For the last four decades, the Ford F-150 has been the best-selling truck in the United States. Even more impressive, in excess of 26 million F-150s have sold since 1977. While Ford’s most successful machine may be a vehicle of epic proportions, its roots are surprisingly humble. C’mon, take a walk down memory lane with us!
Supplying Every Demand
The first Ford truck was the 1917 Model TT. It was built off the feedback of another Ford gem, the 1908 Model T. That vehicle, which essentially brought four-wheel transportation to the American masses, left room for more innovation. So the Model TT pickup was conceived. It was specially designed to meet the needs of workers like farmers, laborers, and delivery drivers. In fact, Henry Ford envisioned the TT to be as functional as the Ford Fordson tractor of that era. The premise was simple: a cab in front, a sturdy frame, a cargo bed, a one-ton payload, and ample room for additional storage and equipment. And by the end of TT production, Ford sold 1.3 million of them. Sure, the TT wasn’t decked out in a Pace Edwards tonneau and AMP Research power steps, but it did the trick.
Eleven years after the TT came to market, Ford launched its next-generation pickup, the Model AA. This vehicle boasted a 1.5-ton payload and was further marketed in rural areas to farmers. Bob Kreipke, a Ford historian, states that these popular early trucks held a certain cachet. “Customers could use them on the farm, yet still take them to church on Sunday.” The AA was followed by the Model BB in 1933, which was more widely used as the basis for machines like mail trucks, ambulances, and stake trucks.
A Truck That Will Stand By You
In 1935, Ford introduced the Model 50 truck along with the now legendary Ford Flathead V8 engine. The powerful-for-its-era V8 set a precedent for horsepower and torque that would become the industry benchmark moving forward. Additionally, as many Dust Bowl Americans saw themselves migrating to suburban areas during the Depression, those farm pickups suddenly became everyday drivers. Something, Kreipke says, Ford noticed. “Ford saw this as an opportunity, and began work on the next generation of trucks…F-Series Bonus Built trucks.”
However, the entry of U.S. into World War II in late 1941 meant that Ford’s vehicle production would be almost exclusively dedicated to the war effort. During this time, Ford built many vehicles for U.S. troops, including its own version of the Jeep. Shortly after the Allies defeated the Axis powers in September 1945, Ford was able to resume vehicle production for consumers. And returning veterans were in store for the most modern and advanced trucks built to that point.
Excitingly Modern and Strikingly Different
The F-Series of Ford trucks were introduced for the 1948 model year. Models ranged from the half-ton F-1 to the 22,000-lb gross vehicle weight rating F-8. Improved features included a wider cab, integrated headlights, and a manual windshield washer. In 1953, the F-Series was rebranded so that the F-1 became the F-100, the F-2 and F-3 merged into one line to become the F-250, the F-4 became the F-350, and everything above that became a C-Series Class 8 commercial vehicle.
Throughout the 1950s, Ford continued to integrate more simple passenger car amenities like armrests, interior lighting, and sun visors. And in 1957, the company introduced its full-size Ford-car-based Ranchero. With the tagline “More than a car! More than a truck!” the Ranchero offered the comforts of a car while providing the utility of a truck. The Ranchero would vary throughout the years, from full-size (1957-59), to compact (1960-65), and then to mid-sized (1966 until it ceased production after 1979).
Ford’s dedicated full-sized trucks continued to become more comfortable and capable. By the time the fourth-gen F-Series was introduced in 1961, it was offered with optional power steering, power brakes, and a more modern and comfortable standard twin I-beam suspension. An upscale F-Series Ranger option, new to the still mostly utilitarian segment, further improved the range’s overall appeal as a part of the fifth generation in 1967.
In 1966, the Ford Bronco multi-purpose vehicle ( SUV’s old moniker) was brought to market. The small 4×4 offered a mix of truck utility and car or station wagon comfort and convenience. Five generations of this rugged vehicle were built between 1966 and 1996. And fans will be happy to know that a modern, sixth-generation Bronco will be introduced for model year 2020.
Heavy-Duty Addition to the Team
The sixth-generation F-Series launched in 1973. While it received mostly cosmetic upgrades (new grille, exterior trim update, the iconic F-O-R-D letter set on the hood), it also featured the introduction of the F-150 and “Built Ford Tough” slogan in 1975. Only two years after that, the F-Series became the best selling pickup in America. And even more impressive? It’s remained the bestseller since. Additionally, this gen saw the first listing of the Lariat trim package on F-Series option sheets in 1978. This touch of luxury helped further add to the movement of trucks becoming more comfortable daily-use vehicles.
In 1983, Ford launched the compact Ranger pickup. This mid-size was aimed at buyers who wanted the functionality of a truck, but in a smaller package and with the fuel economy of a passenger vehicle. Production of the durable and capable Ranger spanned two generations, from 1983-2012, and accounted for more than two million small pickups. And Ranger lovers who never quite got over its discontinuance, will be excited to learn that Ford has a redesigned iteration set for production in 2019.
Like the Ranger, the seventh-, eighth-, and ninth- generation F-Series trucks of 1980-86, 1987-91, and 1992-97 were increasingly more aerodynamic, economical, and comfortable. Also, the SUV boom of the 1990s was partially sparked by Ford’s Explorer, which rolled into showrooms in 1990. Other hit Ford SUVs of that time frame include the Excursion and the Expedition.
Tough in the Rough
But it’s the tenth-generation F-150, launched in 1997, that is one of the most significant trucks in history. Its bodywork looked tough enough for the roughest construction sites, but also fashionable enough for the upscale suburban driveway. Vehicle buying trends indicated that more and more consumers were buying trucks for personal, rather than work, use. As such, Ford built an F-150 that appealed to an even greater portion of the masses. This included a fully independent front suspension, in place of the long-running I-beam setup, and modern overhead-cam V8 engine options. However, Ford knew that to keep appealing to the more hardcore truck buyer, they’d need something more conservative. They wisely continued to keep the F-250 and higher models more in line with traditional work-truck needs.
The eleventh- and twelfth-generation F-Series of 2004-08 and 2009-14 further advanced the theme of rugged strength and durability sprinkled with car-like comfort and convenience. In 2015, for the current thirteenth-generation F-Series, Ford introduced bodywork made of aluminum in place of traditional steel. This resulted in a vehicle weight reduction of 750 lbs over the previous generation. Ford also transitioned from naturally aspirated V8 engines to turbocharged EcoBoost V6s, which are both more economical and powerful.
A century on from the TT, and Ford trucks are stronger, safer, more powerful, and more technologically advanced than engineers could have ever dreamed in 1917. However the real key to the F-Series’ success can be credited to Ford’s awareness of what customers want. Any vehicle that’s a bestseller for decades clearly strikes a chord with a large number of consumers. Today, the F-Series is as purty as it is durable, an aftermarket dream of a platform for work horses like Blue Ox, Air Lift, and Weather Guard as well as a blank canvas for vehicle styling companies like RBP and Air Design USA.
Ford has continued to evolve, from the early days of a farm workhorse to the modern days of rugged and versatile machines. Their vehicles consistently improve to meet and surpass the demands of the people who drive them. And as futuristic electric and hybrid vehicles grow in numbers in the coming decades, Ford will need to adapt to maintain this competitive edge. Based on the success of the last century, however, it likely wouldn’t surprise anyone if Ford had the best selling vehicle in America a century from now as well.