Commercial Camper Shell Buyer's Guide
By Thomas Zizzo
So you just got a new ‘work’ truck and have determined that the best solution for your needs is a commercial-style top. Buying one of these can be a daunting task because there are many ways they can be built, and I do mean many. There really is no standard way these tops come and often times you are trying to determine how they should be built so your employer will pay for it. When I use to sell these, so many times there would be a purchaser to order one who was not the driver of the vehicle and would typically not get certain features ordered the way the driver wanted it, so this will be a guide to what options you can get and hopefully offer some advice to make your buying decision a little easier.
There are several major brands of commercial tops, and most can be ordered at any truck accessory store that offers standard fiberglass shells. There is the Gem Top Workmaster, which is now sold by Leer. It’s not as common as it use to be since Gem Top (the company) was sold to the TAG Group, which owns Leer and several other popular truck accessory brands. What separated the Workmaster from other tops is the fact that it’s made out of steel, not aluminum. Another popular brand is the ARE DCU (Deluxe Commercial Unit). It’s made out of aluminum and has a different type of ‘wedge’ design for taller units. There’s also the Tradesman made by Access Manufacturing, which use to be Six Pack-makers of the old cabover campers. They are also made out of aluminum and can literally be built any way you want, even for service-body trucks. I use to have a customer with the local fire department that had to have the front wall of the top set back to accommodate a special light bar and the Tradesman was the only brand that would custom build it. SnugTop also makes a fiberglass utility shell called the SnugPro. It’s a lot thicker than their standard fiberglass tops. It has similar options as the other brands, with some exceptions, and has the advantage of a much nicer look, but it comes at a hefty price.
Base Model, a Starting Point
So, while there really is no standard model, they all start out with a base model, which is typically cab level in height, solid front wall, solid sides (no windows) and a rear traditional-type camper shell door (the same type of door you would find on a cab-level fiberglass top). Yes, this is where they start, and they come white. Everything else will be an option.
Cab level with side doors and glass
First thing you want to determine is height. Maybe you typically haul particular sizes of plywood and need 30 inches of clearance, so measure from the bottom of your bed to the top of the cab. Most fullsize trucks are about 24 inches from the top of the bed rails to the top of the cab. Since the top sits on the bed rails, this is the measurement where they start. Remember that the taller you go, the more cost involved and the less aerodynamic it will be, this is where ‘wedge’ shape tops come in handy. One of my more loyal customers was a Lexus/Toyota dealership, and their service department would order tops that were close to 40 inches tall, because they had specific needs.
Custom Utility Shell
You also want to determine what you want on the sides of the shell. Most people order liftup doors, but remember, everything costs money, so if you only need a door on one side, this is the way to go to save money. These doors can be solid, or have glass. Obviously, glass is for visibility, but can be ordered with security screens as well. Every now and then I see people get these tops with shelving and glass in the doors. Then you can get toolboxes or shelving on the inside (on the right or left side) and if you go that route, windows are useless as the boxes will block any view. You also have the option for different types of dividers on the shelving. One side of a shell, with a door and shelving can cost as much as $400-just for that added option, depending on the brand and dealer, so you see how these can add up in cost.
The other thing to consider is the rear of the shell. Many people like ‘cargo’ or ‘walk-in’ doors, where the tailgate is removed. These can be built with a single door, or two double doors, and yes, the double doors cost more, and depending on whether or not you have decided to get a window in the front of the top (to see behind you while driving) you can get glass in these doors, or leave them solid. The Tradesman has a unique option for the rear that allows it to literally lift-up like a side door, with the gas props to hold it up. This allows for maximum width clearance since standard cargo doors take up space with a frame around them. I’m pretty sure the Tradesman is the only top that offers this option. You can also get these built with a standard, camper shell type lift-up door, which is what it’s called because it doesn’t swing open the way a walk-in door would. Yes, you can get these solid, or with glass and screen, etc.
Ladder racks are very common on these tops and of course, there are options for these. Standard roof racks that aren’t real heavy-duty can handle about 150 lbs, and are a fairly cheap option. Most of these shells have the option for what are called ‘quick clamp’ racks, which you typically see on cable TV installation vans. They are specifically made for ladders and have handles on them to lock down your ladder. There are also heavier-duty racks that are made with added support to handle larger loads.
Commercial tops also have other unique features like pin-switches on the doors for cargo lights and alarm systems, as well as carpet insulation and roof vents. Insulation matters because unlike fiberglass tops that typically have honeycomb insulation built into the structure of the roof, metal utility shells have nothing, and they will build up condensation inside. They can also be color-matched, but it has been my experience that most work trucks are white, and all of these commercial shell brands come white, so paint can be a costly option and is mostly only used for companies that want to stick with their specific color schemes, like tow yards that have that unique yellow color, which incidentally, Tradesman is so use to that color they typically know the code for it. I think every picture I included in this hub are shells with the standard white. It tends to go well with any factory white color.
As you can see, the features can add up, and so can the cost. Prices can range from about $1,500 for basic featureless models to well over $3,000 when you add up the options.
Used Commercial Tops
As you can see, these tops can be very expensive, so if you’re on a tight budget, it would be worth your while to find one used. Because these are not like fiberglass tops that have very custom-molded fits, you can sometimes fit models from other trucks to your truck, so long as the dimensions are close. But I caution that if the used top you’re looking to buy has walk-in doors, those are only compatible with the bed they were built for(tailgate opening dimensions). For obvious reasons, these tops do not hold their resale value well so finding a good deal on a used one is fairly easy. Popular trucks that you will find used utility shells for will be the Ford Ranger and longbed F150s and Superdutys, why? Because most state and city yards get good deals from Ford on fleet trucks, so these are what a lot of them buy, as well as large companies and college universities. Santa Clara University was a big customer of mine and they had a nice fleet of white Rangers. The city of Santa Clara has around 30 Rangers. Just remember to measure, always measure and check out my other hub on buying used tops for more information on used tops.