NORFOLK, VA -- It may be just another new truck to some, but to Ford Motor Co. the launch of the 1997 F-150 full-size pickups is a massive undertaking, one of the most comprehensive in its history. Straight-time production capacity also is scheduled to jump from 700,000 to a whopping 900,000 units.

It is the first major new-model changeover for the F-150 -- the highest-volume vehicle in the U.S. -- in 16 years, and it will involve four assembly plants in Virginia, Missouri, Michigan and Canada over the next six months. The high-profile production changeover for the new-generation Taurus/Sable, involving only two plants, pales in comparison. So does Chrysler Corp.'s changeover for its 1996 minivans; it involved three plants.

Plagued by Wall Street critics who say Ford's new product-development costs are too high and the $6 billion spent to bring the Contour/Mondeo "world car" to market was exorbitant, Ford Automotive Operations President Edward E. Hagenlocker is reluctant to divulge financial info on the F-150 program or even say how much it will cost to retool all four plants. However, he acknowledges Ford spent $320 million to upgrade the lead plant here, which started production Nov. 29, and a similar amount in Kansas City, MO, which launched in mid-December.

Ford also is investing $440 million in metal stamping plants that supply F-150 components, suggesting the total retooling tab could easily top $1.5 billion if it spends the same on the next two assembly plants.

In a strategy similar to Chrysler's changeover of it's all-important minivans -- only on a larger scale -- Ford will continue to build old-style '96 pickups at two plants while it ramps up production of the new-generation '97s at Norfolk and Kansas City. In the third quarter of 1996, the Michigan Truck plant in Wayne, MI, and the Ontario Truck Plant in Oakville, Ont., will then start production of the '97s. Until then, the '96s will be sold as "highvalue" models to businesses and conservative buyers, while the '97s will be mostly heavily optioned extended-cab models aimed at more affluent consumers. The goal: keep as much production and cash flow in the pipeline as possible and retain the title as best-selling vehicle.

Ford, which usually is rated as the most efficient manufacturer of the Big Three, also is under fire for adding too many people and too much complexity to the build processes of new models such as the Taurus/Sable. The trend is continuing at Norfolk, where 450 workers have been added to build the new trucks -- even though it also increased the number of robots to 181 from 33. However, Ford officials vow that man-hours per vehicle will be gradually brought back to previous levels as production systems are refined and optimized -- but they won't say when.

Ford officials argue the higher head count is necessary because Norfolk's line rate has been boosted substantially from 40.8 to 45 jobs per hour in straight-time capacity and because the plant now is designed to produce a greater variety of models. For the first time, Norfolk -- and the other three plants -- all will be capable of building popular extended-cab models to meet skyrocketing demand. Before, "SuperCabs" were built only in Kansas City. The extended-cab models not only add labor-intensive features such as additional rear seats and a standard third door, they also usually are loaded up with spiffs such as CD players and anti-theft systems that add assembly complexity -- and manhours.

The robots were added to improve body shop flexibility and speed in changing the build mix, not to replace human workers, plant officials emphasize.

Not everything at Norfolk's refurbished plant adds complexity, however. A new laser application -- already in use at General Motors Corp. but new at Ford -- reduces manufacturing complexity by cutting holes in the truck's floor pan to accommodate various options. Now just two types of floor pans are required instead of eight.

"Two new processes represent the major changes in the manufacture of the 1997 F-150," says William Boggs, plant manager. "The trucks will be built by using Ford's `no adjust' build technique and a one-piece body stamping."

The "no adjust" build uses a matrix of points to guarantee that each vehicle is built identically. The one-piece bodyside stamping provides a more accurate structure and better fit and finish.

The result -- confirmed by a test drive of production trucks -- is that the new F-150s are the quietest, highest quality, most car-like full-size pickups Ford has ever built.

If enough pickup buyers agree, it won't matter what the analysts on Wall Street think.