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Efficient and effective [CAR June 2012 print edition]

Customize your truck to save time and money


July 9, 2012
by Howard J Elmer

From the June 2012 print edition of Canadian Automotive Review.

How many times have you used a screwdriver as a chisel? Or a butter knife rather than finding that screwdriver? We’ve all done it and for a quick fix it works—though not well.

Work vehicles are very often treated the same way. We buy them and use them stock. Over time, a web of strings, bungee cords and jury-rigged shelves will end up hanging from the inside of vans while pickups will carry plywood boxes, milk crates and the inevitable paint and metal damage from loading ladders and awkward equipment over and over again without the appropriate receiving systems.

And while most tradesmen justify this awkward practice as a cost of doing business, the real truth is that an inefficient work vehicle is a time waster. And we all know time is money.

Adrian Steel builds the Transition pull-out shelf and drawer units that fit small pickups.

For the above reasons (and more) the aftermarket vehicle upfitter market exists. Few if any reading this will be shocked or surprised by this statement; we all know they are out there, but many small businesses and tradesman simply reject as too expensive the idea of upfitting a van or truck. Yes, there is a cost, but it’s a cost with a purpose that over time saves money—and the first thing to be aware of is that a custom-designed body can be used over the life of several trucks. That changes everything—you can bear the cost over many years, not just over the service life of one vehicle, because that body can be transplanted several times.

Past this, upfitters are getting more and more specialized each year, offering purpose-built bodies for specific industries. These are the ones that save time and increase productivity. At work truck shows in recent years I’ve seen numerous examples of this. For instance, Supreme Corporation builds the Adrian brand of service bodies with unique pull-out sections for parts storage that will fit on small truck chassis. This body also speaks to a growing trend that might just help fleets cope with current fuel prices—smaller service vehicles.

Not everything is metal, either. Fiberglass reinforced plywood roof add-ons (from Spartan Cargo) can increase the standard Detroit van cargo capacity by 75 percent and allow a driver to stand up straight in the rear of the van. The Unicell Body Company makes larger bodies for cutaway van chassis—one piece, made of molded seamless fiberglass and they save fuel because of their lower weight and aerodynamic shape.

A Knapheide work body on a pickup.

Knapheide Manufacturing offers medium-duty bodies complete with power lift gates and compartment spaces inside and out. Oriented to utility companies, these types of trucks can also support hoists, platform and stake bodies as well as gooseneck towing bodies.

For the pickup market, Leer Truck Caps offers a range of contractor cap designs—all of which carry ladders. Pace Edwards has new retractable truck bed covers as well as full-metal over-bed support frames for equipment transport. These days, hitches are added almost as standard equipment to most upfitters’ creations; which speaks to the increase in the use of trailers by owners who want to maximize the use of a truck—adding capacity and making the most of hauling power. Trailer builders have also increased their offerings to the work market with some very unique and smart designs.

A key development among the vehicle manufacturers that facilitates this is the addition of integrated trailer brake controllers (and exhaust braking) to all makes of half-ton and larger trucks.

Direct delivery

An added service feature these days is the manufacturers’ pipeline to the upfitters. For many customers this means they have to pick up the truck only once—when it is complete and ready to work—as the manufacturer will deliver the vehicle directly to the upfitter. The upfitter can (and will) also collect auxiliary equipment from suppliers on your behalf and integrate it. Again, a one-stop service.

Sortimo installed a multi-purpose interior in this Mercedes Sprinter

This type of service speaks to the close relationship between vehicle manufacturers and aftermarket upfitters who make a living relying on what the manufacturers produce. So, it’s no surprise that the upfitters have been quick to adapt to the next wave of European van imports that are really going to start pouring in next year.

Mercedes-Benz intends to add to the current Sprinter lineup with the midsize Vito and smaller Vario—a van very much in the same class as the Ford Transit Connect. At the same time, Ford has announced the death of its long-running E Class—to be replaced by the imported, large Transit vans.

Chrysler, currently shut out of the commercial van market, will rely on its partner Fiat to bring in a new range of vans. Look for two Italian-sourced vans to land next year. Nissan, which dove head-first into the van market with its full-size NV just last year has this year also added the NV200, a smaller Transit Connect-size competitor.

Adrian Steel built a custom work interior for this Nissan NV van.

The common design element among all these trucks is the availability of a factory-built high roof; this innovation has now spawned a whole new generation of interior designs from the upfitters.

Ranger Van Shelving builds modular components that can be mixed and matched; however they also offer customized packages (to fit these new vans) for plumbing, electrical, HVAC and delivery vehicles. True Racks Inc also has a variety of aluminum storage and shelving products—and work-related items for the driver’s cab. Calgary Fleet Outfitters and Supply Inc offers the same full range of van items, as well as things like custom work benches, sliding storage pullouts and folding ramps that unfold with one hand and can support up to 750kg.

Power it up

The other area where manufacturers and upfitters work hand in hand is power requirements. So while storage and carrying ability are key features of work vehicles, the need for power on-site is just as important. Of course, what we are talking about is the truck/van’s ability to be a standing powerplant by producing electricity or torque through power take-off (PTO) applications. The most common need is electricity—to run lights, compressors, refrigeration, miscellaneous equipment and hydraulic systems. For the buyer it’s important to know power needs long before they get to the upfitter stage of a purchase.

This is not as daunting as it sounds—all manufacturers offer various electrical and powertrain options which are the base for the upfitters to work from. And by simply describing what you need to do with your vehicle, they will recommend the package that will support your vocation.

This is another reason these two industries work closely together. Each year, as new models debut, the upfitters get first crack at reviewing the new equipment and adding those specs to their storehouse of information. By the time you come along with a new truck they’ll know how to build what you want the right way so you can get on with business.                       c.a.r.