Towing the Line

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

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.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Calrson Fan Jeff - Agree with what you said. I think currently an EV pick-up could work in a commercial/fleet application. As someone on this site stated, w/current tech. battery vehicles just do not scale well. EBFlex - No one wanted to hate the Cyber Truck more than me but I can't ignore all the new technology and innovative thinking that went into it. There is a lot I like about it. GM, Ford & Ram should incorporate some it's design cues into their ICE trucks.
  • Michael S6 Very confusing if the move is permanent or temporary.
  • Jrhurren Worked in Detroit 18 years, live 20 minutes away. Ren Cen is a gem, but a very terrible design inside. I’m surprised GM stuck it out as long as they did there.
  • Carson D I thought that this was going to be a comparison of BFGoodrich's different truck tires.
  • Tassos Jong-iL North Korea is saving pokemon cards and amibos to buy GM in 10 years, we hope.