How I Would Design A Modern Cabover Pickup Truck: A Car Designer Sketches Your Ideas

Cabover Lead Image

“The People have voted. The bastards,” a wise man once said.  We have tallied your votes on the Autopian’s powerful Ball-o-tron 9000, a weird glowing cube under my drafting table (When I asked David how it was humming and glowing without even being plugged in, he gave me a very serious stare and said “Don’t Ever Ask That Again”), and by far the vehicle you maniacs wanted to see next was a cabover pick up truck. So allow me to try my hand at one.

I mulled this as I was rearranging my black turtle neck sweater drawer (it’s the one underneath my watch collection drawer). You see, you can of course still get those adorable Kei cabover pick ups in Japan and on much of the Asian subcontinent. It’s a perfect way to have maximum utility in a compact size. If you had a death wish you could even import an old one into the USA. So there wouldn’t be much point in doing something like that (even though that’s where my mind was originally wandering – some sort of last mile commercial/gig economy type thing). [Editor’s note: Quite a few folks are doing that these days! -DT]. And if you’re masochist enough Chevrolet will sell you something called a “Low Cab Forward.” But that has the slight problem of being a massive commercial vehicle.


Then I thought about the Ford Ranger. I’m sure it’s a fine vehicle (I’ve never driven one) but the issue is for the single cab the bed is 72-inches long in a vehicle that is 210-inches long in total. So only about a third of the length is given over to cargo. That’s bonkers. A cabover would do much better and we could probably get the bed length to the hallowed 8-ft figure. But I wanted something more than that — something more sophisticated and cool that would still have lots of utility, but would also be suitable to be your daily driver when you weren’t helping your friends move a couch.


And then it hit me. What if we merged the first generation Toyota Previa with a VW Transporter? The Previa’s problem with it being mid engined was that there wasn’t room for a bigger motor, so it felt a bit underpowered for U.S. tastes. The VW’s problem was it didn’t have an engine at all, just a metal box that turned gas into noise. And it was in the wrong place; but it was supremely space efficient. What I’m thinking is we can have a nice modern hybrid power plant tucked way down low in the middle of the chassis (modern engines being much more reliable, the location is less of an issue), stuff the thing with batteries, and send the power to the rear wheels. Keep the whole thing reasonably close to the ground for better aero and ability to chuck stuff in the bed, and job done I’m off to the pub. Cabover3

What I’ve done this week is slightly different. It’s four very different versions all on the same platform (I’ve used the same wheels in every sketch). The length I’ve decided should be about 190-inches – the same as a long wheelbase Transit Connect but way shorter than a Ranger (which is actually longer than it’s name sake, the full size Range Rover! [Editor’s Note: It should be obvious by now that Adrian is British. -DT]) but the height varies. And yes, one of them is an aggressive active leisure jacked up 4WD thing because I’m the Chief Designer around here that’s why.


As usual feel free to leave scorn, skepticism and suggestions in the comments; I’ll dive in as well and we’ll figure out which direction we’re going to take this in. And if I’ve missed something blindingly obvious, please say so.

My old Chief Designer genuinely used to say design is not a democracy. Well, that’s easy enough to say when you don’t have a strange glowing cube under his desk.

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106 Responses

  1. So, like in an early VW bus the driver’s feet are the crumple zone? 🙂

    I would love to have a 2dr, slightly longer bed version of the Ford Maverick, hybrid powertrain, cvt and all but all trucks seem to have been decreed as 4 drs now.

  2. As unpopular as it seems in the comments I like number 3 best. I’d like to see any of them though with a clean design, none of the modern cluttered stuff with vents and ‘character’ lines everywhere.

  3. YES!
    As one of the people who suggested a cabover truck, this was the fastest yet that I’ve clicked on an article upon opening the site, and I am extremely pleased with the results!

    Personally, I think #3, the Junior Semi, is my favorite and would have a decent chance to sell well. I think it fits most with the aesthetic of modern truck design, which is to say, “beefy, aggressive, and macho,” without being as much of a departure as the #2 Unimog-inspired design.

    That said, the #1 “Friendly” design is also great, although I think it would probably benefit from a slightly less-friendly (and more traditional) face. Even though it would likely increase drag, I think it would be worth sacrificing a bit of range by having distinct headlights and some horizontal slats (even if they’re purely decorative) in lieu of the “mouth” to help it sit better with a typical truck buyer.

    1. To be honest, aero is not going to be great on any of these, and changing small details on the front doesn’t make a lot of difference (as long as it’s not more openings – they give you a world of aero pain). So it could be a little less friendly and have a different light graphic without impacting aero count.

  4. #1 is closest to an scaled-up Kei truck, so it gets my vote.

    I also like FrankenCamry’s idea for bedsides converting into ramps. (Not sure what they would need to be made of to avoid getting scarred from such use, though.)

  5. Friendly, then Sporty. Junior Semi beats Unimog, though Unimog with a dump bed (which is what my mind went to with the drawing) would be very practical.
    That said, you get a manufacturer to make any of these and I am in. I was really rooting for Canoo to survive and make their pickup because it was the closest to a cabover I figure we are likely to see.

  6. Frigging Brits don’t know trucks, they lorries, ie Laurie’s so girls truck ie kei trucks. Frankly a truck should have more than 1 battery but it needs to run ICE cold. Those abominations the front looks like the back of an SUV. Was the front so ugly they removed it and taught it to drive in reverse? Frankly there already is a COE truck. It is the Ford E350 cutaway. Of course everyone puts a box on it and makes it a van but slap a 16 foot bed instead of a 16 foot box now we’re talking a bed. Or add a 2nd row of seats and doors you can still have a tiny 12 foot bed. Go with a larger V8 or Diesel you are still the contractor everyone looks up to.

  7. I don’t like any of them. What I’m thinking a modern cabover should be comes in 2 main types.

    1.) RWD Base drivetrain, 4WD or AWD option

    2.) FWD Base drivetrain, 4WD or AWD option.

    For the RWD drivetrain variant I’d have one frame size for all configurations.

    Single cab 8ft bed (3 abreast), extended cab 6ft bed (3 abreast front row, extra seating depending on what can pass crash test standards, maybe just enough room for child seats), crew cab 4.5ft (3 abreast per row, 2 rows total). RWD with the maximum steering angle possible for the tightest turning circle. Using a little engine like Ford’s Fox 3 cylinders with a manual transmission or a CVT (planetary CVT via hybrid powertrain). Optioning 4WD or AWD would limit turning circle in the short term, via in wheel motors one can have both a tight turning circle and AWD/4WD.

    For the FWD based drivetrain I’d put the engine and gas tank all above the wheels (probably with another Ford Fox 3 cylinder), and then 3 abreast seating above that to maximize the weight over the driven wheels. Single cab configuration only. lowest deck height possible/practical. Body on frame. maybe lay the 3 cylinder on its side to lower the cab height. Riding on the smallest tires you can get snow tires for. Frame size can be extended by requesting a longer frame where a running and “driving” front section that contains the cab, engine, transaxle, wheels tires, etc. is all ready built and you just insert a longer frame into the main frame of the cab for extra long models. Possible articulated rear end option where different articulated rear ends can be exchanged much like how one puts on a trailer.

    Electric variants of both would be easy. Put the battery pack between the frame rails on the RWD based variant and put the battery pack under the front seats over the driven wheels on the FWD variant.

    Both variants would be no wider than the new Ford Maverick but both would turn much tighter (unless you opt for a very long fixed frame on your FWD model) while seating more in the same length or less.

    1. It’s unlikely in the near term that in wheel motors will happen, for a variety of reasons (durability, suspension geometry and unsprung weight, although that’s less of a consideration for a pick up).

      Putting everything over the front wheels for your FWD version is going to result in an extremely high H point – and a very tall vehicle. Also such a vehicle would be fundamentally unbalanced. You have to spread the centers of mass out along the length or you’re potentially giving yourself stability problems.

  8. Friendly looks the best to me, but these all (especially Friendly and Sporty) feel too futuristic to be taken seriously as a work vehicle over here. I’m not sure how to do it without it just looking like a miniature cabover semi cab, which you obviously leaned into in 3.

    1. Design departments work at least 4 or 5 years in advance at this stage – it takes a year or two to do the creative stuff (like we’re doing here) and then a further 3 – 4 years to get it ready for production.

  9. Junior and/or friendly for me. I love a flat face with a slightly bemused/confused look. Junior looks a bit like Iron Man, so maybe give it round headlights so you don’t risk having to pay royalties to Disney 🙂
    The sporty version looks fine, but I think it works best as a minivan. Not bad, of course, but now I’m more curious to see it with a proper big butt :-). Also, wouldn’t the long(ish) cabin prevent the long bed?
    Lastly, I’m not a big fan of the Unimog, but it is kind of growing on me. Also (and this is not a diss) it looks like a perfect vehicle for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles :-). I think you made the slit headlights/big mouth combo work really well. I might even buy one if the other three weren’t available.
    Excellent work, well done!

    1. Basically what I do for crash safety is leave it to the engineers to sort out.
      Seriously what happens in the studio is once a theme is selected to go forwards, studio engineering will provide ‘package data’ that the design then has to fit over. So once you get into full size 3D models, they will be what is known as ‘on package’ ie not too far away from reality.
      Engineering teams will already have done a lot of work on crash safety before giving the package to design, so you will have an idea of seating position, hard points etc. I mentioned it elsewhere but if you look at something like the iD Buzz, that’s probably about as flat fronted as you could get these days, in terms of seating. You still need to maintain head swing clearances from the windshield which means you can’t put the passengers too close.

    2. I’d like to see the first three of these reworked with a minimal Ford Econoline style nose tacked on the front.

      I bet there’s a lot you can do to enhance safety with 18 inches or so, if that’s the only purpose of those extra 18 inches.

      The last one already has some extra space in the front, although part of it is enclosed in the greenhouse.

    3. “How do you deal with safety issues, specifically crumple zones?”

      I’d think it would be fairly similar to how the Smart Car did it? Part of the brilliance of that was they just bounced off anything, so you couldn’t do that, but the rigidity of the Smart Car coupled with the height of a cab over should help in most crash situations.

  10. I like the look of the Junior Semi best and Unimog second best. Both look like they would be very functional vehicles. The longest bed on the Junior Semi is a big plus. I could see this being an excellent tow vehicle, specifications dependent of course. Good work on all the designs.

      1. I had the same thought that the Unimog looks like a Transformer. The Friendly also bears a striking resemblance to the arse end of a mid-90s Suburban.

        I like the other two, though. The Super Sporty is genuinely cool. It looks like a retrofuturistic cabover interpretation of an El Camino. While I’m not a huge fan of the Junior Semi, a pickup with an 8 foot bed that is less than 22 feet long would be incredibly useful.

  11. Unrelated to the cab-over portion of the design, but your hinged bedsides in the Friendly reminded me of an idea from my youth. With a pivoting hinge on the rear corner, the bedsides should be able to function as 8′ long loading ramps. The advent of aluminum beds would keep the weight down enough to work with a simple spring assist on the hinge for 1 person operation.

    No more figuring out how to stow the ramps after you put whatever vehicle into most of the bed! It’d sell dozens!

    1. OK, I’ve just gone over your idea in my head for a bit and the only big challenge I’m coming up with is how to get the wiring to the lights that may or may not need to be on the the hinged area on the rear corner. If there are no lights required above the bed in the back this could be exactly what’s needed by even more than dozens of pickup drivers.

      I’d also consider adding a lighter duty four foot ramp extension that comes out from the formally cab side of the truck side.

      1. The back bed corner/hinge point is a stout 50-100 mm (2 -4 inch) fixed tube. The bed side hinges on this tube at the bottom and the top with rings around the tube, just like a hinge on a hinge pin. The tail lights reside in the center of the tube between the two hinge rings. When the bed side is opened, it swings around the pin 180 degrees untill it is all behind the tail gate still upright. Then the bed side detaches from the upper hinge ring and lays down leaving the lower ring as a support and the inner surface of the bed now facing up as a loading surface. An additional panal could slide out of the upper hinge area of one side and engage with the other side to create a solid panel across the entire width of the tail gate at least a few cm wide.

          1. Both rear sides would do the same thing. The ramps would be as long as the bed side and as wide as the bed side is tall. The slide out connector panels would connect the ramps together at the top and bottom.

      2. The lighting is a challenge, I’ll grant you that. That would be a lot of slack to build in or more convoluted contact points in a non-wire based solution.

        My mental design includes the tailgate splitting in half to be add on sections since it needs to get out of the way anyway, so I like your thinking on extension options.

        Some of my design thoughts evolved when I gained experience with tri-fold aluminum ramps at the house. Something like a 1500lb combined rating should be a piece of cake and not weigh much more than a standard steel bed.

        1. I figured that the tail gate would have to go down and slightly forward (or under if it makes it easier to picture) to accommodate the ramps downward angle.

          I have a mental image of a side wall that swings out ninety degrees with no more than two front pins cab side and downward that when released gives you side access. If you push it beyond 90 the side rail lifts up 2 or three inches which allows the side wall to lever over and down to make the ramp.

          I’d draw this out but then the drawing would only remain here on a post it note.

          If you make it the same on both sides you’ll need at least 32″ feet of space to have 2 ramps out the back to be (easily) useful. 8 left 8 right plus at least 6 in the middle? It seems like that should be mostly do-able for the dozens of people who would fully use this setup?

    1. Agree on #4. Probably the least utilitarian of the 4, but also probably the easiest to live with as a DD. Definitely a bit of El Camino/Ranchero feel to it. Also reminds me of the Hot Wheels Deora, which is a very good thing.

  12. I like the Junior Semi the best, but would request the addition of a side access/loading ramp like the Corvair Pickup.

    It seems like all of these would outperform conventional pickups for gooseneck or 5th wheel towing, as you could accommodate higher pin weights before overloading an axle. You’d also get some advantages in maneuverability, so it might be a good fit for the the 2500/3500 camper crowd if it had the power.

    1. I wasn’t really thinking of that heavy duty a vehicle to be honest. More of an extremely practical car alternative. I must admit I’m not really up on the intricacies of towing as it’s not such a big thing here in the UK.

  13. I love cab forward vehicles but the good ones have your face right up on the edge of the truck like the Jeep FC. The bad ones (the only ones possible bc of safety) are still pretty cool. The canoo is probably the best that is possible, but you’re still sitting pretty far back.

    I vote for #1 and #3 but could you include a picture of what the interior would look like, taking into account frontal crashes?

  14. 4,1,3,2 is my order of preference. Friendly just looks good and is the most useful for the weekend warrior with a weekday commute. I like the drop sides and frankencamry’s? idea for turning them into ramps. The storage locker and waist locker are both good. Can’t wait to see where you go next design wise.

  15. In many respects this is a stylized version of a Sprinter Chassis Cab. I think this would be ideal, especially in light of the F-150 Lightning with a 5.5′ bed and a massive frunk.

    My one revision would be to add some overhang (18″) or so to the back end so you can have a true 8′ bed and still have storage space in the cab.

  16. I love the cabover design for it’s practicality and uniqueness, but unfortunately it inevitably turns handling into a sloppy terror-fest, especially when you’re driving on the freeway. I once rented a Mitsubishi camper in Australia with cabover design, complete with air cooled engine, it was kinda fun to drive on regular roads at slow speeds, but absolutely horrible to drive on freeways.

  17. Actually the key design criteria is that it be “manly”. You need to be able to intimidate cars. 2 and 3 are a good start, but they need to be jacked up and the lights raised so that they can blind the driver of the car in front of you with the rear view mirror when you pull up behind them. If they can roll coal even better. Its an American thing.

  18. As noted, the VW bus was not really a COE, but it did retain the main advantage of the COE design, which is that the driver is always the first one to the scene of the accident.

    I like the utility of all the designs, but I am too risk averse to ever want to drive one because old. Great work, though.

  19. Well, I WANTED to be a car designer when I was a kid in the 50’s and 60’s, but found out I didn’t really have any artistic talent, so there went THAT dream out the window…..

    I can’t draw my ideas / comments on a cab-forward pickup, but I can tell them to you…….
    First up, I like sketch #1 the best….. Drop-down bed sides are an excellent idea, particularly with today’s REALLY big pickups. Now, my ideas:
    1. For a crew-cab version, you can put the front doors in front of the wheel opening, and the rear doors behind the front wheel opening. If you design it properly, you might even be able to make the main door structures swap sides, the left front door shell also being used as the right rear door shell, etc….
    2. A ‘short hood/nose’ design (like the 2nd-generation Ford Econoline, 1969 – 1974) can offer a small front ‘frunk’ (and provide the necessary crash protection), you can have the unit electric powered, with the batteries under the central portion, offsetting the forward weight bias.
    3. A ‘maxi-cab’ (extra-cab) can still give you a full 7 or 8-foot bed length in a shorter overall length. A crew cab will still give you a 6 or 7 foot bed length. (depending on the design, of course…)
    4. A cab-forward design also lends itself to a cargo or passenger version, so you get multiple vehicles off the same platform.
    5. If you needed the cab-forward pickup to be gasoline or diesel engine powered, I think a flat Subaru 4 or 6 would be the ideal engine. Packaging the engine and designing an effective cooling system might be a bit challenging though.

    1. It’s never too late to start sketching for fun, if you have that itch. There are lots of free resources on popular video websites, and books available as well. I firmly believe sketching is a teachable skill.

  20. These are great. I will say, as the owner of a 1990s Japanese kei cabover, that a little room (12-18″) for storage behind the seats is worth a lot. Don’t need Chevy S-10 style jump seats back there (but handy if you can make room for those), but having a secure, dry interior space as part of the compact overall package will make daily life more joyful.

    1. Yes I agree. Years ago a friend of mine had a Hilux (which he adored) and on the occasions I borrowed it the lack of inside storage space used to drive me nuts. A single bag of groceries? Yeah that’s going in the passenger footwell. Your jacket? On the passenger seat. etc etc.

  21. Alright….
    Ive owned nothin but 3 semi-consecutive generations of Accords… Ive driven a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th. The 8th gen is when I decided… Im not driving this damn car again. (That and my neighbors at the time had this.. thing they did that PINGED my O.C.D to the Nth level. They used to put 2 cars nose to tail, within 1″ of each other in a spot meant for one regular sized vehicle.) They also used to trade out and or lease cars with no rhyme or reason for the complete opposite type and or MFR. I saw Accords and or Camrys parked nose to tail = 1″ enough times. Gives me the heebie jeebies… its inhumane to park that close to each other… regardless of my O.C.D and or A.D.D, A.D.H.D personality traits / modifiers.

    Its entirely inhumane to park that closely to one another. == Another clue that the vehicles were parked using the beeping system. (Another trait of current vehicles, I refuse to ackmowledge, participate, or respect.)

    With that said, Ive had my current 05 Element for about 8yrs and shes been pretty decent. Plyable and able to do as Id like. Id prefer a 5spd and or a stick, cause shes dog slow.. until she gets to 4th. (Which is funny because in my 7th gen Accord, that car had a 5th gear, while this one doesnt.)

    I love having all my stuff covered.. in a vehicle thats not a SUV. Element was a combination of a CRV and Civic from 03-05. Id love another VAN vehicle… but back when I purchased her.. ya couldnt find anyone who made a VAN. Now that Ive had her for 8yrs on.. Id like another VAN.. but Ferd and everyone else has priced the VAN out of the reach of anyone else. — Theyve also made the Van priced so high… its insane. Even the Ranger which is butt cheap, starts at a stupid price. It included a plethoria of tech BULLSHIT, that I dont fucking want. YET has the very minimal of interior trims. But interior colors are non existant, as is a shifter, analog guages and other stuff.. thats TACTILE. SO hypothetically Id trade a car whos purpose is utility.. for a vehicle thats sold on its tech BULLSHIT.. with utlity as a side option.

    In short… damn near impossible to replicate my car.

    Number 1,2, and 3 are extremely alike. Only difference is the headlights are that are “friendly”. Some slight differences in the fake underbody plastic cladding and or some side paneling. I like the CAB configuration of the 3rd drawing, but I want lighting thats Bold. Not aggressive… but bold, maybe a slight mixture of grey kevlar covered plastic coloring around the lights.

    Also, the wheels are nice… but Id reverse them for a “Turbine wheel”.

  22. The Unimog stands out the most to me – front makes me think “Bulldog”. The trellis sounds great for cargo attachment but gives it a weird vibe. Change that, lean into the big dog look and there ought to be a market, right?
    The last one, that would be more of a daily for me of all of them, but then I don’t use a truck often. I like it though!
    First and third have the most “sci-fi movie” feeling, not sure about the front scoop on the friendly first – seems like a turtle face. The dropping side-gates are a great addition though.
    Really appreciated these visualizations, very cool! <3

  23. I was genuinely confused about your opinion that the Ford Ranger was named for the Range Rover. This is made more confusing by the fact that the North American Ranger was a Ford design but there was a later rebadged Mazda called the Ranger elsewhere started in the 90s. This Wikipedia page is useful.

    Looking it up, the original Ranger came out in 1982. American sales of the Land Rover Range Rover began in 1987. I’m going to go out on a limb and say there is no way the Ranger was named for the Range Rover.

  24. The unimog is angry and at least slightly pugnacious. I’m tired of angry vehicles. I don’t care for pugnacious.
    The Friendly just seems kinda vacuous in the face. Like it’d be attracted to squirrels and bright shiny things.
    The Junior Semi seems to lack something.
    Sporty doesn’t work at all for a cab over.

    I think I’d like to see the Junior Semi front (also, c’mon. Big Rig/Lil’ Rig is right there) with the Unimog rear? The trellis design intrigues me. Maybe with removable/storable panels to actually let it look like solid sides when not needing to have a jungle gym in the back of the truck?

    1. In lieu of an edit option I am forced to respond to my own comments.

      Given what appears to be an already two tone color treatment on the Unimog version, I sure hope the base color is turtle green and the only other optional colors (for the dark shaded parts of the cab) are blue, yellow, red or purple.

      Toss a shell on that thing with a couple of surf boards?


  25. Ooo I like this topic, because that fucking company Canoo is doign the same shit: sexy forward cab styling….. but…. crash standards make it a faux cab forward design, as the interior is completely traditional. As cool as FC trucks are for visibility/turning radius/offroad prowess, it’s hard to beat physics when your feet exist where crumple zones go. I really don’t see how something a FC truck can exist in the modern world without completely abandoning safety standards.

    Sincerely, a designer fed up with fake bullshit, fake cab forward, fake diffusers, fake intakes, fake scoops, fake exhaust, and fake engine noises.

    1. Yeah, if you look at something like the iD Buzz, you can see it’s not really cab forward in the traditional sense. It’s not only crumple zones, the IP and HVAC take up much more room now due to their complexity. It’s not like the old days where you had a speedo and three warning lights if you were lucky.

  26. I drive a cabover truck at work, and while it sucks in most respects (it’s huge, loud, deadly slow, and has zero interior amenities) I absolutely love the seating position and the visibility out that giant windshield. Sitting on top of the front wheels makes it feel surprisingly nimble for its size, as well. The view alone has made me contemplate getting an old Isuzu NPR with a stake bed and becoming King of the Home Depot Parking Lot.

    You can haul *so much shit* with something like that, it will embarrass dually F-350s all day long *and* you can see over the brodozers in traffic. (Nice lift buddy, now when was the last time you washed your roof?) They suck in most respects, but nothing a bigger turbo, a better sound system, and some Dynamat can’t cure—right?

    I’m just waiting for the bros to discover them and turn them into proper monster trucks. That would actually be pretty fun to see.

  27. I actually quite like all of these options. I’ve enjoyed all the previous exercises, but these seem the closest to plausible. The trellis for tie-downs sticks out as a useful detail that also works as an aesthetic flourish.

    If we’re making these electric (even partially), are we building then out of aluminum to save weight? Does that pose durability/repairability concerns for a work vehicle if so?

    1. Fair point, I just figured Rivian was bit more of a contemporary reference. Being much older than my peers, a lot of the mood images I used to use in the studio for sketch reviews got some puzzling looks from the teenagers! (kids, what do they know eh?).

  28. I like the Junior Semi best – I think it’s the most realistic of the bunch thinking more along the lines of a traditional-looking American pickup, rather than the “futuristic” Tesla Cybertruck for example. I would totally consider that if it were a real truck for sale.

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