The invasion of the body snatchers

Trailer/Body Builders March 2015 editorial

WHERE have all the truck bodies gone?

Their disappearance might be hard to detect at first glance. But we aren’t talking about truck bodies actually disappearing before your very eyes. Instead, these are bodies you simply don’t see because they never get to your shop.

The question we have for you this month: To what extent will the influx of new commercial vans take the place of traditional truck bodies mounted on chassis cabs?

While the Sprinter van has been available here for more than a decade, and Ford has offered the Transit Connect for half a decade, it’s only been recently that the these European-inspired vans have really begun to gain traction. Multiple manufacturers now offer vehicles capable of meeting the needs that have been served by either utility bodies or van bodies that are mounted on conventional chassis cabs.

It’s not clear right now to what extent these completed vehicles are “snatching” away second-unit bodies that otherwise would be mounted on a chassis cab. Because they are so new, our guess that the impact right now is relatively minor. The more important question is how these vehicles will affect the truck equipment business next year and next decade.

After walking the exhibit floor of The Work Truck Show earlier this month, it’s obvious that many very large, very successful companies in the commercial truck business are betting big that the same basic vehicles that have been widely accepted elsewhere in the world will find a home, too, in North America.

We have seen tentative steps in this direction before, but the steps being taken now represent a march, not a stroll. This time it’s not just someone wanting to bring in a trial balloon from overseas. Multiple manufacturers—Ram, Ford, Daimler, GM, Nissan—are rolling out new entries for this vehicle segment. And where the chassis manufacturers go, the truck equipment industry usually is quick to follow.

Based on what we hear and what exhibitors displayed this year, truck body and truck equipment manufacturers already have products to get these vehicles ready for commercial applications, and more are being planned. As part of next month’s Work Truck Show Report Issue, we will provide a pictorial report of what we have seen so far. Meanwhile, this month’s cover story on Auto Truck’s new ship-through operation provides an idea of the level of infrastructure that is being built to upfit these vehicles. Auto Truck’s is but one of several facilities that have opened in Kansas City to take advantage of the anticipated demand for commercial upfits on the Ford Transit.

But it’s not just Ford that is drawing the attention of the truck equipment industry. So is the ProMaster van from Ram. Utilimaster has responded by opening its Ram Commercial Upfit Center in Saltillo, Mexico, where the Ram assembles the ProMaster.

Okay, but are these vans really snatching truck bodies? Depends on who you ask. The responses we got when we asked fleet managers were polar opposites. One fleet manager described the arrival of these vehicles as having no effect on what his fleet would continue to buy.

The other extreme was a definite “yes.” One fleet manager’s reasons:

•  High-roof models provide as much cube as a van body mounted on a cutaway chassis.

•  Specs offer options that were not available before.

•  Buying a completed vehicle means fewer holes, squeaks, and leaks. The truck “ages” better.

The summary: “Everything else being equal, I would prefer buying from the OEM if I can get a truck that fits my needs. It’s just easier.”

We see (and will show you next month) how many companies in our industry are gearing up to serve this new niche. In many cases, the bodies aren’t being snatched—they are just being mounted on a different type of vehicle.

But what does this hold for the local truck equipment distributor? One opportunity may be in working even more closely with the end user and the truck dealer.

“We are very disappointed in the level of expertise that we are getting from local truck dealers,” one fleet manager told us recently. “I question how long a truck OEM can remain in the commercial truck business if their dealers can’t take care of their customers.”

Truck equipment distributors have always considered themselves to be the experts in equipping vehicles for commercial applications. Now may be the time to apply time-tested expertise to a growing array of new vehicles. ♦

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