A History of Light Duty Service Trucks

Your basic white service truck, right off the dealer’s lot.

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.

The quintessential phone company service truck. In the ‘60s, ours had a then-current Ford cab. The service body lettering should properly be painted by a sign painter.

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.

The typical layout of the basic service body cabinets. They are usually mirror-imaged on the other side.

Modular and ready for installation.

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.

These newer service trucks are almost always white.

Service trucks used to be more commonly painted in different bright colors.

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.

An older truck, complete with an overhead rack.

This one has a small pair of racks on the right side, along with a vise and a crane lift on the reinforced rear bumper. Also an enclosed center bed.

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.

An older rig with a built-in ladder.

A roughly year 2000-dated truck, set up to do water well maintenance. A long rack for the pipe segments, and a tall extendable crane to install and remove the pipes. The rigs incorporating tall cranes are typically heavier duty trucks than this one.

This older unit (1970ish) incorporates rail car wheels for driving along the tracks.

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.

An advertisement from the late ‘50s. Besides the basic service body, Reading offered versions with enclosed truck beds and also cabinets to mount on top of the pickup truck rear fenders.

A welder and generator permanently mounted. This is a typical installation, though usually seen on heavier duty rigs. The two smaller welders are no doubt portables just set on the service body for the photo. One shouldn’t park this truck outside at night!

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.

Late 1950s.

Early 1960s.


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.

A new truck with a bit of shiny diamond-plate “bling” here and there.

The two-tone paint scheme of this older truck has been extended to the service body. The wide-mounted side mirrors are essential to a properly configured truck with dual rear wheels, to “see” around the service body, which extends out a bit extra from the side of a “dually” 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.