DEARBORN, Mich. -- Ford pickups have been doing the country's work for 66 years. They've hauled grain, towed logs and plowed snow. They've cleared debris after tornadoes and pulled floats in the Rose Bowl parade.
They've shouldered those loads with parts forged from steel. Until now.
On Monday, Ford unveiled a new F-150 with a body built almost entirely out of aluminum. The lighter material shaves as much as 700 pounds off the 5,000-pound truck, a revolutionary change for a vehicle known for its heft and an industry still heavily reliant on steel.
The change is Ford's response to small-business owners' desire for a more fuel-efficient and nimble truck -- and stricter government requirements on fuel economy. It sprang from a challenge by Ford's CEO to move beyond the traditional design for a full-size pickup.
"You're either moving ahead and you're improving and you're making it more valuable and more useful to the customer, or you're not," chief executive Alan Mulally said in a recent interview.
Improvements in aluminum are also driving the change. Three years ago, for example, Alcoa Inc. -- one of Ford's suppliers for the F-150 -- figured out a way to pretreat aluminum so it would be more durable when parts are bonded together. Carmakers can now use three or four rivets to piece together parts that would have needed 10 rivets before, Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said.
Ninety-seven percent of the body of the 2015 F-150 is aluminum, the most extensive use of aluminum ever in a truck. Some steel remains on the truck. The frame beneath it is built primarily of high-strength steel, which Ford says will make it tougher and stiffer than the current frame. There's also steel in the front dashboard, because Ford thought steel was better at dampening nose from the engine.
In all, a four-door F-150 has 660 pounds of aluminum, or nearly double the average use of aluminum per vehicle used now, according to Drive Aluminum, an aluminum industry website. If the Ford truck is a success, use of aluminum could expand rapidly at the expense of steel.
The key question for Ford, and the people who sell its trucks, is: Will customers embrace such a radical change? Dealers who have seen the new F-150 say they expect to encounter some skepticism.
"We're aggressive, stretching the envelope," said Sam Pack, owner of four Ford dealerships in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "I think you have to do that. If you don't, then you get into that predicament of being a 'me too' vehicle."
Still, it's a big risk. Ford makes an estimated $10,000 profit on every F-Series truck it sells, making trucks a $7.6 billion profit center in the U.S. alone last year. And the company has had some quality issues with recent vehicle launches, adding to dealers' worries. The 2013 Escape small SUV has been the subject of seven recalls.
The 2015 F-150 goes on sale late this year. While aluminum is more expensive than steel, Ford truck marketing chief Doug Scott says the F-Series will stay within the current price range. F-Series trucks now range from a starting price of $24,445 for a base model to $50,405 for a top-of-the-line Limited.
New government fuel economy requirements, which mandate that automakers' cars and trucks get a combined 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, are speeding the switch to aluminum. Chrysler's Ram is currently the most fuel-efficient pickup, getting 25 mpg on the highway. The current F-150 gets as much as 23 mpg. Ford won't say what the new truck's fuel economy will be, but says it will trump the competition.