All systems are go for International to roll out totally new trucks
The moment of truth is about to arrive for International Truck & Engine Corp. On February 15 and 16 in Las Vegas, International will unveil the long-awaited results of its Next Generation Vehicle project: a brand-new platform that will be the building block for all of its truck products in the years to come — medium-duty, Class 8 and severe-service vehicles.
The company is betting big time, to the tune of $900 million by the end of 2001, that the results of this project will restore it to the front ranks of truck manufacturers. International will host 2,500 customers and dealer personnel, treating them to test drives of its new medium-duty series 4000, 7000 and 8000 trucks at the Las Vegas Speedway.
The medium-duty products are the first out of the bag because they represent the core of International's truck business. According to Steve Keate, president of the truck group, International currently holds about a 37% share of that market. “We've always had a strong medium-duty product, but now the competition is more intense,” he told me recently in a phone interview. “Though our product has held up well, it was time to replace it, but not with just another upgrade.”
This new vehicle platform is an outgrowth of John Horne's campaign to turn the ailing International brand name around. According to Ward's, International is running a distant third in overall U.S. truck sales, with 15.3% of the total market, well behind PACCAR's 21.2% and Freightliner's 37.3%. When Horne became International's chairman in 1994, he immediately set out to restructure the company so he could change those rankings. The super-secret truck project is a “physical manifestation of that strategy,” said Keate.
“Our customers want a reliable product that attracts drivers, is economical to own and operate, and has high resale value,” Keate told me. “They also want a manufacturer that's easy to work with. Unfortunately, we found we weren't doing business like that.”
To International's way of thinking, customers were spending way too much time spec'ing vehicles. International — and other truck makers, Keate added — was putting together parts based on customer requests, yet sometimes those parts didn't mesh well.
“We weren't as good a ‘systems integrator’ as we should have been,” said Keate. “For example, we currently offer 850 combinations of transmissions and engines for our medium-duty trucks. When you do that, you aren't able to optimize the engine and transmission for performance. With the new trucks, we'll offer just 34 combinations. They'll cover the broad needs of the market in terms of horsepower requirements, yet will be engineered for high performance.”
International has focused on the concept of high performance, giving the new trucks the “feel” customers get with cars. “That's the key — how the truck handles, accelerates and feels,” said Keate. “We've paid a lot of attention to life cycle, maintenance, serviceability and resale value, but we've also spent a lot of time on driving characteristics. That's what will sell this vehicle.”
“We've spent over three years on this project, including in-depth customer interviews, market research and engineering,” he said. “Now we're focused on having the manufacturing and purchasing process in place to move the orders.”
It may sound like a lot of hype, but one thing is certain — International has bet the farm on this vehicle. After nearly a billion dollars in research, engineering and plant tooling costs, there's no turning back, as these new trucks will replace all of International's current products “almost immediately,” said Keate.