Pickup Trucks 101: Payload Classifications

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Are the terms half ton, three-quarter ton and one ton being completely pushed out of the truck owner's lexicon in favor of the 1500, 2500 and 3500 designations?

As PickupTrucks.com reported nearly six years ago, the terms originated in the early 1900s when the military and truck manufacturers assigned verified payload capacities to different models. Eventually, three distinct classes of consumer trucks evolved using those terms to identify each class even though the actual payload capacities dramatically exceeded the original weight ratings.

The Ratings Game

Most truck owners — especially those with World War II backgrounds — had no problem identifying consumer pickup classes with those terms, and eventually passed the informal terminology along to the next generation.

Half-ton, three-quarter-ton and one-ton trucks now represent a range of gross vehicle weight ratings to help consumers select the truck that fits their hauling and towing needs. Not wanting to confuse those buyers, truck manufacturers started branding those three weight classes with their own designations: GM and Ram use 1500, 2500 and 3500, while Ford uses 150, 250 and 350. For extreme trailering applications, the automakers now make their once-commercial-only 4500 and 450 medium-duty trucks available to the general consumer market.

However popular the half-, three-quarter- and one-ton terms are with the pickup enthusiasts, automakers no longer recognize them in their promotional or dealer-training materials.

What Dealers Say

"Today's truck customers are much more sophisticated and educated on the capability of the truck," said Brian Rathsburg, Ford Super Duty marketing manager. "We educate with the facts — configurations first, then drive-specific payload and towing requirements."

"Those terms don't come up as much, except [with] some of the older buyers who have been around trucks all their lives," agreed Travis Theel, assistant sales manager at Liberty Superstores, a Ram dealership that serves a large ranching region in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. "We ask what they're pulling and how they use their truck before making a recommendation. Most of the customers are already knowledgeable about what they need."

Theel said some veteran truck buyers from his agriculture-heavy region routinely asked for a new one-ton or 3500 truck because that was the only model that could pull their livestock trailers 10 or 15 years ago.

"They didn't realize that the new 2500 models can handle their needs while offering a better ride unloaded," Theel added.

What About Outlier Loads?

When the market supported lightweight pickups like the Datsun 520, the term quarter-ton truck was occasionally used to distinguish them from full-size pickups even though payload ratings for those vehicles were as much as 1,000 pounds or more. However, the growing popularity of the 4500/450 series (some might want to call them 1.5-ton trucks) for consumer use in towing large travel trailers has yet to generate a complementary term using the nostalgic expressions.

"That terminology is unscientific and irrelevant in today's truck," Rathsburg confirmed. "Based on official GVWR classification, the [Ford] F-450 is a Class III pickup with a GVWR under 14,000 pounds, so it competes with similar products."

Where We Are Today

As noted in our 2012 story, designating specific payload ratings was an important milestone in the historical development of today's pickup truck. Moving away from colloquial terms that are often confusing to first-time buyers is a positive step. It won't be long before the actual payload and the vehicle's recommended limitations will be common information on dashboard displays, so there won't be any driver uncertainty. Until then, automakers and dealers need to be more candid with shoppers regarding actual payload capacities well before they purchase a vehicle.

Most marketing materials advertise a maximum payload capacity for an entire family of pickups, such as a 1500 lineup. However, we know that maximum payload numbers are generally assigned only to one or two low-volume specific configurations — usually a two-wheel-drive, regular-cab long bed with a heavy-duty suspension and gearing package. The much more popular configurations, like the four-wheel-drive, crew-cab short bed with a more comfortable base suspension, is likely to have a much lower payload rating.

To avoid any deception, misleading recommendations or improper purchases, it might be more informative to advertise a payload range for each class of pickup, instead of just the maximum payload weight across the lineup. Who knows? Maybe someday the actual payload or towing capacity of a given pickup will be written across the windshield along with its price.

Cars.com photos by Mark Williams, Christian Lantry



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