Ford (NYSE: F ) is the biggest U.S. automaker by market capitalization. Ever since the financial crisis, when Ford was the only domestic automaker to avoid a government-backed capital injection, the company's stock has gone up more than fivefold. The cars have gotten better looking and can compete with their foreign brethren. The company leads its American counterparts in average miles per gallon for its vehicles.
It's not easy to consider one of the legacy manufacturers a great company, given their past 30 years, but Ford is expanding domestically, internationally, and internally. If you ever wanted a piece of the American motor industry, this may be your best bet.
Decades of change
When I first took an interest in cars, it was the '90s. Though I had a healthy respect for the muscle cars and fin-shaped taillights of yesteryear's American autos, I was living in a time when General Motors (NYSE: GM ) pushed aside the Cadillac to promote its Catera -- the most drab-looking four-door cereal box ever to wear the company's crest. It was an American vehicle manufactured in France and with the polar opposite of sex appeal.
I tell that anecdote because, to me, it sums up a very basic version of what happened to American auto manufacturing sometime in the '80s and continued, more or less, up through the financial crisis two decades later. The crisis may have sent the auto companies over the edge, but it seemed as if they would have ended up there anyway if it hadn't been for trucks.
But since the crisis and the subsequent reorganization of the Big Three, it's been the start of a new era. General Motors has an all-electric vehicle, albeit one that's struggled to gain traction in the mass market. The company's condensed brand lineup is performing a heck of a lot better than its previous "two brands for every guy" strategy.
All of this said, though, the true beauty of American autos today is Ford.
The Ford of tomorrow
Instead of a two-year recap of Ford's efforts, which have been well documented on the Fool and other sources, I'd prefer to focus on where Ford is now and where it's headed.
First of all, the company is taking a more practical approach to its efforts than General Motors is. Instead of trying to force people into electric cars, which I agree is a necessary long-term move, Ford has doubled down on its efforts in the midsized-sedan segment -- the fastest-growing segment in U.S. auto sales and one that is twice the average growth rate. Ford's Fusion is in that segment and is the third best seller behind Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) Camry and Honda's (NYSE: HMC ) Accord. Ford is hoping to unseat one, if not both, of its rivals with its revamped version of the car -- a more fuel-efficient, more chiseled-looking four door.
Beyond the marketing speak, Ford is hiring 1,200 new American workers for this project. Now, hiring isn't an anomaly for the automakers, with U.S. auto sales growing at a rapid rate and most of the major manufacturers bumping up the employee roster. What I like about this move, though, is that it's coupled with a $550 million investment in new equipment for the Michigan-based plant. In a sign that corporate philosophies have improved, Ford is investing in American workers and American auto plants. Sure, the job could be done for cheaper in maquiladoras in Mexico, but Ford's investment is purely domestic (and much less morally hazardous).
A step in the right direction
Ford's Fusion, the target of all this hiring and capital investment, used to be made in Mexico. The plant in Michigan used to be owned by Mazda (the company technically holds a 50% position in the plant still, though talks may be under way for Ford to wholly own it in the near future).
Ford is showing investors that it has recommitted to the United States and to providing a solid line of vehicles beyond the evergreen F-series trucks. With double-digit growth in Southeast Asia, it would seem that Ford is not only regaining ground as a leading domestic producer and manufacturer, but as a world export as well. General Motors has a larger international presence, but with Ford's aggressive growth plans both here and abroad, my money is on Henry's legacy.
For more analysis of Ford, check out this premium report. It lays out the opportunities and hurdles facing Henry Ford's pioneering company.