When American nameplates get to a certain age, automakers usually begin to rely on a level of nostalgia to help sell them. Think of the current Camaro, Challenger, and Mustang: three modern muscle cars that will forever be compared to the legacies of their 1960s ancestors. Then there’s the Lincoln Continental. Ford’s legendary flagship will return for 2017, and on top of vying for relevance in today’s premium sedan segment, it’ll also have to fight to live up to the nameplate’s brief long-ago reign as the most desirable luxury car in America.
But the Ford F-Series puts all these cars to shame. In fact, for decades now, it’s put everything else to shame in the sales department, too. Going into its 68th year, Ford’s F-Series has almost always been the leader in the pickup segment, and as a result, it’s maintained a monolithic grip on the truck market. In towns across America, 1950s era Ford trucks still work alongside today’s cutting-edge models. There’s no need for quaint self-reflection of Ford’s part; the F-Series is just as it was, and just as it always will be.
Because before the F-Series, the vast majority of pickups on America’s roads were car-based. Ford first officially offered a pickup in the waning years of the Model T, but it was little more than a roadster with a small bed in the back. Trucks got more utilitarian throughout the ’30s, but their humble car underpinnings largely kept most of them from serious work. World War II put a halt to the last of Ford’s car-based pickups, and by the time the war ended, Ford was ready to take its trucks into a completely new direction.
In the years after the war, Ford was still selling a mildly refreshed version of its 1941 models, the ones that were halted by America’s entry into World War II. But a new car was coming for 1949 (the first all-new postwar model from any of the Big Three), and it wasn’t going to be underpinning its trucks. In 1947, Chevrolet had raised the stakes in the truck market by introducing its purpose-built Advance Design models. These new trucks were designed from the ground-up with work in mind, and Ford needed to field a competitor fast.
Unlike Ford’s 1948 cars, which still had a strong connection to prewar styling, the new pickup line debuted with its first-ever unique platform. The new trucks were simple, modern, and forward-thinking, and with their restrained, utilitarian styling, set themselves apart from their GM rivals. From the ½-ton F-1 to the 3-ton F-8, these trucks were unlike anything else on the road, and were a huge hit just as the American economy began to take off.
At the outset, the first-generation Advance-Design trucks trumped Ford in the sales department, but Ford had an advantage in offering V8 power in their trucks — something the GM trucks couldn’t yet offer. The original big motor was Ford’s venerable Flathead V8, but it was later replaced with its all-new Y-Block for 1952.
In 1951, the F-Series saw a mild redesign, giving the truck a distinctive industrial-looking grille and rakish new sheetmetal. Today, the ’51-’52s are popular with hot-rodders, but by 1953, with the more modern Y-Block underhood, the truck saw a redesign and the simple F-1, F-2, F-3, etc. designation was dropped for the names we largely know today. The F-1 became the F-100, the F-2 and F-3 were merged into the F-250, and the F-4 became the F-350.
Ford’s trucks really entered the modern era in the late ’50s with the third-generation truck. With a squared-off, fully-integrated body design, the trucks began to take the shape that would define the F-Series for decades. While all-wheel drive was an option from the beginning, equipped trucks were aftermarket conversions sold through Ford dealerships. For 1959, the F-250 became the first Ford with a factory-installed 4×4 system.
The truck’s fourth-generation debuted in 1961, and proved to be its most problematic. With unibody construction becoming the way of the future, the ’61 to ’63 F-Series trucks had a unitized cab and bed mounted onto the frame. While it saved Ford a fortune in tooling and assembly costs, customers were suspicious of it, and rumors that overloading the bed could warp the doors shut led Ford to change course and separate the bed and body once and for all in ’64.
The fourth-generation truck saw a mid-cycle refresh in 1965, but its improvements would have a major impact on the F-Series for years to come. That year, it introduced its iconic “Twin I-Beam” front suspension system, something that would carry on in the F-150 until 1996. It also saw significant platform revisions, allowing it to soldier on until 1979. A big redesign in 1967 brought a bigger cab, more modern styling, and increasingly plush cabins.
As the F-Series entered its fourth decade, it began to offer more amenities like AM/FM radios, factory-installed air conditioning, and power brakes. The sixth-generation bowed in 1973, and would prove to be arguably the most important generation in the truck’s history. Ford’s new emphasis on rustproofing and use of galvanized steel meant the trucks could take punishment for even longer. In 1975 the F-150 was introduced to replace the F-100, and a year later, it overtook Chevy as America’s best-selling truck. It hasn’t looked back since.
A new decade brought the first all-new F-Series since 1965, with an emphasis on cutting weight and greater fuel economy. Despite some early teething troubles, the F-Series became America’s best-selling vehicle in 1982. Since then, no other vehicle has outsold it in America.
As the F-Series continued to dominate the truck segment, it continued to evolve, with equal emphasis being placed on utility and comfort. The eighth-generation truck bowed in ’87, and ninth in ’92, and while both got updated sheetmetal, huge leaps were taken in making their interiors more car-like.
In 1997, the F-Series entered its 10th generation and underwent its next big transformation. Gone were the ’80s-era square-shouldered styling, replaced by a design that brought the truck closer in line with Ford’s car lineup. the company was so nervous about the new truck’s reception, in fact, that it continued to sell ninth-generation trucks well into 1997, in case buyers decided to reject it like they did the ’61-’63 unibody models. Ford had little reason to worry; it won Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year in 1997, and two years later, Ford was selling over 900,000 of them a year.
The 10th generation trucks took the F-Series into the new millennium, and bridged the divide between old and new. Gone was the spartan inline-six engine and four-speed manual, and in was a 5.4-liter supercharged V8 (for the go-fast SVT Lightning model), a luxury “King Ranch” edition, and an industry-first third door on extended cab models, pointing the way for the pickup truck to become more of an everyday family vehicle and less of a pure workhorse.
That domestication carried over to the 11th generation truck, which was bigger, taller, and a back-to-back winner of Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year (’04-’05). The full-size pickup segment was radically changing, however, and Ford needed to keep its edge over increasingly competitive offerings from GM and Dodge/Ram. As power, torque, and hauling capacity continues to climb, so do the U.S. Government’s strict safety and emissions standards. The 12th generation truck saw an even bigger and more luxurious truck, with the range-topping Platinum trim added.
But the big change came for 2015. Entering its lucky 13th generation, the F-Series needed to be able to compete against its rivals in terms of capability and amenities, but also needed to make some big changes to stay competitive into the future. The 2015 truck has an aluminum-intensive body — a first in the segment — which makes the current truck over 700 pounds lighter than its predecessor in specific trims, and does wonders for the truck’s fuel economy and hauling capacity. While it was a major gamble making the switch, the public has spoken, and Ford is getting ready to celebrate its 33rd year as sales leader.
This has just been an outline; you could write volumes about the F-150’s history, something we don’t have the space for here. We didn’t mention the early 4×4 conversions, the top-of-the-line Ranger, the insanity of the SVT Lightning street trucks, or the 21st century off-road rocket that is the SVT Raptor. In the annals of truck history, those are truly special trucks. But to millions of Ford owners out there, none of that matters because their old workhorse is the most important truck to ever wear a Ford badge.
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Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.