The 2015 Ford F-150 fell behind the Chevrolet Colorado and Ford Transit in Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year program. Simultaneously, it lost out to the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel in a three-way truck comparison in Motor Trend’s January issue. It brought up a lot of questions about repairing aluminum bodywork, so we contacted a shop to learn more about it.
“[I]n the end,” reads the article from Motor Trend’s January issue, “the Ford’s unknown maintenance and aluminum repair costs gave us pause, especially when combined with less-than-expected benefits from the weight savings.”
If aluminum repair is that significant an issue, we figured we’d make some phone calls to figure out whether or not your average auto body repair facility has any idea how to work with it.
Aluminum Audis, BMWs and Jaguars — especially in an area like the Capitol Region of New York — are common enough that independent body shops have seen their fair share of them by this point, so I called Bob Ensign at Ensign Auto Body in Albany, New York to figure out what his cost concerns are regarding the repair of the 2015 F-150.
Ensign Auto Body is a busy production body shop just outside the state Capitol. He’s also a vintage car restoration specialist with experience repairing vintage Jaguars, Aston Martins and Maseratis.
His concerns aren’t with the cost of repair. It’s more with the method of repair in the real world, and it doesn’t have much to do with the truck being aluminum.
“If it’s bonded and riveted properly, I don’t see a problem,” he says. “But that’s a big if.”
The issue for Ford and insurers is whether or not in the real world, independent body shops are going to follow the recommended procedures.
The price of a car has risen $12,000 since 1994, and the price of materials has risen exponentially, but the cost to insure a car has remained relatively flat. Insurance companies are applying massive pressure to body shops to churn out work without much concern for quality. “Guys get paid by how fast they can do a job,” Ensign says. The question isn’t “if” shops are going to cheat, in other words. It’s “how.”
Ford has built the truck to have collision repairs performed in modules. Smash the driver’s side fender and underlying structure? A new apron rivets right in its place. Get t-boned at a light? The B-pillar, rocker panel and floor supports rivet in the same way, so the actual repair of panels and individual components is pretty cut-and-dried.
At the factory, the underlying structure is spot welded in hundreds of places, both by humans and by robots. Drilling those spot welds out and riveting panels in place can either lead to a good repair, or a not so good repair, depending on how good the tech is, according to Ensign.
Audis use a similar process, but Ensign says that instead of rivets, Audis use a more costly bolt, which is then supposed to be additionally backed up with blue Loctite to make the repair as structurally sound as possible.
For example, Ensign specifically calls out the 1/4-inch rivets used in the repair parts shown above. “It’s tough to tell whether those are steel or aluminum rivets,” he says. The Ford recommendation may well be aluminum, which he notes might cost around $6 per rivet. “A lesser shop isn’t going to buy those rivets from Ford,” he says.
They’re going to go to their auto body supply shop and find the same size steel rivets that run about 85 cents a piece. “That repair is under the sheet metal,” he says. “Nobody’s going to know, but it’s going to cause issues down the road,” thanks to dissimilar metal corrosion between steel rivets and the aluminum panels.
Similarly, the bonding agents — glues, in other words — that are recommended by Ford to make the repairs correctly could run $60 a tube. “The insurer isn’t going to put a $60 tube in the estimate,” he says, leaving it up to individual shops to be proactive and fight for the right materials. Instead, some shops will opt for a $12 tube of seam sealer, which has none of the adhesive properties of the proper bonding agent.
Ensign notes that he hasn’t received any word that Ford is going to restrict the sale of structural aluminum components. Audi, BMW and Jaguar all allow the sale of non-structural alloy parts to independent shops. “If I want to buy structural components from Audi, I have to be a certified aluminum repair facility,” he says. “Certification costs $650,000, and that’s without a dedicated facility.”
Ensign also noted that the F-150’s body is constructed of 6000-Series aluminum. It’s weldable (see the repair above), but it does require some education about how to weld it. But anybody with skills, a Lincoln welder and the internet can figure out how to do it. From Lincoln’s webpage:
[W]hen you weld an alloy that has been cold worked, you locally anneal the material around the weld so that it goes back to its 0 tempered (or annealed) condition and it becomes “soft”. Therefore, the only time in the non-heat treatable alloys that you can make a weld as strong as the parent material is when you start with 0 tempered material.
With heat treatable aluminum alloys, the last heat treatment step heats the metal to approximately 400° F. But when welding, the material around the weld becomes much hotter than 400° F so the material tends to lose some of its mechanical properties. Therefore, if the operator doesn’t perform post-weld heat treatments after welding, the area around the weld will become significantly weaker than the rest of the aluminum – by as much as 30 to 40 percent. If the operator does perform post weld heat treatments, the proprieties of a heat treatable aluminum alloy can be improved.
The most important element for Ensign is that consumers understand that significant collision repair needs to be performed by a reputable body shop. A bad structural repair can lead to serious safety concerns down the road. But that would be a concern whether the body was made of steel or aluminum. Bad repairs are bad repairs, regardless of the material.
The key for F-150 consumers? You have to be your own advocate. Work with a reputable body shop to get a clear estimate from them that includes any more costly materials required to make the repair, and then fight for those materials with your insurance company.