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How the Upfit Industry Works

According to the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA), a commercial or work truck upfitter includes: any type of manufacturer or distributor that makes alterations to a complete or an incomplete vehicle sourced from any number of original equipment manufacturers or OEM’s (like Ford, GM, Dodge, Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes Benz,Freightliner, Kenworth, etc.)

The government agency in charge of regulating the vehicle upfit industry is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Since 1967, the NHTSA has set forth minimum safety performance standards as detailed in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Regulations (FMVSS).

However, because the industry is made up of smaller, regionally-focused companies, buyers and fleet managers need to be proactive about determining an upfitter’s capabilities and inquire about an upfitter’s NHTSA registration in order to make sound buying decisions that may have cost and safety ramifications for a decade or more.

Each work truck originates at the assembly plant of a truck chassis manufacturer. As described on the NTEA website, approximately 16 companies (called original equipment manufacturers or OEMs) produce light-, medium- , and heavy-duty trucks, truck chassis, or cab-chassis (a cab, frame and drive train) suitable for completion as work-performing vehicles.

Typically, commercial trucks are upfitted in a multi-stage process involving three distinct yet interrelated industry segments or categories:

1) Factory Upfitters – With a factory upfit, the truck is modified by the OEM while still at the original plant. Modifications are limited to standard packages designed to suit a wide range of the most common vocational needs. No individualized problem solving or additional modifications are available.

2) Body, Equipment, & Trailer Manufacturer/Upfitters – These generally small-to-medium-size companies produce amultitude of products for work truck and trailer applications.They supply the industry with commercial-use trucks andbus bodies, truck equipment, trailers, equipment, and partsand accessories. Although some manufacturers sell directto operators, most firms channel their sales throughdistributor networks.

3) Body, Equipment, & Trailer Distributor/Upfitters – Depending on its application, a work truck may need a fewbasic pieces of equipment or a wide variety of components.It is the distributor’s role to obtain and install the truck andbus bodies, equipment, and accessories supplied by thebody and equipment manufacturers onto the chassis,cab-chassis and trucks supplied by the truck manufacturersand integrate all of these components, completing thetruck for its specific use. Although termed in the industryas “distributorships,” these firms actually operate asfinal-stage manufacturing facilities, designing and buildingend-product vehicles for specific applications.

Many distributorships are considered “full-line” shops, while others specialize in completing two or three specific types of work trucks. The vast majority also sell various commercial trailers (supplied by trailer manufacturers). A distributor’s sales are typically made on a local or regional basis, but a few have broad networks that cover nearly the entire continent.


Interested in learning more upfitting? Download a copy of our Work Truck Upfit Selection Guide for more information including upfit selection criteria, and ten tips for successful upfits.

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By Carissa Saia, 17.07.13

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