Bob Tomes was among the Ford Motor Co. dealers who sank tens of thousands of dollars into new equipment and training to repair the automaker's aluminum F-150 pickup when it debuted in late 2014.
Mother Nature showed him that it was the right call.
Back-to-back Texas hailstorms in the spring of 2017 filled his eponymous dealership's service bays in McKinney with dented and damaged pickups. But the F-150's modular architecture and extensive training given to his nine certified technicians resulted in speedy repairs that cost as much as $2,000 less than similarly damaged steel-bodied vehicles, Tomes said.
"We were called upon to make that investment, and you have to step up," Tomes told Automotive News last week. "I think we're very pleased with how it turned out."
So is Ford, whose big bet on aluminum for its hugely profitable F-series franchise prompted persistent questions — and relentless attacks from rivals — about whether the pickup would cost more to repair and insure. But insurance data shows that an extraordinary effort to train dealers, educate insurers and design the vehicle to be as repair-friendly as possible helped make it ultimately cheaper to fix and replace than the previous generation, a goal to which Ford engineers aspired from the project's inception.
"It was our moonshot," Dave Johnson, Ford's global director of service engineering operations, said in an interview. "We wanted them to be insurable on par with a steel F-150."
Aluminum is lighter than steel, but it generally costs more and sustains damage more easily. Switching materials helped Ford cut the weight of the F-150 by up to 700 pounds but had the potential to make the company's top-selling and most lucrative vehicle line vulnerable if buyers began to perceive the trucks as weaker or more expensive to own.
The Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has not studied overall insurance costs, which are determined by factors such as a driver's age, gender and location, but its latest data on collision claim coverage yielded surprising results. Collision claim severity for aluminum F-150s is roughly 7 percent lower than on the steel predecessor, in part because of cheaper repairs. But the frequency of collision claims has risen about 7 percent, resulting in an unchanged overall loss.
When the pickup was introduced, insurers predicted that costs would hold steady unless claims data indicated a need for an adjustment.
"Given the fact it was aluminum intensive, and prior aluminum vehicles indicated collision claim severities increased, there was concern the same would occur with the F-150," Matt Moore, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, told Automotive News. "Simply put, when we look at the overall losses relative to the other pickup trucks, there's not a change, which was not consistent with expectations."
A spokeswoman for State Farm said that insurance prices for the aluminum pickup are roughly in line with those of the previous model.