Chassis Cab Contractors

Picture a shower of sparks spilling over the shop floor as your ultimate work truck is forged from steel, wiring and rubber. You sit back and smile, eagle eyeing your hand-picked crew of professionals who
are engineering your perfect slog truck — in this case a beefy, jet-black chassis cab with C-channel steel frames and industry-standard 34-in. rail spacing for maximum upfit friendliness.

You nod your head as a 9-ft stainless steel dump body is hoisted onto the frame and mounted into place with a metal rumble. An old, grizzled shop hand beckons you closer. He invites you to inspect the turbo diesel Cummins engine that you requested under the hood and the spacious quad cab with its easy-to-clean interior. You drift to the back of the vehicle to eye your polished steel dump box and kick the tires on your new 4×4 dually.

You jangle the keys in your pocket with approval.

To build such an imperial work vehicle takes plenty of patience, research and planning, but the end result is well worth the effort. An operation that can ramble to the next jobsite with speed, safety and efficiency will steadily make its way to the head of the pack in the fast-paced industries of construction and landscape contracting. While an army might march on its stomach, most pros realize they need a steady set of wheels to march their crews, tools, equipment and spoils from job to job (and then you head off to lunch).

Top contractors often need something that’s bigger and better than your typical pickup. Class 1, 2 and 3 trucks from the likes of Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Toyota and Nissan are all hard-working wagons (no argument there), but they do have limits in terms of payload, towing capacity, durability and versatility when it comes to a full-time job in the construction and landscaping business.

That’s why today’s commercial-grade chassis cab and medium-duty truck markets have emerged as a vital supply source for qualified contractors, city fleets and thriving businesses in need of bigger transport. A buyer can sit down and engineer the ideal work vehicle for his or her business model. Pick the chassis and cab manufacturer (GMC, Ford, Dodge, Kenworth, etc.) and then upfit that clean slate frame with whatever you need on the back — a stake body, dump truck, aerial basket, utility body, hydraulic tilt bed, van body, vacuum unit or an enormous billboard that advertises your mighty contracting business.

In this industry, every pro has a unique need and application. That’s why truck manufacturers and their OEM upfitters have become experts at tailoring individual work vehicles to almost any contractor’s demands.

“It just depends on their wants and desires,” says Jim Butcher, a special accounts sales specialist with America’s Body Co. Inc. (a manufacturer and upfitter of commercial truck bodies based in Columbus, Ohio). “Most every chassis cab is pretty easy to upfit now. I wouldn’t have told you that 10 years ago, but then there’s been a lot of effort made by the chassis manufacturers, the National Truck Equipment Association and the upfitters. They’ve all spent more time in a collaborative effort to come up with a truck that No. 1 is long lasting, No. 2 is good looking and No. 3 is easy for us to upfit.”

Muther Trucker

It’s a phrase you might not have uttered 30 years ago when discussing chassis cabs and the upfitter market.
But in today’s commercial-grade truck industry, the amount of options, brands and products in this segment is well worth an expletive or two. The medium-duty truck market has really grown up over the last 20 years.

“The market’s been around for a while, but it’s really evolved,” explains Michael Hawarny, chassis cab product marketing manager for Heavy-Duty Ram trucks. “Ten years ago, you really didn’t have a lot of trucks in this class — the 3, 4 and 5 Class market. We got into [the market] with our old BR Chassis Cab in the mid-90s. Ford and GM were already into it then. But it wasn’t till the late ‘90s that the Class 3, 4 and 5 segments really took off. So it hasn’t been around a whole long time. Before that, you had some special builds and things like that, but I would say the market came into its own in the early 1990s.”

Medium-duty trucks today are classified as Class 4 through 7 gross vehicle weight rated trucks; GVWR is the actual rated weight that a truck can safely carry, including the weight of the entire vehicle (equipment, fuel, body, payload and driver), measured at the tire-ground interfaces. Also, the popularity and growing size of Class 3 commercial-grade pickups (those Ford F-350s,
Chevy 3500s and Dodge Ram 3500s) also are pushing companies to label these heavy-duty Class 3 vehicles as medium-duty trucks. Here’s how the various GVWRs are broken down by class:

Class 3 GVWR — 10,001 to 14,000 lbs

Class 4 GVWR — 14,001 to 16,000 lbs

Class 5 GVWR — 16,001 to 19,500 lbs

Class 6 GVWR — 19,501 to 26,000 lbs

Class 7 GVWR — 26,001 to 33,000 lbs

Besides GVWR, medium-duty trucks also come with a bigger attitude, heavier frames, powerful engine choices, professional transmission options and, of course, the versatility to upfit a chassis with anything from a stake body to a water tanker. In the Class 3 through 7 medium-duty marketplace, there is an overabundance of manufacturers offering oodles of options for professional fleets and small entrepreneurial contractors. The major chassis manufacturers include Dodge, Ford, Chevrolet, GMC, Isuzu, International, Hino, Freightliner and Sterling. Every manufacturer has a niche and unique product line made for upfitting.

“We produce the chassis and cab and it is then sold to an upfit company, which completes the medium-duty truck. The configurations are endless,” says Todd Bloom, vice president of marketing for General Motors Isuzu Commercial Truck. “Each truck is unique, based on the end user’s needs and the upfitter selected to personalize the product. Some choices include stake beds, dump boxes, flatbeds, utility boxes, van and service bodies, lift trucks, refrigerated boxes, ambulances, fire and rescue, wreckers and even school buses.”

Both the commercial-grade Class 3 market and medium-duty segment are hot industries for truck manufacturers. Commercial-grade Ford F-350s and the just-released Dodge Ram 3500 now come in chassis cab configurations. The Class 3 market overall (which is mostly still a standard box configuration market) is showing big sales numbers.

“The market itself — Class 3 — is right around 100,000 [units sold in a year]. Ford and GM pretty much dominate the market. Ford and GM dominate the Class 3, 4 and 5 medium-duty markets. But with our new chassis cab, Dodge intends to make a big dent,” says Hawarny.

Complementing the full-size pickup segment, the medium-duty market (Class 4 to 7) is constantly on the move too. Just eye these sales numbers from a market leader like General Motors Corp.:

2003 Total Sales — Chevrolet, GMC, Isuzu = 41,621

2004 Total Sales — Chevrolet, GMC, Isuzu = 51,957

2005 Total Sales — Chevrolet, GMC, Isuzu = 63,345

“General Motors and Isuzu classify their medium-duty trucks as those listed in the Family 2 — Class 4 and 5 — and Family 3 — Class 6, 7 and 8 — categories,” says Bloom. “GM and Isuzu pride themselves in offering medium-duty trucks that offer top visibility, maneuverability, reliability and safety features at competitive prices. Based on a customer’s need, medium-duty truck capabilities can offer many advantages over smaller trucks. Advantages include towing capabilities, higher payload ranges and the ability to carry a larger volume.”

Beds, Transmissions, Engines, Cabs, Axles, Oh My…

After meditating on the market of medium-duty chore trucks, you’re going to want to
consider your many options available on specific brands, models and sizes. From spacious cab environments to turbocharged diesel engines, medium-duty commercial trucks can be outfitted for extreme utility — even before selecting your final brand or body.

First, pick a big enough bed size to fit your body needs, choosing from 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-, 16- and 18-ft chassis categories. Select your ultimate cab environment: a regular cab (one bench seat or two bucket seats with some storage); extended cab (both bench seating in the front and back, but the back seating is small and meant for storage and short rides); or crew cab (a truck that sports a full

second row of seating with four swing-out doors).

Transmission options will range from five- to 13-speed manuals to automatic four-, five- and six-speed units (with common OEMs like Allison and Fuller). Both gas and engine choices abound as well (ranging from 190 to 300 hp), with brand names like Vortec, International, Duramax, Caterpillar, Cummins and HEMI.

“Sometimes people will select the brand of chassis by the manufacturer, but also because of the motor that’s inside the truck,” says Butcher. “If they’re a fan of a Duramax diesel, they’re going to get that in a General Motors truck. If they want a Cummins diesel, they can get that in a Dodge. It just depends on their wants.”

“Typically, a gas engine is for a customer who doesn’t drive high mileage,” notes Hawarny. “His thought is he’s not going to keep that truck thousands of miles. A diesel guy is thinking better fuel economy, which is typical of a diesel. He’s thinking long mileage. He’s going to keep the truck forever and he’s going to pay that premium price for a diesel engine. And today, the diesel pricing is $5,555 extra.”

Along with power plants, be sure to chew over both front and rear axle capacities and ratios. Front axle capacities tend to range from 6,000 to 16,000 lbs, depending on class and size of your medium-duty truck, while rear axle capacities run from about 12,000 to 45,000 lbs. The gross axle weight rating is the load rating of what the axles can safely support to meet the trucks’ maximum gross vehicle weight rating. Determine axle capacities and payload and bed capacities to upfit properly.

“The bed capacity is determined on the equipment or equipment configuration and weight needed to be hauled,” says Bloom. “The contractor should explain his or her needs to the dealer or sales professional, who can then recommend a body size or type. The contractor may also work directly with a body company, who can also recommend the correct size body and type.”

Gear ratios are also important. This is a specification that tracks the turning of the drive shaft, rear axle and wheels on your truck. It’s a number that can range from odd descriptors like 3:42 to 7:17. If your truck has a 3:42 axle ratio, that means your drive shaft will turn 3.42 times in order to turn the rear wheels once. Why does this matter? A lower axle ratio improves on gas economy, while a higher ratio will give better torque and pulling power under heavier loads.

Quality power take-off systems are also a growing technology on medium-duty work wagons. A truck power take-off is a device usually mounted to the side of the transmission or transfer case (or maybe off the front of the crankshaft) and is used to transmit engine power to auxiliary equipment such as pumps, winches and lighting.

“The chassis manufacturers have done a lot with power take-off systems,” explains Butcher. “Ford now has a bank of switches in its chassis cabs that basically eliminates us putting toggle switches in for different functions like a clutch pump, strobe light, salt spreader light or any other electric function. You can get them with electric brake controllers already built into them now. The wiring is a lot better than it used to be, where we used to have to go up underneath the dash, find wires, splice wires and then run those wires all the way to the back of the truck. The wires are already back there. Just plug it in and go.”

Tires, fuel tanks, brakes, two- or four-wheel drive, suspensions and a virtual cornucopia of interior amenities are also available to buyers who plan on outfitting their chassis cab truck to a T.

“We encourage our customers to talk with their dealer when making any decision. The dealer will be able to help them choose a vehicle that will best fit their needs,” says Bloom. “Take suspensions, for example. There are certain types of suspensions such as taper leaf or air ride suspensions that can provide a better ride for people and cargo. Suspensions such as multi-leaf suspensions are more

stable in high center of gravity operations, including dumping, mixing and refrigeration applications. Customers should talk with their dealer to determine which option best fits their needs.”

Finding a Perfect Body

Before you can outfit your chassis cab with the right body, buyers will need to brainstorm something fierce about their truck platform and applications. Start by providing answers to these questions:

1. What set of jobs do you have in mind for this vehicle?

2. What kind of body (platform, stake, van, etc.) do you want on the vehicle?

3. Do you know how long this specialty body needs to be? Did you have a previous vehicle used for this job? Was its capacity sufficient? Was it too long or too short? How would you improve on it now?

4. Do you need a recommendation for a body supplier?

5. What is the weight of the specialty body that you’ll be using?

6. Can you provide other specifications for your existing specialty body? Who is the manufacturer? What’s the model number?

7. What is the maximum payload weight that you’ll be hauling? Will you add a rear lift gate, snow plow or other significant equipment that will affect payload capacity and weight distribution?

8. Do you prefer a regular cab, extended cab or crew cab chassis?

9. Will you choose a gas or diesel engine?

10. Do you want an automatic or manual transmission?

Formulate these questions and answers and contrast them with the types of jobs you will be performing.
Will you be unloading mulch, working on utility construction projects or hauling equipment? If it’s a service vehicle, then look for a truck with plenty of room to store and organize parts and inventory.

“There’s nothing worse than going to a job and not having what you need. It costs time that could be spent on another job and probably annoys the customer by making the [technician] look unprofessional,” says Julie Wavering, marketing communications coordinator with Knapheide Mfg. Co., a premier producer of steel service and platform/stake style truck bodies, based in Quincy, Ill. “Make sure you also look for a sturdy cargo area, something that can easily haul the heavy tools and parts you might need. If this vehicle will be mainly on commercial jobs, then you’ll be onsite all day and will no doubt be carrying heavier inventory and tools. If you are doing both new installation and servicing, then your need for organized spaces and cargo area just doubled. Be sure to take into account what your inventory needs really are when deciding how much payload you will require.”

Two of the most popular OEM upfitter options are dump and stake beds — both with loads of accessories.
For contractors who mean severe service, a steel dump on the back of a chassis cab can haul, angle and dump loads with extreme power and precision. Most dump bodies today range anywhere from 8 1/2 or 9 to 12 ft.

“There is a stagger in sizes. For instance, on a 1-ton GM 3500, we will use an 8 1/2- or 10 1/2-ft body and on its counterpart, the Ford Super Duty, we would use a 9- or 11-ft body. We have to use the longer bodies due to Ford using a rear mounted fuel tank and we have to make sure the rear of the body clears the tank,” says Butcher.

Carbon steel is still the material of choice for most contractors who yearn for a dump body, but stainless steel is making a big push — especially with municipalities. Stainless steel has no paint and there’s very little rusting, but expense-wise you’re likely looking at
double the cost. Yet, a lot of municipalities are going to stainless steel dumps and spreaders – the biggest reason being salt.

“They’re trying to keep that truck 10 or 15 years, depending on what its life-cycle is and salt is just a killer on
carbon steel,” explains Butcher. “We’re seeing a lot more stainless steel — even in the small ones — those 3 or 4 yarders and 10-ft dump applications.”

Dumps will range from just a Plain Jane carbon-steel box ($5,550) to a fully blown municipal setup with a plow, spreader and snow lights ($25,000). Just remember, those prices are only the backend and do not include the chassis.

Stake bodies are another prominent option when it comes to upfitting a chassis cab. Stake bodies come in a large array of sizes — anywhere from 9 to 24 ft. “Your most popular are probably 9s, 12s and 14s,” says Butcher. A standard level stake body will usually fall in the $3,500 range, but if you get one totally decked out, you could easily be talking $8,000 to $9,000.

Once you decide on size, consider your copious amounts of setups on your stake body. You can have lift gates, hitches, lighting, hoists and concrete racks. There are different flooring options such as pine or long-lasting composites. You can put lumber rollers on the back, tie rails and toolboxes on or below the stake body. There’s just an endless amount of things you can do with these chassis trucks.

Just remember to debate your many options with your work schedule. While some chassis cab bodies such as a dump or stake bed might be fairly quick to assemble, others may take months.

“The more vanilla it is, the quicker it turns,” muses Butcher. “If you called in here today, and wanted to take a pickup bed off and put an 8-ft utility bed on, if we had to have it done this week, we could. If you called me up and you wanted to buy a flatbed with toolboxes and a custom concrete ladder rack with panels and J-hooks, you’re probably in a three- to four-week window. If you called me up wanting a central hydraulic municipal dump with a snowplow, spreader, lights and all the bells and whistles, you’re probably anywhere from 60 to 90 days. If you’re looking for an aerial bucket right now, it’s probably four months. It just depends. The more specialized it is, the longer it takes.”

Keith Gribbins is managing editor of Compact Equipment.

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