By Wes Grueninger for PickupTrucks.com
The design of Ford's F-Series is like a taproot, with each previous generation forming the basis for the growth of the next. Engines, transmissions and chassis carry over from one generation to the next, with major redesigns often happening independently of body styles.
Some features, like the Twin I-Beam front suspension, would prove to be central to the continued growth of the brand, spanning generations from its introduction in 1965 up through today's two-wheel drive Super Duty. Others, such as the 3.8-liter Essex V-6 launched in 1982, proved to be offshoot tendrils that lasted less than two years.
Then there are some designs that were so out there, so far ahead of their time, so far ahead of the technology needed to make them work properly that it's hard to believe Ford's engineers managed to get them off the ground. Such designs were the one-piece unibody trucks, available on the fourth-generation F-100 and F-250, that would leave some serious cricks and crags in the F-Series' lineage.
Ford originally referred to them as the “integrated pickup,” but calling them “unibodies” is a bit of a misnomer. The nickname derives from the fact that the cab and box are one continuous piece, with no gap between them. The same stamping forming the back of the cab was also the leading edge of the bed, and the single-wall bed sides were spot-welded directly to the door sills. The one-piece body was then set atop a traditional frame-style chassis, making the unibody pickup more similar to a body-on-frame car than a true unitized assembly, like the contemporary Falcon-based Ranchero.
1961 Ford F-100 (top and above) photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Why Ford chose such a risky design direction for its flagship pickup is the result of several factors. There's the ever-present matter of cost – the unibody truck required fewer stampings, fewer welds and a less complicated path through the assembly plant's paint shop. Then there was packaging. Eliminating the gap between the bed and the cab allowed a larger cargo loading area, and promotional material bragged that the 1961 truck had 16 percent more load space than its predecessor.
But most important was Ford's desire to create a paradigm-shifting breakthrough. The company saw the market for pickup truck buyers expanding from farmers and tradesmen to include suburbanites who needed more versatility than what a station wagon could offer. Those buyers demanded the slickness of post-Atomic Age industrial design. By making the new F-Series more stylish and genteel, Ford hoped to reach out to previously untapped markets.
Advertisements focused on the new F-Series' carlike ride and refined interior, with “five inches of foam” on the seat and 23 pounds of sound deadening in each cab. The cab doors were designed to swing wide, and the knee-busting “dog leg” required on older trucks with wraparound windshields was eliminated. Dealer-installed “Polar-Aire” air conditioning was available, as was a large rear window that curved around the B-pillars and offered a panoramic view out of the cab.
At the same time, Ford couldn't alienate its existing base of F-Series buyers, many of whom ordered stripped-down trucks as farm vehicles or no-frills delivery beaters. Seat belts, mirrors and even rear bumpers were optional.
1962 Ford F-100 photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
The powertrain options remained tried and true. Standard was the 223-cubic-inch, 137-horsepower straight-six that Ford sold under the name Mileage Maker. Optional was a 292-cubic-inch, 186-hp V-8 that, owing to its deep skirting, earned the nickname “Y-block.” Three- and four-speed manuals were available, as was a lone automatic option, the three-speed Ford-O-Matic.
Production was set for 12 U.S. assembly plants, as well as Ford's Oakville, Ontario, plant, which would build both the F-Series and a nearly identical Mercury M-Series to be sold at Canadian Lincoln-Mercury-Meteor dealerships. Other factories in Argentina and Mexico would come online during the production run.
So confident was Ford in its new unibody trucks that, when they were introduced in 1961, the unibody was the model used for short- and long-bed F-100s and F-250s. These “styleside” models, as Ford called them, were available only in two-wheel drive. Buyers who wanted a step-side cargo box could opt for a “flareside” model that used a separate cab and bed.
Four-wheel-drive trucks, in either styleside or flareside models, also retained a classic cab-and-bed design, ostensibly because the unibody couldn't withstand the abusive twisting and flexing that four-wheel-drive trucks were subjected to. Those concerns would prove to have some merit, and would ultimately be the unibody's downfall.
Shortly after the trucks went on sale, buyers discovered that putting heavy cargo in the unibody trucks could cause the one-piece body to flex with interesting consequences. Stories percolating through the Internet tell of unibody owners who would load their trucks, only to discover that the sills had distorted enough to jam the doors shut. Yet others tell tales of having a fully laden truck twist badly enough to pop a door open when crossing railroad tracks. Age and corrosion only exacerbated issues as the load-bearing bodies began to perforate and rust.
1963 Ford F-100 photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Ford, which had pinned its volume-selling models to the integrated design, was understandably panicked at potential issues surrounding the unibody. Midway through the 1962 model year, the company rushed a separate cab and bed into production as an alternative to the unibody. So last-minute was the conversion that Ford hadn't tooled up to produce a new bed, instead sending 1962 and 1963 models down the line with the box from the 1960 F-Series, which did not line up with the newer truck's swoopy lines. The unibody style would remain in production through the end of the 1963 model year, at which point the non-integrated styleside pickups were outselling it two-to-one. By 1964, all Ford F-series trucks returned to the conventional arrangement.
Despite being a dead-end tributary off the central F-Series root, the unibody trucks have since shown to be profoundly influential. The Chevrolet Avalanche body-on-frame sport utility truck, introduced as a concept at the 2000 North American International Auto Show, owes no small part of its design to the pioneering Ford. Yet beyond sharing unitized construction, the unibody F-100 also went after the Avalanche's target market decades before it became a driving force. Unfortunately for Ford, timing – in design, technology and marketing – proved to be everything.