Ford has shown aluminum truck bodies don’t rust and may improve gas mileage, but how will they hold up after 30 years?

Updated Jun 29, 2014
Thanks to the 2015 Ford F-150, the automotive industry is all abuzz over aluminum. But does this lightweight metal provide true long-term value?Thanks to the 2015 Ford F-150, the automotive industry is all abuzz over aluminum. But does this lightweight metal provide true long-term value?

Ford rocked the automotive world with its decision to use aluminum bodies in pickup trucks starting in 2015. This will cut 700 pounds off the weight of their F-150 trucks and improve fuel economy—an admirable goal.

But the automaker has yet to divulge pricing on the aluminum body models and when it comes to the durability and repair of aluminum components, questions remain.

No doubt aluminum is here to stay. It’s a proven performer in certain niche markets: Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari, Audi and Tesla all use aluminum body parts to improve power-to-weight ratios. Plus, seeing the buzz and warm reception Ford received after announcing the 2015 F-150, competing automakers are reportedly making a “stampede” on aluminum suppliers to secure the material for future trucks and other vehicles.

Aluminum has many fine qualities. It cuts and drills more easily than steel. Being softer, it makes good shim stock. It doesn’t rust. Cast aluminum blocks are ubiquitous in the engine world. Even the perpetually Paleozoic Harley Davidson switched to aluminum blocks in the mid-80s.

If you’ve ever worked with aluminum you know it tends to spall. It’s surprisingly easy to cross thread a bolt in an aluminum component and dang hard to fix. Its high thermal conductivity and low melting point make it challenging to weld.

The aluminum bed of an F-150 prototype Ford embedded at a gold mine. Lots of abuse. No rust.The aluminum bed of an F-150 prototype Ford embedded at a gold mine. Lots of abuse. No rust.

Understanding there would be consumer and critical skepticism to the transition to an aluminum body, Ford’s marketing department has put in some overtime showing off how rugged the metal can be. Back in April, the automaker disclosed the 10 torture tests it subjected the new F-150 to throughout development, including a torture rack, a drum barrel drop and even an acid bath. And last month, Ford revealed that for the past three years it had embedded secret prototypes of the aluminum truck at construction sites and mines.

So, don’t get me wrong. The aluminum body technology will work, but it’s the long term, third generation owners who I worry will have fewer options if aluminum bodies become the norm.

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Car and Driver magazine in its July issue reports that repair shops will need to invest almost $40,000 in new equipment and training to work on aluminum-body vehicles. But what really stands out in the article is this quote from the owner of a Detroit body shop:

“Unlike steel structural members, which can be straightened, similar aluminum parts and castings always have to be replaced. A key difference between these two metals is that steel has a memory and aluminum does not.”

Does this mean these future aluminum-body cars and trucks will become more disposable and lose their value sooner? Will there be any aluminum-body Ford F-150s bringing big auction dollars at vintage car shows in 2045? Does this mean you throw away a whole quarter-panel because of one dent?

Movie stars and millionaires may not care if their $100K sports cars are disposable. That’s pocket change for the uber elite. But for the rest of us working stiffs, Detroit’s one saving grace was that its cars, and particularly its trucks, could be reworked, repaired and restored for decades.

That ethic seems to die a little more each day. Cash for Clunkers, was just the latest violation of that creed and a slap in the face to every kid and every middle-class Joe who ever put his heart and soul into bringing an old car back to life.

Aluminum bodies will improve fuel economy, but is that the only value in play here? Do miles per gallon trump all other considerations? This is not to cast aspersions on Ford. They’re doing some terrific engineering and have taken a leadership role in the industry since the introduction of the EcoBoost engine in 2011. But if it weren’t for the government, if it weren’t for CAFE standards, would we even be having this conversation?

Maybe I’m nostalgic, or oblivious to the march of progress, but there’s something heroic about steel that I fear will go missing if aluminum becomes the primary material used to build our cars and trucks in the future.

You make beer cans out of aluminum. You make swords out of steel.