LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Ford's almost $1.5 billion gamble that going lighter will make its larger pickups and sales of same stronger could be the biggest gamble for Kentucky Truck Plant since it opened on Chamberlain Lane in 1969.
"The tough toughest, the smartest, the most capable Super-Duty ever produced," according to plant manager Joe Bodner began rolling off the production lines in mid-July. The aluminum-alloy F-250's, 350's, 450's, and 550's will be, on average, more than 800 pounds lighter, delivering better mileage to meet tougher federal standards.
"More powerful, with more bells and whistles than most luxury vehicles," U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY 3rd) told a crowd of Ford executives, members of United Auto Workers Local #862 and members of the media gathered at the plant Friday morning.
A luxury price too. Nate Berges' platinum edition, fully-loaded dual cab F-350 carries a sticker price above $78,000. That may be why he, a fourth-generation buyer, is Ford's chosen face to sell lighter as "as tough if not tougher than steel."
"I feel as though I was watching a birth," Berges said.
Ford bent, if not broke, company and union work rules to allow Berges to help build the pickup he'd drive back to New Jersey, where Berges Trenton Awning, Inc. uses about ten pickups in its
custom manufacturing and installation for commercial and residential customers.
"They got me in there, I was putting the grill on, putting the bed bolts down," he said. "I took the parts and had em in my hand--I put the badges on the side of the truck."
Salt air wreaks havoc on steel.
"Aluminum is stronger than steel, it far surpasses it and there's no question they made the right choice going to aluminum."
Right hasn't been easy. In roughly one year, Ford added a 1.2 million square foot body shop - the equivalent of three shopping malls under roof - and expanded its stamping facility. It can turn out as many as 72 vehicle bodies per hour, pushing to final
assembly lines designed to turn out 1,500 vehicles per day, Ford officials said.
The expanded space at KTP has room for another model line, according to engineers conducting tours Friday afternoon. The full-size Ford Expedition SUV is slated to shift to an all-aluminum body in 2018, with its own body shop. Ford also builds the full-size Lincoln Navigator at Chamberlain Lane.
"A brand-new shift and a launch on top of it, just a lot of stuff that was unforeseen," said Casey Farnsley, a union rep with five years at KTP. "And it all hit us head on."
The expansion added about 2,500 assembly workers and skilled-trades specialists. It means that about half of the unionized workforce is on an "in-progress, second-tier" wage track, starting at $17 per hour. The 4,400 legacy union workers earn, on average, $28 per hour, said plant chairman Rodney James. The UAW calls for stepped raises over the next eight years to bring second-tier hires in line with legacy wage scales.
"Our people know nothing but full speed," James said. "We should be spitting these things out as fast as we can."
Counting the workforce at Louisville Assembly Plant on Fern Valley Road, Ford supports more than 84,000 direct or support jobs in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, Ford North America President Joe Hinrichs told workers.
"Ford will continue to make cars and SUV's in the United States," Hinrichs said. "It's our home."
The reference was a not-so-subtle rebuttal to Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump's assertions that Ford will put Americans out of work by shifting production of the Focus small sedan from Michigan to Mexico.
"No U.S. jobs will be impacted," according to a company news release.
The Michigan assembly plant is set to build two as-yet unnamed models beginning in 2018, the release continued.
Yarmuth was more blunt. "(Trump) should be ashamed of himself," he said.