantage" for Ford, says Mike Jackson, director of North American forecasting for IHS Automotive. With "all the different types of build configurations, that's a radical shift from the outgoing E series. That offers consumers a much broader range of choices. At the same time it would offer Ford meaningful opportunity for higher transaction prices and to deliver more value."
Says Jiang: "Transit offers a lot more payload and cargo capacity than we ever did with E series."