by Jim Kerr

We see them every day. Some of us use one to make a living, and some spend so much time in one, it almost becomes a second home. I am talking about Commercial trucks, and all of us depend on them in a thousand different ways.

Commercial trucks include the tow truck giving a boost, the ambulance rushing down the street, the delivery van dropping off packages, the big truck hauling material to repair a road, and even the yellow school bus filled with students. As you can see, the types of commercial trucks are very diverse and so are the jobs they are required to handle. So how are all these commercial trucks made to fit the specific needs?

Upfitters – that’s a key word. An upfitter is a company that takes a platform from one of the chassis builders and adds equipment or bodies to tailor that truck for a business’s needs. The ambulance and the delivery truck may have the same underpinnings, but a totally different look because of what the upfitter has built onto it.

Buying a commercial truck is totally different than buying a passenger type vehicle. With passenger vehicles, the selection process has been simplified by grouping several options or features into one package. Sure, there are still a few individual options you can add, but most come as part of one or more packages. Commercial vehicles tend to be custom built vehicles.

Recently, I had a look at General Motors’ new 2003 commercial truck line-up. GM’s commercial vehicles account for over a quarter of all new GM vehicles sold in the U.S., so GM pays attention to what buyers want and need. A buyer’s selection process starts by determining what load capacity you need to haul. That determines the chassis you need. The GMC Topkick line-up starts at 16,000 lb. Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) in their C4500 series and goes all the way to 61,000 lb. GVWR in the C8500 series truck. Now that is a load! Of course, they come in several different wheelbases to accommodate the body or box style needed, and then you may have an option of cab designs – regular, motorhome, schoolbus etc.

GM offers several engine selections for their commercial trucks: Vortec 8100 gasoline-fuelled V8, Duramax 6600 diesel, Duramax 7800 diesel, and Cat 3126E diesel. Unlike passenger vehicles that come with a set horsepower and torque rating, each of these engines has more than one power output rating so it can also be customized to the job at hand. Big trucks haul big loads, and torque ratings up to a mind twisting 860 ft lbs of torque at just above idle speed ensure these engines are capable of hauling.

Just like the engines, there is a choice of transmissions. You may be surprised to find automatic transmissions are offered on all these trucks. GMC’s new 2003 models use steering wheels and shift levers the same size as found on a pickup truck. With bucket seats and a dashboard that has all the convenience features of a pickup but with extra room for upfitter controls and switches, driver comfort is well taken care of – important when you spend all day long in the cab.

There is still much to choose: rear axle size and gearing, types of wheels, bucket or bench seat for passengers, bumper type, fuel tank capacity, and even the type of grill mount – stationary or connected to the hood. The decision list goes on and on. That is the reason big trucks are sold at truck specific dealers. The sales people need to know a lot about trucks to enable buyers to get the vehicle that is right for the job.

A couple features of the GMC Topkick trucks surprised me. The steeply sloped hood isn’t all styling. From the driver’s seat, it is possible to see the ground only 13 feet in front of the truck. That’s about half the distance of some competitors and it makes manoeuvring in tight places much easier. So does the steering. By using a set-back axle and a wheel turning angle of 54 degrees, The Topkick C4500 can turn a full circle in as little as 35 feet. That’s smaller than a typical mid size car!

Little details such as flush frame rails on the topside make the Topkick easy for upfitters to mount boxes or bodies. Huge cowl-mounted mirrors make lane changes or backing up safer and easier. ABS brakes provide stable braking on slippery surfaces.

There is a lot to designing a commercial truck that is strong, safe, and dependable. The next time you pass one on the road, think about the important jobs they do and give the driver a break – they will appreciate it.

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