By: Sue Mead
No one knows why Richard King chose the famous “Running W” as the main brand of the legendary King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas. The question of why the country’s largest and most prestigious ranch uses Fords as its main pickup trucks, however, has an easy answer: Mr. Bob. That’s Robert Kleberg, president and CEO of the ranch for 50 years.
“That was the beginning of Ford trucks on the King Ranch,” said Beto Maldonado, a retired “master showman” who grew up on the King Ranch, considered the birthplace of the American ranching industry.
Maldonado gave us a tour of the ranch inside its namesake: a 2009 Ford F-150 4x4 King Ranch Lariat pickup, which is just the latest version of the award-winning luxury pickup.
Our journey with the F-150 King Ranch began in Dallas and continued 400 miles south to Kingsville, via San Antonio. Stepping up and into the tall luxury pickup, we immediately appreciated the truck’s running boards, which not only help shorter drivers climb aboard, but also serve to keep pant legs free of the dirt and grime that typically collects along a truck’s lower side sills.
The first thing we noticed when firing up the 5.4-liter V-8 was how quiet the well-insulated, upscale cabin is. It’s designed to accommodate drivers of different sizes, with a tilt steering wheel and adjustable pedals. The plush leather seat is height-adjustable and tilts to the perfect angle for comfortable driving. The upgraded truck has great visibility out the large front glass, but things aren’t so great in terms of side views around the A-pillars. The big side mirrors were also appreciated, along with a rearview camera and reverse sensing system. Not only is this handy when maneuvering in tight spaces, but also when hooking up trailers.
Carving a track through busy interstate traffic, we loved the pickup’s supple suspension. It provides a confidence-inspiring smooth ride on the freeway and remains surprisingly flat over uneven dirt tracks at slow speeds. We also liked the truck’s rack-and-pinion steering, which Ford engineers weighted perfectly for both precise maneuvering in everyday driving and the updated truck’s improved capacity to carry and tow bigger loads. (Our test vehicle with its 3.31:1 axle ratio can carry 1,320 pounds of payload and tow 8,200 pounds. The F-150’s maximum ratings are 3,030 payload and 11,300 towing.)
The F-150 King Ranch only got a slight power increase – up to 310 horsepower from 300 in the old truck, though the E85 version makes 320 hp. We’d love a few more horses under the hood for quick maneuvers, but there was enough on tap for an unladen King Ranch. After the previous version’s four-speed automatic transmission, we loved the slick new six-speed; it spools seamlessly and efficiently when the accelerator is pushed to the floor.
The King Ranch also suffers from a wide turning radius and soft brake-pedal feel at the top of the pedal.
The King Ranch’s standard-features list is a long one, but there were a few luxury touches we enjoyed most during our two-day Texas journey: the heated/cooled front seats; a power-sliding rear window; the rearview camera and rear sensing system; the luxurious leather captain’s chairs; and the optional navigation system. Considering the King Ranch’s wagon-load of premium equipment, plus all its standard safety and security features, there was no sticker-shock at the truck’s $46,965 price tag (including destination).
Our test model came in an attractive Western color combination: Royal Red accented with Pueblo Gold, trimmed with Arizona Beige running boards. Riding on P275/65R18 rubber accented by King Ranch aluminum wheels, it was set up with a two-speed 4x4 system, a shift-on-the-fly transfer case and a 7,200-pound gross vehicle weight rating package.
Maldonado said 35 brands have been registered to Texas’ King Ranch, which is nearly the size of Rhode Island and boasts prize-winning livestock, including renowned horses, beef cattle and bulls. In addition to sales of top-of-the-line leather goods, luggage and home furnishings, the Texas ranch has become a popular tourist and recreational hunting destination, and has even expanded its operations to south Florida.
It took Ford until 2001 to catch on to this branding match made in pickup-truck heaven, but ever since, the automaker has clearly reaped the benefits of designing special-edition King Ranch models for three of its thoroughbred vehicles: the F-150, F-Series Super Duty and Expedition.
“It’s a great association for us,” said Doug Scott, Ford’s truck marketing manager. “It’s allowed us to bring tough imagery to these special-edition models, allowed us to attract new customers and allowed us to be a purchase consideration for other truck buyers who want to move beyond the Lariat. It’s a halo product.”
The ranch’s namesake truck has already driven away with a number of Texas Truck Rodeo awards, and last fall the redesigned 2009 Ford F-150 was dubbed the 2009 Truck of Texas by the Texas Auto Writers Association.
Also updated for 2009, the F-150 King Ranch not only continues to sport the King Ranch Running W cattle-brand logo inside and out, but now has even more King Ranch branding.
“We now have a better canvas to work with, as the new truck has a much more upgraded appearance — as you look back to 2001 — with new, more durable King Ranch chaparral leather on the center console, door trim, deck lid and [instrument panel], and it’s now typical of a ‘Built Ford Tough’ truck,” Scott said.
There’s still some mystery surrounding the evolution of the King Ranch's Running W brand, which is displayed on both King Ranch livestock and Ford’s King Ranch trucks and SUV. There’s speculation that it represents a diamond-back rattlesnake, many of which reside on the ranch, or the horns of a Texas longhorn bull. Regardless of its derivation, it’s as iconic as the King Ranch itself and, for Ford, it’s a perfect branding match.