MRAPs were so passe, or so the story went. We were leaving Iraq, and we just didn't need 'em anymore. Then Force Protection (NASDAQ:FRPT) rewrote the story.

Not long ago, investors -- including yours Fool-y -- were just a sell-click away from throwing in the towel on the little South Carolinian armored vehicles maker. Rivals BAE, Navistar (NYSE:NAV), and General Dynamics (NYSE:GD) had stolen its MRAP mojo. Burdened by a new factory for a product that had no buyers, burning cash, and way behind on its SEC filings, the wheels looked ready to fall off this former Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation.

My, how times change! Force reported its fiscal first-quarter earnings yesterday -- and blew the roof off the joint. Expected to rake in less than $139 million in sales, Force instead delivered nearly $185 million. Instead of earning $0.08 per share, Force announced $0.11 in per-share profits -- a 10% increase over last year, rather than the 20% decline Wall Street expected. What made the difference? Let's find out.

MRAPS? We don't need (to make) no stinkin' MRAPs
In part, yesterday's news confirmed the accepted wisdom on Force. As CEO Michael Moody admitted: "The first quarter of 2009 was a quarter without a significant number of MRAP vehicle sales." Still, the company prospered by virtue of all the MRAPs it had already sold.

The thousands of Force-manufactured MRAPs in the field still need to be supported, so Force did significant business servicing its armored buggies. Plus, the company created new revenue streams from selling "suspension upgrades" and "ForceArmor" add-ons to improve the quality of vehicles already in the military motor pool.

Force also reversed last year's Q1 cash burn of $3 million, churning out $11.1 million worth of free cash flow this time around. That's 50% more cash profits than the firm reported as "net earnings" for the quarter. Nice.

And Force Protection lived happily ever after
Could this become the "new normal" for Force? With Iraq winding down, the likelihood of significant new MRAP sales seems slight. But Force doesn't need to win every new contract out there to thrive. It can afford to let some JLTV money flow to the folks at Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), and allow Textron (NYSE:TXT) and Oshkosh (NYSE:OSK) to win contracts on their medium-sized armored vehicles. If Force can eke out a living servicing existing MRAPs, and tack on the occasional "big win" in the form of a new sale -- such as the "Wolfhound" tactical support vehicle it's developing for Britain, or the M-ATV it wants to build for the U.S. Army -- then this company just might have a future.

And with a share price valuing the company at just 0.4 times last year's sales, Force deserves a future in your portfolio.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Force Protection. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is bulletproof.