Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Ford F-series

The Deep South of the USA is a strange and unusual place. A world away from the cosmopolitan centres of New York or Chicago (in attitude as much as distance), it’s the sort of place where behavioural unorthodoxy can be an unexpected killer. Forget the supposed perils of wearing a blue bandana in the wrong neighbourhood of downtown Los Angeles – just try wearing a ‘Vote Hillary’ shirt on the main street of Mobile, Alabama. These people are terrifying. Their simplicity is a powerful weapon, their unwillingness to accept unconventional concepts is an impenetrable wall of corn-chewing hillbilly menace.

There are certain icons that symbolise the South. Country & Western music. Stetson hats. Republicanism. NASCAR. Pick-up trucks. Homophobia. Inbreeding. Racial tension. Moonshine. These may sound like clich├ęs but trust me, they’re bang on. So, pick-up trucks eh? Well, yes, the ride of choice for the modern hick on-the-go remains the same as it has since as far back as anyone can remember. They’re rugged and hardy, they have meaty engines that grunt and snarl, they sit way up in the clouds to allow unfettered bouncing over furrowed cotton plantations, and their open flatbeds provide simple and effective storage for huge wooden crosses.

The most successful of the bunch is unquestionably the Ford F-series. It has been the USA’s best-selling vehicle for 23 years straight, and the best-selling truck for an astounding 31 years. It’s estimated that the model generates half of the Ford Motor Company’s total revenue, which is pretty bloody impressive, don’t you think? The first generation arrived in 1948 and epitomised the era’s penchant for utility combined with aggression and outright muscle; the gaping chrome grille, enormous arches and vast sidesteps shout don’t-fuck-with-me purpose, and there was plenty of headroom for a nice big cowboy hat. You could even buy one with a rumbling 5.2-litre V8, meaning that you could take your corn to market on Friday and run it up the dragstrip on Saturday, effectively making it the first sports utility vehicle. Granted, the 5.2 only made 155 horsepower (it’s a source of constant bafflement how the ‘Mericans consistently achieve such laughably small power outputs from whacking great engines), but the nature of simple American muscle is that there are many easy routes to power. Bolt on a supercharger and you’re laughing.

Over the generations, the yokel’s choice maintained a contemporary image whilst retaining the core values of the utilitarian pick-up principle. In the fifties it looked like a Chevy, while the sixties saw the F-series take on the aesthetics of a shoebox. The seventies had a lot of chrome, but the gaudiness was toned down in the eighties, as well as seeing the addition of the blue oval to the grille for the first time. It got really interesting in 1993 when the Lightning model appeared, featuring 17” alloys, decent suspension and handling honed by Jackie Stewart, if you can believe such a thing. It had a 5-8 litre Windsor V8 with GT40 heads and dual exhausts, punching out a respectable (if still, by European standards, weirdly small) 240bhp.

The second-generation Lightning appeared in 1999 and featured a rather more impressive 360bhp, due to the fact that Ford’s SVT division had clearly had a word with the armies of backstreet spanner-jockey quarter-mile kings and realised that supercharging was the way forward. It had 440lb/ft of torque and would accelerate from 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, which is just silly behaviour in such a large and lumpen machine. Ownership of a Lightning is best complemented by being on first-name terms with your local Union 76 station and Goodyear dealer.

The F-series, of course, isn’t primarily about sporting prowess (and, to be fair, a three-ton truck with a big-ass V8 is not a sports car, nor will it ever be). It’s about Southern pride, day-to-day unbreakable reliability, taking the family to the county fair and stopping by Crazy Zeke’s on the way home to fill up the back with illicit stump liquor. It’s a national institution, a part of the landscape, a bona fide slice of Americana. Every other homestead from Little Rock to Chattanooga has one parked, dusty and proud, by the front stoop, and with 900,000-odd F-series being sold every year, their roots are firmly planted for generations to come. The 2009 model is set to be constructed from lightweight steel and offer options of hybrid drivetrains and more economical engines in an effort to quell their epic carbon footprint; you could argue that it would be greener to make them less massive, but the rednecks wouldn’t go for that, would they? The F-series is a staple of the Southern way - sure as maize prices, Colonel Sanders, Talladega and Peterbilt will always be the topic of conversation in the rural hash-slinging luncheteria, Peggy Sue, the simple girl behind the counter, will always be driven home in a big fuck-off Ford with a confederate flag in the rear window. This is the way of things, and always shall be.