How Ford secretly tested its aluminum F-150's mettle at a Nevada gold mine

How Ford secretly tested its aluminum F-150's mettle at a Nevada gold mine

Thinking you're about to die isn't the best way to kick off an assignment. But there we were, flying above the Salt Lake Desert in an old turboprop plane en route to Elko, a tiny mining town in northeastern Nevada — and the site of a top-secret field test of the all-new Ford F-150 — when the turbulence set in with filing-shaking intensity.

So why did we risk life, limb and lunch to get here?

When Ford first announced that the 2015 F-150 would be outfitted with an aluminum body structure instead of the traditional steel variety at the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the automaker raised more than a few eyebrows. Aluminum won't rust and could shave up to 800 lbs. off the pickup's weigth for better fuel economy, but it's costly, hard to work with, and, most importantly in this case, softer than steel. Skeptics immediately began to question how it would withstand everday abuse — a query Ford has been preparing to answer for 2 1/2 years.

After it committed to the aluminum project, Ford decided to run durablity tests with business customers. It outfitted six otherwise stock 2011 F-150s with aluminum beds and sent them to work in the field. Two of those so-called M1 prototypes went to work for Walsh Construction helping to build a dam in Holtwood, Penn., and roadways in Birmingham, Ala.; two went to a regional utility company in North Carolina; and the last two went to work for Barrick Gold in its Cortez Mine, located about 62 miles southwest of Elko.

And based on our observations, aluminum can handle your toughest demands — and more — and do it with aplomb.

 The M1 prototypes are being used as everyday transportation at the mine by Barrick’s surveying team, and as such are exposed to the most severe terrain at the company’s Bald Mountain and Cortez mines, including traveling into mine pits before and after blasting. "There are no cushy county roads out there," says Denis Kansier, F-150 prototype lead engineer. “The trucks drive over dirt and rocks and up and down steep hills, all day, often with unsecured heavy equipment bouncing around in back.” The trucks are still being driven between 100 to 300 miles a day, and have accumulated more than 150,000 miles between them.

The F-150 program manager Larry Queener said that by the time the first 2015 F-150 rolls off the assembly line later this year, the company will have accumulated the equivalent of 10 million miles of durability testing on its new truck, far more than Ford's usual new-product testing.

The surveyors weren’t told very much about the trucks, according to Kansier: “The only instruction we gave them was to treat the (truck) just as they would any of the other 700 F-Series trucks used at the mines. Don’t hold anything back.”

We were invited to inspect the vehicles while taking a tour of the Cortez mine, a massive above- and under-ground complex that covers more than a thousand square miles. Machines and men scrape millions of tons of earth containing microscopic-sized specs of gold and pass it on for the first refining steps at a nearby plant. Digging stops on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but otherwise runs around the clock. As a result, Cortez produced 1.34 million ounces of gold last year, worth around $1.68 billion at today’s prices.

Even the good roads at Cortez are bumpy enough to shake your fillings loose; imagine the surface of the moon and then toss in a steady stream of 400-ton haulers and dumpers roaming the landscape. Under ideal conditions sharing the road with equipment exponentially bigger was nerve-wracking. But when the pits get muddy, the giant machine can create ruts as deep as the F-150 is tall. “We ripped the running boards off the trucks within the first few months,” admitted one of the surveyors.

First thing we noticed was how good the boxes look after more than two years in service. Frankly, I expected much worse given the conditions. The bed was scratched up and dented and dinged in places, but no holes, no repairs and obviously no rust, something that's typical with steel-bodied pickups. Given the amount of salt and other corrosive materials at a gold mine site, this was impressive.

The beds also showed almost no signs of structural weakness. Prior to the tests, engineers had been worried about the spot welds holding the bed in place, but those concerns were shown to be a non-issue despite the constant bumping and vibrating. The tests did lead Ford to increase the thickness of the cargo box's floor and make revisions to the tailgate to improve its strength and long-term durability.

Since only the bed was the only thing that was aluminum, driving impressions would not be useful. However, the surveyors did say the light bed did cause the truck to bounce a bit more going down rocky hills. Kansier shrugged that off by saying that the production vehicle would be balanced to account for weight-loss, and not be so squirrelly.

Between its advanced engine technology and all-new body construction Ford is making a lot of sweeping changes to the next F-150. To suggest there’s zero risk with this level of change would be unrealistic, but from our observations it seems Ford has gone to extreme lengths to make its customers happy. The Cortez may be full of gold, but the F-150 itself is Ford's most precious metal.

Disclosure: For this article, the writer’s transportation, meals and lodging costs were paid for by one or more subjects of the article. Yahoo does not promise to publish any stories or provide coverage to any individual or entity that paid for some or all of the costs of any of our writers to attend an event.