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The Step Van as a Tool Truck
This page updated 6/17/10

The step van - also known as the walk-in van, step truck, bread truck, P30 - P60, and 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 offer very convenient interior access. People can walk all around inside from front to back without exiting the cab and walking around to a door. One of the sales points a Step Van body builder makes is the safety of a step van because the driver exits the vehicle on the curb side, away from traffic. Plus, the stepwell is lower than a box truck or cab chassis truck, so people with back or knee problems seem to find them more comfortable to climb in and out of. Same goes for large people. And if you are making a lot of stops, they are great in rainy weather because you don't have to exit the cab and walk around outside to enter the rear of the truck.

The tool business standard is a 16' - 18’ body; lengths as long as 30' are available but rare. The longer the body the fewer places it will fit into easily, and auto shops can have limited parking. By the way, with a step van, body size refers to interior dimensions. For example, an 18' step van means the interior length of the body or cargo area, from behind the driver's seat to the rear door, is 18'. The overall exterior length of an 18' step van, including liftgate, is closer to 29 feet.

A tool business step van starts out as a frame with dual rear wheels, two front wheels, an engine and steering wheel, and is known as a “strip chassis”. Today there are two primary step van chassis manufacturers. International (formerly Workhorse Custom Chassis, formerly Chevrolet/GMC), makes the P30042 16’ and W52 18’. Freightliner manufactures the MT 45 and MT 55 step van models. If you were to visit a chassis manufacturer, 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. The chassis is later 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. 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 Olson 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..

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, people used the term “P30” or “step van” and it meant the same thing. P30 was Chevrolet's model name for its 14' - 16' - 18' step van line, and was the tool business standard truck until the early 1990s.

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 it 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. of course the GM reorganization threw a big kink in the process, so you might have to call around. GM got out of the medium-duty truck business in 2009.

Sometime in 1998 - 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 it's purchase by International in 2007, the Workhorse step van will one day be introduced as the International step van.

There have been several power plant and GVW models 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 gas 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, now 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. One main benefit of diesel power was the ability to install engine-driven AC units, which eliminated the generator and AC units it powered. Generators of the time required extra maintenance so switching to diesel power reduced a driver's headaches. Today 90% of tool step vans are diesel; the diesel engine in use is the 6.6L Duramax, with 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.

As of this writing in spring of 2010, the Tool step van is making a comeback. Snap-on is using the 16' Workhorse as one of it's new program trucks for new dealers. The Workhorse comes with a gas engine, diesel generator, and roof ACs powered by the genset. There are two reasons and benefits for the switch back to gas power. The emissions clampdown on diesels 2007-2010 unfortunately increased the price of the engines $5,000 - $8,000. And at the urging of the EPA, the more congested municipalities around the country have been enacting and enforcing anti-idling laws, which force a diesel truck or bus driver to shut off after as little as 5 minutes of idle time. With the diesel generator, the tool dealer can shut off the truck and allow the generator to power the AC and keep the truck cool. Generators are considered to be an "APU", or Auxiliary Power Unit, and legal to idle.

Step Vans

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 it 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 Cummins or a Mercedes engine (Mercedes owns Freightliner; the Mercedes engine was available in 2004 and 2005 only). Because its GVW rating exceeds 19,000 lbs., technically this is a medium-duty truck. More history: prior to Freightliner's purchase of the company, this truck was the Oshkosh, and before that, the John Deere (you'll see both on ToolTrucks.com). The John Deere was powered by a 460 Ford gas V8 and it would MOVE!

The MT 45 is an excellent vehicle, with enough room and tool carrying capacity for most tool distributors, and is one of the program new dealer trucks for one of the largest tool companies.

Freightliner also offers their model MT-55, with a larger 230 and 260 horsepower Cummins 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:

Engines: Step vans enjoy steady popularity as tool trucks, and even with a simple design that has changed little over the years, improvements have been ongoing. The switch to diesel engines from gas allowed the elimination of a separate auxiliary power unit, or generator, which was used to power air conditioning units. It is possible to run AC units off a gasoline engine with a large compressor (like your car), but diesel engines can idle easily for a long period of time without excess wear on the engine. The EPA has been pushing for anti-idling regulations around the country, and the days when one can leave a diesel engine are coming to an end. Generators and gas trucks are making a comeback.

Body: 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.

Security: 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 2010 start in the low $90,000s 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