Ford's bet on F-150 reflects new tech, Mulally's imprint

Mon Jan 13, 2014 12:06am EST
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By Deepa Seetharaman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Peter Reyes recalls that 15 years ago, it took nine months for Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote) to make two possible designs for a vehicle frame. Now, the chief engineer of the revamped F-150 pickup truck says he can create 100 different examples in that time.

Recent advances in computer-assisted engineering, or CAE, were one key factor that enabled Ford to take one of the biggest gambles in its history - making the hugely popular F-150 largely out of aluminum while retaining the brawniness of steel.

The scope of the bet also reflects Chief Executive Alan Mulally's efforts to strengthen Ford's balance sheet over the last eight years and drive a cultural change that allowed the No. 2 U.S. automaker to take more risks, analysts said.

"If you look at Ford over the past number of years during his tenure, they've grown in terms of their confidence," IHS analyst Mike Jackson said. "Alan pushed them to say, if we're a leader, we need to stretch ourselves."

The new F-150 will be unveiled at the Detroit auto show on Monday and is expected to go on sale late this year. How Ford executes the launch of the most profitable vehicle in its lineup will be closely watched by investors and rivals.

Ford has been dogged by quality issues in recent years, including seven recalls on its Escape crossover. That coupled with the extensive nature of the overhaul raises questions about whether the F-150 launch will be disrupted.

But if, as analysts expect, the redesign wins over truck buyers, it will cement Ford's dominance over rivals General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote) and Chrysler Group LLC UAWREC.UL in the segment and maintain the F-150's position as the best-selling U.S. vehicle.

"It's conceivable that once these trucks are out that people will perceive the Ford truck as being an entire generation ahead of the competition," said John Casesa, senior managing partner at Guggenheim Securities.   Continued...

Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford poses next to a Ford F150 pick-up truck during a gathering at the Ford Conference Center in Dearborn, Michigan December 12, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook