Home » The Trucks We Never Want To Need: 1999 GMC K3500 vs Ford F-550

The Trucks We Never Want To Need: 1999 GMC K3500 vs Ford F-550

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Happy Friday! As you are no doubt aware, today writers for the Autopian (including myself) are traveling to sunny Los Angeles, California, for tomorrow’s big meetup. I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen, but I have a feeling that with everyone in the same room, there is a non-zero chance that someone will goad someone into a bad automotive purchasing decision. So I thought it best to be prepared, and take a look at the one category of vehicle I know all of us have ridden in at some point: tow trucks.

But first, let’s see how our Italian transplants fared:

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Ouch. I guess no one wants to do the Lido Shuffle. But who would, when you can do the Bundy Bounce instead?

Anyway, moving on. There are three vehicles you never want to have a need for when you’re out for a drive: fire trucks, ambulances, and tow trucks. I am proud to say I’ve never needed the first two for anything vehicular, but I have had my share of contacts with the third. And I’m sure many of you have, as well.

So just for the hell of it, we’re going to look at the two most affordable functional tow trucks I could find on Craigslist in Los Angeles. You know, just in case. Besides, tow trucks are cool. At least, when you’re not waiting for one.

1999 GMC K3500 – $12,995

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Engine/drivetrain: 7.4 liter (probably) V8, 4 speed automatic, part-time 4WD

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Odometer reading: 128,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

I’ve always thought it was cool how an entire truck line can have exactly the same sheetmetal and be completely different underneath. This truck uses the exact same cab as my half-ton pickup, but under the skin, it’s a much tougher beast. But then, to be able to pick up and tow pretty much any passenger vehicle on the road, it has to be.

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This is a “wheel lift” truck. That T-shaped looking thingy sticking out of the back of the truck lowers to the ground and lifts it by the front wheels, instead of picking it up by the frame or bumper using the boom and cable above. This is much gentler on the car, and so typically used for cars that aren’t damaged, just broken. The boom comes into play when the front of  the car is mangled and the wheel lift can’t be used.

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This truck is powered by what looks like a 454 cubic inch Vortec V8, which sends power to the dual rear wheels, or, with the pull of a lever on the floor, the front wheels as well. The extra traction of 4WD probably doesn’t matter too much in most of the San Fernando Valley where this truck was based, but for pulling vehicles out of ditches in the canyons, it would definitely come in handy.

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It’s not exactly luxurious, but because drivers spend hours and hours in the cab of these trucks, they have to be comfy. This one looks like it’s in decent shape, with a tear in the vinyl right where you’d expect, where the driver slides in and out of the seat a hundred times a shift. The seller says it’s “very well maintained,” but it does have a salvage title (ironically) for unknown reasons.


2001 Ford F-550 – $14,995

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Engine/drivetrain: 7.3 liter diesel V8, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Odometer reading: 228,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

Not burly enough for you? Well, we also have a Ford F-550 Super Duty. This monster has a gross vehicle weight rating of 17,500 pounds, which means it can likely tow anything as big and heavy as it is. It’s powered by a 7.3 liter “Powerstroke” turbodiesel engine made by Navistar International. This is also known as the “good Powerstroke” engine; these are half-million-mile engines.

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Like the GMC, this truck is a wheel-lift type, and also has a boom with a cable. And just in case you aren’t aware, those extra wheels up in the bed of the truck are dollies for the (usually) rear wheels. The front wheels are lifted by the truck, and then the rear wheels are lifted onto the dollies, so none of the towed vehicle’s wheels are touching the ground. This is required when towing an all-wheel-drive vehicle, or any other instance in which the rear wheels won’t roll freely.

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This truck has a lot more miles on it than the GMC, and shows a commensurately greater amount of wear on the interior. But it’s in good shape, and the seller says it “runs great” and “everything works.” It lacks the four-wheel-drive of the GMC, but it does show a clean title.

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The door says “AZ Towing” with a Studio City address, but there is a door tag from the Arizona Department of Public Safety. It appears that this truck is already on its second life. But that’s not unusual for heavy equipment like this; it gets bought and used by a municipal or state entity until it can’t pass some inspection or other, then bought at auction and used some more by a private company. And why not? Trucks like this have a long half-life; it takes a long time for them to decay.

You never want to have need of a tow truck, but it is nice to know these unsung heroes of the automotive world stand ready to rescue us from our bad decisions, mishaps, and just plain dumb luck. You might not necessarily need to own one of your own, but arguably for some (and I’m not naming names) it’s not the worst idea. So which one will it be?


Quiz maker

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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32 Responses

  1. This reminds me of my favorite child hood book, “How Many Trucks can a Towtruck Tow?” Relevant but not needed.

    The Ford is the correct choice here but I have dreams of opening a beach recovery towing service so I say GMC for the 4×4.

    1. That’s always the trade off with these engines. They routinely will last 500,000 miles. If something does go wrong with it though, your finances are in for a serious beating.

    1. The fact you voted wrong and had to ask explains a lot. You know many drivers brag about the million mile club. I am a member of the towed a million mile club. Believe the Condition and pay attention the GMC is the correct choice. The Ford is a decent vehicle but the GMC is far superior. I would wager the salvage title was a result of a minor problem on an old well maintained vehicle that insurance allowed the company to get more than a trade in on an already planned for new purchase. Trust me tow trucks are like hearses, cop cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. They sell before they breakdown. Oh and tha towing weight for the Ford is correct in towing a car that just needs a tow. That GMC will turn over flipped vehicles, pull them out of lakes and streams, and uphill.

  2. As much as these idle, the diesel is quick to pay off the difference in fuel cost, and just a better choice for the work.

    The clean title makes it an easy choice.

    1. The GMC has ’em too, they’re just tucked up underneath, so I chose to talk about them with the Ford, where they’re visible. I think pretty much all wheel-lift tow trucks have rear wheel dollies these days.

  3. A clean title carries the day for me. I’d have too many questions about what caused the GMC to have a salvage title and how much damage the towing gear may have taken.

  4. When my dad was replacing the windows on his house, he figured that he could buy a (very used) Ford bucket truck and do the work himself, rather than pay for installation. It’s turned out to be incredibly useful and a great conversations starter. The Ford would look great sitting beside it in the barn, but since most of his/my use case would be freeing stuck tractors, 4WD is a must. Gotta go GMC.

    1. I worked for a bankruptcy company and we repoed a zoom boom thing once, we didn’t want to turn it into the bank as it was so useful, painting, trimming trees, cleaning gutters, watching parades, scaring dogs and pedestrians

  5. I picked the Ford just because is more of what I don’t need vs the Chevy. Neither is a bad choice.

    The remote boom operated wheel grabbers are excellent or making off with….I mean moving a fleet around from the comfort of the cab.

  6. Both are the most reliable and powerful tow engines of the day. neither are too high of miles considering. both probably lived a hard life though. Still, I live in the midwest, 4wd would be required. I would actually like to take off the tow rig, leave the work bed with not overhang to speak of and make the GMC into an offroad monster.

  7. Voted Ford cause clean title and its a beefier truck. Also unless its a good quailty repaint, expect the white paint on the GMC to soon start falling off in sheets.

    Main deciding factor though would be mechanical condition, Id pick the GMC if the Ford was a turd.

  8. A few years ago a local wrecking yard had their old Dodge Power Wagon tow truck out front for sale. I drooled over that thing. And it was painted in metal flake purple to boot! I love the old Power Wagon style and this one was awesome as a tow truck. I never did stop to check it out. If I never found out the price they were asking I would never know and I didn’t want to know in case it was just out of reach $ wise.

  9. I have a serious appreciation…


    I really couldnt give two shits for either… cause I mean, loving towing means.. ya just wanna see someone get towed. Id vote for the ancient Chevy.. cause the seat looks like shit.. and cause its white.

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  10. I was on the fence because the Ford has so very many more miles on it. But it also has a clean title, and is indeed red. I think I’ll go with that one.

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