No Fixed Abode: They Got This One Right, Except They Didn't.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

If you want to be recognized for your brilliance, it’s best to do something that is less than completely brilliant. The reason for this is simple: Ideas that are very good but less than truly brilliant are generally well-received by the critics and the public. I can give you a million examples, from the Dyson vacuum to any novel by Maragret Atwood to the album The Lumineers, by The Lumineers. All that is required to be lauded as brilliant is to create or perform something that wouldn’t naturally occur to the dimmest member of your audience, and you are good to go.

Should you be so bold as to do something that is actually brilliant, however, you will only suffer one of two fates. You may be ignored, in the manner of post-1850 Melville or pre-Volkswagen-commercial Nick Drake. Worse yet, you may succeed beyond your wildest imagination, at which point it will be the firm opinion of everyone around you that you had only done the natural, nay, the obvious thing. Your work will be taken from you by the critics and given to your surroundings, or your time, or your generation. Historians will suggest that anyone could have done it, given your circumstances. A simultaneous discoverer will be discovered. Your success will be dismissed as having been certain from the beginning.

It’s a tough gig, doing something brilliant. Look at the people who designed the second-generation Prius. But it’s even tougher when you bet the proverbial farm on the results. As Ford did, eighteen long years ago around this time.

In hindsight, the success of the 1997 Ford F-150 was utterly and completely assured. In 1998, the slope-nosed pickup sold over 828,000 units, marking the highest single-model sales total in over two decades. The SuperCrew and Expedition SUV spawned by the F-150 platform were in short supply for years afterwards. It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time that even the Lincoln Navigator was a hot property, even if the Blackwood stainless-steel-box pickup never found an audience.

With the tenth-generation F-Series, Ford put a choke-hold on the American truck market that it has yet to even consider relaxing. The success of the design was so complete that it effectively marginalized its competitors. The Dodge Ram became a curiosity for Mopar people and wannabe truckers, and the Chevrolet 1500 was turned overnight into a hick truck, a willful throwback for the future-phobic, the uneducated, or combinations of both. Neither competitor has managed to break out of those unwanted market positions in the nearly two decades since.

As with all brilliant products, the 1997 F-150 seems like such an obvious move now. The advent of CAFE had murdered the full-sized car but fuel prices had dropped from their Malaise Era highs, leaving an entire country looking for a vehicle with American proportions, modern conveniences, and a little dash of adventure. Pickups had long been the sign of the Country Mouse but suburban America was becoming very interested in adopting some cowboy cool of their own. There was also a huge base of small-pickup owners who were looking to trade up into something that offered more space and capability at a reasonable additional cost.

The problem was that the available pickups of 1995 were absolutely miserable conveyances for anyone with a drop of civilized blood in their veins. Your humble author was a Ford salesman in 1995 and I drove a dark green straight-six regular cab F-150 XL as a demo. I loved that truck like a brother but it was little changed from the F-100 of the Seventies. The cab was cramped front-to-rear, the dashboard was simultaneously ugly and dysfunctional, and the wind noise at freeway speeds drowned out the best of the miserable optional radios. The straight-six was pleasant to drive if you weren’t in a hurry but it could drain the twin gas tanks like there was a hole in the fuel line. Compared to, say, a 1996 Camry or Taurus, it was an embarrassment. Clearly there was room for improvement.

Yet that embarrassment was the best-selling vehicle in the country, and it was nearly single-handedly responsible for keeping Ford’s bottom line in the black. We didn’t discount the 1995 F-150 heavily, and we didn’t need to. As mediocre as it was, it was still much better than the Chevy of the era and the numbers reflected this. The entry-level Chevrolet half-ton was badged “W/T”. for Work Truck, but the first time my father saw one in traffic he inquired of me, from behind the wheel of his steel-grey XJ6, “W/T? That’s for White Trash, right?” He wasn’t far off. The upscale cousins of the W/T were mouse-fur-infested rolling whorehouses with dorky-looking Delco radios and crookedly-applied badging. The F-150 Eddie Bauer which it was my occasional privilege to stock and sell was, by contrast, a study in tasteful fabric and restrained decor. When a customer didn’t like my price on an XLT SuperCab five-liter and threatened to “check out the Chevy place down the street,” my response was always an arrogant little chuckle.

“Make sure you ask about the W/T,” I’d say. “Let me show you out, we have some customers standing out there on the lot who can afford an XLT and I’d like to avail myself of their company.”

Ford didn’t really need a major change in the F-150 to keep leadership in the market, but the brilliant people behind the ’97 knew that they weren’t just competing with other trucks. They were going to be competing with cars very shortly. So the ride and handling target for the F-150 was the Crown Vic Police Interceptor, which in 1997 was still a fresh-face six-window aero superstar. It was a target that they easily met, at least in the two-wheel-drive regular-cab models. The equipment and trim availability was modeled on the Explorer, which was just starting to set sales records of its own. Pricing was robust, considerably more expensive than the outgoing truck, and our lissome dealer rep informed us with a smile on her Heather-Locklear-like face that the first few months of builds would be loaded XLTs and Lariats only.

I attended the dealer event for the trucks and was blown away. The ’97 was such an advance in every way, shape, and form. From the driver’s seat you couldn’t really see the hood on the things, just like on a Taurus. It was roomy and comfortable and had high-quality seating. Amazingly, there was a third door on the SuperCab. When the engineer giving the presentation opened that door, there was an actual spontaneous cheer from the assembled sales staff.

What else? Auto-engaging 4WD, like the Explorer. Lightweight forged aluminum wheels, a first in the segment. Problem was they looked like steel wheels, so only the cognoscenti bought ’em — as did all of my customers who ordered a truck. I insisted on it. The two-wheel-drive trucks sat lower than the ’96, while the four-wheel-drives sat higher. Just the way Toyota did it. I approved. The trim segments were easy to distinguish at a distance, which helped me sell Lariats. The bed was bigger, tougher, easier to access. On the freeway, it was quiet like a Taurus. The new base motor, a variant of the long-serving Taurus V-6, was much stronger than the outgoing 300 straight-six, even if you had to rev it a bit. The modular 4.6 sounded good and, of course, we didn’t know that the spark plugs were all going to take their threads with them when you pulled ’em. It was a great, great, great product.

Yet Ford was afraid. They knew they were dragging their rural customers into the late twentieth century against their will. So, for most of 1996, we sold the old truck alongside the new. It was available in a limited number of trims and colors. Or at least I think it was. I don’t remember, because we sold maybe three of them all year. Nobody wanted the old one. Not even the toothless farm folk whose mustachioed wives produced rolls of sweaty twenties from their circus-tent-sized bras in the F&I office. You’d have some guy come into the showroom, and you could smell the barn on him before you saw him, and he’d be looking like he’d probably started the cycle of abuse that eventually produced the villains from Deliverance.

“Sir,” I would chirp, “welcome to Bob Keim Ford, the leader in customer satisfaction.”

“Boy, you gonna show me a truck.”

“Yes, sir. Now, if you’ll come with me, for this year Ford has taken the unprecedented step of offering two distinct experiences in what remains the world’s favorite half-ton —”

“Boy, I don’t want to see that old piece of shit. I want a 1997 Lariat SuperCab with the 4.6 and auto locking hubs, with the Medium Willow Green contrast rocker panels.”

“Sir, I’d be delighted to take your deposit today for delivery of such a vehicle in the near future, insofar as we’re out of them.” I didn’t stay in the Ford business long enough to see demand catch up to supply, which it eventually did. Then the SuperCrew came out and the whole thing started again. Meanwhile, Ford had demonstrated its peerless understanding of the truck market by introducing the SuperDuty, which answered the one question that hung in the air over the F-150 — didn’t it look a bit delicate to be towing a four-horse trailer? — and caught the competition absolutely flat-footed.

The 1997 F-150 was probably the most important vehicle introduction from an American vehicle manufacturer in the thirty years surrounding its debut. What I want you to understand what that it could have all gone wrong. The idea of an aerodynamic pickup truck was radical as hell. It was so radical that Ford’s been backing away from it ever since, making the F-150 more and more butch and SuperDuty-esque. I’m still amazed at just how popular it was. It really didn’t look much like a manly American pick-em-up.

There was just one little problem, and you can see it here. Ford might have used the Crown Vic as the target for ride and handling, but the reference vehicle for crash safety must have been the Model T, or possibly a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I can’t say today whether the F-150’s dismal performance in that regard was a cynical response to our government’s reluctance to regulate light-vehicle safety, or simply a side-effect of the revolutionary packaging. Regardless, it cannot be denied that the 1997 F-150 was not a great vehicle in which to hit something. The IIHS noted that

In the report, the redesigned 2004 Ford F-150 saw driver deaths per million registered vehicle years drop from 118 to 58, or 51%, versus 2001-2003 model year F-150 pickups, if the driver was in a 4×4. Driver death rates dropped even further if the accident involved a 2004 F-150 4×2, from 119 to 40, a 66% improvement. This was the lowest fatality rate of any pickup. It’s also substantially under the average car and truck death rate of 79 during the same period, and beats overall vehicle death rate declines of 30% since the mid-1990s.

So Ford eventually fixed the situation in the next model, but it was too late to help a lot of people. And that’s what makes it impossible for me to truly enjoy the success story of the 1997 F-150. Yes, it was gorgeous and wonderful and revolutionary. No, I don’t think it was safe and no, I don’t think Ford tried as hard to make it safe as they could have done. I think the 2004 F-150 is aesthetically timid and unpleasant compared to the ’97 but you won’t catch me letting my son ride in the old one.

Today, the tenth-generation truck is still a common sight on American roads. The 1998 F-150 in the header shot belongs to my partner in MelodyBurner Guitars, Chris O’Dee; it’s a plain XL V-6 with very few options that happen to include my favorite lightweight wheels. It’s just turned 240,000 miles and we don’t expect it to die any time soon. Millions of these Fords were built and there are probably still a million of them out there. We don’t think anymore about what a gamble they represent, or the role they played in the American truck renaissance that even now refuses to come to a proper end. We look past them, by them, through them. They’re part of the landscape. We pay them the compliment we reserve for the most brilliant of designs — we ignore them.

In 2015, Ford is gambling again. This time, it’s structural, not aesthetic. If they succeed, Chevrolet and RAM will follow in their own timid fashions, as they always do. We take it for granted now that the Blue Oval sets the pace in the truck market. We take it for granted that Ford always builds the most advanced, the most interesting, the most tasteful, the most desired full-size trucks on the roads. Yet it was not always thus. It’s a tradition that started in 1996, with that brilliant idea. I’m proud to have been there at the beginning, proud to have sold them. I just wish that the trucks I sold could have been safer.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Scuzimi Scuzimi on Oct 06, 2014

    Hum.. seems my comment was removed? I guess me saying that this guy needs a editor didn't sit well with all the heaps of glowing tributes to this Jack guy. To me each time I try and read one of his babbling novels I fall asleep about half way through. Jeez man edit thyself. I'm sure this will be edited also but my "Fixed Adobe" is stopping here.

  • Scuzimi Scuzimi on Oct 06, 2014

    Oh yeah... even the name... No Fixed Adobe" is pompous.

  • Theflyersfan I wonder how many people recalled these after watching EuroCrash. There's someone one street over that has a similar yellow one of these, and you can tell he loves that car. It was just a tough sell - too expensive, way too heavy, zero passenger space, limited cargo bed, but for a chunk of the population, looked awesome. This was always meant to be a one and done car. Hopefully some are still running 20 years from now so we have a "remember when?" moment with them.
  • Lorenzo A friend bought one of these new. Six months later he traded it in for a Chrysler PT Cruiser. He already had a 1998 Corvette, so I thought he just wanted more passenger space. It turned out someone broke into the SSR and stole $1500 of tools, without even breaking the lock. He figured nobody breaks into a PT Cruiser, but he had a custom trunk lock installed.
  • Jeff Not bad just oil changes and tire rotations. Most of the recalls on my Maverick have been fixed with programming. Did have to buy 1 new tire for my Maverick got a nail in the sidewall.
  • Carson D Some of my friends used to drive Tacomas. They bought them new about fifteen years ago, and they kept them for at least a decade. While it is true that they replaced their Tacomas with full-sized pickups that cost a fair amount of money, I don't think they'd have been Tacoma buyers in 2008 if a well-equipped 4x4 Tacoma cost the equivalent of $65K today. Call it a theory.
  • Eliyahu A fine sedan made even nicer with the turbo. Honda could take a lesson in seat comfort.