The step van - aka the walk-in van, step truck, bread truck, multi-stop truck, MT45/MT55, F59, W62, P30, and to the body builders, the forward control chassis or strip chassis - is essentially a truck with a body constructed around a frame. This article is written with the Mobile Tool Sales business in mind. The step van was the standard of the mobile tool sales industry for many years.
Step Vans are great for mobile tool sales under the right circumstances. For example, the Freightliner MT45 16' step van was the official program truck of Snap-on Tools for many years. It is a good all around performer, reliable and inexpensive to operate, with a decent 19,500 lb GVW. The addition of sales assistants without a comfortable place to sit all day was probably one factor in Snap-on's recent switch to the Freightliner M2 Cab Chassis truck, joining Matco Tools. Cornwell Tools and Mac Tools still utilize the step van as an option for new franchises. Step Vans are best suited to lower mile city and suburban routes with minimal high speed driving and long distance highway driving.
Advantages of the Step Van:
* Lower total cost than a cab chassis truck and possibly better fuel economy due to its lighter weight.
* Safety - the driver is able to exit the vehicle on the curb side, away from traffic.
* Lower to the ground = easy on the joints! The first step up into an MT45 or P30 is approximately 14" off the ground, and the floor is only 21" above the ground (compare this to a box truck's floor 42" - 44" above the ground, you will climb 2 - 3 steps to get there). People with back or knee problems seem to find step vans more comfortable to climb in and out of all day. It is also easier for your "large" customers.
* Great in bad weather - you don't have to exit the cab and walk around outside to enter the rear sales area, you don't have to duck through a Walk-thru opening. Just slide the side door open and your customers will come out to you in many cases (apologies to training managers who love the tote tray).
* Roomy Inside - Inside height is 82" - 84", width is 96". The side entry door is all the way up front, it does not take up any wall space. For example, an 18' step van will have two side walls of equal length. Compare this to an 18' box truck, where the driver side is 18' , but the curb/passenger side has a door is in the side wall that takes up 24" - 32" of display space. Including the display area that can be utilized above the driver seat and on the engine cover, an 18' Step Van has roughly the same useful room inside as a 20' box truck.
* Lighter weight = more legal cargo capacity. With an aluminum body and strip chassis, the total package weighs less than a cab chassis truck. I once weighed an empty International 4300 22' with a full interior, it came in just under 19,000 lbs. A similarly equipped Freightliner MT55 22' weighed slightly more than 16,000 lbs. The almost 3,000 pound difference translates into an increased cargo capacity for the step van.
* With Air Ride and Air Brakes, the MT55 is a stable steady driver.
* Choice of diesel or gas engine.
* The primary tool business step vans, the Freightliner MT45 and MT55, and the Ford F59, are reliable vehicles with Cummins diesel power and V10 gas engines respectively.
Drawbacks of the Step Van:
* Long distance driving is not its strength. It is noisier and lacks driver comforts.
* It is not as comfortable for the driver or passenger. Whatever driver comfort you get is created by the truck builder. Companies like Freightliner and Peterbilt have had decades to perfect a quiet comfortable cab, and they have. Modern box truck cabs have tilt/cruise/power windows/power locks, comfortable climate control control, good radios, even leather seats are possible. The step van comes from the factory with a single drivers seat, and the passenger gets a jump seat or a lawn chair (some people say this keeps their manager off the truck! LOL).
* The body flexes more and in some cases in the older trucks cracks around the windshield over time.
* Interior layout restrictions - the truck builder has to work around the wheelwells. This limits where you can place a toolbox opening.
* Because the interior is so open, there may be concerns when leaving the truck somewhere for service. There are optional sliding security doors that can be added to alleviate this.
* Some shops do not work on or do not know how to work on a step van.
Body length - When we say 20' step van, what do we mean? This number refers to interior dimensions, the cargo area, not total body length. In a 20' step van, the interior length of the cargo area, measured from the driver's seat to the rear door, is 20'. The overall exterior length of an 20' step van, including liftgate, is closer to 30 feet, but we don't call this a 30' Step Van.
If you were to visit a chassis manufacturer, like the Freightliner plant in Gaffney NC, you would see a storage lot full of strip chassis, an engine in a frame with wheels, some being driven across the property without a body like a giant go cart. The chassis is shipped to one of several truck body builders, where an aluminum body is built on and over the frame (compare this to a cab chassis truck, where the body sits on the chassis frame rails). Two well-known body builders are Morgan-Olson (Morgan purchased Grumman in 2005), and Utilimaster. Union City was purchased by Utilimaster and is not currently producing step van bodies under it's own name.
The typical tool step van has one sliding door up front on the curbside; the driver side door is sealed for security. In back, it has a "barn style" or "swing out" single door or dual doors. A roll up door is available on step vans but its use would eliminate valuable ceiling display space, so you don't see these in Tool Trucks (rollup doors are preferred in equipment sales trucks with bulky equipment to move in and out).
Step Van makers:
Ford offers the F59 model which comes in 18' and 20' lengths. 6.8L V10 Gas engine only, no diesel option. 6-speed automatic transmission. GVW options are 19,500 and 22,000.
The Freightliner Step Van comes in 2 models, the MT45 and the MT55. 95% of late model MT45s are 16', and the maximum GVW is 19,500. The MT55 is offered in 18' - 30' lengths with a typical maximum GVW of approx 26,000, just under the CDL limit of 26,001. Air ride and air brakes are available only on the MT55. The engine choices are a Cummins diesel 6.7L or a 6.0L gas engine.
International has built a step van off and on for years, most of these are with UPS or Federal Express.
GM no longer builds a step van, having sold the factory in 1999 to the owner of Union City Body Company, who renamed it "Workhorse Custom Chassis". The famous Chevy P30 is no more, having been re-born as the Workhorse W42 and W62. Workhorse is currently experimenting with hybrid step vans and is working on an electric pickup truck.
Considering a Step Van for your tool business? Lots of people have done quite well with them. Can't beat them for inside access and low to the ground entry. The tool business is very local and no two situations are the same. Get the truck style that best suits you and your territory! Is it a Step Van? Go for it!