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The Weight Game: Understanding Pickup Classes--And Where They Came From

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Learning the idiomatic differences among modern half-, three-quarter- and one-ton pickups is a rite of passage in becoming a truck enthusiast. We understand truck lingo, and we use its terms fluidly when chatting with other enthusiasts at truck shows or at the 4×4 shop.

Related: A Pickup Truck Glossary: Long Live These Terms!

Judging by questions in various web forums and talking with a number of clueless sales reps at dealerships, we’ve noticed that many people involved with trucks don’t get it. They either haven’t heard of certain terms or fail to grasp that these terms are no longer literal references to payload capacity. In today’s truck enthusiast vernacular, half-, three-quarter- and one-ton designations help differentiate consumer pickups by a manufacturer’s gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR. They help distinguish the “class” of truck we drive instead of trying to reveal a specific capability.

But where did these terms originate, and how did they evolve into a different meaning within today’s truck lingo? We’re not completely sure, but with a little research we’ve developed a theory — albeit one with a couple holes that our readers might be able to help close.

Defining Terms: GVWR

GVWR represents manufacturer’s maximum allowable weight for a fully loaded vehicle. This includes the vehicle weight, maximum cargo and passengers. The manufacturer establishes the GVWR based on considerable load-carrying criteria, including, but not limited to, axle capacity, wheel and tire combination, frame strength, and suspension components. A truck’s GVWR is usually listed on a sticker in the doorjamb and in the owner’s manual. Remember, GVWR changes considerably across a vehicle’s lineup. A 4×2 regular cab/standard bed with a V-6 will have a different GVWR from a V-8-powered 4×4 crew cab/long bed.

Let’s define payload, since that term is part of this discussion. A vehicle’s payload capacity is calculated by subtracting the weight of the vehicle from the GVWR. For example, let’s say your truck’s GVWR is 6,800 pounds, and on the scale it weighs 5,375 pounds with a full tank of gas but no passengers or cargo. The maximum payload that particular truck can safely support is 1,425 pounds. One of the biggest misconceptions by first-time truck owners is that payload refers only to the cargo in the bed; however, the vehicle’s calculated payload includes all occupants, items stored in the cab and the tongue weight of the trailer when towing.

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A History of Payload

Payload has been a measure of load-carrying capability for centuries. To meet commercial transport demands, engineers rated the payload capacity of ships, railcars and probably stagecoaches long before the first automobile — usually in metric tonnes (1,000 kilograms) or our current standard of a short ton equaling 2,000 pounds.

In fact, trucks were given payload ratings before they were even invented. According to the book “Trucks: An Illustrated History 1896-1920,” a French engineer patented a design for a “4-ton truck” in 1828. When trucks started appearing near the turn of the century, most were described with a payload rating — and with good reason. They were directly competing against horse-drawn carts for moving goods. Advertising that these new vehicles could carry one or two tons of cargo with an engine rated at 20 or 30 horsepower was a distinct advantage.

In 1911, Captain Alexander E. Williams wrote in the Infantry Journal that the military should put a greater emphasis on motor-powered vehicles. That same year the captain started conducting tests with one- and three-ton trucks, and he was charged with establishing specifications for a standard military truck. As early as 1913, the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Quartermaster Corps formulated detailed specifications for a standardized Army truck — but they were tabled briefly as the Calvary scoffed at the motor vehicle’s use in combat.

Smaller Models Appear

The Army did use trucks to move supplies when fighting Pancho Villa, then it used one-ton and larger trucks in World War I. Ford, which discouraged modifying its Model T into a truck, finally saw the potential for truck sales in 1917 and released the one-ton Model TT chassis. Other automakers ramped up truck production, mostly one-ton and larger trucks, for the war effort.

When the fighting stopped, automakers recognized the value of an expanded truck line for commercial and agriculture purposes, and they offered different payload options, including half-ton and three-quarter-ton versions. Slowly, the automakers differentiated these payload classes with separate model designations. For example, Dodge had the half-ton Series RC truck and the three-quarter-ton Series RD in 1938.

The military also stepped up its efforts to standardize trucks and established a wider range of payload classes, including quarter-ton (example: Jeep), half-ton (command cars) and three-quarter-ton (ambulances) in addition to the one-ton and larger trucks used for artillery, munitions and personnel transport in World War II.

This classification mentality continued after WWII. In 1948, Ford designated its half-ton model as the F-1 followed by the F-2 (three-quarter-ton) and F-3 (one-ton). Ford, of course, expanded those badges to F-100/150, F-250 and F-350 by the late 1950s. Dodge used a variety of designations until the familiar D/W100, 200 and 300 models started in the late ‘50s. Chevy also used a quirky approach to model designations with its Series 1100 through 3800 lineup in the ‘50s, but in the ’60s the automaker established the more familiar C/K 10, 20 and 30 designations.

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Looking For Help

Here’s where the trail gets a little fuzzy, and we could use a little more insight from PickupTrucks.com readers who are commercial and military historians. The military likely stood by its payload designations, even as the growing auto industry evolved. If it needed a three-quarter-ton payload truck for flight line security, it got a truck with a payload capacity of at least 1,500 pounds. Whether or not there was an F-150 or C20 badge probably didn’t matter.

However, as the consumer truck market grew, automakers added more payload capacity to their trucks wearing the familiar badging that originated with the traditional half-, three-quarter- and one-ton designations. I suspect the automakers then initiated a combative one-upmanship marketing game by increasing the payload numbers for those models. Something like: “My half-ton can outhaul your half-ton!” very similar to what we see today.

So who kept the half-, three-quarter- and one-ton vernacular going, even though the automakers now had distinct model designations that no longer correlated directly to specific payload capacities? Our guess is that most consumer pickup buyers in the ‘60s and ‘70s were war veterans. When their sons took over the family business or went shopping for a ranch truck, they also talked in terms of half- or three-quarter-ton trucks, even though the payload capacities were much higher. It was most likely a matter of military language morphing into a popular colloquialism. And truck enthusiasts today continue to use those terms, much the same way they call any type of limited-slip differential a “posi” regardless if it truly is a Positraction unit.

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Today’s Terminology

In today’s consumer market, the designations for half-, three-quarter- and one-ton trucks are a little different. Ford still goes with F-150, F-250 and F-350, respectively, while Ram, Chevy and GMC follow 1500, 2500 and 3500 terminology. Some modern half-ton trucks have payload ratings above 2,000 pounds. And a good one-ton pickup can carry more than 5,500 pounds. Payload simply isn’t the determining factor for the traditional designations. Now they’re used to identify a general GVWR range.

A half-ton or 150/1500 model typically falls under an 8,500-pound GVWR. A three-quarter-ton or 250/2500 model ranges between 8,500 and 9,990 pounds. A one-ton or 350/3500 truck is likely to be 9,900 pounds or more. Again, these are not official standards set down by a regulatory or engineering body. They’re just a reflection of today’s truck market. Ten years from now, the numbers may change and probably confuse even more new-truck buyers.

Adding to the puzzle, of course, is the government. Hardcore truck enthusiasts and commercial operators know about federal truck classifications based on GVWR. They are:

Class         GVWR (pounds)

  • Class 1      0-6,000
  • Class 2      6,001-10,000
  • Class 3      10,001-14,000
  • Class 4      14,001-16,000
  • Class 5      16,001-19,500
  • Class 6      19,501-26,000
  • Class 7      26,001-33,000
  • Class 8      33,000 and higher

Categorizing these class designations can also be confusing when differentiating between “light duty” and “heavy duty.” For consumer vehicles, light duty is a half-ton truck, which can be Class 1 or 2, while heavy duty is a three-quarter- or one-ton truck, which is Class 2 or 3. In the commercial truck world, light duty is Class 1-3; medium duty is Class 4-6 and heavy duty is Class 7-8. It all depends on the context of the conversation.

So, that’s our theory on how the various model designations evolved, based on researching truck books at home and military reference books. However, we’re sure we may have missed something and would love to hear back from any PUTC readers with their contributions to this topic.

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Sources for this article include:

  • An Illustrated History of Military Vehicles by Ian V. Hogg and John Weeks
  • Military Vehicles from World War I to the Present by Hans Halberstadt
  • Standard Catalog of US Military Vehicles, 1940-1965
  • Trucks: An Illustrated History 1896-1920 by G.N. Georgano and Carlo Demand
  • Standard Catalog of American Light Duty Trucks by James T. Lenzke and John Gunnell

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