Until the 1980s, when postal officials looked to buy new vehicles for the service, they combed through existing models for one that best fit their needs. That decade, when the time came to select a new vehicle for the nation’s city letter carriers, officials decided to do things differently. They created a set of criteria for the perfect letter carrier vehicle. Armed with this list of needs, they challenged commercial vehicle industries to create the perfect vehicle from scratch. Officials believed that this method would assure the creation of a vehicle that could last more than twenty years on the road.
Three finalists, vehicles produced by Grumman and General Motors, Poveco (Fruehauf & General Automotive Corp), and American Motors, competed in Laredo, Texas, in 1985 over rugged, pothole-filled streets, moving from stops and starts dozens of times an hour to speeding up in order to match freeway traffic. During these tests, which totaled 24,000 miles in all, officials challenged each vehicle’s endurance and maneuverability. A series of drills was created to replicate the demands of city letter carriers on their vehicles. Each vehicle was required to:
- Drive 5,760 miles on a closed loop 5-mile-long paved road at 50 to 55 mph
- Drive 11,520 miles over a gravel road at 30 to 45 mph
- Drive 2,880 miles over a road with a shoulder, stopping every 250 feet and accelerating to 15 mph in between
- Drive 960 miles over cobblestones that ranged from 3 to 4 inches high at 10 to 14 mph
- Drive 960 miles over potholes at 10 to 14 mph
- Haul a 1 -ton pound load during one half of the road test
- Haul a man and a 400 pound load during one half of the road test
- Drive over potholes ensuring that each wheel hits a pothole 35,000 times
- Make one hundred consecutive stops from 15 mph
Officials required that the manufacturers produce a vehicle with a weather-tight aluminum alloy body. The body had to be easy to enter and exit for carriers ranging from 4’11” tall to those standing at 6’2” and 210 pounds. Finally, and most importantly, the vehicle had to be able to run twenty hours a day, seven days a week, month after month, year after year.
When the dust settled, Grumman Corporation’s “Long Life Vehicle,” or LLV, was declared the winner. The first of these boxy, right-hand drive LLVs began service in 1986. The LLV’s body was manufactured by Grumman, the chassis by General Motors. The truck body is made from corrosion-resistant aluminum, weighs 3,000 pounds, can carry 1,000 pounds of mail and has a tight turning radius. The Postal Service ordered 99,150 Long Life Vehicles. At a cost of $11,651 per vehicle, the USPS contract with Grumman totaled over $1.1 billion ad was the largest vehicle order ever placed by the postal service. The Long Life Vehicles were produced in Grumman’s Montgomery, Pennsylvania plant. During the height of production, the company was producing 100 postal trucks per day. The 1 1/2-ton Long Life Vehicle in the museum’s collections is numbered 7200001.
The last LLV was built in 1994. Even though the vehicles were designed to meet a number of challenges, at least two design imperfections began to appear once the vehicles were put to their paces in working conditions. The windowless cargo area restricted carrier visibility and the vehicles were too low in the front, making navigation through deep snow problematic. While LLVs are still moving carriers and their mail along city streets across the United States, they are slowly being replaced, many having served steadily for over 20 years. Among the vehicle types replacing LLVs is the Flexible Fuel Vehicle, or FFV. As its name suggests, the FFV is a more fuel efficient vehicle, operating on a combination of unleaded gas and ethanol.
Video footage of Long Live Vehicle testing performed in Laredo, Texas in 1985. During the tests, which totaled 24,000 miles in all, officials challenged the endurance and maneuverability of three vehicles produced by Grumman and General Motors, Poveco (Fruehauf & General Automotive Corp), and American Motors. Video courtesy of the United States Postal Service.
[sounds of vehicle engine and wheels on the test track]
Written by Nancy A. Pope