The Ford F-Series truck has become a staple of the American road, enjoying unprecedented success in the Eighties and Nineties. Its long trip to the top of the sales charts can be traced to Ford's first new vehicles to come out after World War II.
Ford Motor Company celebrated the 50th anniversary of its F-Series trucks in 1998. The company was quite willing to advertise its modern product amid images of its predecessors, and the attention Ford lavished on its light duty models during the year certainly was warranted. Of course, looks and engineering changed with the times, and model numbering was toyed with over the years, but perhaps no aspect of the F-Series's evolution has been as remarkable as its acceptance. For the better part of two decades now, the Ford truck has been the best-selling vehicle of any kind in America and the emblem of the truck mania that has swept through the U.S. auto market. Was there a single soul who could have imagined such a thing in 1948?
There is more to the story of Ford's 1948-1952 F-model trucks than a mere accounting of styling, specifications, models, and features can show (though these issues are important and will be examined in depth). Before jumping into the product side of the story, it helps to survey the bigger picture.
Beginning in 1917, Ford was the truck industry's hands-down production leader in light duty and medium duty models. Chevrolet pushed Ford out of its coveted number one truck sales position in the mid-Thirties and was still comfortably in first place in truck sales for 1948, when our story begins.
In 1948, Ford was a remade company in a remade country. The Great Depression and World War II were history. In the wake of devastation across Europe and Asia, the United States was the world's unchallenged superpower. Henry Ford II had come into the Ford Motor Company in 1943 and was named president in September 1945. To his credit, "HFII" had the foresight to hire the so-called "Whiz Kids," a group of 10 former military management brains, to overhaul the internal workings of the company. His second brilliant move was to bring in Ernie Breech from GM-owned Bendix as executive vice president and general manager of Ford.
Headed by HFII, Ford's new managers were ambitious to say the least. They were determined to return to the glory days when Ford led the industry in both auto and truck production. However, this was a team of realists who knew they couldn't reach their lofty goals overnight. They buckled down, worked diligently and intelligently, and played catch-up one year at a time.
After World War II ended, the Big Three manufacturers inaugurated new truck designs before turning out their first all-new cars. Trucks came first because post-war truck building got off to a running start and the truck business turned from a seller's market to a buyer's market earlier than did the car business. Detroit's plants built military and civilian trucks continuously throughout the war.
An article in the October 1945 issue of Power Wagon magazine tallied it all up: "Rationing of commercial motor vehicles was put into effect on March 9, 1942. From that time to July 31, 1945, the ODT (Office of Defense Transportation) released 401,118 trucks, trailers and bus chassis for civilian use. ... " Of that number, 56,128 were light trucks. Chevrolet and GMC got the jump, introducing their new models during mid-1947. Dodge and Ford, meanwhile, pointed to the start of the 1948 model year to release their modernized trucks.
Keep reading to learn about the early days of Ford's F-Series truck program.
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1948 Ford F-Series Trucks
Ford's top management knew full well how crucial the new 1948 F-Series truck program was to the company's long-range goals. Let's examine how Ford's 1948 truck line differed from the one it was replacing.
First of all, and critically important, Ford's truck range was substantially expanded. In 1947, the line consisted only of a 114-inch-wheelbase 1/2-ton series; a 122-inch-wheelbase one-ton series (called the Tonner); the Vanette, which was a forward-control delivery route van built on a modified Tonner chassis; and a heavy duty line of 11/2- and two-ton conventional cab and cab-over-engine models.
The 1/2-ton and Tonner series included finished pickup, panel, stake, and platform models, as well as chassis/cowl, chassis/windshield, and chassis/cab jobs adaptable to aftermarket conversions. The heavy duty lines were restricted to stake and platform bodies, and chassis/cowl, chassis/windshield, and chassis/cab models. A special 134-inch-wheelbase dump truck chassis with cab completed the offerings.
In contrast, the 1948 line consisted of eight levels, that is, 1/2-, 3/4-, heavy duty 3/4-, one-, 11/2-, two-, 21/2- and three-ton trucks. Only one panel model was now cataloged, in the light duty 1/2-ton range, but it gained a new body with a slightly longer cargo area than in the 1947.
The only commercial body types that didn't reappear in 1948 were the car-based sedan delivery and the Vanette. In the case of the former, Ford engineers were too busy with the bread-and-butter trucks to be distracted by a specialized, low-volume model. The latter was revived in 1949 as the Parcel Delivery chassis, an adaptation of the F-3 available on two wheelbases.
The engineers' second departure from past practices was the use of an engine not already in use in a FoMoCo car. (The only other time Ford used a non-auto engine in a truck -- transit buses excepted -- was in 1941 and 1942, when a 120-cubic-inch four-cylinder tractor engine was offered as an option for 1/2-ton trucks. But it was created by cutting Ford's famous 239-cubic-inch "flathead" V-8 automobile engine in two.) The new engine was a 337-cubic-inch L-head V-8, commonly known as the Lincoln engine because a version of it also powered Lincoln cars beginning in 1949. This big V-8 was responsible for putting Ford squarely in the heavy truck business.
Ford billed its 11/2- and two-ton trucks as "Heavy-Duty" models and the new 21/2- and three-tonners as "Extra Heavy-Duty" models. According to standard industry practice, they would have been classified as medium duties and heavy duties, respectively. Ford's terminology was perfectly acceptable, though, because compared to its other trucks, these were indeed heavy and extra-heavy duty vehicles.
The third new component in Ford's marketing strategy was a simple yet valuable and effective nominal size rating system. The trucks were badged F-1 (for the 1/2-ton models) through F-8 (for the three-ton jobs), the "F" having no more significance than to stand for Ford. The system indelibly stamped various gross vehicle weight (GVW) ratings in the minds of buyers, sellers, and users of Ford trucks. (At the time, the industry recognized seven standard weight classifications, instead of the eight currently in use.)
Ford's long-term goal was to overtake both archrival Chevrolet and International. Chevrolet was the industry leader in light duty and medium duty trucks, while International dominated in the higher end of the medium duty class and in heavy duties. Ford's F-1 through F-6 vehicles were aimed directly at Chevrolet, while the new F-7 and F-8 models targeted International. The idea was hardly original; Ford picked it up from International. But Dearborn's effective use of this model identification system was later duplicated by the rest of the industry.
Go to the next section to read about Ford's 1948 light-duty F-Series trucks.
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1948 Ford F-Series Light Duty Trucks
From this point on, our focus will be on Ford F-Series light duty trucks up through the F-3s. These were the high-volume models, serving the broadest range of needs experienced by farmers, tradesmen, and merchants. It is their successors that sit atop the U.S. sales charts today.
F-Series trucks began rolling off the lines at the Highland Park, Michigan, and Richmond, California, assembly plants on November 27, 1947. The public got its first look at them on January 16, 1948. As a means of planting the idea in consumers' minds that Ford trucks represented excellent value, advertising and promotional pieces referred to them as "Bonus Built." In other words, buying a new Ford gave the buyer even more value for his money than he was due.
What feature of a new truck is the most important to prospective buyers? For most it's the cab interior, considering this is where the driver spends his time. Ford planners agreed and designed what was called the "Million Dollar Cab" to deliver "Living-Room" comfort. This line reflected the actual $1 million Ford spent on design and tooling for the new cab, which was more spacious than the one it replaced. Roof height was taller to accommodate the majority of truck owners who, as was the custom in those days, wore hats.
The cab was a full seven inches wider, giving seating room for the driver and two passengers. The doors were moved three inches forward, increasing the distance between the cowl pillar and the seat riser for easier entry. New cab mounting techniques were intended to cut down on noise and vibration. Interior appointments were also more luxurious, including full interior trim, handsome upholstery, sun visors, an ashtray, and easy-to-read instruments.
Styling was dominated by fulsome fenders that began just ahead of each door and wrapped around the front, giving the visual impression of being a single piece. Larger, squarer rear fenders on pickups complimented the front units, right down to a full-length crease that passed just above each wheel opening. Panel deliveries had a version of this same fender shape stamped into their bodysides.
The grille -- now composed of five thick horizontal bars in place of the vertical members on 1942-1947 models -- and headlights resided in a recessed panel on the face of each vehicle. The ledge above the grille held chrome block letters that spelled out "FORD" and above this sat a large alligator-style hood with bright-trimmed "nostrils." Cabs featured a wide, single-plane windshield and new vent windows in the doors.
Wheelbases of light duty trucks were unchanged from the immediate past. F-1s rode a 114-inch stretch. The F-2 was Ford's first 3/4-ton model since 1942, but it shared the 122-inch chassis with the F-3, which was the successor to the former Tonner. (Though it technically had a higher GVW than its predecessor, the F-3 was nominally downrated to 3/4-ton in order to leave the one-ton range to the F-4, itself a downrated version of the former 134-inch-chassis 11/2-ton truck.)
The F-1's pickup box measured 61/2 feet long. It boasted an all-steel floor with pressed-in skid strips plus the industry's only hardwood subfloor. Also standard were a reinforced tailgate, rolled flare boards with stake pockets, and 45 cubic feet of load space. F-2 and F-3 pickups trailed eight-foot-long cargo boxes. The F-1 panel truck's new body was an eight-footer, too, a gain of half a foot from the 1947 model. It offered 160.3 cubic feet of cargo space.
On the next page, learn about features and prices for 1948 and 1949 Ford F-Series trucks.
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1948-1949 Ford F-Series Truck Features and Prices
The 1948-1949 Ford F-Series trucks came in eight standard paint colors: Barcelona Blue, Medium Luster Black, Feather Gray, Glade Green, Monsoon Maroon, Rotunda Gray, Vermilion, and Tucson Tan. Wheels were painted black, as were the bumpers and running boards (except on panels, which had body-color running boards). The recessed area around the grille on early 1948s was painted tan; late 1948 production used argent paint. Also, the grille bars were chrome covered up to mid-July, after which they were argent with red pinstriping.
Two L-head engines were available for the new light duty trucks. The 7H version of Ford's 226-cubic-inch six adopted for 1947 passenger cars spread to the 1948 truck line. It was rated at 95 horsepower at 3300 rpm. For an additional charge, truck buyers could opt for the 239-cube V-8 that made 100 horsepower at 3,800 rpm. A three-speed transmission with a floor shift was standard in the F-1, with heavy duty three-and four-speeds available as extra cost options. F-2s and F-3s came with the four-speed standard.
Prices ranged from a little more than $900 for a six-cylinder F-1 chassis-and-cowl unit to almost $1,500 for an F-3 stake truck with V-8. Despite price increases of roughly $30 to $60 compared to the 1947 trucks, sales of the F line were brisk. In 1947, Ford built 62,072 1/2-ton trucks and another 29,343 Tonners. The 1948 F-1 range drew 108,006 orders, 13,255 F-2s were assembled, and F-3 output came to 22,069 units. All told, Ford had its best year for truck production since 1929. But Chevrolet's "Advance-Design" trucks were still immensely popular and broke Ford's 19-year-old production record.
With attention at Ford shifted to the company's first new postwar car lines, there were no major changes for the 1949 trucks. The easiest ways to distinguish a 1949 F-Series from a 1948 are its body-color wheels (on F-1s) and the elimination of the red striping on the grille bars. All body colors carried over.
Truck production for the industry as a whole declined in 1949 from the torrid pace of 1948. Ford's total was down, too, but not as much as the industry average. F-1 assemblies totaled 104,803. Output of F-2 and F-3 vehicles came to 12,006 and 21,200 units, respectively.
On the next page, find out about 1950 and 1951 Ford F-Series trucks.
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1950-1951 Ford F-Series Trucks
The production picture for Ford F-Series trucks changed drastically for the better across the auto industry in 1950. Frankly, credit has to go to the outbreak of the Korean War that June. Consumers who feared World War II-style limits on car and truck production hurried to buy while vehicles were still available. At Ford, total truck production jumped by more than 100,000 units to 345,801. F-1 production alone came to 179,693 trucks, headed by 148,956 pickups and 22,421 panels. Of the 25,571 F-2s and 29,028 F-3s made, the vast majority were pickups.
The only changes of note were slight engine modifications (that did not affect displacement or horsepower), a late-model-year switch to a steering-column-mounted gearshift lever for three-speed F-1s, and three new body paint colors: Sheridan Blue, Palisade Green, and Silvertone Gray. Also, the use of four-wheel drive in light trucks broadened in May 1950 when Marmon-Herrington announced the Ranger.
Windows were cut into an F-1 panel body and rear seats were added to create a seven-passenger vehicle similar to the Chevrolet/GMC Carryall Suburban. Underneath, M-H replaced the stock Ford drivetrain with its own 4 x 4 running gear. Marmon-Herrington and Coleman were the main aftermarket converters of Ford vehicles to four-wheel drive in the years before factory-offered systems became available.
A substantial facelift and new features finally arrived for 1951. The most obvious change was a restyled grille. A massive grille opening extended to the edges of both front fenders. A single horizontal bar, supported by three bullet-shaped grille teeth, spanned the grille opening, terminating at each headlight. Front fenders were also restyled to accommodate the wider grille, and the large nostril vents formerly found on the front of the hood were replaced by a three-element opening. The hood side vent style was redone, too. A new ribbed front bumper curved around to better protect the revised front sheetmetal. Paint colors included Raven Black, Silvertone Gray, Sheridan Blue, Alpine Blue, Meadow Green, Vermilion, and Sea Island Green.
A restyled instrument panel was the highlight of the new Five Star cab interior. It featured a new instrument display and radio grille. In addition, the rear window was substantially enlarged. Standard equipment included three-way ventilation, an adjustable seat, dual windshield wipers, an ashtray, glovebox, and driver's-side sun visor.
A new deluxe Five Star Extra package added foam rubber padding on the bench seat, headlining backed by a 11/2-inch glass wool pad, additional sound deadener on the doors, chrome "wings" added to the hoodside spear, bright metal windshield and vent window trim, argent grille finish (in early models only), two-tone seat upholstery, twin sun visors and armrests, a cigar lighter, locks on each door and the glove box, a dome light, and dual horns. When the Five Star Extra appointments were applied to the F-1 panel truck, Ford sold it as the Deluxe Panel.
Detail improvements were made to both engines. Also new was a vacuum spark advance system called Power Pilot, which metered fuel and adjusted spark according to load conditions. Although simple in comparison to the electronic spark and fuel metering systems of today, Power Pilot was an early attempt to increase fuel economy based on the intake manifold's vacuum reading. F-2 and F-3 models gained improved brakes.
Continue to the next page to learn about Ford's 1952 F-Series trucks.
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1952 Ford F-Series Trucks
Ford F-Series truck sales were good in 1951, although government-imposed wartime production quotas depressed production somewhat. Total 1/2-ton production slipped to 141,668 vehicles, 117,414 of which were F-1 pickups. The F-2 range accounted for another 20,469 orders and 25,946 F-3s were turned out.
For 1952, appearance changes were confined to minor hood trim revisions and a slight shuffling of color choices. Far more significant was the debut of a new ohv six-cylinder engine. The 215-cubic-inch power plant produced 101 horsepower at 3,500 rpm with a compression ratio of 7:1. Thanks to a compression ratio hike, the 239-cubic-inch V-8 also received a slight power boost from 100 to 106 horsepower; it wouldn't do to have a six produce more horsepower than the Ford V-8.
Government production quotas remained in force for 1952 and were a major factor in holding down Ford truck availability. A total of 94,148 F-1s were built, 81,537 of them pickups. The F-2 production run slumped to 17,579 units and 19,991 F-3s came off the assembly lines. Prices ranged from just under $1,100 for a six-cylinder F-1 chassis-and-cowl to $1,800 for a V-8 F-3 stake truck.
Though Chevrolet continued to lead the truck market in the 1948-1952 period, the first of the F-Series trucks succeeded in re-establishing Ford as a serious contender in the field. Ford used the high-volume F-1 range as a stepping stone to an even more successful F-100 series beginning in 1953. Though Ford didn't reclaim its industry-leading status until the late Seventies, it laid the groundwork for its eventual success with the Bonus Built trucks.