DETROIT -- As gasoline prices surged to more than $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, Ford Motor Co. responded to what it said was a permanent consumer shift away from big pickups and SUVs with plans to transform three truck plants into launching pads for a "small-car offensive."
Today, those small cars aren't selling.
Ford is cutting hundreds of jobs at one of the converted plants while straining to meet voracious demand for its biggest vehicles. The Ford brand set an April record for SUV and crossover sales, and the aluminum overhaul of the F-150 -- initially viewed as a significant gamble -- appears to be paying off big, with F-series transaction prices jumping $3,200 from a year ago to an all-time high.
That the dire predictions of seven years ago haven't quite come to pass is good news for Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of the Americas. Last week, Ford raised its profit-margin projections in North America, where Ford is expected to generate the majority of earnings it says will be in the range of $8.5 billion to $9.5 billion this year.
"Certainly, the largest reason why we upped our guidance in North America is what we've seen from the F-150 launch," Hinrichs told Automotive News. "The consumers' response has been great. The pricing's been strong, the mix has been strong and costs have come in lower than we originally had planned. So that's a good combination of things, and it has a big impact on our business."
That may be an understatement, in spite of all the work former CEO Alan Mulally did to make the company less reliant upon the F-150. CFO Bob Shanks said Ford missed out on at least $1 billion in profits in the first quarter alone because the model changeover cut production of the F-150 and redesigned Edge crossover by a combined 75,000 units. That works out to an average of $13,333 per vehicle, which is roughly the starting price of the Fiesta that Ford now builds at a former F-150 plant converted in 2009.
Ford CEO Mark Fields, who held Hinrichs' job in 2008, said last week: "The good news is as we see that shift into trucks and utilities going forward, that's a benefit for us because of our profitability on those vehicles."