Ford says their certified repair centers can fix the 2015 Ford F-150 and its all-new aluminum body “no problem.” But this crazy story of a month-long job and an unbelievable service bay bill — $17,000! — proves there are still some serious challenges to getting this truck back on the road after an accident.
What the heck happened?
Here’s the scene: a couple months ago the unlucky owner of a brand-new super-expensive 2015 Ford F-150 King Ranch drove through an automatic car wash. Apparently the car wash malfunctioned and a piece of heavy machinery fell on the roof of the truck. The driver decided they’d better get outta there, stepped on the gas, ...and tore the roof up like a can of beans in the process.
Now of course this kind of impact would have done major damage whether this truck was made of aluminum, steel, or any other automotive material. But in this case, it gave us the first real-world opportunity to see what’s involved in a repairing the aluminum Ford after a seriously heavy hit.
*So they say, anyway.
So the truck goes to the Waikem Body Shop in Massilon, Ohio. That’s the official body shop of George Waikem Ford, and it’s specifically certified by Ford in F-150 aluminum repair. (You can confirm that with the advanced search function on Ford.com’s dealership locator.)
And now, we can examine the question that’s dogged Ford since they announced the F-150 would go aluminum: what about repair costs?
Is this shop legit or what?
The dealership’s fully invested in Ford’s changeover to aluminum. To the tune of about $100,000 in tools and training, as a matter of fact.
“Since this is the future of our industry in saving fuel and other issues, we are better prepared for the future,” George “Chip” Waikem said in a comment about the new truck. “It has been the Waikem intent from day 1 to work thru any problems this new product will present. [sic]”
The Waikem Body Shop is headed up by Jim Shreve, a 40-year veteran of automotive body repair with a PhD in business administration who’s been published and citied in industry papers about fixing cars.
Point is; this might well be the most qualified outfit to tackle a complex repair on a largely untested platform like the new F-150. Which is a good thing, because apparently the cab of that King Ranch was effectively eviscerated.
“A $17,000 repair” sounds impossible. Wouldn’t that truck be declared totaled?
With just 4,000 miles on a vehicle the shop valued at “around $70,000,” the owner’s insurance company saw fit to go through with a repair rather than totaling the truck. Shreve and his team stepped up to the challenge.
So how did this F-150 spend its four-week vacation in the service bay?
“There was a big learning curve,” Dr. Shreve told me over the phone. “This [how to rebuild the truck] was like the best-kept secret Ford ever had... even they weren’t exactly sure how to walk through it.” Shreve’s shop has solid support from Ford, including direct access to the team on the F-150’s assembly lines.
“We called a supervisor at the plant, they were just as mystified as us. We effectively had to reverse-engineer the truck.”
Early on, the repair team ran into one roadblock after another. Apparently the F-150’s panels were color-coded, which the repair crew didn’t realize at first. Then they figured out that the rivets used to hold the body together weren’t all the same size.
The shop had “nine hours just of [rivet] gun changes” by the end, Shreve told me. “Gun change time wasn’t even mentioned” in the tutorials and literature he’d been studying from Ford.
What about that “F-150 parts shortage?”
Remember how Ford keeps telling us they can’t build enough F-150s? That’s a problem for repair as much as it is for sales.
“The rivet company can barely produce enough rivets to keep the assembly line running, they can’t provide rivets for you,” Shreve explained... ‘you’ being repair shops like his. “So you’ve got to source them yourself. We thought if it’s a place where a rivet’s gonna be ugly, we could TIG weld it.”
But in the state of Ohio where Waikem is located, it’s an on-the-books law that a vehicle repaired as an insurance claim must be returned to “pre-accident” condition. That means, in a case like this, the shop has to follow OEM assembly practice exactly, and with OEM parts.
Okay... what’s wrong with that?
Those rivets are high-quality components that come in magazines just like a nail coil you’d load your nail gun with for a home improvement project. Apparently you can’t buy a handful of them, you buy big packs of, say, 1,000.
The shop spent $2,300 of the insurance company’s money in rivets alone, and “didn’t use half of ‘em, but we got charged for them so we had to bill for them.”
Annoyingly, Shreve said he’s had lots of calls from other repair facilities asking if they can buy spare rivets off him, but he can’t sell because they belong to the insurance company. Surely, this specific issue will be worked out soon enough... but it’s pretty clear evidence that Ford can’t escape growing pains when it comes to repairing their new truck.
But it’s going to get easier to fix this thing. Right?
After taking the time to learn processes and iron out a few kinks, things went pretty smooth: “Once we got down what worked and what didn’t work, we got it done in about eight hours,” Shreve said.
Shreve smartly rotated his guys through all the tasks involved in putting a new upper structure and roof on the 2015 F-150 so they’d glean as much experience with the truck as possible.
“I’m not afraid of them now,” Shreve said about the truck, but said he was glad for the large support network from Ford he had at his disposal. “I had to go through about $100,000 of tooling and training.” By his own admission, there was still some stumbling along the learning process. “And an indie (shop) is gonna try and do that without training?”
Not all Ford dealerships are equipped to perform body repairs at all, but those that don’t can “sponsor” local independent outfits to farm out bodywork. Shreve speculates that smaller operations without the budget of a large dealership network like Waikem’s will struggle getting up to pace on aluminum repair.
What’s Ford doing to make these repairs easier?
Besides helping dealers pay to retool their body shops, it sounds like Ford is doing a good job connecting the factory with repair guys in the field to streamline repairs and hammer out consistent practices.
The 2015 F-150 has a lot of modularity built in so while this $17,000 job is an extreme example, they’re hoping most common dents and dings will be able to swap in and out fairly simply.
So does aluminum actually cost more to fix or what?!
Ford would point to Shreve’s line that above; “Once we got down what worked and what didn’t work, we got it done in about eight hours” and say LOOK, SEE? They’d also correctly point out that Waikem billed their hourly rate the same as any other repair.
However, they also had to added in a sizable “setup time” bill, buy all those rivets, and of course deal with the four-week downtime. Seems like the aluminum-bodied F-150 will get easier to repair, but there’s still undeniable complexity over traditional steel as repair shops are getting up to speed on it.
Hat tip to jalopwarg and FenderBender.com! Image by Jason Torchinsky.