It is an event that is familiar to most fleet managers. A manager in a distant city calls and says it is time to replace the operation’s big truck because it is no longer serviceable.

The best way to attack this challenge is to do two things that probably aren’t possible. The first is to ride the route with the driver to find out what is really needed to do the best and most efficient job. The second is to sit down with everyone who comes in contact with the medium-duty truck - from those who load it to those who unload it - to answer questions concerning height, width, and a host of other factors.

Given that these steps are often not possible, a fleet manager is left with a process of information gathering before a new vehicle is ordered. This article discusses what you need to know and why.

1. What’s the Load?
First, what are we carrying? This determination involves not only weight, but also volume and density. Boxes of pillows take up a lot of space but are easily loaded and unloaded. The density is light, so the flooring doesn’t need to be specially reinforced. Electric motors are a totally different issue. They are heavy, dense, and not easily loaded or unloaded. These considerations will allow you to mentally visualize the required shape of the truck body.

2. Loading Requirements
How will the truck be loaded? Is there a loading dock? Is there a requirement for a liftgate at the point of either loading or unloading? Is the dock level at the standard dock height of 48 inches? Does the forklift literally bounce into the body, or is it a nice smooth entry? If this is an issue, your body builder can remedy the problem by reinforcing the rear of the truck floor.

3. Load Considerations
Must the load be tied down inside the body to prevent shifting? Do you need a rub rail to protect the body from accidental damage by a forklift tine? Is the best material for the outside skin aluminum or one of the polycarbonates FRP (fiberglass reinforcement plywood)?

4. Selecting Door Type
A roll-up door is the easy choice, but is it always the best? Do you need the extra height? Remember that the door displaces several inches when rolled up. Using our earlier example, this much room could mean an extra layer of pillows. {+PAGEBREAK+}

5. Body Considerations
What are your cargo body requirements? Do you need to insulate cargo in some way? Does it need to be cooled or refrigerated?

6. Reusing the Existing Body
Here is a tip that many fleet managers tend to forget. Can you reuse an old body? Could you update it and transfer it to a new chassis? Doing so is not hard, and it can be a real money-savings idea if it makes sense.

7. Chassis Considerations
Many factors must be considered when selecting a new chassis, but do not ignore the history of the chassis you plan to replace. Can you consult maintenance records? Some good tip-offs are often found in that file folder. Are there several entries for spring replacements or repairs? Are numerous repairs caused by what appear to be visibility issues? Mirrors often will reduce accident occurance if properly placed. Finally, how often do you perform regular maintenance? Some vehicles need more frequent attention than others. If the branch location is not diligent about regular routine maintenance, it is best not to order something that needs lots of TLC.

8. Terrain Traveled
Ask lots of questions about the road versus the load. Is the vehicle driven entirely on the interstate, in hilly terrain with steep grades, or primarily in traffic with lots of stoplights? The answers will help identify the need for an automatic transmission. High miles and/or high idling hours often point to the desirability of a diesel. A truck that runs very high mileage will quickly pay for the extra cost of a diesel engine in fuel savings. If a truck will not run many miles, don’t consider a diesel unless it idles significant periods of time.

9. COE vs. Conventional Cab
A cab-over-engine (COE) design is best for tight spaces and has a shorter turning radius, but a conventional cab rides better. In general, these are good rules to keep in mind. A flat front COE is harder for a driver to enter or leave the cab, but visibility is usually better. Look at the types of parcel delivery company vehicles that make a high number of stops, and you will see the value given to ease of entry and exit.

10. Other Specifications
Earlier we discussed density and load weights. When determining the chassis, those calculations are critical. They will help you to specify the springs, shocks, axle ratings, etc. These numbers are very important, and your maintenance costs will suffer adversely if they are not taken into account. Be sure to consider loading docks when selecting a medium-duty truck. Older loading docks sometimes create a miserable experience in moving the load. The first few feet are critical, and if you don’t understand torque, you will when you study the need to get the load moving up a grade when fully loaded. How many people will be riding in this truck? Do you need seating for two or three helpers? Two bucket seats are nice, but you may have occasions when three people must occupy the cab.

Questions for the Manufacturer

After investigating all these factors and obtaining answers to the questions, you are ready to sit down with a truck sales engineer, who will have even more questions about service and downtime. How often will the truck be available for routine service? You will want to know whether the manufacturer has several dealers in the area or along the route.

Last, but not least, ask for references. Request the names of other fleet customers who run similar trucks. What is their experience, and would they buy again? What about resale value?

Remember, some day you may have to sell this vehicle, and hopefully it will hold its value.

A medium-duty truck is a big purchase decision. It is often equal to the price of as many as five cars. Thinking through these considerations may well be the difference between a truck that does the job and one that will not. Bert Grayson is currently the fleet sales manager at Bennage Chevrolet in West Memphis, Ark. Prior to that, he was a national account sales manager for Citi-Capital Fleet for 10 years. Earlier, he was the corporate fleet and travel manager at Coulter Corp. in Miami for 12 years.