Ford pushing gas economy in its small trucks

Ford Motor Company looks for sharply higher mileage in its pickup trucks in the 1981 model year, which starts next fall. The beleaguered truckmaker, for example, will put its all-new automatic overdrive transmission, now available in several of its high-level cars in 1980, into its pickups. That should mean up to a 4 mile-a-gallon highway improvement over current m.p.g., although the new transmission doesn't take over until a vehicles reaches 40 m.p.h.

Further, Ford will unveil a new small V-8 engine -- 4.2 liters instead of today's 5 -- as well as improve vehicle aerodynamics and use higher-mileage radial tires.

"We're tweaking just about everything," says James A. Capolongo, head of trucks at the No. 2 automaker.

"We also have a diesel on the way," he adds, "but it won't be ready for the upcoming new model year."

The domestic truck market is being decimated right now by a plunging economy and consumer demand for more distance on a tankful of gas. In the first week of June, for instance, total US truck production plummeted 69.2 percent under the same week a year ago, according to Ward's Automotive Reports.North American truck output for the year so far is 777,648, compared with 1,839,252 in 1979, Ward's says.

At the same time, the Japanese continue to sell high numbers of minitrucks in the United States, not only for price but also for image and high mileage. The Japanese influx may be cut short if the US allows the import duty to jump from the present 4 percent to 25 percent in August, as ordered by the Treasury Department. Prices could rise by hundreds of dollars, thus making them less price-sensible to buyers.

Both Ford and General Motors are working fast toward the introduction of their own minisize trucks within the next two years. GM now sells an Isuzu-built minitruck in the US, the Chevrolet LUV; and Ford markets the Courier , made by the Mazdamaker, Toyo Kogyo.

Both US companies have financial stakes in the Japanese companies.

"We won't let GM get the jump on us in minitrucks as it did in the downsizing race," Mr. Capolongo of Ford asserts.

Higher-mileage trucks are vital to the US industry if it is to meet the federal government's miles-per-gallon standards that go into effect in the fall of 1981 on '82 model vehicles.

"We'll meet the 1982 standards of 18 miles per gallon for light trucks and 16 m.p.g. for 4-by-4s," Mr. Capolongo says. However, the standards beyond 1982 have not yet been set and this, disturbs the industry.

The White House Regulatory Analysis Review Group has proposed separate light truck fuel economy standards for each manufacturer for 1983-85, based on the proportion of 4-wheel-drive and 2-wheel-drive light trucks each company built.

The US industry attacks the federal government's practice of keeping the industry's feet to the fire and announcing new standards with what the industry says is insufficient lead time to meet them.

"The problem is," complains the Ford truck manager, "we have to scramble on the short term when we have long-term objectives to meet.

"The federal government still doesn't recognize the reality of lead time."

Then, taking a slap at Secretary of Transportation Neil E. Goldschmidt, he adds: "We like what Goldschmidt says, but now we say: 'Prove it!'"

Not only are US pickups in trouble, but the domestic makers have some potential problems in big trucks as well -- the diesel-engine monsters that haul capital and consumer goods all over the country. Sales are down about 19 percent so far this year at a time when some of the importers are casting long, hungering looks in the direction of the US.

Last year the domestic industry sold 378,000 big trucks, but this year -- in a tumbling economy -- it's estimating about 300,000, a substantial slide.

"The big truck decline is about equal to the reduction in gross national product in the economy," Mr. Capolongo reports. High interest rates of the past few months have taken their toll.

The prestigious West German automaker, Mercedes-Benz, is building a truck assembly plant in the US, but its capacity is only about 6,000 a year. While this might of itself have slight impact on the domestic industry, other companies are also trying to build up a medium and heavy truck market here. IVECO, for instance, in which Italy's Fiat has an interest, is selling trucks in the US, and Sweden's Volvo has a deal with Freightliner Corporation to market trucks here.

Still confident, however, Mr. Capolongo concludes: "We don't think the imports will have the same impact on big trucks in the future that they now are having on cars and light trucks."

The Ford truck chief expects to have a sympathetic ear with the new top management at Ford.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Company, which exceeds Chevrolet in truck sales, is gunning its engine in an all-out race to hold on to first place.

Right now Ford is in the lead by fewer than 2,000 units -- 394,028 to 392,383 for Chevrolet. Last year at this time the GM division was in the lead by 3,500 units. Nonetheless, Ford still wound up 1979 in the No. 1 spot. In fact, it was ahead of GM by some 41,000 trucks for the year and has had truck leadership in 7 out of the last 10 years, according to Mr. Capolongo.

Small trucks now have 21.4 percent of the total truck market, including the heavies, indicating the impact of rising gasoline prices on the consumer. In 1979 the total compact truck average for the year was 13.9 percent. In 1973 it was 7.1 percent. Between '73 and '79 it went up about 50 percent.

"In 1980 it may double the '79 figure," according to the Ford truck chief.

Clearly, Ford had hoped for a better year in trucks when it brought out its new, higher-mileage F-series pickups last fall, but the economic squeeze got in the way. As a result, sales are down a whopping 35 percent for the year so far. Through June 10, Ford has built 221,224 pickup trucks, compared with 339,189 a year ago.

In a heavily depressed auto market, pickups and vans are among the first to feel the pinch.

Vans are off a massive 43 percent from 1979.In the 4-wheel-drive utility vehicle segment of the business, Ford's new Bronco is down 47 percent.

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