Biden wrangles test drive of new F-150 Lightning during visit to Michigan plant

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press

DEARBORN, Mich. — The day was unscripted.

To some, it felt like vintage Joe Biden.

A bit unpredictable.

President Biden, 78, whose father sold Fords back in the day, wrapped up his remarks on Tuesday at the new plant in the Rouge complex designed to build the all-electric F-150 Lightning and it all seemed routine to those present.

Until it wasn’t.

“At the end of his speech, he kinda turned to everyone, he goes, ‘You know I’m a car guy. And I want to drive this truck.’ Everyone politely laughed. Because presidents don’t drive vehicles,’” Ford CEO Jim Farley told the Free Press.

Biden had taken a private tour of the factory and a sneak peek of the vehicle a short while earlier, a day before the rest of the world would see the next generation of a multi-billion dollar franchise. Bill Ford, executive chairman, teased Biden that the F-Series would give his 1967 Corvette a run for its money.

“I wonder whether I can lose the Secret Service and go out on the track. You think I’m kidding? I’m not,” Biden joked to the Ford executives, UAW workers and press corps in Dearborn.

Nope, not kidding: And then it happened.

“Lo and behold, I get a tap on my shoulder (apparently from White House staff) at the very end of the event,” Farley said. “They said, ‘Mr. Farley, we’d like you to come with us to the motorcade because we want to go to the test track and drive the truck.”

So Farley and chief engineer Linda Zhang went together to a Ford test track nearby.

“All the media was there. And the whole presidential motorcade,” Farley said. “We’ve never had the presidential motorcade at our test track before. I think all our team members were kind of stunned to see the president of the United States come to the test track. We didn’t really have any warning.”

The audible was called in the moment. A source close to the situation but not authorized to talk with the press about the matter, said the Ford team behind the scenes was alerted late the night before by White House staff that anything could happen but there was little chance of drifting from the official itinerary: Arrive, tour, speak, depart.

In other words, they did not know he was going to drive.

When Biden got into the truck, Farley told him, “Just mash the throttle. The thing is super fast. Mr. President, give it full throttle. It’s really fun to drive.”

Biden replied, “I’ve got it, Jim.”

‘He looked like Top Gun’: Farley just watched him go.

“He went on the test track and, I mean, he was going really fast,” Farley said. “The whole press corps was there, probably 50 journalists. He pulled up in front of all the journalists. He looked like Top Gun. He had his Ray Bans on, in this F-150 Lightning.”

He was driving on a large skidpad, a huge open space where he could go up and back — at high rates of speed — and do sporty turns. Biden turned to the press and asked if anyone had timed him, that he might have hit 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds.

There was the president smiling, behind the wheel.

Only Secret Service with him.

No Ford people in the truck.

“I was not nervous. I think he has lots of people to make sure everything will be fine,” Farley said. “He got in front of the press and, he goes, ‘Watch this.’ Then he rolled the truck a little bit forward, stopped and fully accelerated. The truck took off, totally silent, like an electric car does. Dead quiet. It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen. And the press corps was like, ‘Holy Cow.’”

Biden was driving a Lightning covered with patterned material.

To metro Detroiters, seeing camouflaged vehicles on the streets and highways is not unusual. Companies road test vehicles before they’ve made their public debut. The camouflage helps keep the secret. It’s part of life in the Motor City.

But not the White House press corps.

“All the media there … they just cover politics,” Farley said

Reporters asked him and Zhang all sorts of questions.

“They didn’t know who we were. They thought we just worked for the company, which we do,” Farley said. “They asked, ‘What’s all that stuff on the truck?’ I said, ‘That’s called camouflage.’ They asked, ‘Why is that there?’ Because we aren’t revealing the truck until tomorrow. “But is that what it will look like when it launches? It looks weird.’ I was like, ‘No!’ They were, ‘Oh, you mean it doesn’t look that way normally?’ I said, ‘No, it doesn’t look that way normally.’”

Time to shine: The whole experience was a moment of pride for the Ford team, Farley said.

“We had big smiles on our faces and then he was whisked away to the airport.”

Biden had arrived around 10:30 a.m. and left around 3 p.m., Farley said.

A busy day for Ford at the Rouge, where the bestselling 2021 Ford F-150 is built, too.

“The president arrived mid-morning and we took him to four stations within the new Dearborn Electric Manufacturing Facility, which is on the campus at the Rouge,” Farley said. “He was very engaged. He was very interested in how does the truck go together, who are the the team members, and do they get trained to build these new components?”

Biden showered the Ford workers with questions.

“We first started with a demonstration of some new robots that we’re putting in the Dearborn Manufacturing Center for the Lightning. He enjoyed that,” Farley said. “The next section, we showed how we’re making progress on the size of the batteries, the cost of the batteries.”

The team explained to Biden how the company’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant has been converted to make electric motors for the all-electric F-150.

“He found that really interesting,” Farley said. “We vertically integrated that. We used to buy electric motors outside and now we’re doing that inside the company.”

They moved on to the section with “co-bots.” They are robots that work with humans. And Ford has one of the largest made, Farley said.

Biden wanted to see that co-bot for himself and talk to the Ford employees who will work with the automated co-worker.

“Then Linda did a great job of taking the president through the engineering of the vehicle,” Farley said. “We first had just the frame and the batteries and electric motors. We showed him that and he had lots of questions. I didn’t know this but he had just been down to Atlanta to the SKI plant that actually makes the batteries for the truck he was standing next to. He was like, ‘I was just at that plant making these batteries.’”

Biden was putting all the pieces together, asking more and more questions. He saw the production truck that was blocked from media view.

“Linda took him through the truck,” Farley said. “The Secret Service said, ‘We prefer him to just stay on the outside.’ He was like, ‘I want to get inside the truck.’ He was in there for, like, 10 minutes. I have no idea what he and Linda were talking about but it must have been pretty interesting. He would not leave that truck.”