On May 13th, I got into a plane, flew to Calgary, Alberta and strolled over to the Delta hotel attached to the airport. There, waiting for me, was a beautiful brand-new F-150 truck. My instructions? Get in and drive – all the way to Drumheller.
I had the privilege of having Jim Mocio, an engineer on the F-150 project, along as a passenger – a fine gentleman from Dearborn who was happy to answer any and all questions I had about Ford, their plans, their processes and the F-150. It was a fascinating insight into how things work and how seriously they take themselves.
After about an hour and a half of trucking it down a two-lane country highway, under a canopy of ominous-looking clouds, through hills of endless fields dotted with oilfield equipment, we arrived.
Drumheller is set into the badlands, and it feels as though you are descending into a valley on another planet when you get there. It is on the Red Deer River, and the area here was settled because of the rich coal deposits. Thank goodness they ended up finding an equally rich deposit of dead dinosaurs, because the ol’ coal industry has taken a bit of a hit. Anyway, if you’ve never been to Drumheller, put it on your bucket list.
Almost everything in the townsite reflects their connection to fossils and dinosaurs. There’s a concrete dinosaur on every street corner, and the world’s biggest dinosaur in the center of town. Drive up out of the valley to a number of places, and you’ll be afforded some of the most stunning vistas of the river and the valley that you can imagine. The hills, the hoo-doos, the abandoned coal mines – there’s so much to see. Plenty of camping, hotels and RV parks can be found, although I know from experience that they are booked solid in the summers.
Luckily Ford Canada had booked our hotel for us. The group came from far and near, and since that encompasses our great nation, we all arrived at differing times. Once we were all at the hotel and settled, we got on a bus and headed to a hamlet called Wayne. Wayne isn’t far from Drumheller but it’s quite a drive there – you need to cross 11 bridges and none of them are wide enough for two cars. Wayne has a population of (roughly) 26 people and once you get there, you feel as though you just drove onto a movie set. It’s a sleepy little place, set into a dusty coulee, and its crown jewel (actually, probably the only jewel) is the Rosedeer Hotel and the Last Chance Saloon. Both were built nearly 100 years ago, and they’ve been in the hands of one family for over 60 years. Thankfully they haven’t modernized, and it retains the rustic charm of an era gone by.
Ford had tables set up for us, and our group matched the town’s population – all of whom I believe were at the Last Chance Saloon that evening. What’s a saloon without stuffed animals on the wall and pickled eggs on the counter? You just don’t see enough of that anymore.
We were serenaded by a local band, who were great, and after a few platters of fried appetizers were brought out, we were led out back to pick our strip loin steaks, throw them on the barbecue and grill our own supper. It was a fantastic way to celebrate being in rural Alberta, and it was a delightful evening. We packed it in relatively early, because we had a 7 o’clock start the next day.
Next morning we jammed into that same bus and headed to the outskirts of town – to a place called Dinosaur Downs. It’s a huge structure, and next to it is a dirt race track and an off-road track. Once you go out behind the building, toward the tracks, you realize they are at the top of the river valley and the views from there are simply spectacular – especially as the sun tries to break through the morning cloud. The complex also has the distinction of being nestled in beside the Drumheller Institution, a federal maximum security prison that is epic in its proportions. Dinosaur Downs was to be our base camp for the day, with each activity branching out from there.
Ford served us breakfast and while we were munching, we were presented with some facts and figures relating to the darling of the Ford empire, the F-150 line-up.
The figures are impressive, and that’s very likely the understatement of the century. Frankly, the figures are something other manufacturers would kill (or at least maim) to replicate. The F-150 is the best-selling truck in Canada – FOR THE LAST 47 YEARS!!! As a matter of fact, they sold over 100,000 F-series trucks in Canada last year. That’s nuts!
We heard about what F-series buyers consider important. Things like all-wheel drive, value, engine choices, fuel economy, towing ability, durability, reliability, low interest rates and cargo capacity. Interestingly, those are in order of importance.
Jackie DiMarco, the chief engineer of the F-150 project, also talked about the adoption of the EcoBoost – 41% of F-series sold in 2012 came with the EcoBoost engine. And Darren Halabisky, the man with the marketing plan and a face that never stops smiling, told us about how things are in Canada. Rosy, it seems – after a record year in 2012, Ford Canada is already up 26% over last year’s sales in 2013 year-to-date. Looks like another stellar year for the blue oval.
Evolutionary changes for the F-150 include a new grille, which looks like it’s starting to pull in some elements from the Super Duty’s C-clamp look, and some nifty new HID headlight pods. Inside, there are some slight styling changes, and everything (including the MyFordTouch screen) is work-glove friendly. Nice for those using their F-series trucks as their mobile office, to be sure.
The Super Duty line-up gets some brake enhancements, an increased towing maximum of 24,700 (!!!) pounds and a new deluxe Platinum trim.
Other news included a new color (Terrain) for the Raptor, as well as bead-lock capable wheels for the off-road crew. What else? Oh yes - a new model – the top-of-the-line Limited trim. It’s pricey, but it’s the most premium, luxurious truck out there and comes fully loaded. Gorgeous top-grain leather seats, hot 22″ rims, a slightly lowered, sportier stance and an air of exclusivity that just oozes out of that red paint job. Yes, you can get it in black and white too, but why would you want to? Look at that thing! It’s available with the 3.5 litre EcoBoost or the mighty 6.2 litre V-8.
Once the presentation was done, we were divided up into groups, and each was assigned to a different challenge. Luckily we started out with the Off-Road Challenge, and so we headed down the muddy road to the off-road course. In an F-150 Raptor. An off-road worthy truck right out of the box. It’s one of my favorite rides of all time.
The off-road course is tight, with plenty of hairpin corners, tight curves, steep hills and declines (one of them measured at 23 degrees!!!) and to top it all off, it had rained the night before. The Raptor handled everything without breaking a sweat, and the hill descent control left us slack-jawed – you just take your foot off the gas and the brake, and the truck will negotiate the most brutal of downhill paths you can choose. Very cool!
After that, we were up for the Payload course. We were in a beautiful black Super Duty that had 3,000 pounds of payload (in the form of road working equipment) strapped into the bed. We were given directions through town and then up a brutal hill. Frankly the hill would be challenging for many unloaded vehicles, never mind something with 3,000 pound stuffed into the back. The truck didn’t even flinch, and once we crested the hill, we were rewarded with a stop at the Orkney Lookout – which gives you one of the most stunning views of the Red Deer River valley. A breath-taking experience to be sure.
Upon our return to Dinosaur Downs, we were bused to the world-famous Royal Tyrell Museum. It is an institution dedicated to showcasing Alberta’s extraordinary wealth in fossils. I’ve been to the museum before, and it is an exceptional example of passion. You get the impression every employee actually cares about what they are doing there. The displays are second to none, and the facility is stunning. But what I hadn’t done at the museum before was what I got to do that day. We were blessed with an incredible behind-the-scenes tour by one of their leading researchers, Dr. David Eberth. Turns out we already knew him – he was the lead singer of the band we’d enjoyed the night before!
We got a long look at the collections that nobody visiting the museum would have ever seen, and were able to get up close and personal with fossils that hadn’t even been fully extracted yet – even though they’d been found decades ago.
We were given insights into the life of a paleontologist, the science and patience behind this work, and even got to talk to someone who is spending her days removing stone, microscopic bits at a time, from a massive piece of rock – just to expose a number of prehistoric fish embedded in it. These projects often take years or even decades from the day they are discovered to the point of being on display in a museum. It was truly fascinating stuff.
After lunch, we headed back and took part in the Fuel Economy Challenge. We had to follow the exact instructions in our guide book, and our hosts would check to see we covered the precise distances we were told to drive – the goal was to exact the most efficient fuel economy results from our F-150 trucks. It wasn’t easy, because it included city driving, huge uphill segments, u-turns, etc. And a half-ton truck, for Pete’s sake. But we prevailed, and in our 3.7 litre V-6 F-150, we averaged 10.0 L/100 km over the course. Yes, we were driving as efficiently as possible, but that’s might impressive nevertheless. Oh, did I mention we won the challenge? Ford was generous enough to present us with fuel cards for our efforts!
Our final challenge was the Towing course. Our ride was an F-150 powered by the mighty EcoBoost engine, and saddled with a trailer holding a Bobcat. The total weight we were towing was roughly 8,000 pounds and once again, we were given a route to follow. It allowed the truck to show off its abilities, and gave us a chance to test the torque claims, the trailer towing technology such as the trailer brake and the tow/haul transmission settings. The truck didn’t disappoint. Yes, you could notice the weight behind it, but it never failed to pull hard and to effectively move the rig in any way we asked it to. Clearly a truck that’s happy to pull.
That wrapped up the activities, and once we returned our towing set-up to Dinosaur Downs we were given a clean truck to pack our things into along with a bagged snack and a fond farewell from our Ford hosts who were busy readying the whole adventure for the second wave of journalists they were flying in the next day to do it all over again.
It was a fun trip, and provided some insight into the Ford F-150 program. Thank you to Ford Canada for the opportunity to check out what’s new in the F-150 line-up, and for the chance to
abuse test the products and see what they can do in real-life situations.
All pictures are from the F-150 Drive Event in Drumheller.
Disclosure: Ford Canada paid for my airfare, accommodations, meals and fuel and provided the vehicles for this test drive event.
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