Towing the Line

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
towing the line

Earlier this year, Ford was preparing to launch its revised F-150 pickup truck. The Boys from the Blue Oval knew all-too-well that their empires fortunes rested on their new truck's brawny shoulders. They also knew that Nissan's new Titan– the first Japanese product to crash America's full-size pick-up party– was set for release around the same time. So, pre-launch, Ford gave out phony towing numbers.

That's right; Ford deliberately leaked an incorrect maximum towing capacity of 9500lbs. The idea: trick Nissan's product engineers into competing against the fake number. Then, surprise! Reveal that the new F-150 can actually tow 9900lbs.! It worked. The F-150 out-pulls the Titan by 400lbs. Ford sandbagged Nissan.

When news of the tactic broke, Ford brand President Steve Lyons was about as far from contrite as an executive can get without actually saying "So what?" He justified Ford's disinformation campaign as "high stakes poker". "We thought we would put a conservative number out there and see what the competition would do… We make a lot of money on F-150, and it's a huge piece of our dealer profitability."

Oh, so that's alright then. Strangely, Nissan thinks it is. Listening to Chief Truck Engineer Larry Dominique, you'd think duplicity is the highest form of flattery. "When a well-established player in the segment has to use my truck as comparison, that's a lot of instant credibility," Dominique says. "If they have to react to us, we're obviously doing something right."

Indeed, Nissan is doing a lot right these days, what with the new 350Z screaming up the sales charts and their upmarket Infiniti brand catching fire. But what of Ford? Am I the only one who's shocked, saddened and appalled that one of America's most revered corporations feels it's OK to lie? Spin, sure, everybody spins. But this wasn't a normal game of factual footsie. It was a calculated attempt to subvert the process of fair competition. One that misled the public.

I'm no truck guy, but according to Dominique, many consumers put towing capacity near the top of their wish list. "Towing capacity is way up there. In some cases, it's more important than horsepower. Even people who don't own anything to tow tell us that someday they might. So towing is always in the purchase consideration."

Right, so, if a buyer heard tell of Ford's artificially low towing figures for the F-150, placed an order for a Nissan Titan, then discovered Ford had been bluffing and switched over to the F-150, could he or she sue Ford to recover his or her lost deposit? What about fraud? (We are talking about America.)

To my mind, the towing lie– small in itself– represents an enormous loss of face for Ford. Whatever else you can say about Henry Ford's beliefs, which included virulent anti-Semitism and staunch anti-unionism, Ford's founding father was a straight shooter in the great American tradition. He respected his country's faith in honesty, hard work and fair play. Somehow, I don't think the anti-Nissan "poker game" fits that remit.

Lest we forget, this tall towing tale follows hard on the heels of Mazda's horsepower debacle. Ford's Japanese partner was forced to admit that they'd inflated the horsepower figures for the Miata (MX5), and then again for the new RX8. In that case, the company responded well, offering generous financial restitution to owners– whether or not they bought their car based on Mazda's hp claims. Still, the stench of perfidy must surely have taken its toll on Mazda/Ford's most important asset: their reputation.

As a freelance automotive journalist, I'm extremely sensitive to issues of fact and reputation. I fact-check every article I write and try to represent myself properly to both sources and publications. Even so, I've made mistakes, paid the price, and learned my lesson. So I'm not criticizing Ford for their ethically bankrupt scheme, committed in the face of enormous financial pressures. It's their complete lack of contrition that I find so galling. Clearly, Ford feels free to repeat the tactic in similar circumstances.

If you want to be trusted, you must be trustworthy. Every day, tens of thousands of Ford employees bust a gut to do just that. I'm sure most of the workers who build the F-150 would have preferred it if Ford's PR flacks had said "Our truck's towing capacity will be 9900lbs. Beat that Nissan!" Instead, FoMoCo ends-up looking sneaky and underhanded. If you think about it, the dodgy maneuver almost makes it seem as if Nissan's got Ford running scared.

Maybe so. The Titan's standard V8 engine is more powerful than the F-150's optional V8. The Titan has a five-speed transmission to the F-150's four-speed box. Again, I'm not a truck guy. But facts is facts. A company's ability to face them determines its character. And, ultimately, its survival.

Join the conversation
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.
  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !
  • VoGhost It's very odd to me to see so many commenters reflexively attack an American company like this. Maybe they will be able to find a job with BYD or Vinfast.