Evolution of the Ford F150: How It Has Changed from 1975 to 2016

The Ford F-150 is the classic American truck. When this pickup hit the road in America, it immediately had an impact on the market. It was marketed as a no-frills, medium-duty truck for blue-collar consumers, and it quickly became the most popular truck in the nation. The F-150 remains the best-selling vehicle in America since 1981.

However, the F-150 of today bears little resemblance to Ford’s first iterations. Over the decades, the manufacturer has drastically redesigned the model many, many times. This evolution has left enthusiasts with a number of classic trucks, as well an interesting history. Read on to explore the background of the Ford F-150, from its humble beginnings, to its status as a cultural icon:

Commercial trucks and recreational trucks are vastly different breeds. By 1975, Ford realized that a compromise was needed. While consumers clamored for trucks that could serve as durable workhorses, certain emission control restrictions prevented the manufacturer from rolling out an affordable solution.

The F-150 (a new model between the F-100 and F-250 models) was the perfect answer, since it did not require unleaded fuel or a catalytic converter. It sold for approximately $4,500. Weighing just over 6,000 pounds, the model featured a 360-cu.in. V-8 engine with a two-barrel carburetor.

Customers were enthusiastic about Ford’s new offering. Although Chevrolet sold 300,000 more trucks than Ford in its introductory year, the race was on. Within two years, Ford outpaced Chevrolet.

In 1980, Ford completely redesigned the F-150. It was built with an entirely new chassis and larger body, featuring improved aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. The truck had a cleaner look, with a new grille and streamlined body. In further efforts to meet emission control regulations, Ford introduced catalytic converters to their lineup.

Some questionable design decisions led to frustrated customers. There were some design flaws in the original model that the manufacturer sought to remedy. In an attempt to increase fuel efficiency, Ford cut holes in the frame to reduce the weight of the truck. Unfortunately, this led to weakened frames that could buckle under load. It was dubbed a “swiss cheese frame”. This was reversed the following year. Growing pains in design are common in the industry, and Ford was not immune to the occasional stumble.

By 1987, the truck was the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for nine years running. The popularity of the F-150 caused Ford to cease production of the similar F-100 line. Ford pushed forward with the evolution of the truck in several major ways. The body was further streamlined with new front fenders and bumpers. Both the straight-six and V8 engines now featured fuel injection, which greatly improved horsepower. In addition to increased power, the 1987 model was also safer: Ford standardized antilock rear brakes on trucks.

Mechanics rejoiced at some changes that made maintenance much easier. Changing the belt on the power steering pump, alternator, and A/C compressor was made simpler. An easy-to-access fuse box also simplified repairs.

By this point, special order equipment was available for F-150 trucks. Customers could enjoy features like hand throttles and radio interference suppression, among other upgrades. These additional features required a higher-capacity battery, so car owners had to upgrade batteries and alternators before installing any add-ons.

The next major upgrade to the F-Series occurred in 1992. Again, the body was redesigned with aerodynamics and fuel efficiency in mind. The interior was completely changed, with an emphasis on easier usability and comfort. It was priced at $11,000-$17,000, depending on selected specifications and features,

A 1992 commercial for the Ford F-Series

Through the 90’s it became clear to Ford that consumers were looking to buy trucks for personal and recreational purposes, rather than for commercial use. As a response, Ford split its F-Series family of trucks into two distinct categories: trucks designed for commercial use, and trucks designed for recreation.

In 1997, the F-150 was marketed as a truck for personal use. On standard models, the straight-six engine was replaced with a V6 engine. The V6 is more compact, allowing Ford to design a smaller vehicle for recreational needs. The shape of the truck was also altered dramatically — the familiar box-shaped body was replaced with smooth curves. These changes resulted in a fairly powerful recreational vehicle — with well over 230 horsepower when equipped with a cat-back.

In the 2000’s, there were few major updates to the Ford F150. Performance upgrades, subtle style updates, and other changes occurred throughout the years. Throughout the decade, many customization options became more affordable and common. 2004 saw a new redesign that featured four doors on every body style, and massive cargo beds (up to 8ft.). Consumers could choose from a 4.6-liter V8 or a 5.4-liter V8 engine. Ford introduced a new twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 that they named “EcoBoost”. Ford’s EcoBoost engine achieves better fuel efficiency and fewer greenhouse emissions than competitors.

In 2015, Ford took a massive gamble by switching trucks from steel bodies to a lightweight aluminum alloy. It paid off. Because the 2015 models are over 700 pounds lighter than its predecessors, a smaller engine was required. The trucks sport vastly improved mileage and are much less expensive to produce. Given the number of customization options, it is not rare to see the entry-level price of $26,330 doubled on many vehicles on the market. Regardless of the price, sales have not suffered dramatically.

Today, the Ford F-150 is sold in a wide variety of editions to suit any need and price point. More spartan versions remain true to their no-frills roots, while high-end editions can easily set customers back at least $60,000. In fact, these pricier versions constitute around half of all F-150 sales. The pickup remains a cultural phenomenon around the nation, with both basic editions and “cowboy Cadillacs” selling over 700,000 units per year.

How is Ford doing today? The manufacturer has been making headlines this year — and, unfortunately, most of it is negative press. While some critics have bemoaned the fact that much of Ford’s production has moved south of the border to Mexico, Ford’s unique history still keeps it in consideration for the “most American” automobile manufacturer.

In other news, Ford recently announced that it had to layoff nearly 14,000 workers due to a lack of demand. They also stated to investors that profits will be down in 2017 as well. What is the cause of this sudden downward trend? An article on Bloomberg blames strict emission and fuel-economy standards. Even with recent changes, many new F-150 models still don’t meet target mileage and emission goals.

Combine this problem with consumer expectations regarding fuel efficiency, and Ford could have some serious issues ahead. Nevertheless, Ford executives are optimistic about meeting these standards in the upcoming years. While the future may be uncertain, there is no question that Ford and the F-150 have played a central role in auto history in the United States for the past four decades.

Devin Morrissey is a lifelong gearhead from Daly City, CA. He has an interest in auto history, travelling, and car mods.  You can follow him on Twitter @DevMorrissey.

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