By Joseph White

DEARBORN, Mich. (Reuters) -Ford Motor Co on Tuesday started regular manufacturing of its F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck, the most prominent emblem of the 119-year-old company’s drive to retool for a new century.

Ford workers, top executives and a group of F-150 Lightning customers joined a party at Ford’s Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan, marking the sharp acceleration of the assembly system. Ford has been building Lightnings for several weeks, parking them in lots around its Dearborn headquarters.

The automaker had planned to build just 40,000 Lightning trucks annually, but surging demand for electric vehicles prompted Ford to increase planned production twice since last August. It has geared up a new part of its Rouge manufacturing complex to build 150,000 of the heavily modified version of its best-selling F-150 pickup truck annually.

With a dig at competitors from Tesla to General Motors Co, Chief Executive Jim Farley said the Lightning will cost “thousands of dollars less than our competitors’ trucks — whenever they go on sale.”

About 200,000 customers made reservations for the Lightning before Ford cut off taking preliminary orders in December.

Farley said the Lightning will hit showrooms “in a couple days.” That would be behind startup Rivian’s electric R1T pickup, but well ahead of GM’s electric Silverado, Stellantis NV’s promised electric Ram truck and Tesla’s Cybertruck, which has been delayed until next year at the earliest.

Ford will ultimately build Lightning trucks at an electric vehicle production complex in Tennessee that will open in 2025 and will be much larger than the extension of its Rouge facility.

Rivals GM and Ford are pursuing different strategies in the electric pickup market. Ford re-engineered its current F-150 to install batteries, a cargo-carrying front trunk and enough electrical outlets to power a home or a construction site. It took 19 months to build an assembly line adjacent to the existing Rouge F-series factory.

GM spent more time designing its electric Silverado from the wheels up, gutted a factory in Detroit to build it and several other electric vehicles, and built new factories to supply those vehicles with GM-designed batteries.

Chevrolet will launch a version of the electric Silverado for commercial and work customers in the spring of 2023 followed by consumer models in the fall.

Executive Chair Bill Ford told reporters after the event that he is still urging the Biden Administration and Congress for more federal support for electric vehicle sales as well as U.S. battery and battery minerals production.

“Are we going to assure there is an American supply base” for electric vehicle batteries, asked Ford, great grandson of company founder Henry Ford.

He said the automaker is looking at investing directly in battery materials production. He also said supply chain problems have hindered the company just like a tough defensive line stops a football team’s momentum.

“We haven’t had any open-field running for two years,” he said.

(Reporting by Joseph White, Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by David Gregorio)