Cap-ital Ideas

Oct 1, 2010

Don’t be misled by those who think truck caps are a mostly “industrial” piece of hardware. Caps actually are more of a “utilitarian” piece of equipment. Regardless, when truck owners buy a new truck, many want a cap for work and play. We wanted to know more about the matrix of owners, truck caps, and cap builders and sellers so we asked them about this market The first thing we asked was about the market and how it looks for this fall season.

Fall market a good one

Bob Keller, president of Jason Industries, Elkhart, Ind., tells us, “Your question regarding the fall truck cap market for the customers as described appears to be all inclusive. To segment by classification is quite difficult given the fact many of the potential selling opportunities are cyclical in nature while others may be seasonal or regional.

“Historically, the entire market has been quite consistent in quarterly volume as a percent to total annual shipments. I don’t believe this year will experience any change in previous trends. Although there is no scientific method to measure overall performance, the past years’ decline in new pickup truck registrations is obviously in direct correlation to reduced industry truck cover sales in those fiscal periods.

“In my opinion, this fall’s expectations will follow the historical curve relative to market dynamics. Individual company volume increases will be contingent upon obtaining a greater share of a very mature market; however, year-to-date deliveries would suggest the 2010 third and fourth quarter shipments will be favorable.”

Bryan Baker, from A.R.E., Massillon, Ohio, says, “Pickup truck sales are up this year as compared to last year, and truck sales were up nearly 18% for the May through July period vs. the same months last year. This should mean good things for truck cap manufacturers and retailers as customers typically purchase a truck cap soon after their pickup truck purchase.

“September is definitely the time of the year that hunters outfit their truck for hunting season. Plus new model pickup trucks are entering the market, which can help sales, as well.”

Bob Hill from Raider, Elkhart, Ind., tells us about the big picture, saying that “over the last 10 years we have watched a slight overall decrease in the percentage of trucks that use a truck cap for cargo and bed protection as a percent of the total truck market. Most experts think the lower percentage is largely due to the ‘style’ buyer that flooded the market in the early 2000s who wanted to preserve the traditional truck profile.” “As the market readjusts to today’s customers, who buy trucks because they have a definite, specific need for the attributes of a pickup, whether for work, outdoor sports or general household use, we may be seeing the beginning of a slight increase in truck cap penetration,” Hill adds. “There simply is no better solution for truck owners who need to protect and secure their cargo and their truck bed than today’s advanced technology truck caps.

Dedicated pickup truck owners “are recognizing the value of that solution,” Hill notes. “Of course, the needs of sports enthusiasts vary widely from those of commercial and fleet buyers, but there is significant variation in the offerings of truck cap manufacturers, too, to accommodate those varied needs. In short, the industry’s leading manufacturers, including Raider Industries, truly do have something for everyone.”

Different caps for different chaps

Asking about the reasons buyers want different style caps, Baker from A.R.E. says, “To most consumers, the cab-high models look the most attractive on the vehicle, as well as being the most aerodynamic. The majority of fiberglass truck cap buyers go this route.”

“The mid-high caps,” Baker notes, “offer a few inches more door height and interior space. People that camp in their truck, or need some extra space while still wanting a stylish design, tend to purchase this style.”

Meanwhile, he adds, “the tallest, wedge style caps offer the highest door opening and maximum interior space. This is a classic look, so an older demographic tends to prefer them. Primarily, they are purchased by people who need to haul tall items. Some choose the taller wedge style caps to route airflow over a pull-behind trailer.”

John Stethem, from Century Elkhart, Ind., says, “Cab-high truck caps represent the overwhelming majority of truck cap purchases and provide a huge covered, weather-protected, lockable space that is more than adequate for most customers. Cab-high caps create an overall vehicle profile essentially the same as SUVs, with cargo and over-the-road capabilities that far exceed most SUVs. In addition, the cab-high dimension makes it relatively easy to use the roof of the cap for a rack system.

“Rack systems add an entire new dimension to the truck cap’s capabilities, enabling truck owners to transport long, bulky and oversized items like kayaks, bikes, canoes, skis, snowboards and similar items without using the ‘inside space’ of the cap-covered pickup bed.”

A mid-rise offers a different dimension, Stethem says. “When the ceiling clearance of a cab-high cap isn’t adequate, buyers turn to ‘mid-rise’ (3″-4” higher) or “high-rise” (6″+ higher) cap styles.” Among the reasons for such choices, Stethem says are the following:

“A significant group of outdoor enthusiasts use their truck for minimalist, rough-and-ready overnight camping, and the added headroom is helpful.

“Truck owners who know they will be moving bulky cargo like cardboard boxes on a regular basis use the elevated cap styles to reduce the number of trips they need to haul their load.

“Truck owners who want to maximize the interior volume of today’s shorter truck beds use raised-roof caps to enclose more space.

“Truck owners who use their trucks for dedicated transportation of ATVs, scooters, motorized wheelchairs and similar items need the increased clearance of the raised roof styles.”

Keller from Jason says, “To give an objective answer, one only has to look at the infinite variations that can be built into each of these model classifications. Customer need and preference lead the way, followed by design and aesthetic appeal the product offers. We have addressed specific demands by designing custom configurations.”

Commercial work needs

Next, we asked about the physical properties a commercial/contractor cap offers over a more classic one.

Joel Ayres, from Leer, Elkhart, Ind., tells us, “It’s not unusual for a sportsman or casual truck owner to consider a commercial truck cap instead of the more traditional ‘retail’ fiberglass designs. There are times when the commercial cap offers benefits for that kind of customer, especially if he or she is likely to subject the truck cap to extensive offroad use.

“Offroaders who choose a commercial-grade aluminum cap are getting a rugged, durable shell with higher capacity and weight limits that retail fiberglass caps offer. Commercial cap builders like Leer have perfected every element of their commercial cap offerings to satisfy demanding commercial and fleet customers across the country.

“That long history has produced caps that include options for 12V lighting of interior spaces, roof racks capable of holding hundreds of pounds of cargo, galvanized metal toolboxes, shelves, and dividers, durable security screens and stainless steel locks. These hard-working features are ideal for many pickup truck owners who have hobbies and pastimes that benefit from the easy access to tools and parts provided by commercial caps- imagine a weekend go-kart enthusiast; a do-it-yourself handyman; a serious amateur angler; etc.”

Keller says that his firm’s Work Force units are designed and configured to “go to work. …For example: heavy duty reinforced roofs, side walls, base rails, all tied together with reinforced corners and side radiuses. Options offered carry the same “heavy duty” theme. As a bonus, they look great with a tailored fit and finish, built to the customer’s specifications.” Models can include interior options such as racks and bins. “Function vs. form drives the decision to purchase,” he adds.

Baker points out the following: “Commercial caps are typically aluminum and are built on a welded frame made out of aluminum tubing. They offer various options that make the cap more user friendly for on-the-job situations including toolboxes, toolbox dividers and shelving, ladder racks and commercial lighting.”

Is a shell a shell?

We wondered about the differences between all aluminum, steel, fiberglass and other shell materials. What are the benefits of each and for which customer is it best?

Baker says, “Fiberglass tends to offer both flexibility and strength while it obviously allows for more stylish designs and provides a smooth, paintable surface. A recreational aluminum cap is the lowest price option out there, and also the lightest. A commercial aluminum or steel cap offers the options that a commercial user needs and is more about function than style in most cases.”

Hill from Raider says “fiberglass and aluminum truck caps dominate the current market to the virtual exclusion of other materials like steel and plastics. Fiberglass offers remarkable design flexibility and relatively inexpensive mold development costs. These two attributes are essential, in light of the many new models, cab styles and bed sizes being released by the truck manufacturers.”

Finished fiberglass parts, adds Hill, “accept automotive base coat/clearcoat, high-gloss paint with Class-A results; and color match to the OE original paint formula is excellent.”

“Fiberglass parts are remarkably resilient in use, too,” he notes “providing the flex that is necessary on the back of a pickup truck. Finally, fiberglass truck caps are remarkably strong for their weight: Light weight means there is more gross vehicle capacity available for cargo, and a smaller mileage penalty due to the weight of the cap itself.

“Aluminum truck caps are now almost exclusively used for hard-duty commercial applications for contractors, service technicians and other in-field trade pros who need the added durability and security offered by aluminum. Unlike old-fashioned steel truck caps, aluminum caps are rust-free and light in weight. That lighter weight results in increased cargo capacity and overall better fuel economy.

New developments by fiberglass manufacturers such as Raider have enabled many commercial cap buyers to consider commercial-duty fiberglass caps instead of aluminum. These fiberglass caps feature augmented lamination schedules and reinforced roofs, allowing options like side toolboxes, doors, ladder racks and other features typically found on aluminum commercial caps.”

Keller says, “First, the customer’s needs and preference ultimately determine the best fit. Recognizing this, we offer light duty and heavy duty aluminum units, as well as nine models of fiberglass caps. As the features increase, so does the price. With regard to benefits associated with a material, here is my take: Aluminum/light duty – price and function; aluminum/heavy duty – function, custom configurations, utility, durability; steel – function, utility, custom configurations and durability at a higher price point than heavy duty aluminum; fiberglass – style, aesthetics, design, conformity, utility and durability.”

Contractor-specific features

Lastly, we wanted to know what commercial/contractor types of caps are available with built-in storage. Stethem from Century tells us, “Aluminum truck caps dominate the commercial market, because of their durability, light weight, security, strength and corrosion resistance. Aluminum fabrication is also remarkably flexible in design, too, allowing commercial customers to design the toolboxes, doors, shelves, racks, lights and storage features that will suit the way they work.”

“In a sense, every aluminum commercial cap starts as an idea; as a way for a contractor or other tradesperson to fulfill a business need,” Stethem says. “The idea turns into a complement of storage, racking, lighting and security solutions applied to the strong, lightweight structure at the foundation of an aluminum truck cap.

“Many of the requirements trade professional have for truck caps can be effectively solved by a new generation of fiberglass commercial caps, too. These products combine the clean, custom, aerodynamic fit and Class-A paint-matched finish of fiberglass with the side toolboxes, doors, shelves, racks and storage systems found on more traditional aluminum caps. Once again, though, the process is highly individualized to fit the needs of a specific individual or fleet.”

Keller states, “We offer three levels, as classified by the construction materials: light duty aluminum, heavy duty construction-grade aluminum and fiberglass.”

Baker points out that “there are more options than there ever used to be. Steel and aluminum are the dominant options, currently. But, work truck caps made of fiberglass are starting to enter the market. There are also a few companies out there building fiberglass caps for work that are fully enclosed. The entire unit sits inside the bed. These offer the flexibility of being able to move from truck to truck, and typically outlast their original vehicle.”