In the early 2000s, America was obsessed with vehicles of gargantuan proportions, perhaps even more so than it is today. Buyers lured by girth could find themselves behind the wheel of the Hummer H2 or a Ford Excursion. For years, the Excursion held the crown of the longest production SUV, now matched exactly in length by the Jeep Grand Wagoneer L. But what if an Excursion is simply too small? Heck, what if an F-250 is too small? In the 2000s, you could buy medium-duty commercial trucks from International, Chevrolet, and a Ford upfitter. All of them are outrageous, excessive, and weirdly…pretty cool. Let’s take a look at the time when manufacturers competed to build the biggest, baddest commercial truck with a pickup bed.
A somewhat common comment among our readers is that we don’t write enough about full-size or even larger trucks. Indeed, recently we fell in love with the cheerful Mahindra Jeeto and one of our co-founders, Beau Boeckmann, has an impressive collection of rare microcars. Fear not, Autopians, because we really do love just about everything that moves. During one of our morning meetings, the subject of really big pickup trucks came up. We aren’t talking about a Ford F-450 that could haul 40,000 pounds here, but bigger, beefier, and a big middle finger to logic. If you were a kid with dreams of driving a big rig, there was a time you could get really close to that without needing to obtain a commercial driver’s license.
America Has Long Loved Big Trucks
It’s hard to pinpoint where this phenomenon started but massive trucks have long been a part of American culture. For example, monster trucks technically have origins dating back to the 1970s. Back then, off-roading was really taking off as a hobby and creative builders modified their rigs to better handle their chosen environments. As Hagerty explains, during the era, off-roading was popular, especially on the West Coast, where hot-rodders created custom vehicles outfitted with tires for Arctic exploration. While off-roading was huge on the West Coast, the rest of America wanted in on it, too. Over in St. Louis, Bob Chandler took a Ford F-250 and over time, built it up into a towering beast — a mammoth car-crushing creation famously known as Bigfoot.
More fuzzy is figuring out when the owners of commercial trucks started slapping pickup beds onto the backs of trucks. Ford didn’t sell its F-7 Big Job with a pickup bed, but a glorious custom Big Job pickup rolled across Bring a Trailer last year.
Likewise, Chevrolet never sold its C-50 as a pickup truck, but custom pickup builds sometimes roll across dealership lots and auctions. You can find trucks like these all over the internet, and the concept has been applied to medium-duty trucks from various decades of truck history. Even less common is the idea of being able to walk into a General Motors brand dealership and drive out in a GMC TopKick with a pickup bed.
For a period in the 2000s, this was something you were able to do with multiple brands.
The Ford F-650 Supertruck
The company that claims to be the original builder of Ford F-650 pickups is Truck Customs by Chris, better known as “Extreme Supertruck.” As the story goes, in 2001 Chris Walker and George Stickler were looking to replace their older trucks with a Ford F-650. The pair were executives of the telecommunications and utility construction company Southeast Utilities of Georgia. On the way home from the dealership, the men decided to use their previous experience in racing and fabrication to convert the commercial truck into a large and “badass” pickup truck.
The company says that immediately after the first Extreme Supertruck was built, someone approached Walker and Stickler and then bought the truck. Since then, the guys turned their custom builds into a business, and its customers range from racers to kings to athlete — and also the sorts of people who manage to kill a F-350 pickup every few years. The company says it’s a registered Ford upfitter, so getting a gargantuan Ford pickup is a turn-key process about as close as you’re going to get to buying a commercial truck pickup right from a dealer.
Of the three manufacturers I’ll be covering today, Extreme Supertruck is the only one still building very large pickup trucks. The company’s website says its cheapest truck is the $118,900 XLT Pickup. It starts off as a Ford F-650 Diesel, which starts at around $77,000 from Ford. The XLT Pickup package includes a pickup truck conversion, two aluminum fuel tanks adding up to a total capacity of 115 gallons, a Class 5 Hitch, 22.5-inch polished aluminum wheels, and more.
If you get the base truck, it’ll be pretty much a work truck inside, but you get that bed on the back. Extreme Supertruck offers a rather incredible options list with multiple categories. You can get stainless steel fuel tanks, front and rear air suspension, and all sorts of stainless steel body parts, and if you have an extra $31,350 on hand, Extreme Supertruck will convert your F-650 into four-wheel-drive with big and chunky tires to match.
And those are just a handful of the exterior options. Other bits include train horns, custom paint, powered steps, winches, lights, tall exhaust stacks, and more. Inside, Extreme Supertruck is willing to give you a dash with wood, carbon fiber, or painted colors plus power leather seats and even a rear seat that turns into a bed. On the technology front, you can get an upgraded stereo, a 17-inch flip-down monitor, a video game console, satellite radio, and several cameras.
Power comes from a 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel V8 rated at 330 HP and 850 lb-ft of torque, transmitted through a ten-speed automatic. Extreme Supertruck sells a bunch of different variations of this truck. The $142,290 F-650 Hauler replaces the pickup bed with a CM Truck Beds service body. This one is less a giant pickup and more the ultimate hauler for your heavy trailers. From there is the $148,900 F-650 Extreme, which is the standard pickup conversion but with a lot of the option boxes (upgraded stereo, window tint, train horn, leather, and more) already checked.
The top Ford trucks offered by Extreme Supertruck are the $197,845 Extreme Six-Door, which is the Extreme but with two more doors, and the $195,845 F-650 Extreme 4×4, which is the Extreme plus the Fabco four-wheel-drive kit. Don’t worry, Extreme Supertruck leaves plenty of options on the table so you can shoot that price past $200,000.
If Ford isn’t your jam, Extreme Supertruck also builds pickup trucks based on International, Chevrolet, and Freightliner commercial trucks. Those follow a similar upgrade path but come with two engine options. The base engine is a 6.7-liter Cummins straight six diesel making 325 HP and 750 lb-ft of torque but you can upgrade to a Cummins L9 8.9-liter straight six diesel making 350 HP and 1,000 lb-ft torque.
Of course, these trucks were made for real heavy work. For example, the Ford F-650 Diesel Straight Frame has a gross vehicle weight rating that starts at 31,000 pounds and can be capped off at 50,000 pounds. Many states limit a standard driver’s license to 26,000 pounds and some states, like Illinois, further limit you down to 16,000 pounds. Ford also sells these trucks in Pro Loader form (a lower frame, good for rollbacks, box trucks, U-Hauls, etc) which brings the max weight to a more legal 26,000 pounds max, but that’s still a ton of truck for sure.
In other words, have you ever wanted to own a real live Tonka truck? Well, if you have well over $100,000 burning a hole in your pocket, Extreme Supertruck can make it happen. And we’re still not done yet.
GMC TopKick C4500 by Monroe Truck Equipment
Supertruck claims to be the first, but the customizer started getting competition from truck manufacturers themselves.
For decades, the GMC TopKick and Chevrolet Kodiak served commercial operators all over America. If you, like me, were a kid in the 1990s, perhaps you rode aboard a school bus with that familiar GMC hood and badge up front. Until recent years, if you rented the biggest U-Hauls you got to command one of these for yourself. U-Haul’s JH rental truck (26-foot box) rode on the GMC C5500, which had a GVWR that topped out at 26,000 pounds, allowing Grandma to rent one. In states like mine, lawmakers allowed an exception to driver’s license weight limits for rental trucks.
In the 2003 model year, General Motors released the third and final generation of the GMC TopKick and Chevy Kodiak. The medium-duty truck space was hot at the time with Freightliner’s M2 and International’s DuraStar putting up fierce competition. Ford was still in the game, too, with its medium-duty F-Series trucks, which were developed jointly with Navistar. GM’s designs got a fresh and modern face.
If you read the March 6, 2002, press release from General Motors, you would have had no idea these trucks would be the last of the Kodiak and TopKick workhorses:
So many market-driven design innovations have been engineered into GM’s new conventional-cab line of Class 4-5 trucks that it’s safe to say the medium-duty segment will never be the same again. In fact, the launch of the new 2003 Chevrolet Kodiak / GMC TopKick C4500/C5500 Series trucks has set lofty new standards for best-in-class vehicle capability, durability and performance.
These new models are the most-researched and technically advanced line of commercial vehicles ever developed by General Motors. In addition to their unparalleled maneuverability and visibility, these new trucks sport improved powertrains; stronger, more-versatile frames; a fresh, aerodynamic exterior design and safer, more comfortable interiors. Plus, there’s a wide range of vehicle configurations to suit nearly every medium-duty application. The C4500 Series carries a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 16,000 pounds, and the C5500 is available in 18,000- and 19,500-lb GVWRs.
General Motors boasted greater visibility than previous generations as well as a tighter turning radius of 35.3 feet, better ride comfort, lower noise, lower vibrations, better steering feel, and even the addition of a traction control system for the first time. My favorite part of GM’s release is the part about the truck being engineered to be easier to repair:
Already boasting the least amount of unscheduled downtime in their class, according to J.D. Power, these new medium-duty trucks have been designed to provide even more reliability and durability, and are also easier to service should repairs become necessary. A unique service design, called “Priority Access System”, integrates components into major modules within the engine compartment allowing groups of parts to be removed by a technician either independently or in sequence, depending on how much accessibility is required.
In January of the following year, Wisconsin-based Monroe Truck Equipment announced a partnership with General Motors. In this partnership, C4500 trucks would leave GM’s factory in Michigan and down the road into Monroe Truck Equipment’s factory in Flint.
Monroe then converts the work truck into something a bit more lavish. Monroe’s additions involve thick carpet, faux wood trim, and leather air-ride seats. Monroe finishes the build with a pickup bed that flows perfectly with the TopKick’s lines. And before you ask, the bed is not just borrowed from a GMC Sierra. Monroe says the box itself is steel and the panels are a custom composite. That’s why it looks so good as if the TopKick was meant to be an XXL pickup.
The idea here was to give fleet operators trucks with the capability of a medium-duty commercial vehicle with the versatility of a pickup truck. For regular consumers, the GMC TopKick C4500 by Monroe Truck Equipment was supposed to be the pickup truck for the kinds of people who think a Sierra 3500 just isn’t big enough.
When Car and Driver reviewed one, the magazine quoted the C4500 as being able to tow a 14,300-pound trailer or haul 5,000 pounds in that bed. Like the Extreme Supertruck builds, the options list was expansive and also included bits like a DVD player, exhaust stacks, air-suspension, four-wheel-drive, chrome, aluminum wheels, a bench that converts into a bed, and more.
Back when Car and Driver reviewed one in 2005, the starting price for a TopKick C4500 by Monroe was $70,000, and checking all of the options boxes got you closer to $90,000. The magazine noted that the base TopKick pickup was far cheaper than a Hummer H1 and slightly more expensive than a Hummer H2, which almost made the trucks make sense.
Highlights from the Car and Driver review include the fact that the TopKick pickup just barely fit in parking spaces and the beefy suspension showed no mercy in beating up the truck’s occupants. Of course, no Car and Driver review is complete without a skidpad test and the big rig managed 0.61 g before plowing wide.
The collaboration between General Motors and Monroe reportedly lasted between 2003 and 2009. Reportedly, in 2006 a Chevrolet Kodiak version of the pickup was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show and a version of the truck went on to become Ironhide in the Transformers movie franchise. I could not find any production numbers for these trucks or the Supertrucks above, but the 2005 Car and Driver report noted that 750 TopKick pickups were getting built a year.
Supertruck and General Motors would have one more player to battle with.
International Extreme Truck Series
This brings us to perhaps the biggest and most ostentatious of the commercial trucks-turned-pickups craze. In 2004, International announced that it too had a commercial truck with a pickup bed on the back and it was going for sheer size. International called it the Extreme Truck Series, or just XT, and the launch truck was the CXT (Commercial Extreme Truck). From MotorTrend:
“The International CXT is a truck for businesses that want to promote themselves as much as perform,” said Rob Swim, director, vehicle center marketing strategy, International Truck and Engine Corporation. “While there is nothing tougher or more extreme on the market than the International CXT, it is as much a statement of success as it is performance. If you brought this truck to the playground, you’d be king of the dirt pile.”
As MotorTrend notes, International first pitched the idea of a monster pickup truck back in 2001, teased what a production model would look like in 2003, then shocked the public and the press alike in 2004. Why? Because International decided to make the biggest production pickup truck yet.
Based on the International 7300 Class 7 truck, the CXT blasts right past the F-650 pickup and makes the Kodiak look like a Silverado. Normally, International 7300s would find work as dump trucks, garbage trucks, cement mixers, snow plows, and tow trucks. The International CXT rocks the same 25,999-pound GVWR as the previous trucks, which means people in most states can drive them without needing a license in a higher weight class.
Still, International said these trucks could carry 11,400 pounds in their beds and tow up to 40,000 pounds. The trucks themselves weigh 14,500 pounds all on their own. Again, here in Illinois, you’re limited to 16,000 pounds before you have to upgrade your license, so buyers in my state couldn’t even haul much with their CXTs. Perhaps it is amusing, then, to learn that these trucks were assembled in Warrenville, Illinois.
Once again, like the previous trucks, International filled the interior with leather, wood, DVD players, and a bench that turns into a bed. For $100,000 (or $130,000 kitted out with options), you got your CXT with International’s famous DT466 7.6-liter straight-six diesel.
That punched out 220 HP and 540 lb-ft torque. Later, the engine would get upgraded to 300 HP and 620 lb-ft torque. It’s not as powerful as the other trucks on this list, but schools and government road departments alike can tell you that the DT466 is pretty much a bulletproof engine. Even the DT466 in my former school bus ran like a top after over 23 years of service.
But Wait, There’s More!
International didn’t stop there. In 2005 at the Chicago Auto Show, it came out with the $70,000 RXT (Recreational Extreme Truck). This one was a little bit smaller, designed to look more pleasing to the eye, and was targeted at those towing large RVs, horse trailers, and large boats. The RXT was based on the International 4000 medium-duty truck with a 20,500-pound GVWR. Even with the reduced weights, International advertised some heavy hauling capabilities with a 10,000-pound payload and up to 24,000 pounds towing. The RXT weighed 10,900 pounds on its own.
Power in the RXT comes from the VT365 6.0-liter V8 turbodiesel making 230 HP and 540 lb-ft torque. You might know this engine better as the infamous 6.0-liter Power Stroke engine used in Ford trucks in the mid-2000s. Like the CXT, the RXT’s powertrain is backed by an Allison automatic transmission. A later model saw the power bump up to 310 HP and 950 lb-ft of torque.
At the same 2005 Chicago Auto Show, International came out with a third XT truck variant.
The International MXT (which means Military or Most Extreme Truck depending on the application) features a cab shared with the CXT, a face shared with the International DuraStar, and a purpose-built frame. As you could probably tell from its looks, the MXT was designed to be an off-roading brute. The military version, the MXT-MV infantry mobility vehicle, was developed alongside the civilian MXT.
Once again, the MXT was like the other variants and could be had with leather, DVD players, videogame consoles, beds, and upgraded stereos. Only now, you could take your huge beast places where perhaps a CXT might get stranded. The off-road capability did seem to come at a cost. At launch, International advertised an 18,000-pound GVWR, a 10,500-pound curb weight, a puny 4,000-pound payload, and 15,500 towing capacity. It’s also powered by the same VT365 as the base RXT, but makes 300 HP and 530 lb-ft torque.
What you gave up in hauling capabilities you got back in off-roading capabilities. You got 20-inch alloy wheels, Pro Comp 40-inch tires, scooped fenders, and available four-wheel-drive. Remember, this is basically the civilian version of the military truck, so it’s not just posing as an off-roader. Of course, it’s still a medium-duty truck, so you better make sure those trails aren’t tight. The MXT stickered at $89,500.
What Happened To These Trucks?
So, if you had six figures in your pocket and a love for all things huge, a number of manufacturers and customizers were willing to sell you a commercial truck dressed up like a Cadillac Escalade. Unfortunately, for those who want to live out their childhood dreams of driving a big rig, the OEM efforts didn’t last too long.
As I said before, GM was quoted as saying 750 TopKick and Kodiak pickups left the factory each year. International said it targeted 200 to 300 CXTs in its first year of production. I couldn’t find total production for either line of pickups, but if those production numbers hold true, there aren’t many International XTs or TopKick/Kodiak pickups out there. If you’re wondering what a review of one of these was like, read this from the Boston Globe:
As Jay Leno explained in a Popular Mechanics column describing his time behind the wheel: From his perch, Hummers looked like Mini Coopers. At the end of his drive, he took the CXT home, only to discover it would not fit in his driveway. So he went to his mother-in-law’s house down the street and, ”as I pulled into her driveway, I said to myself, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball on the roof of her house.'”
Driving it is not difficult. It rides like a truck, with air seats that bounce softly, absorbing the thumping road feel (which, interestingly, is not transmitted through the steering wheel). Bodacious mirrors provide excellent views all around; a backup camera, displayed in the rearview mirror, reveals the little Honda Civic that may have crept up behind you.
You need to leave a little extra room in sharp cornering for the outside rear wheel (there are two on each side). Only the air brake took some getting used to. There is virtually no pedal travel, so jarring stops are common in early going
Leno ended his review by joking that sometimes you’ll find a crushed Prius in the wheel wells. I also have to wonder about just how practical those trucks’ beds were. How do you load something into a truck bed that sits feet off of the ground?
Of course, the demise of the factory big rig pickup can be traced back to the Great Recession. In 2008, International killed off the XT series, citing the high cost of fuel and “market forces.” Meanwhile, in December 2007, GM announced it was attempting to sell parts of its medium-duty truck business. The original idea was to sell to Navistar International in order to leverage the strengths of both companies, but that fell through. GM failed to find a buyer and shut down its medium-duty truck business in 2009. The automaker would be without a medium-duty truck line until 2018, when GM partnered up with Navistar International to create medium-duty trucks.
Today, you can still get new medium-duty trucks with pickup beds, but you’ll have to go through an upfitter like Extreme Supertruck. If you want one of the OEM medium-duty pickups, expect to pay a hefty price. International XTs have asking prices in line with new sticker prices. The GMC TopKick and Chevy Kodiak pickups are much cheaper, but still hold their value quite well.
Admittedly, this is one of those times where I wish I were a bit older. I bet reviewing one of these beasts was unforgettable. As someone who actually enjoys driving large vehicles, these trucks sound like a blast, practicality, fuel economy, and parking be damned!
Here’s another example of the 2000s being awesome for enthusiasts. There truly was something for everyone from tiny cars to roadsters, super fast motorcycles, gargantuan pickup trucks, and all points in between. America lusted over pickup trucks so much that manufacturers were willing to slap beds on commercial trucks. If that’s not madness, I don’t know what is.
(Update: A reader noted that Bob Chandler did not live on the West Coast. That implication was unintentional and that paragraph could have been clearer. It’s been updated; thank you for your eagle eyes!)
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