The Step Van


This page updated 1/17/08


The step van, also known as the walk-in van, step truck, bread truck, or forward control chassis, has been the standard of the mobile tool industry for many years, and remains the most popular tool truck body style. Step vans are known for their convenient interior access. The driver can walk easily from the front to the rear of the body without exiting. Step vans are great in all kinds of weather because one can work inside the truck without exiting the driver area to walk around to the rear. The truck body builders also cite the safety of a step van because the driver exits the vehicle on the curb side, away from traffic. Plus, the distance from the ground to the stepwell is closer to the ground than a box truck or cab chassis truck, so people with back or knee problems seem to find them more comfortable to work out of.

Step vans are available in body lengths ranging from 10' to 26'. Until recently, the mobile tool industry standard was the 16', but there has been a gradual shift to the 18’ body. (Side note: when we say 18', we mean the interior length of the body or cargo area, from behind the driver's seat to the rear door. The overall exterior length of an 18' step van, including liftgate, is closer to 29 feet). While some tool dealers eventually move up to an 18' or larger truck as their business grows, there are also tool people who stay in their first 16' step van and buy another. It really depends upon what works for you.

Building a new step van is a two-step process. A step van starts out life as a frame with dual rear wheels, 2 front wheels, an engine and steering wheel, and is appropriately known as a “strip chassis”. Today there are two primary step van chassis manufacturers, International (formerly Workhorse Custom Chassis, and formerly Chevrolet/GMC), maker of the P30042 16’ and W52 18’, and Freightliner, with their MT 45 and MT 55 models. If you were to visit an International or Freightliner manufacturing facility, you would see a storage lot full of strip step van chassis, some being driven across the property without a body, like a giant go cart. Eventually the chassis is shipped to one of several truck body builders, where an aluminum body is constructed and installed. The body is built both by hand and machine, and fits on and around the chassis. Morgan/Olson (Morgan purchased Grumman Olson in 2005), Union City (purchased by Utilimaster in 2005), and Utilimaster are three long-time truck body builders (see the "Industry Links" section for more information on these companies). Union City is not currently producing step van bodies under it's own name.

While a step van can have two front sliding doors, the tool step van has only one forward sliding door on the curbside. The driver side door is typically sealed for security reasons. It also has dual rear wheels to accommodate greater weight and swing out single or dual rear doors. A roll up door is available but its use would eliminate valuable ceiling display space.

The P30, from Chevrolet to Workhorse to International

We give the P30 a separate spot in the step van section because for years in the tool business, “P30” and “step van” meant the same thing. P30 was Chevrolet's model name for its 14' - 16' - 18' step van, the tool industry standard. The 16' P30 is an all-around good performer - not too big, not too small, reasonably good handling, has a decent weight capacity, adequate room inside, and is cost effective. It's not considered a medium or heavy-duty truck, so most parts are available at your local Chevrolet dealer, at least through the 1999 model year. After 1999, the Chevrolet step van chassis manufacturing factory was purchased by Workhorse Chassis Corporation, disassembled, and literally moved from Michigan to Indiana and put back together. P30's are still being manufactured, with continuous upgrades, and beginning with the 2000 model year, sold as a Workhorse P30042 model. With the purchase in 2007, the Workhorse step van is soon to be introduced as the International step van. While you may hear some tool dealers refer to their truck as a Grumman or Union City, according to the title it is a Chevrolet or a Workhorse, with a Grumman, Union City, or Utilimaster body.

There have been several power plant and GVW variations of the P30 available over the years. Early 16' P30 tool trucks – from 1976 through the early 1980's - were sold in a 10,000 lbs. GVW version with 7.50" x 16" tires (GVW is Gross Vehicle Weight, which is the total weight capacity of a truck, including the cargo. In this case, a truck weighing 10,000 lbs would be acceptable, 10,001 would be over-weight). The engine was Chevy's reliable 350V8 (5.7L), with the Turbo 400 transmission. Around 1985 the chassis was upgraded to 14,000 lbs GVW with the addition of heavier springs and other components, and later upgraded again to 16,000 lbs. GVW, and riding on 19.5" tires. Most of the 1980's and mid 1990's tool trucks were powered by either a 350 V8 or 454 V8 (sorry, not the same one in the 1969 SS Nova, this is the truck version). Beginning in 1982, Chevrolet experimented with diesel power, starting with a 6.2L V8, then settled on a 6.5L V8 diesel, available from 1994 on. Today the diesel engine is the 6.6L Duramax, and a 350 Vortec V8 gas version is still available. When Workhorse took over, there was no diesel option, but WH/International is rumored to be offering a diesel version of it's step van in the near future.

Chevrolet also manufactured a heavier step van, the CX-950, or P60, from 1980 until 1993. While loved by tool dealers, the truck didn't sell in enough volume outside the tool business for Chevrolet to maintain satisfactory production levels and was discontinued. The P60 was available in 18' - 24' versions, and was powered by a 366 or 427 V8 gas engine, or the 8.2L diesel engine. The GVW was approximately 23,000 lbs. There are a lot of P60’s still on the road in the tool business today, a testament to its ruggedness. A used CX in good condition still has good resale value, too, as you’ll see in the Classifieds section of ToolTrucks.com.

Freightliner Step Vans:

Freightliner offers a 16' and 18' step van in their model MT-45, powered either by a 5.9 Cummins or a Mercedes engine (Mercedes owns Freightliner). Because its GVW rating exceeds 19,000 lbs., technically this is a medium-duty truck. Prior to the Freightliner purchase of the company, this truck was known as the Oshkosh, and before that, the John Deere (you'll see both on ToolTrucks.com). The John Deere was powered by a 460 Ford V8. The MT 45 is an excellent vehicle, with enough room and tool carrying capacity for most tool distributors, and is the standard new dealer truck for one of the largest tool companies.

Freightliner also offers their model MT-55, with a larger 230 and 260 horsepower Cummins 5.9 diesel engine, Allison automatic transmission, 25,500+ GVW, and body lengths of 18’ to 26’. The step van sales leader in the tool truck business has shifted over the past few years from Chevrolet/Workhorse/International to Freightliner.

Recent Step Van Upgrades:

Step vans enjoy steady popularity as tool trucks, and despite a simple design that has changed little over the years, improvements have been ongoing. One area of improvement is in the engine. The switch to diesel engines from gas has allowed the elimination of a separate auxiliary power unit, or generator. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, a gasoline-powered generator was typically used to power air conditioning units. AC units can be run off a gasoline engine with a large compressor (like your car), but it’s not the ideal setup. Diesel engines can idle easily for a long period of time and allow an AC unit to run. However, the EPA has been pushing for anti-idling regulations around the country, and the days when one can leave a diesel engine running continuously while stopped may be coming to an end. Generators may make a comeback!

Bodies are also getting better. The body builders have gone to great lengths to eliminate water leaks and squeaks. To save weight and conserve fuel, roofs are sometimes made of fiberglass. And aluminum doesn't rust.

Having the interior of the truck open to all has caused some dealers to worry about their inventory when leaving the truck in for service. Tool truck interior builders are now able to construct lockable sliding security doors or removable panels that block unauthorized access to the rear of the truck. This is extremely useful when the truck is in a service shop for extended periods of time and the inventory left unattended.

What Step Vans cost:

New tool truck Step Vans for 2008 start in the low $80,000s and can top $135,000 in medium-duty configuration.

The step van will undoubtedly be around the tool business for a long, long time.


Tool Truck Body Styles

Box Trucks, Cab-Chassis Trucks

The Medium Duty Truck