Where Did America’s Mail Trucks Come From?
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” That’s the creed of the U.S. Postal Service, whose trucks we see every day, whether on our home streets or on roads we’re traveling for the first time. With their boxy hoods, square headlights, and abundant mirrors, these iconic vehicles stand out in a sea of crossovers and Honda Civics. But where did they come from? And how long will they continue to deliver mail to our doorsteps?
During the 1980s, the USPS began the process of searching for a replacement vehicle for its Jeep DJs, which had been in use since the 1950s but did not have sufficient capacity for the increasing volume of mail. Rather than modify an existing vehicle for postal use, they decided to commission something tailor-made for delivering mail, designed to run all day for six days a week.
To determine what company would earn this massive government contract, multiple manufacturers were allowed to submit prototype vehicles. The three finalists, made by Grumman, Poveco, and American Motors General Company, were then put through a barrage of road tests in Laredo, Texas.
The prototype vehicles were required to travel 5,760 miles at 50 to 55 mph, drive 11,520 miles over a gravel road at 30 to 45 mph, and move 2,880 miles over a road with a shoulder, stopping every 250 feet and accelerating to 15 mph in between. Each vehicle had to haul a half-ton load during one half of the road test, and a man and a 400-pound load during the other half. They also sent the prototypes over potholes, ensuring that each wheel hit one at least 35,000 times. Jerry Kerr, a postal service official who helped monitor the trials, described them as “the most grueling road test of a government vehicle this side of the M-1 tank.”
The truck that won out was the Grumman Long Life Vehicle (LLV). Made from corrosion-resistant aluminum and capable of carrying up to 1,000 pounds of mail, the LLV was built to last. Grumman was known for manufacturing aircraft and got its start during World War II with the production of Navy fighters. It was also the main contractor in the development of the Apollo Lunar Module.
Grumman’s foray into postal trucks was a bit less glamorous, though quite lucrative. The Postal Service ordered 99,150 LLVs from Grumman at a cost of $11,651 per vehicle, for a total of over $1.1 billion. Expected to weather 20 years of constant service, these vehicles are still in use today. The first LLVs hit the roads in 1986—33 years ago—and the last was produced in 1994.
Understandably, many of the trucks are on their last legs. In addition to general maintenance troubles, they’ve also suffered a slew of fires. In Kansas City, a truck exploded into flames and proceeded to roll down the street. In Connecticut, disaster was narrowly avoided when a truck caught on fire at a gas station. And those are just two of the 20 such incidents reported in 2019 alone and the at least 135 since 2015. The number of fires is possibly even higher, as an internal report from the Postal Service cited 88 vehicle fires in fiscal year 2017.
The Postal Service is currently testing new trucks to replace the LLVs in the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV) program, a move that is long overdue. Five different prototypes are being tested, created by VT Hackney/Workhorse Group, Karsan/Morgan Olson, AM General, Oshkosh, and Mahindra (including hybrid and electric options). Meanwhile, the Postal Service is using other vehicles to replace those that have caught fire or been rendered useless.
The Canada Post has also used Grumman LLVs in the past, but began to replace them with Ford Transit Connect vans back in 2010—almost 10 years ago! So what’s holding up the USPS? The reason is unclear. With the process having begun in 2015, and street testing having begun in 2017, the final contract was expected to be awarded last year and the new trucks on the road by this summer. That obviously did not happen.
The timeline could have been extended as a result of a temporary suspension of vehicle testing in November 2017, as reported by Christopher Jackson, city delivery director of the National Association of Letter Carriers AFL-CIO. It’s also possible that the replacement program has been put on hold as a result of President Trump’s recent attempts to restructure the agency.
Whichever company wins the contract could be looking at a payout of $6.3 billion, as it calls for 180,000 trucks between $25,000 and $35,000 each, delivered over five to seven years. Let’s just hope they won’t be lighting up gas stations come 2053.
Victoria Ciavolella is a copywriter and social media associate. California born and raised, she currently resides in Southern New Jersey with her husband and daughter.