Ford's Unibody TrucksLast Updated June 13, 2023 | Meghan Drummond
Ford Unibody Trucks
Ford’s innovations have brought us some truly exceptional vehicles and automotive technology. But not every idea is without its flaws. The unibody pickup design unveiled in 1961 for Ford’s F-Series was such an idea. The most obvious sign of its failure is how few years it was designed for.
Ford's unibody trucks were only available from 1961-1963, and only on Ford’s F-Series “styleside” pickups. The idea was to make the cab and the bed one long continuous piece. Even though they’re referred to colloquially as unibody trucks, it’s a bit of a misnomer. The chassis and body of the car are still separate, there’s just no gap between the cab and the bed of the truck. Ford marketed these as “unitized” which is more accurate.
Which Ford Trucks Were Unibody?
Limited to the two mid-size pickups, the F-100s and F-250s with two-wheel-drive that were Styleside made between 1961-1963 were built with a unibody design. Flareside pickups weren’t unitized for obvious reasons, and by ’62 Ford had gone to offering non-unitized styleside pickups even on the two-wheel-drive vehicles. All four-wheel-drive trucks retained a more traditional cab-and-bed structure.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles were never given the option of a unitized Styleside structure. Ford engineers weren’t sure that a unibody construction could hold up to the types of abuse that four-wheel drive vehicles are frequently subjected to. They suspected that twisting and turning would create too much torque on that critical juncture where cab and bed met, and Ford’s engineers were concerned that this would cause damage to the body of the vehicle.
Unfortunately, not only were these fears founded, but they should have also been extended to their two-wheel-drive pickups, which, despite not facing the same obstacles as their four-wheel-drive brethren, were still frequently subjected to substantially more abuse than a car would be.
The Unibody’s Downfall
The biggest reason most people buy a truck is to haul things. Whether it’s for work, or to help a friend move, eventually every pickup bed has to withstand the weight of a hefty item that simply won’t fit in a car. Unfortunately, unibodies couldn’t stand up to this kind of use.
Loading a heavy item in a unibody truck caused the body to flex in ways that created interesting consequences, but that was most usually associated with the vehicle no longer being fully functional. The rocker panels sometimes would become damaged to the point that it was impossible to get the doors fully closed. Some people even reported that their doors came open while they were trying to drive the truck. This was actually preferable to the other problem that emerged though, where doors became stuck closed.
Rocker panels are already susceptible to rust and are trusted with maintaining the structure of a vehicle. Age wasn’t particularly kind to unibody trucks. Rusty rocker panels pretty much caused their downfall.
Why Did Ford Create Unibody Pickups?
There are actually a number of factors that have been listed as causes of the disastrous unibody pickup trucks, some of which help to explain why these pickups are popular at car shows despite what many would see as a fatal flaw.
The first reason Ford tried a unibody design was trying to reach a different group of customers. Ford imagined that these unified styleside pickups would appeal to a more suburban clientele who sometimes needed to haul things, but who mostly wanted a ride that was both comfortable and stylish. The unibodies were more attractive; the unitized construction created a very clean line along the side of the pickups that gave it an upscale look.
Ford actually wasn’t wrong about the appeal of a truck that was attractively styled to look like a single unit. Vehicles like Chevy’s Avalanche have been enormously popular, precisely with that demographic. Unfortunately, in the ‘60s, the technology to execute Ford’s innovation wasn’t one hundred percent of the way there, and the vehicles had significantly more issues to overcome than Chevy’s Avalanche or the Honda Ridgeline both of which are modern examples of a unibody pickup being executed well.
Ford managed to pave the way and show that there was a demographic for a vehicle that was a comfortable daily driver as well as a functional pickup truck though, and that concept has certainly been executed since with varying degrees of success and market reception.
Of course, there’s also the cost factor. It’s less expensive to make a pickup that’s one solid body piece instead of two separate pieces. Fewer stampings are required, and the assembly is considerably less complicated. It also created more usable storage area.
The Legacy of Unibody Trucks
Though not particularly popular in the era they were constructed in, unibody pickups have found their ideal clientele in the modern car environment. Frequently lowered and given custom paint jobs that look more at home on the unibody construction than they would on a truck with a gap in between the cab and bed, the custom hot rod community loves the unibodies and has given them the afterlife they deserve.
If you decide that this is the truck design for you, it’s important to remember that it’s not a good design for hauling heavy things or towing. But it’s hard to deny the appeal of the body.
Ultimately, although this design was a failure, it created a lot of innovative ideas that led to the creation of other successful pickup trucks. Ford stopped production on the vehicles as soon as they realized the flaw in their design. As such, there are few of these pickup trucks available today. Though they’re not the most functional vehicles, they are incredibly attractive, and it’s not unusual to see them at auto shows. A rust-free unibody truck is a collector’s item.
Despite this brief journey into a less functional design, Ford quickly righted the ship and ensured that the F-Series remained practical and attractive, securing its position as America’s favorite pickup.
Sources: The Complete Book of Classic Ford F-Series Pickups: Every Model from 1948-1976 | History of The Ford F-Series 1948-1999 | Image Credit: American Car Collector | Car and Driver | Groove Car | Paint Ref | Hot Rod