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11 Tips for Turning Your Truck Into a Show Truck

Because show trucks are friggin’ awesome!

How to Make A Truck That Wins Shows!

If there’s one thing that truckers love to show off, it’s their machines. There’s nothing more impressive than a powerful engine, massive wheels, and a gorgeous paint job on these big rigs that have seen their fair share of long haul trucking. In every town in America, you can find owners detailing their show trucks and adding their own little flairs of personality.

As nice as having a slightly lifted truck with a new coat of wax can be, there’s something to be said about these impressive creations. Show trucks take the regular habit of primping and preening trucks to a whole new level. Rather than just gather compliments from passers-by, these trucks are meant to win prizes in competitions.

What counts as a custom truck though? Well, it can be anything from a souped up pick up truck, it could be one of the world’s largest big rigs that embark on long haul journeys across the country, or they could even include antique trucks, the kind endorsed and celebrated by the American Truck Historical Society. There’s a wide array of vehicles that could fall under the working show trucks banner. Custom trucks come in all shapes and sizes, impressing audiences at truck show events across the United States.

People who decide that they want to upgrade and tweak their trucks for car and big rig truck shows have their work cut out for them. If you want to be among the select few who can honestly say they have a show-worthy truck, these tips can help you make it happen. To make a truck that’s worthy of a people’s choice award, and could stand as a fitting tribute to the trucking industry, follow these guidelines, head to a swap meet, and we wish you good luck!

1. Choose your truck wisely

The truck that you choose to convert will make all the difference in budget, appearance, and potential modifications. It all depends on your budget, your truck enthusiasm levels, and whether you intend on making it a “show only” vehicle.

For trucks that could be potentially entered in car shows, a highly modifiable Ford F-150 might be a good choice. They have a lot of modifiable parts, plenty of lift kits, and also would be relatively easy to improve. Auto parts for the F-150 are easy to procure, inspirational photo gallery sets are everywhere on the the internet, and they’re usable vehicles too. They’re probably the best truck for the beginner truck show entrant.

For professional truckers who have 18-wheelers, modifications are going to become far more expensive. Your bill at the local chrome shop is going to be frightening. If you have the money to do so, checking out brands like Peterbilt or Kenworth may be the best option.

Both Peterbilts and Kenworths have sterling reputations among truckers, which definitely would add to the “wow” factor in your modifications. It’s also worth noting that both big rig brands have become aware of the customization trends, and actively create kits to help truckers customize their rigs without taking away from street legality.

2. A little bit of paint goes a long way

For casual viewers, the paint job that a car or truck has will say volumes about the owner of said vehicle. A poorly-wrought paint job with rusty spots tells onlookers that the person in question really doesn’t care about their vehicle. On the other hand, a well-maintained paint job will say that they are passionate about their truck.

A pretty paint job will definitely put your truck in the public eye, especially with those who don’t really know much about the mechanical elements of trucks. The thing that most people don’t understand about paint jobs is that you don’t always need “over the top” types of illustration.

In many situations, a simple candy paint or “ghost” paint job will look just as great, if not better. After all, no one said that you have to turn your truck into Grave Digger in order to win a show – unless you want to win a monster truck show, anyway.

If you want a very extreme paint job but can’t afford it, there is another way to mimic that level of modification. Getting your truck wrapped can easily shave thousands of dollars off your budget without sacrificing the appearance you want to give.

3. Wheels matter. A lot.

If there’s one thing judges and passers-by notice, it’s a truck’s wheels. This is the place where you want to splurge. Good chrome rims, specialty tires, and minor tire accents can easily score big points. This is true regardless of how large the truck you want to show is, so don’t hesitate to go large here.

You’d want to think of your truck’s wheels as the shoes that tie the outfit together, so a good set can genuinely make or break the entire look of your truck. The wrong rims can destroy your chances of winning.

4. If you want to really impress judges, make sure that your engine is pristine and works like a dream.

Ideally, most vehicles entered will have a modified engine, but not every trucker can afford the money to be able to afford that. If you have to miss out on getting a turbo, don’t worry. Simply cleaning your engine and making it look its best will allow you to pop the hood of your truck with pride when showtime comes around.

A truck that boasts custom mechanics is a truck that will score well with judges. This is true about engines, struts, hydraulics, exhausts, or trucks that have turbo engines. The inner mechanics are what make these vehicles so impressive when compared to their “regular” counterparts.

That being said, in many truck shows, you will not have your engine judged if you do not pop the hood of your truck yourself. So, if your inner workings aren’t very good, that may be an option to consider.

5. Big rig trucks look amazing with custom bumpers.

One of the most affordable modifications you can get for a big rig is an aftermarket bumper, or a customized bumper. They add a lot of flair to a project of any age, are easy to install, and can easily be tweaked to suit trucks that have not been on the market for years. Among regular pickup trucks, a custom bumper can be harder to find. However, it’s always a nice and welcome touch.

6. Restorations draw huge crowds and great ratings.

If you have a historic truck, you’re in luck. Many of the greatest show trucks in recent years have been restorations of older big rigs and historic pickups. Historic pickup trucks, in particular, make for versatile showstoppers simply because they are seen as a major slice of Americana.

The best part about having a restoration truck is the fact that you can enter it in a much larger variety of shows, depending on what you choose to do with it. Versatility is the name of the game here!

Preserving the overall appearance of the truck would make it worthy of a historic auto show or “cruising’” car show. Restored big rigs always draw crowds at trucking conventions and major truck shows. Big rigs and 4x4s that have vintage truck bodies with extreme modifications can often find their way to major truck rallies or monster truck shows.

7. Unlike most show cars, a gritty theme tends to look good on a show truck.

Trucks are meant to be heavy-duty work machines that haul goods, look rough, and last long. Cars? Well, in many cases, people see them as vehicles that embody luxury. That dichotomy means that people are far more open to judging trucks with a more rugged and masculine theme in a positive light.

You shouldn’t shy away from the possibility of making your truck look a little bit more Army-ready. Matte paint reminiscent of army vehicles, highly textured tire treads and a little bit of canvas can look incredibly impressive on the right vehicle. If you plan to enter your truck into a show, try thinking outside of the box.

8. Lift kits are basically an essential. For big rigs, the must-have is a custom exhaust. 

It’s kind of an unwritten rule that these trucks need to have custom hydraulics or lift kits as part of their upgrades, especially if you’re talking about something along the lines of a Ford F-150. High lift kits give the truck a much more imposing look while also allowing the truck to drive over obstacles more easily.

Of course, with big rigs, it’s a different story. High lifts won’t have the same effect simply because they are so massive. In many cases, the ultimate touch for big rigs that are ready to be called a real show  piece is a custom exhaust or, in the case of monster trucks, exhausts that also do serious tricks.

Obviously, not every truck needs to abide by this rule. However, the sheer number of truck owners who add these to their modifications list would make many truck owners feel a bit out of place when they’re at their first show.

9. Don’t be afraid to take a look for international inspiration.

If you thought the truck modification phenomenon was an “America-only” type of deal, you’re quite wrong. Japan’s trucking culture, bosozoku, involves extreme modifications that would make most jaws drop in a typical American truck show.

Though they may not all translate into trucker success stateside, some of the more common tweaks, such as specialized lighting (possibly with programmed a light show) and unique body kits, could definitely catch on here.

It’s okay to make your truck stand out with an international touch, especially if you choose to show your truck in urban areas. At the very least, take a quick look at what international truck forums are saying. In some cases, you may even be able to find the truck parts you need by perusing Japanese truck culture forums.

10. Make sure you can actually afford to build one

Yes, having a truck that’s ready to wipe the floor at the local car or truck show is great. Yes, it’s a work of art. Yes, it’s a source of pride and joy. However, we have to address the elephant in the room: money.

These modifications all cost money and also drive up the value of your truck. Before you start tweaking your truck, you need to ask yourself what the end game of this all will be and how you intend on getting there. Even capitalizing on special offers and cheap deals on good parts, a full custom truck is going to be an expensive thing to built. They’re more like rolling works of art that happened to be parked in a parking lot rather than an art gallery, so before you commit to investing, thing about what you plan to do.

Some good questions to ask yourself should include:

Is this truck going to be used for commercial purposes?

Some truck manufacturers and body shops use show cars and trucks as a form of advertising. Crazy as it may be, some show rigs are also used to haul merchandise. If you are using it for business, you need to think about things like tax write-offs and commercial insurance.

How are you going to fund this?

Are you going to take out a loan? Use personal savings? Or, are you going to try to find sponsors for your project in hopes of winning prize money? No dough means no show. Winning cash prizes at truck beauty pageants isn’t as lucrative as you’d think, so keep that in mind.

Can you insure your show truck affordably?

It may be amazing to have a 1940s Ford F series in the show, but if you can’t insure it, you may never actually be able to take it to a show. It’s a good idea to talk to specialty insurance agents before you try.

How much of this project will be DIY?

If you have a talented crew of mechanics or even just know your way around a truck, things will be much cheaper.

Why are you doing this?

A person who is looking to profit off their truck will find that this isn’t a good route for profit. Creating a show-ready truck is a passion project more often than not. To get an idea of what it takes and who you’re up against, check out the National Association of Show Trucks, or visit the Great American Trucking Show. Research online too, some of the show trucks Overdrive staff cover on their website tick all the right boxes, and it’ll give you an idea of what you’re up against.

11.  Have a plan when you decide to customize your truck.

It’s safe to say that turning your regular truck into a show-stopper is going to be a major project. Since truck customization is a long-term project, careful planning is required. After all, you wouldn’t try to remodel your bathroom without selecting tile, measuring everything, and putting together a budget, right?

The same concept rings true for trucks. You’ll need to come up with a theme that works with your truck. Research all the parts and labor you’ll need for it and figure out a way to budget for it. Planning is key!

We’ve all seen a truck that has been poorly modified, or otherwise looks “slapped together.” It’s painful. They often get mocked at rallies. That’s what happens when people fail to plan out their modifications in a way that would present their trucks in the best way possible for their budget.

The trucks that major brands like Ford, Chevy, and Peterbilt bring to shows had been planned out by entire pit crews. In many cases, they also had to figure out ways to create custom parts to make the modifications they wanted to happen even possible. The reason why those trucks are so successful isn’t just about the money; they were planned to perfection.

So, if you do choose to start turning your truck into a show truck, make sure to plan ahead. Your truck (and wallet) will thank you for it.

About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them, but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. I founded GearHeads.org and then built and ran AutoWise.com until selling it to Lola Digital Media in 2020. I look forward to watching AutoWise grow as part of the AllGear group.