When Philip Rubio saw his new mail truck, the first thing he noticed was the missing rearview mirror. Grumman’s “Long Life Vehicle” – the now ubiquitous US Postal Service delivery van, which first hit the streets in 1987 – had no rear window. There was no airbag. There was no air conditioning. The heating system was unreliable. But shoot, if it didn’t look right.
“Everyone has their own LLV story,” said Rubio, retired letter carrier and history professor at North Carolina A&T State University. “I think it was a morale boost for the letter carriers to see a new vehicle, to see a fleet and to see something that looked good on the street.”
The Postal Service is set to spend up to $ 6 billion to retire these trucks from 2023. Fleet replacement is long overdue: LLVs are well beyond their expected lifespan of 24 years and are now reputation for catching fire after hundreds of thousands of miles of overuse. They are hated by many postal workers, who say they grill in the summer and shiver in the winter when the heating system is insufficient. And they only get 10 miles per gallon.
But in their day, LLVs were a triumph for the postal agency, according to experts. Not only did they become one of the most recognizable vehicles for traveling the streets of the country, but they also transformed the postal service, improving its reliability and market value, and helped usher in one of the greatest periods of expansion of the agency.
And they will retire as the postal service tries to overcome existential crises: the volume of mail decreases and the volume of parcels skyrockets; Questions swirl about the replacement truck and its potential to run on battery power.
In May, House Democrats lined up behind $ 8 billion in funding to help the Postal Service buy the “next-generation delivery vehicle” fleet and electric charging stations. The new trucks offer almost everything Rubio and other postmen said LLVs lack: standard safety features, better navigability on dense streets, and other amenities. But with the first replacement postal vans still in two years, LLVs will not yet be able to retire.
“Maybe that sums up the state of the postal service today, that it is both reliable and struggling,” Rubio said. “It’s a vehicle that still looks shiny and new, but they’ve aged and become less and less safe. There have always been safety concerns and carriers are eagerly awaiting the next generation of postal vehicles. But he’s still there. The postal service has been through so much, and yet this vehicle is still here. “
The agency was relatively new in its transition from the Cabinet-level Post Office to an autonomous federal agency when it began phasing out its old postal jeeps in the early 1980s for the LLV. Boxy with a big nose, the jeeps were themselves decades old. They had grown too small for the large increase in mail volume that had occurred during their lifetime: in 1960, Americans sent 33.2 billion pieces of first-class mail; in 1980, they sent 60.3 billion. The LLV could hold twice as much cargo as the postal jeeps.
More than that, the postal service was in desperate need of modernization. When the postal service was transformed into an independent agency in 1970, it was no longer supposed to depend on taxpayer funding. This meant presenting itself as an innovative, fast and innovative private sector style machine, a transportation broker and a business solutions partner. Its new postal truck would help solidify the image.
“There has been a lot of talk about the new US Postal Service over the past year or so; on how this 200-year-old institution is taking new directions, using the latest technology to carry out the country’s mail delivery task, ”said then Post Minister Preston R. Tisch, during the 1987 ceremony to take delivery of the first LLV. “What could be a better symbol of these new directions than these shiny new minivans which move us towards more efficiency and economy? “
The agency ordered bidders to submit prototypes specially designed for mail delivery. That meant right-hand drive to allow letter carriers to reach roadside mailboxes through their windows, said Lynn Heidelbaugh, curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, low steps for entry and exit, and a cargo bay with a low tailgate to make it easier for carriers to move heavy bales of mail.
The Postal Service road tested trucks from Grumman (in partnership with General Motors), Poveco (Fruehauf & General Automotive Corp.) and American Motors on a 24,000 mile course in Laredo, Texas in the summer of 1985. Among the challenges, the vehicles had to travel 11,520 miles on a gravel road at 30-45 mph, drive 960 miles over cobblestones and 960 miles over potholes.
Each company’s engineering team was given five “unscheduled maintenance actions” to repair components that are expected to last the life of the vehicle. Trucks were eliminated if they encountered the same problem twice. The Grumman prototype was the only vehicle to complete the test. Postal officials have raved about its durability.
“The children of the drivers behind me,” Tisch said at the 1987 ceremony, “could one day deliver the mail in 2011 using the same vehicle their father or mother drives today.”
It was an entirely new concept for US mail delivery. Before the LLVs hit the streets, the Postal Service had put its new logo on jeeps to replace the old Postal Department badge. Standardized mail delivery vehicles were barely ten years old. In the 1950s, postal workers still delivered mail using horse-drawn carriages in some major cities, Heidelbaugh said.
The postal service only started delivering mail by truck on a whim. The first motorized mail delivery began in the early 1900s in Baltimore, organized by Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock, who was also the pioneer of airmail. Two post office drivers left in Columbia Mark 43 with mail bags resting on the seats; a postman was standing on a step bolted to the rear of the vehicle to access the mailboxes.
In 1921, according to the Smithsonian, the courier fleet consisted of 4,000 trucks of 43 separate types from 23 manufacturers. The department did not begin the widespread standardization of its vehicles until 1954, and even then had to modify the vehicles it purchased to make them better suited for mail delivery.
Prior to the LLV, the agency replaced its jeeps almost every six years, said Scott Bombaugh, the Postal Service’s chief technology officer. LLVs did not need to be transformed in the same way. They have lasted so long, said Han Dinh, the agency’s director of automotive engineering, that Grumman and GM have stopped making some aftermarket parts. The postal service had to redesign these parts and then contract with a manufacturer to continue producing them.
“In my opinion, choosing the LLV was probably one of the best decisions the Postal Service has ever made,” said Dihn.
LLV’s fleet will slowly begin to be replaced in 2023, when Oshkosh’s “Next Generation Delivery Vehicle” debuts. The “NGDV” is larger to accommodate more packages, comes with a rear view camera, features more ergonomic designs and – letter carriers across the country rejoice – air conditioning.
The trucks are designed to run either on an internal combustion engine or on a battery-powered electric transmission, which has a higher purchase price but would save the postal service money over time on fuel and in maintenance. A House bill with broad Democratic backing includes $ 8 billion in public funding for the purchase of electric or zero-emission vehicles and electric charging infrastructure as part of the NGDV supply. Without the money, postal officials say, the agency will only be able to manufacture 10 percent of the new electric fleet.
Until then, the already exhausted LLV fleet will continue to carry the burden of La Poste and help it overcome its financial and service crises. He has a well-deserved retirement on the horizon, if he can make it that far.
“In this sense, the LLV symbolizes the crossroads of the postal service,” said Rubio. “What would it be? Will it continue to another generation or will it die out?”