Ford Motor Company revamps the F-150 pickup truck, the top-selling vehicle in America, with a lighter aluminum body instead of the customary steel. (June 25)
Behind the scenes, bringing to life the 2021 Ford F-150 consumed Josh Henry.
He worked on pickup truck design by day. Then he applied his design knowledge after work to create a stunning modern industrial home in Ferndale that incorporated key elements of the truck. Both projects took four years.
“Everything was happening simultaneously,” said Henry, 32, a senior designer whose team led the exterior updates. “You’d see all the different trades how they were using the F-150s firsthand. The siding guys, they have to climb on the roof a lot. They have to reach all parts of the house and I could see how they were storing four or five or six ladders on the truck.”
At the time, he was sketching early images of what would become the final 2021 F-150 design. The popular pickup is the blood that courses through the veins of Ford. Finance people call the F-Series the company’s golden goose. So redesign is a big hairy deal.
“We wanted something that has a confident look, that feels strong. It could be just a detail, maybe as simple as one line on the fender or grille shape or head lamp or interaction with the bumper,” Henry said.
“One thing we did is widened the track in the vehicle,” he said. “It gives it a wider, more planted stance. The wheels — we pulled the wheels out a little bit on either side. What that allowed us to do was bring the fenders out, get more section in the fenders. Imagine a football player putting shoulder pads on, like a broad-shouldered look.”
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Then Henry looked at the front end and wondered how to bring a sophisticated and luxurious feel, realizing that the answer was tied to the relationship between the bumper, grille and the fascia around the fog lamp. Extending a c-shaped design element that wrapped around the headlights down to the front bumper is a huge design change for the F-150.
“It takes things to a whole other level,” Henry said. “Our iconic signature, that’s what it is. It will be undeniable as it goes down the road. You’ll be able to spot it miles away.”
These images of strength, designed in collaboration with his architect Matthew Seeley of Detroittranslated into 2,500 square feet of living space for Henry in Ferndale. He oversaw the construction of the two-unit home and lives in the larger one.
His dramatic open kitchen has exposed pinewood beams, black tile backsplash, leathered granite and a hard maple countertop, natural wood upper cabinets and black lower cabinets made of plastic recycled material that almost looks like steel.
His black kitchen drawers contrast with a light natural wood to create a warm space, similar to the F-150’s new modern interior, Henry explained. The drawers actually resemble a giant tool chest like some workers keep in the beds of their F-150s.
There are exposed ducts along the ceiling, and steel railings upstairs — influenced by the steel and texture of the F-150.
“I like the idea of minimal design and spend a lot of time on how the inside and outside work together,” Henry said. “I look at how to create something just in its bare raw form that’s really beautiful. Everything is very simple. I wanted the space to speak for itself.”
Henry realized that he was building a modern home in a neighborhood of charming homes from the 1900s and he didn’t want to be “polarizing.” Henry describes his design as a way to respect elements of the past while looking to the future — which was essential for the F-150.
Not bad, he said, for a kid who planned to be an auto mechanic. Henry ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from the University of Cincinnati.
“I didn’t think car design was even a thing,” Henry said. “When we were just in the initial sketch phase, my sketch was the one that resonated well with our management. It fit the boundaries of what the F-150 was about.”
He added, “My great uncle had a garage in Pittsburgh. He always drove pickup trucks and he had multiple F-150s. Cars were my passion growing up.”
Rock, paper, no scissors
But while Henry led the exterior design, Rob Brancheau handled the guts.
His job: everything inside the 2021 F-150.
As the senior color and materials designer, Brancheau selected colors, fabrics, leathers and stitching for the interior and exterior of 13 trim levels on the F-150 scheduled to be built and sold later this year.
“When you pick up paper, the color is white, but there are many different whites,” Brancheau said. “You look at weight of paper, brightness of paper and if you got a microscope, the construction of the paper will give you a small texture. There’s color, grain and gloss on everything you see.”
As a boy, he lived just 6 miles from a Ford plant and wondered about working for the company one day. His father was a mechanic, wrenching on cars in the driveway, and few in the family attended college. Brancheau, a professional carpenter, spent seven years working for a construction company to earn money for design school. He learned firsthand how men and women use the trucks, as a 1997 F-150 was his first work truck.
“Everybody who’s anybody has family working at Ford, GM or Chrysler. I thought I wanted to go into engineering,” he said about growing up in Taylor. “My parents didn’t have the resources to send me to college.”
He worked 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 or 4 p.m. on a construction site and then went to Henry Ford Community College from 5 to 10 at night. He worked for years, saved his money and went off to the University of Michigan at age 26 to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art.
That was his Hail Mary, after bypassing scholarships years earlier to stay close to home and help a friend whose father had died. A winding career path led Brancheau to Ford, where he spent the last four years on the F-150 interior.
He describes the process of brainstorming what it means to be a different kind of F-150 as each trim level costs a little bit more and fits a different kind of buyer. An XLT buyer is different than a King Ranch buyer or Lariat buyer.
“If the vehicle were to have a spirit of a person, what would make that vehicle comfortable?” asked Brancheau, 40, of Woodhaven. “If someone lives in Los Angeles, they might dress differently than someone in the Midwest, they might be edgy versus conservative. What might the vehicle want to be if it had a choice?”
The F-150 sees huge sales in Texas and California. Ranchers use durable work trucks in the fields and then switch to luxe models to go to the country club. An F-150 can range in cost from $30,635 to $75,945.
Jim Farley, Ford chief operating officer and incoming CEO, told the Free Press on Friday: “F-150, the best-selling truck in America for 43 straight years, is our highest volume and most profitable product. F-150 is our flagship; it’s 100% assembled in America.”
Ford’s most popular pickup truck is going electric. The American automaker announced future plans for the F-150 to become an all-electric vehicle.
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The new base model will have a black interior instead of gray, which is a key pivot, Brancheau said. Ford upgraded the quality of materials on lower-priced models. The work truck feels industrial and the high-dollar trucks feel more refined but in new and different ways.
“It’s softer where it needs to be soft,” Brancheau said.
The team imagined a construction worker, a newlywed husband, parents with kids in high school “and a little extra money because they’re not buying baby stuff” and then maybe grandparents who have worked hard and are ready to reward themselves, he said.
“Our whole idea is a road to reflection, reflecting on your life and the experiences,” Brancheau said. “When you’re at that pinnacle of life, you might want carbon fiber to make it more modernized, quilted leather, and every bell and whistle you can throw into that truck that we’ve got. Those customers are ready for the finer things in life.”
The designers see a connection to the families who buy these trucks.
“I always had friends say, ‘Don’t worry about school,’ ” said Brancheau, who grew up one of five kids. “Earning a college degree for me was a milestone. My family was really proud I got a job at Ford. You live in the Downriver area, you go out to lunch and see Ford employees everywhere. Now, being on the color and materials management team, it felt like home. It felt like family. It was a good fit.”
He understands the customer in ways he can’t fully describe, he said.
“When I started construction, I had an old Chevy,” Brancheau said. “I wanted a new truck. And my boss had a ’94 GMC Sierra. Then I had an F-150 and it became a whole back-and-forth, big brother-little brother thing. He’d brag about his truck and I’d brag. It helped me realize how truck customers are really passionate. Every guy who had a truck just bragged about their truck. We went as far as hooking up a trailer and loading it up with concrete or loading up the bed with dirt and racing each other.”
Now, he said, “You reflect on all your years and you did honest hard work to create something. You get the job you wanted, put in honest hard work to create something to enable other people — maybe with the same story — to follow their dreams.”
Working past sundown
Moray Callum, Ford vice president of design, has been at the company since 1995.
“We’ve lived with our F-150 customers for generations of trucks and the demands on their time and attention continue to only get bigger as they balance work and family,” he said.
“We’ve rethought every surface and function inside and out, so the all-new F-150 improves productivity — from staying in touch with the office using interior work surfaces, powering a job site without having to lift a heavy generator in and out of the cargo box and remotely controlling the exterior lighting so they can keep working easily after the sun goes down,” Callum said.
The money key
It’s impossible to overstate the role of F-150 design, industry analysts say.
“Design is arguably the most important part of developing new products,” John McElroy, a veteran industry observer and host of “Autoline After Hours,” said. “Design is what turns heads and makes people look at a car. If they don’t even notice it, how will they know if they want to buy it?”
Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader.com, said: “Ford is the F-Series. It accounts for the bulk of its sales and revenues. There is no more important product to the brand.”
Car design consultants say F-150 design is attracting global attention from teams working on competitive products as well as consumers. The truck war among the bestselling Ford F-Series, the Chevy Silverado and Ram pickup is hotter than ever.
“The rise of Ram demonstrates … great marketing is not enough in this segment where product is everything and (Toyota) Tundra sales demonstrate that, too. Specs are key, and so is design,” said Maeva Ribas, manager of design analysis at The CarLab, an automotive product planning consulting group based in southern California.
“Speaking of design, going back to Ram, it is clear that the company has invested heavily in the product, which is now a close second to the Ford,” she said.
“The interior design of the new F-150 has no peer. The design is outstanding and Ford did a fantastic job there,” said Ribas. “In a day and age where interior design has gained as much attention as exterior design, Ford has clearly delivered. Ford understood a long time ago the importance of the product in this segment and it shows.”
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