Ford's first F-Series trucks were no-frills workhorses built for no-frills workers, promoted as if they were carved out of stone for the blue-collar, meat-eating, all-American man. In 1969, the pickups came in three editions — the Contractor Special, the Heavy Duty Special and the Farm & Ranch Special — and with few upgrades, except more space for toolboxes.
But now the once-spartan F-150, America's best-selling pickup for 38 years straight, is looking more dolled-up, and less middle-class, than ever. Its new Limited model, Ford's most "luxurious truck ever," comes with "genuine fiddleback eucalyptus" trim, heated-and-cooled massaging Mojave leather seats and "unique scuff plates with ice blue backlighting." Starting price: About $60,000, an F-150 all-time high.
The truck's turn from rugged backroads to glitz and luxury has driven its price twice as high as the average car or truck sold in the U.S. this year, pricier even than upscale SUVs from Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. But it has also highlighted the growing distance between American trucks' classic market of middle-income buyers, and its newer, more moneyed clientele.
"The market has grown quite ravenous for products and features and technology that would be very comparable with luxury cars," said Erich Merkle, a U.S. sales analyst for Ford. "A pickup truck is designed for work. But just because you haul doesn't mean you don't want all the luxury accommodations, or that you don't want to make a statement."
The F-150 has become the king of trucks regarded "as much of a status symbol as they are a tool," said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. And it's not just that a nation of office jockeys wants a meaty truck to boost their egos: Successful contractors, small-business owners and others are increasingly opting for upgraded trucks that make a rumbling statement about their success.
Automakers are more than happy to accommodate the high-end demand for "Cowboy Cadillacs," believing the recession-era stigma surrounding indulgences-on-wheels has disappeared. So far this year, about 50 percent of sales of the F-150 have been its high-end editions, including the Lariat, Platinum and King Ranch editions.
"During the recession, if you could afford to buy a fancy new truck, it was not socially acceptable to flaunt it," said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at AutoTrader.com. But "the acceptance of conspicuous consumption is back."
No other $50,000-plus vehicle sold more in the first half of this year than the Ford F-Series, making trucks like the F-150, in one big way, America's premier luxury automobile. More than 86,000 Ford F-Series trucks sold with price tags over $50,000, TrueCar data show: That's more than the combined sales of the next two top-selling models over $50,000, the Ram Pickup and the Chevy Tahoe.
In truck-loving Texas, where drivers buy about 16 percent of all pickups sold in America, Ford's high-end truck sales — like its Lariat, King Ranch, Platinum and Raptor editions — make up a quarter of the entire Lone Star state's luxury-vehicle sales.
Americans are buying new cars and trucks at the strongest pace since 2001, and plunging fuel prices have helped steer them toward pickups, like the F150, Ram 2500, Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra. Truck sales also tend to rise alongside the starts of new home construction, which has climbed this year to the highest point since the housing bust.
But the newfound fancification of mine-is-bigger trucks like the F-150, analysts say, points to a growing sweep toward luxury in the American auto market. With the average vehicle on the road now 11 years old, car buyers are heading to lots ready to splurge, and carmakers are responding with models that are increasingly upscale.
Though nationwide wages may be stagnant, the infrastructure is all set up to help them spend, with commonplace offers for six-year loans and low interest rates. "They want the treat they've been putting off for a decade or more, and they've got the tools to do it, even if their finances aren't as strong as they need to be," Brauer said.
Ford leaders, like chief executive Mark Fields, have said they "could not be more pleased and confident" with the F-150's success. The F-Series is Ford's lifeblood, and its new turn toward glamour has helped the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto giant soar: Ford's profits climbed 44 percent in the second quarter over last year, the company said Tuesday.
"The demand for (the F-150), particularly the higher series, is quite strong," Ford chief financial officer Robert L. Shanks told analysts in a conference call Tuesday. Of new upscale F-150 models planned for the next year, he added, "We’re not done plumbing every dollar of revenue we can out of that product. So we’re very excited about that."
But not everyone is celebrating the new high life for the F-150, which comes in colors including "White Platinum Metallic" and "Blue Jeans." One critic, poking fun at its fiddleback eucalyptus trim, tweeted, "When did Ford become Bentley? Next we'll have satin roof interiors. #ILikeDirt"
Ford still sells regular-cab F-150 pickups, like the XL, starting at about $28,000, and remains America's biggest seller of commercial trucks. But as the money continues to roll in on premium editions, Ford has yet to call a peak: If anything, future trucks could show even more rarefied luxury.
"You've got people out there who will pay more than $70,000 for a luxury vehicle, much more," said Merkle, the Ford sales analyst. "For a luxury buyer, a truck like an F-150 Limited probably seems like a very good value."