History of Service and Utility Bodies for Trucks
How did service and utility bodies originate and develop? From regional workshop beginnings, the truck body industry has progressed to state-of-the-art production, and new trends are affecting the industry.
As soon as light trucks started to gain popularity around 1910, people eagerly outfitted them to do the work formerly performed by horses and wagons, with some new applications thrown in for good measure. Routine repairs suddenly became much easier and quicker to perform, and the demand grew for specialized bodies to support these tasks. Coachbuilders who made the tricky transition to the automotive era laid the groundwork for today's sophisticated and diverse truck-body industry.
After a previous story for Work Truck Review ("Gar Wood," August '15) uncorked my bottled-up love of trucks, I found myself asking about utility and service bodies. They're fascinating because of their unique function in the automotive realm, enabling a truck to carry all the tools of the trade right to the spot where they're needed. In this way, a service truck is refined and purposeful, just as a Porsche is refined with the purpose of being capable on the road or track.
Tracing the origins and development of service and utility bodies isn't easy, though. Unlike RVs and motorhomes, which have a hall of fame near Elkhart, Indiana, there's no Truck Body Hall of Fame. A few hours of searching online for historical details turned up less information than hoped. I already knew that throughout the '20s and '30s, companies like Gar Wood Industries introduced many innovations such as streamlined tanker bodies, coal delivery bodies, and even mobile towers for utility workers and tree trimmers. But these were for heavy-duty trucks.
A pioneer among light-truck body manufacturers was Martin-Parry Corp. of Indianapolis. Coachbuilt.com reports that from the introduction of the 1916 Dodge Brothers truck, Martin-Parry, which already had bodybuilding experience, offered a selection of specialties. By the early '20s, it advertised a line of "multi-service bodies" for the Ford Model T and TT. Martin-Parry was eventually acquired by General Motors and became the Chevrolet Body Division.
After this early example, the record went dark for about 15 years, until the Great Depression started to wane. Then, a so-called cabinet-body utility truck showed up in the Standard Catalog of Light-Duty Ford Trucks among the 1937 entries (which included two armored cars and a Model 77 platform stake bed). The utility body in question rode on a Model 79 Series 810, which was a 11/2-ton cab-chassis priced at $613. It was fitted with two impressive banks of steel cabinets, each of which had an unusual resemblance to the clustered villas of a Swiss ski town. The top cover on each side sloped down as steeply as a chalet's roof. Each bank of cabinets was connected at the top by five crowned hoops, making a ladder rack. A heavy rear step gave easy access to the steel floor.
Who made this Ford Model 79's impressive steel body, which had 16 latches on a side? We know that in those days Ford outsourced its commercial bodies to Budd Manufacturing and Simplex Manufacturing. Coachbuilt.com says Knapheide had started building cabs and wagon bodies for Model Ts in 1910. Could Knapheide have created the cabinet body in 1937? Galion Allsteel Body Co. had built "express" pickup and dump bodies for Model T chassis as early as 1913 and remained a truck body supplier even after Ford introduced its own pickup in 1925. Maybe they built this one. Along with Gar Wood, Galion built dump, coal, and garbage bodies for heavy-duty Ford AA and BB chassis during the 1930s.
Oddly enough, service and utility bodies appear to have proliferated during the Great Depression. For example, McCabe-Powers Auto Body Company of St. Louis introduced its service body in 1935 and soon sold it in quantity to local customers. Despite the hard times, manufacturers like Omaha Standard and Riechers Body found a way to not only survive but also flourish.
Then came World War II, and trucks returned to battle—now facing new demands. The Canadian War Museum has exhibited examples of service trucks used on the battlefront. One photo shows a heavy-duty Canadian Military Pattern 4x4 wearing livery of black and olive and carrying a modest service body. Canadian Top & Body of Tillbury, Ontario, and Wilson Motor Bodies of Toronto were among the suppliers. It's easy to imagine the truck in action as mechanics followed armored vehicles, ready to make repairs and being well outfitted for the task.
"Following World War II, the truck industry as a whole grew into a booming business," writes John Gunnell in Chevrolet Pickups, 1946-1972. "Much of the growth was in the light-duty market segment, including trucks with payload ratings up to three-quarter-ton." Between 1948 and 1951, manufacturers produced 1.3 million trucks per year. Contractors, tradesmen, and service technicians in the postwar era clamored for specialized bodies. Everybody had work to do, and those who formerly operated out of panel deliveries wanted a better way.
The postwar demand sparked many innovations. People needed "a way not only to organize their tools but their inventories," said Beth Johnson, marketing director for Reading Truck Body. The company, first known as Reading Body Works, came on to the scene in 1955, when Irving Suknow, who had attended the University of Pennsylvania, purchased a metalworking shop in Reading, Pennsylvania. This new company quickly stood out as Suknow implemented progressive management techniques and transformed Reading into a nationwide provider.
The 1960 Ford chassis was an important opportunity for Suknow's company, and clever marketing backed up the product. "Don't pile it, file it!" was the signature line in ads, and Ready the Reading Kangaroo's pouch brimmed with tools. Service bodies were detailed for the dairy and road construction equipment industries, and by 1973 the company had designed a new line of bodies for Japanese minitrucks. And there was more. "In 1981 we were the first in the industry to build an aluminum truck body," marketing director Johnson said, noting that, while aluminum has found its place, steel still holds a 60/40 sales advantage.
Meanwhile, Knapheide, one of the industry's great heritage companies, got into service bodies. The move would pay off handsomely. In the early '80s, the farm crisis caused orders for farm bodies to dwindle. Knapheide doubled its focus on service bodies, and by 1988 it could claim to be the nation's number-one producer after marketing to Sunbelt states and exporting to the Middle East.
As competition intensified throughout the industry, the emphasis was placed on innovation. Stahl, for one, fought for its share of the emerging compact truck market typified by the Chevy S-10 and Ford Ranger. Stahl had joined the game in 1946 and, through the decades, it claimed many firsts, including galvanized steel bodies, automotive-grade panel seals, and rotary latches. In documents submitted to the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association in 1985, Stahl boasted of "over 200 variations of standard bodies to fit domestic fullsize and compact trucks, single or dual rear wheels." Weighing it at just 740 pounds and 840 pounds respectively, the Fiberglass 95 and 106 service bodies provided unparalleled corrosion resistance for 3/4- and 1-ton chassis. The company had four plants, an arrangement that was said to guarantee quick delivery, low shipping costs, and convenient service.
Today's industry incorporates the most advanced manufacturing practices in the effort to provide value and quality. One example was seen in 2006, when Omaha Standard's new 210,000-square-foot plant consolidated operations and provided unusual flexibility. A unique agreement with a supplier included a dedicated, highly automated laser cutter at that company's location.
Customization has become increasingly important in today's truck body industry, but at the same time, there's more at play than whether the electric hot-stick compartment is located on the body's curbside. Other trends are in effect. Mike Antich pointed out last May in
that ergonomic excellence and overall safety are increasingly recognized as priorities. Backup cameras and object detection have become common, and features like drop-down ladder racks reduce the risk of injury. Body refurbishing and reuse is another trend.
Are service and utility trucks collectible? After all, they do have a mulish charm, and the bodywork suggests many adventures. But I turned up just one example. In the recession-stricken year of 2010, a '47 Dodge utility body truck was auctioned for $1,775. I missed the perfect opportunity to start my collection.