Ford to Outfit Model Line With Aluminum Bodies, Mulally Says

Jan 13, 2014 5:26 pm ET

(Updates with Ford shares in the sixth paragraph. For coverage of the Detroit auto show, see SHOW <GO>.)

Jan. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Lightweight aluminum has become “the material of choice” at Ford Motor Co. and the automaker will eventually use it across its entire model lineup, Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally said.

“Over time, you’ll see more and more aluminum across our product line,” Mulally said today in an interview at the Detroit auto show. “It makes the most sense on the bigger vehicles because of the value you generate.”

Ford today introduced an aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup at the event that’s as much as 700 pounds (318 kilograms) lighter, making it the most fuel efficient it’s ever been, Mulally said. Ford will expand its use of aluminum, which is more costly than steel, throughout its lineup, starting with larger models that can realize the biggest weight savings, he said.

“The real value initially is on the larger vehicles because you can take more weight out,” Mulally told reporters at the F-150 introduction. “Over time, it absolutely will move across our product line. It will be the material of choice.”

Aluminum, while light, adds costs to vehicles, which is why it has mostly been found on high-price luxury cars. Engine blocks have been made of aluminum for years to reduce weight, and some mass-market models use it for specific body panels, such as Ford’s Explorer sport-utility vehicle, which has an aluminum hood and tailgate. Ford is talking about expanding the metal’s use in vehicles beyond the F-150.

The company, which saw its stock add 19 percent last year, rose 0.3 percent to $16.11 at the close in New York.

‘Revolutionary Change’

It would be challenging to wrap a small economy car in aluminum and still sell it for an affordable price, said Jeff Schuster, an analyst with researcher LMC Automotive in Troy, Michigan.

“Taking aluminum across the entire lineup would be a revolutionary change to the auto industry and to the steel industry,” Schuster said. “The question is: What are the benefits versus the price? Until we know that, it’s a risk.”

Mulally said Ford is aware of the risk and isn’t daunted.

“It’s a very manageable risk,” Mulally said. “It’s a new material, but we have a lot of experience with aluminum. It’s going to be just fine.”

Ford pioneered the use of aluminum bodies when it owned Jaguar, which Mulally sold after he arrived from Boeing Co. in 2006. That has allowed Ford to engineer the first full-size aluminum pickup, which people familiar with the truck have said may achieve close to 30 miles (48 kilometers) per gallon in highway driving.

Fuel Economy

Mulally declined to say whether the new F-150 would achieve 30 mpg.

“We’re looking forward to sharing with you what the number is later,” Mulally said. “We’re clearly going to have the best fuel economy ever, that we’ve ever had on the F-Series.”

Mulally, who led development of the lightweight, fuel efficient Dreamliner jet at Boeing, also attempted to allay fears that aluminum will not be as strong as steel.

“One of the things that gives me great confidence personally is the aluminum alloys we’re using are very similar to what’s used in commercial airplanes,” he said. “They have proven their toughness and durability over the years.”

The benefits of aluminum will ultimately outweigh its higher price, Mulally said.

Aluminum, Steel

“Aluminum is a little bit more expense, but the value that it brings is not only with weight savings, but also with its durability and its toughness, it’s harder to dent,” Mulally said. “The value will absolutely go up and offset the extra cost.”

Aluminum costs about twice as much as steel. The metal’s price fell about 13 percent last year. Prices of hot-rolled coil steel, which is used in manufacturing, rose 6.6 percent in 2013.

Ford will find it hard to realize that value when it attempts to make small cars out of aluminum, Schuster said.

“When you get down to small cars, there’s less opportunity to take cost out,” Schuster said.

That’s why Ford will start with making larger vehicles out of aluminum, Mulally said.

“I don’t want to leave the impression that every new vehicle we make from now on would be aluminum,” Mulally said in the interview. “But over time, we’re going to use more and more aluminum. We’ll evolve its application on a case-by-case basis.”

--With assistance from Sonja Elmquist in New York. Editors: James Callan, Niamh Ring