Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2000   by Auto Service World

COVER STORY: The Evolution of the Light Truck

Something drastic has happened to the light truck market in the last decade or so–something more than just the fact that light trucks and SUVs are as thick as mosquitoes at a cottage long weekend. The change has gone way beyond just booming sales figures. When Ford launched the F Series in 1948, it was promoted as “Built Stronger to Last Longer,” and depicted hauling a load of timber that dwarfed the truck and the men around it. Today’s F-Series is touted for its versatility, ride, handling and garageability. Even General Motors’ Yukon is being touted for being “surprisingly agile.” These are not priorities for the traditional role of a truck. This remarkable change has largely occurred in a few short years and has been the cause of some exciting times for the aftermarket.

Going back to the mid-’80s, trucks started to gain in popularity. It didn’t take auto makers long to realize that a growing number of truck buyers were more likely to be picking up groceries than a load of equipment, that they valued car-like ride over payload, and that the back seat might actually have a person sitting on it, not just a toolbox or a reel of cable. Pickups and SUVs have been evolving to satisfy this need ever since.

“Have you heard of NVH?” asks Paul Zentkovich, product line manager, Drivetrain Aftermarket, Sachs North America. “Noise, Vibration and Harshness engineering has accounted for a big change in the light truck. On the clutch side, everyone wants it to be quieter.” He says that the development of the dual mass flywheel system is the sort of development that is driven by these priorities.

“Those are great for passenger use, but when the vehicle is overloaded, pulling a horse trailer, or with a ton in the back of a half ton, they’re failing.” He says that the traditional over-built approach was more robust and more easily handled the abuse. Today, a combination of NVH engineering and performance specifications that leave less room for abuse means that systems fail when over-stretched.

Joel Fenwick, vice-president purchasing, Fenwick automotive products, credits the light truck resurgence for the strength of the clutch market in the face of growing automatic transmission selection in the passenger car market.

“The general feeling is that it has kept everybody in the clutch business alive. People continue to overload vehicle weight and the clutches could be considered undersized for the vehicles, so the replacement business is really thriving.”

Fenwick, which remanufactures a wide array of parts, including clutches, constant velocity shafts, brake calipers, water pumps, steering gears and rack and pinion units, has seen a rise across the board in parts intended for truck applications.

“We’ve seen really no great improvement in design or initial build quality (of the OE units). They’re used more car-like today, hence many are built more car-like.” Yes, not all trucks are being pushed as hard as their heavily laden work site ancestors, but there are just so many of them.

“People aren’t working their trucks as hard today as they move more mainstream. They’re pulling trailers, which is what they’re built for, but I think what really counts is the frequency of repair. It’s driving the market today. The real truth is that people aren’t driving them as hard. So whereas they might be used for less rigorous duty, there are so many on the road. It’s more than offsetting the move from commercial to personal use.” Fenwick sees few negatives for the aftermarket in the changes going on in light truck design. “We can see the heavy sales on the light truck side right off the bat.” One of the key indications of a change in light truck design is the move from steering gear to rack and pinion units.

Mark Zemlicka, product manager, American Remanufacturers, Inc., watches the new vehicle trends closely. “They’re going to a rack because you can get tighter clearances, but there are going to be more sales because they seem to have more problems and they seem to not last sometimes.”

Zemlicka agrees that the trend seems to be toward construction that is more car-like. “People are saying that these newer trucks are riding like cars. A lot of things are still on the lightening phase, putting less weight on all the undercar pieces. A lot of the CV joints are going to smaller joints. You’re going to see more wear problems–especially if somebody actually does go off road.”

The same is true of many of the brake systems on the light trucks. It’s not that they’re “underbraked” as much as the systems are designed to closer tolerances. Add in the overall popularity of light trucks and the result is that light trucks are leading, or will lead, almost every category.

“The top numbers are all truck numbers. Really, of the top 10, six of them are truck for us. They’re also spanning a greater number of years. Nothing goes for just one or two years like on the passenger cars.

“Caravans for us are a high wear item. When people own the domestic cars, trucks, and vans, they want longevity. They want their pads to be on there for (40 to 50,000 km),” says Zemlicka, adding that they rarely see that interval, especially when the owners treat the vehicle as a hauler. “I just don’t think they designed it for people actually going on vacation.”

Rick Tiefenbruck, manager of OE product engineering, Federal-Mogul, says that the desire to please the consumer has had immeasurable effects on the design of light trucks. “I think what is going on is there has been a preference by the buying public to rethink how they’re doing transportation. Fifteen years ago the minivan had just come on the market and everyone was buying one. Now there has been a migration to the SUV group. You see all kinds of new models being introduced; everybody is scrambling to get a piece of the market. I have a guy in my neighborhood who has a 4×4 and I don’t think that he knows what SUV stands for. A lot of people who were not SUV candidates five years ago now find themselves buying one.”

“When this happened, the SUV was more brawny, more heavy duty, more off-road in function. As the buying public progressed toward that end of the spectrum, the car manufacturers realized the buying public wouldn’t appreciate a firm harsh ride.

That’s when Ford dropped the twin I-beam. They used a lot of straight axles and that axle was very unforgiving; there were very limited options in spring and there was no way to isolate one side from the other.

“Now they’ve got the independent suspension. It’s not the bone-jarring crunch that it used to be. Toward that end, you see a lot of automotive companies doing things to smooth out the ride. They’re looking at ways to isolate the driver more from the road.” The migration away from the twin I-beam may be a welcome change for the aftermarket from a service perspective. No more bending axles, now, there are actually ways to adjust the suspension on an F-150. Of, course, it also means that it’s easier for the owner to “un-adjust” them by taking the vehicles places they’re not really intended to go.

“They’re never getting off road, they’re getting to soccer games, coming to work every day. They’re doing the more routine. I don’t think many of them are going off-road as what they might depict even in the commercials.” The automakers know this, of course, and have made certain decisions about chassis parts designs and materials.

“I guess 10 to 12 years ago, a number of the manufacturers were dabbling in plastics, especially in suspension parts,” says Tiefenbruck.

“While I think plastics have a place, there have been some less than successful ventures of plastic bearings in light truck applications. “We did well selling replacement parts on these vehicles because the plastics couldn’t deal with the loads. The dynamic loading and pounding overstressed them.” He says that recent designs on light trucks appear more robust, though the demand continues for parts that improve on the OE designs in areas such as ball joints, links, and idler arms, on many SUVs that were particularly noteworthy for their inability to handle the job.

“Can we say
wimpy? They were too small for the task that they were being asked to perform. For years we were able to improve on that by providing an overall more robust athletic piece than was on the vehicles originally.

“They’ve made some improvements on that now. Some are much more stout than they were in the past. I think there is still room for what we’re doing, but they’re starting to break away from those designs.”

One change which has characterized the light truck/SUV market has been the move to larger, heavier vehicles. In many ways, they may look different from the status-symbol cars of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but they’re at least as heavy. You don’t have to be a physics major to understand that the heavier a vehicle is, the harder it is to stop. Add NVH engineering into the mix and you have some interesting outcomes.

“The OE is recognizing that they have to address brake noise,” says Ian Braunstein, vice-president sales North America, Satisfied Brake Products. “The friction surfaces are getting larger, but they are going to softer friction materials.” This is in stark contrast to the now accepted trend toward harder and harder semi-metallic formulations that were designed to handle the heat generated in the lightweight braking systems being fitted on passenger vehicles beginning in the 1980s.

“If you look at the nuances of the Japanese vehicles, they were smaller cars, so everything was downsized in order to meet the weight requirements. With that you needed to have materials that could stand more heat.” Light trucks are, of course, anything but light, and with SUVs regularly running in the 4,000 to 5,000 lb. range and some in 7,000 lb. territory, brake systems must be able to cope.

“The braking systems are getting bigger and the material must be able to withstand the heat. What you end up with is brake noise concerns. The more aggressive your friction material, the greater the problem.”

The result is that hybrid non-asbestos friction materials, long thought of as the cheaper alternative to premium metallics, are now moving upscale. “Premium low-metallic friction is a true OE formulation,” says Braunstein. “It is a hybrid of the NAO and the semi-metallic.” The change is worthy of note for jobbers looking to ensure that they are offering their customers brake friction designed to perform properly.

“There are cheap NAOs and there are high-end NAOs. Rest assured, you are getting what you paid for.” Braunstein says that the same application-specific needs apply to light trucks as well as passenger cars. In addition, the SUV and light truck owner responds to the identification of brake parts targeted at their vehicle category. The consumer–whether DIY or at the installed level–responds to the specific packaging identification for light truck targeted products, and signage is an important consideration in building consumer confidence.

This is why brake manufacturers have all brought clearly identified product lines to market: Satisfied has its SUV line; Honeywell has its Bendix SUV line; Federal-Mogul has the Wagner ThermoQuietLT brand; and Dana has its line of Quiet Stop Ceramic friction line covering passenger cars, SUVs, light trucks and vans.

Braunstein says that the light truck or SUV owner is typically a good candidate for premium products. “If you look at the demographic, they treat their vehicles like gold. The SUV has allowed the guy who can’t afford a Mercedes to still have a feel of status. They go for the higher end product.

“At the installer level, it’s a question of trust, maybe to the point that it is too discretionary. How many of those installers know what a vehicle test is? They can buy any song and dance, but if the product comes back, it’s all money out the door. The minute there is a comeback he is destroyed.

“There is no uniqueness between the passenger car and light truck,” says Braunstein. “At the end of the day, it has to work and last a reasonable amount of time.”

While performing effective repairs on light trucks and SUVs has become easier in some respects with their evolution to more car-like chassis parts designs, it still remains one with its own challenges brought on by myriad suspension options and continual adjustment of designs by the OE.

The one guarantee, though, is that the light truck and SUV will define the future of the aftermarket for the next decade. There is a whole fleet of them barreling down the proverbial highway into their aftermarket years. Every jobber and installer needs to decide how they are going to meet this trend: whether you get up to speed to meet it, or wait for it to arrive in full force. In short, you need to decide whether you want to be the windshield, or the bug.

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