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What Do Pickup Truck Numbers Actually Mean?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2017

Hello and welcome to the latest round of Ask Doug, which is the finest content here on Autotrader dot com slash Oversteer, except for whatever Chris O'Neill has written. The way this works is simple: You fill up Doug's Ask Doug email account with spam, and then Doug digs through the spam to find a decent question about automobiles.

If you'd like to participate in Ask Doug, you can! Just email Doug at OversteerDoug@gmail.com, and he will happily respond to your email, and by "respond to your email" I mean completely ignore it and potentially post it here on Oversteer weeks after you send it.

Today's email comes from a viewer I've named Vernon, which is a name we just don't give to enough children anymore, and it's about trucks. Vernon writes:

Hi Doug,

Can you explain why truck companies use both 150, 250 and 350 (1500, 2500 and 3500) classifications and tonnage? Where did these classifications come from, do they still mean anything, and what is more applicable these days?

Thanks,

Vernon

Excellent question, Vernon, and I'm happy to field this one, as I'm an expert on trucks. You can tell I'm an expert on trucks because I recently made a video with a Ford F-250 Super Duty wherein I referred to it as a "Ford F-150," and where I described the towing capacity in terms of pachyderms. This is something only true experts do, so other true experts can identify them.

Anyway, the answer to this question is a bit convoluted, so you'll have to bear with me here.

In the beginning of pickup trucks, basically all trucks were classified by their automakers in terms of payload capacity, which is the sum of all cargo (and passengers) in the truck's cabin and its bed. Most trucks offered three payload capacities: a half-ton (1,000 pounds), three-quarters of a ton (1,500 pounds) and one full ton (2,000 pounds). I believe it was Ford who initially numbered its trucks, very simply, F-1, F-2 and F-3, to delineate a half-ton truck, a three-quarter ton truck and a one-ton truck, respectively. This eventually changed to F-100 (for a 1,000-pound payload capacity), F-150 (for a 1,500-pound capacity) and F-250 (for a 2,500-pound capacity). In that case, you didn't have to remember that "F-3" meant "2,000 pounds" -- you just looked at the truck's badge and you instantly had the payload capacity.

Obviously, Chrysler and General Motors did this, too: Chevy truck models, for instance, were offered as either the C- or K-10, 20 or 30, with "10" standing for a half-ton, "20" for a three-quarter ton and "30" for a one ton (later changed to C or K1500, 2500, etc.). By the way, here's a fun fact that's been mostly lost to time: With Chevy models that used the "C" and "K" designations, you can easily tell whether it's 2- or 4-wheel drive with a quick glance at the badge. "C" models are 2-wheel drive, while "K" models have 4-wheel drive.

Anyway, what eventually happened is that payload capacities started increasing. The first to go was half-ton trucks: the "100" or "10" series pickups with a 1,000-pound payload capacity weren't very popular, since two large adults inside the cab quickly stole half the payload capacity for the entire truck. But then payload capacities increased more, and the truck manufacturers did something interesting: They didn't change the names to reflect the increased capacity.

Presumably, this decision was made because consumers were already familiar with the names truck manufacturers had been using for years; if the F-150 was now called the F-240 and the F-250 was now called the F-320, it would start to get pretty confusing. So even though payload capacities have evolved well beyond three-quarters of a ton and one full ton, the names have stuck -- and that's why you have the F-150, the RAM 1500 and the Chevy Silverado 1500 using names that suggest a 1,500-pound payload capacity, even though (using an example) the F-150's payload capacity goes all the way up to 2,300 pounds. It's the same with heavy-duty trucks: The Silverado 2500, for instance, has a maximum payload capacity of 3,600 pounds, despite its name.

In other words: These days, those numbers help you delineate "light-duty" (1500-level trucks) from "heavy-duty" (2500- and 3500-level trucks), but they offer no real insight into exactly how much weight any of these trucks can pull.

The funny thing, to me, is that car companies once used numbers to identify engine output -- a BMW 318, for instance, was a 3 Series with a 1.8-liter engine, while a 525 was a 5 Series with a 2.5-liter engine. But as engines have gotten smaller with turbocharging, automakers have gone full speed ahead by increasing their numbers in an effort to make their vehicles seem more powerful than the competition. But despite this escalation in the car world, the truck world avoided it -- and all pickups now carry basically the same numerical designation, even though the numbers they refer to haven't been relevant in decades.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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What Do Pickup Truck Numbers Actually Mean? - Autotrader