Light-duty Service Trucks, also known as Utility Trucks, are a mostly post World War 2 American phenomenon. Trucks are, and have always been, endlessly configurable, as to capacities and applications. Unlike cars, which are complete and fully fitted out, trucks are often ordered new as a “cab-and-chassis”, in which the final configuration of the vehicle is determined by the aftermarket elements and features that are added to it. Work trucks, in general, begin as either enclosed panel vans, pickup trucks, or flatbed trucks. The high-capacity, open rear platforms of heavy-duty flatbed trucks offer all sorts of opportunities for modification and specialization. Vans offer the capacity to be fitted and configured internally, while offering security, weather protection, and either anonymity or a broad open expanse for logos and/or advertising.
Modified pickup trucks are the historical basis for simple, relatively light-duty service trucks. By replacing the rear truck bed with a suitable series of externally accessible cabinets, one’s tools and parts can be stowed, locked up, segregated, and it all also can be very easy to access. The modern light-duty service truck is typically a full-size, single cab, one-ton or so truck (think Ford F-250 to F-350, GM 2500 to 3500, or Ram 2500 to 3500). So, the term “light-duty” is relative to the bigger rigs, not an absolute. These are generally not half-tonner F-150s. Typically, fitment is an eight foot long service body, to a truck usually equipped with a single-wheel rear axle, but occasionally fitted with dual rear wheels. Trucks of larger capacity and size go into more specialization, so we will save a discussion of those for another time.
My own initiation into service trucks, which is probably a similar experience to any boy roughly my age growing up in the suburbs, was the dark green telephone company truck. The Bell System standardized around white-over-khaki panel vans in the very early 1970s, but in the ‘60s, a phone company truck was usually a dark green cab-and-chassis, fitted with a distinctive slope-tailed box mounted on the aft half of the truck. Racks carried small ladders, and the rest of the tools and equipment was locked into the service body, which itself sat between the rear wheels of the rig, with externally mounted rear fenders. The “bell” emblems on the cab doors and the lettering on the trucks was generally of professional sign-painter quality. One would see those dark green trucks running around everywhere, while the workers connected up phones at people’s houses, and who occasionally entertained the neighborhood kids by deftly climbing the utility poles to make connections or do maintenance.
While the phone company trucks used a bespoke service body, with less exterior access, the typical light-duty service truck got a standardized, off-the-shelf design that was established at the end of WW2. Like the first standardized Jeep, the first standardized service body had the economy and utility, the “fit for its function” attribute, which meant that little has changed over the decades. The service body can be defined as a blocky structure, with the top of it sitting a bit higher than the belt line of the truck, situated on either side of the rear of the truck, surrounding the rear wheel on each side. There are usually three lockable cabinets on each side, with vertically oriented compartments fore and aft of each rear wheel, and a long horizontal cabinet along the space above the wheel well. The structure is completed by adding a strong rear step and tailgate, to give access to the somewhat narrower and taller open rear bed. These units are generally universally eight feet long, to precisely substitute for the eight foot truck beds they replace. While the cab-and-chassis structure evolves and updates across the model years, the service bodies stay remarkably constant in structure and features. They can also generally be moved from truck to truck, or one can be replaced by an original pickup truck bed, if one wants to eliminate the service body.
Service trucks have traditionally been painted in many different colors, but in recent decades, most of them have been painted white. Go visit a fleet truck dealer, and the lighter-duty service offerings will all be white in color. It has become a sort of universal choice for light-duty service trucks. Flashes of color, logos, and the obligatory lettering get added to the white background. Now, one can get vinyl “wraps” as well, but the underlying constant is still almost always white paint.
The service bodies can be moved from older trucks to newer ones, but they often stay put. They can be prone to rust, dings, and general wear-and-tear on the cabinets, doors, and associated hardware. Where fuel filler access is incorporated into the service body design and application, moving the body can become a bit problematic. Occasionally, wheelbase differences and cab-corner-to-rear-axle variations can cause adaptation problems as well. Typically, unless a service body is getting scrapped or the entire truck is being parted out, the service body stays put.
The most popular addition to a service truck fitted with the rear body is an overhead rack. This enables long ladders, pipe, and beams to easily be carried. As most service trucks are used in the construction and maintenance trades, the overhead rack can be a valuable addition to the rig. The underlying concept is to make the vehicle as self-contained as possible, given its intended use. Sometimes, vises, winches, small lifts, or pipe cutters are added to the rear bumper. The sturdy rear bumpers also offer a good starting point for mounting a strong trailer hitch.
The idea is to make the truck a bit of a Swiss Army Knife of a vehicle, which can conceivably rise to the occasion, no matter the application. However, overhead cranes, rigs, or buckets typically require heavier duty trucks. “Typically” being the key word, because such things have been added to these lighter duty vehicles from day one. The concept is to have no more vehicle than is necessary for the task, but users often push the envelope, when applying lighter-duty trucks to heavier-duty jobs. “Use what you have”, being the operative decision.
Going back to the old days, trucks were endlessly configurable, and the service modifications were typically made one-by-one, or in small batches. Of course, owners of Sedan Delivery or Panel Trucks could outfit the interiors in any way they pleased. But, after WW2, perhaps to use some of the industrial capacity that was available, the large-scale production of service bodies commenced, from a number of small manufacturers. One of the early leaders was Stahl, who began producing them in 1946. Another early manufacturer was Morysville Body Works. Koenig and Reading joined later, as did others. Typically, one would need to look for embossing or a logo on the tailgate, or for the builder’s plate, to tell one from another, unless one was very familiar with the various offerings.
I enjoy seeing the trucks of various years and makes, with all sorts of “looks” on the front half, bearing the same structure out back. The service body is the constant, around which other things change. I have never owned or used a service truck, but I imagine that it is one of those things, that if you are used to using one, especially if you are in a trade and using it constantly, that it is something one would not want to go without.
It is interesting to me that while vans and panel trucks often “hide” what is inside, these trucks basically advertise “parts and tools here”! There is something to the high-trust aspect of the culture that one’s ladders and tools can be carried with either open accessibility or easy access, and it all still works. These trucks are definitely locked up at night, and generally are not parked out on open streets. That would be too tempting for the bad guys.
The white service trucks are also blue-collar status symbols of sorts. Like the mechanic with the massive tool chest, a fancy service truck can be a statement. But these smaller rigs are generally rather generic in appearance and function. When one wants to show off, it usually gets done with a heavier-duty service truck. But, that’s not to say one can’t add a little “bling” to his service truck.
These trucks are not cheap, given that the underlying cab-and-chassis is a pricey thing these days. Fully configured but basic, like the truck at the top of this page, will currently run about $50k, new.
Next time, we will delve into the medium-duty service trucks. Depending on one’s intended use, service trucks can go all the way up to full-blown heavy-duty rigs. As you will see, the medium duty vehicles get more specialized, but they still retain the “essence” of the white service truck, with a “cab-and-chassis” front half, and walls of metal cabinetry along the rear sides.
Ive always liked the utility of service truck type bodies, not to mention the look,
They were never really a thing in the UK for whatever reason, probably as enclosed vans are more often used as work vehicles.
Closest I t have seen is the bodies used by a few utility companies on vehicles they used for working in rural or off road areas, which were based on Landrover defender chassis cab, then when those were no longer available 4×4 Japanese pickup trucks, (though some of the landrovers are still in use)
As a kid, I was always intrigued by light and medium duty service trucks. Or any trucks dedicated to highly unique tasks. I was perusing Ontario Ministry of Transportation photo archives earlier this summer, and thought this earlier Department of Highways truck with compartments dedicated to specific highway directional signage, was interesting. Impressive level of coordination for early 1950s highway maintenance.
You can see the sign posts laying flat above the sign compartments.
Never caught on in the UK except for 4×4 utility company use.. They are a one trick pony. Panel vans can be ply lined and used for hauling tvs,car parts,fruit n veg.When Mr Tax mans says ” get a new one you can sell it to the bloke who wants to haul a dirt bike or going camping.. You can t with a utility body.
For all-weather service vehicles, we mostly switched to enclosed vans here too. Especially, phone and public utilities.
Very interesting, thank you. My electrician just replaced his well worn Econoline with a new Chevy Express full size van cutaway with a tall service body on back. Seems like the best of both, being a van the service body can be longer than normal (due to the short engine bay), he has all kinds of exterior quick access to what he needs, but still has covered interior space, albeit a bit on the narrower side. Around here I’m starting to also see Transit and ProMaster cutaways with service bodies, both the enclosed as well as the open kind.
That Ford 4 pictures from the end of the article labeled as early 60’s should be no newer than a ’60 as the F series was redesigned for the ’61 model year.
Interesting regarding the two tone paint treatment on the Chevy in last pic, including using the factory Chevy style side mouldings on the utility box for the two tone.
Makes me wonder why a cab and chassis would have come from the factory in a two tone paint scheme when it could have ended up with any sort of box or bed added to it afterwards.
True, the Ford was earlier, and I discovered it after I had sent off the article. Most of the service trucks through the early ‘60s, that I found on-line, were short wheelbase models. Perhaps the service body plus cargo used up the truck’s rated capacity quite quickly, and a longer wheelbase version would have tempted fate by making it easier to overload the truck.
Thank you for the feature.
Service trucks were never much on my mind until my son got a position with Wajax as a heavy duty technician. His service truck was tricked out with all the things one would need in the field to work on a tractor or broken down semi.
Not long after I took on a sales position with Wurth Canada and one of my best clients was a firm near Edmonton that built service bodies. They did a booming business for companies all over western Canada. Interestingly most of the pickup trucks they obtained for conversation came with cargo beds. They made so sense to me as later the company was tasked with selling off surplus cargo beds online. Very rarely did I see cab and chassis rigs onsite, with the exception of perhaps 3/4 to 1 ton trucks.
I always wanted to, and still do, put a service body on my long bed Ranger. They do (or did) make them; I have seen them.
Since I live in downtown Ottawa, I was able to get a close look at the transit service tow trucks that were eventually used to tow many of the trucker protest vehicles. And was impressed how the tow body doubles as a full service body.
Great job Dutch! I remember the picture you posted in a reply the other day, and now we’ve got a comprehensive article with a (service) truck load of images.
You’ve posted lots of work vans and van-based cutaways with flat beds from Europe, Johannes. Is this style of service body used at all there, either on pickup or van cutaway platforms?
No such bodies around here. Everything is packed in an enclosed body. Like these:
I’m told most fleet trucks are white these days for one simple reason… If (when?) they need to go to the body shop, white is the easiest to color match and therefore the cheapest to repair.
As for cab-and-chassis vs box delete… I found an interesting article at https://www.superspringsinternational.com/chassis-cab-pickup-truck-or-box-delete/ that explains there are different frames between the two, so I suppose it depends on what frame the utility body is designed to mount to.
Another thought… I couldn’t find current pricing on the “box delete” option, but I found something from 2018 that for GM trucks, “box delete” was a $575 credit option. At least one of the companies that installs utility bodies around here has a side business in selling takeoff beds – for WAY more than $575!!
Yes, that’s a good point: there are some not-insignificant differences between chassis cabs and pickups with box delete. Besides the flat frame rails, cab-to-axle (CA) measurement is the major distinguishing feature. Pickup wheelbases and the placement of the axle within the bed can be all over the place depending on model, year, and cab/bed length. But all the Big 3’s chassis cabs now adhere to industry standards of 60″, 84″, 108″, and 120″ CA (the latter two are usually limited to regular cabs), so they can all run the same service bodies and not worry about fitment.
When it comes to pickup box delete, it’s almost always more profitable to just keep the box and sell it yourself.
Before the current supply/demand situation resulted in empty dealer lots, our small(ish) town Ford dealer had a showroom with two or three cars, perhaps one fancy pickup, a small lot with five or ten more cars, and a large lot across the street with trucks. 80% of the trucks were white SuperDuties with service bodies. Interestingly, the Ram dealer down the street, with a similar sized lot and lots of pickups, never had any service-bodied trucks in stock. When we bought our Transit, mid-2020, the lot was almost empty but we got several recommendations to use that dealership, and specifically, the commercial fleet sales manager. She’d been selling Fords for 30 years, and knew the details of every option; we got exactly what we wanted and needed and at a very fair price.
I grew up with these. My dad was a Cat heavy equipment mechanic for most of his life, and the last one he had came home with him in about 1966 and he drove it until about 1973.
He worked for Peterson Tractor Co, the Cat dealer in San Jose and they equipped it very well. It had a Motorola 2 way radio, oxyacetylene torch, Lincoln arc welder, air compressor that could drive a 3/4″ impact wrench, electric cable hoist, and all the tools he had accumulated. There was a Yost 4″ vise mounted to the diamond plate rear bumper as well.
It had a V-8 engine, not sure of the displacement mated to a 4 speed stick with a granny low.
He added a 20 foot cable extension to the switch box for the hoist to make it easier to pull heads off diesel engines.
the attached picture is about one generation newer than the one he had, but the paint scheme was very close. The S-number on the side of the hood was the radio call sign, his was S-82 and the base in San Jose was S-80.
There was a huge amount of construction in the South Bay Area at the time. I-280 was being extended up to San Francisco and he followed that project to its completion.
So it was great for me to have access to all these tools, as long as he was home on the weekends. Lots of memories around that truck. You could always count on seeing his portable radio and a box of Cheez-ìts on the front seat, and there was always a steel 5 gallon bucket half full of solvent in the back for cleaning parts. Good Tìmes.
Thanks for the overview on this mostly-overlooked niche of the commercial vehicle market. These utility bodies are one area where time has largely stood still. Bodies from decades ago looking mighty similar to what’s produced today.
This isn’t something that I keep track of, but off the top of my head, I can only think of Reading as being a utility-body manufacturer these days. I suppose they have the biggest slice of the market, but I just can’t think of who the other major manufacturers are these days.
I’m living in the Southwest now. Lots of Knapheide units running around here as well. I believe my Dad’s box was a Reading.
I think it is somewhat a regional thing. Around here I can’t say I see many Readings. Knapheide is the most common for LD trucks with Altec being popular on MD trucks.
There are still quite a few companies https://www.servicetruckmagazine.com/resources/service-truck-body-manufacturers/
Scoutdude and 55-wrench,
Now that I think about it, regionality probably accounts for a lot of what I see around here. I bet Reading is the main player in the Mid-Atlantic (I’m in Virginia) – less so elsewhere.
There is a quite large Knapheide factory in Quincy, Illinois. Toured it about ten or twelve years ago. It was fascinating to see the boxes being built.
Another one about utility (or service) beds. There can be a lot of variation, as evidenced by my tour of the Knapheide plant. Doors can vary on hinge location as can overall configuration although admittedly there is more variation in the larger chassis (medium and heavy duties) than in the light duties as discussed here.
One thing not mentioned were the short lived tool box sides for step side beds. You took a standard pickup equipped with a step side bed, removed the fenders and steps and replaced them with tool box units that covered the entire side of the bed. I’ve seen them in an IH Neccessories catalog from the late 50’s IIRC.
In a way, these service bodies are a continuation of that, since many models still have a 4×8′ straight-sided internal cargo area.
There are so many variations. Some pickup trucks have boxes mounted on top of the bed sides. Then there are the different ways to go with the saddle mount, typically used for fluids but also as tool boxes, often with the center-hinged doors.
I intentionally tried to narrow the scope of this post, with the idea of doing one more on the larger, heavier duty service truck variants (coming up soon). This particular rabbit hole opens up into many others, and I intend to follow a few, if for no other reason than that there is very little out there across the Internet on the subject, other than product catalogues and service trucks for sale (you can imagine what the typical ad bannering around this joint looks like for me now, wall-to-wall trucks for sale and truck accessories).
Before the recent feul price surge, my friend and I had been looking for one of these from NYFD or NYC fleet in city auctions, we prefer a GM diesel model, this type of vehicle is more practical than regular pickup, I think vehicle manufacturers will build the future pickup with some of the features in the regular rear bed.
Ram has been doing so for quite a while with flip-up bed rails.
Bought many of these over the years. Bought white truck for three reasons, resale, body or topper availability and cost.
A lot of body or toppers charge extra for any color other than white. White units are more likely in stock. Always can sell a white utility truck or van, Al the plumber that needs a new van may not want a yellow, orange, green or red van, but he usually is fine with buying a white van. Now with wraps available you can have your logos and easily stripped at resale time to reveal a decent paint underneath for a good resale.
Also bought fiberglass utility bodies as the steel bodies tend to rot much worse then the trucks. Switching bodies is fraught with problems, doesn’t fit or rust damage that is only going to get worse and probably require major repairs or replacement before the truck chassis.
We also did a lot of toppers with heavy duty bed slides to hold all the equipment.
The other area not discussed is the safety issues. Generally when in an accident the vehicle driver and passengers are pretty well protected from all the cargo, tools, ladders etc. Previously a fair amount of vehicles used were cargo vans and Suburbans, Tahoes, etc. Lots of junk to fly around in an accident and will the bulkhead really contain it?
You can also do a “topper” or enclosed top utility box, add a heater and have storage in the back and keep your items warm if needed.
Lastly there are the utility bodies that resemble a slip in camper, works good for some jobs, splicing or repairing fiber optic cable, etc. These bodies are very easily changed out from one rig to another without the usual fitment issues of new truck vs old truck.
Biggest issue with all of these was to not cave to the pressure to buy a lighter truck than what you need.
I’ve seen some fancier bodies on newer trucks that are contoured to match the profile of the cab and bed. The Midbox would also fit in as a halfway solution combining a specially made mini service box with a short pickup bed in the space of a long bed.
Lately I’m seeing contractors using Sprinter or Transit vans with enclosed boxes like the Knapheide below and the occasional open top. I’ve also seen some movement away from the pickup based vehicle to a van for the greater security and option of working inside.
The van-based truck would likely give one a shorter vehicle for the given sized service body, or a longer service body for a given size vehicle. The larger service trucks aren’t going to fit in standard parking spaces, often because of length and sometimes because of width. A van base would get around those limitations somewhat.
Always been my favorite type of truck. Bell of Pennsylvania switched to the Lester Beall-designed white and khaki Dodge Tradesmans by the time I was old enough to notice, but our house painter, a Mr. Skamangis, had an old, paint-spattered Chevy Advanced Design Bell service truck.
I have a 1958 Dodge Special Equipment Catalog, which is basically a collection of catalogs of aftermarket suppliers, with a couple of utility body vendors represented. They of course prepared separate ads and catalogs for each truck brand.
As a kid, I recall collecting a Hot Wheels emergency service truck circa 1975(?). They sold it for several years, using different colour schemes and livery. It was styled after the then nearly new Chevrolet C/K trucks.
As the owner of a few of these service beds, the tendency for them to rust away is a big negative. They rust in the doors, the boxes, and leak in from the top to even rust your tools! There must not be the slightest inclination to manufacture these with any thought of longevity.
You are right about the rust issue with the steel bodies. Fiberglass is pretty good the only problem we had with them was some times the doors didn’t seal so water would still get in and getting the vendors to fix this stuff is a real pain in the A**.
Dutch 1960, thank you for this. FWIW, Knapheide is a common label found on service bodies in the Dallas, Texas market.