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On the Road

December 23, 2004 — Permanent

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photo of a Winton motorcar and a postal carrier
Winton motorcar, 1899, Cleveland, Ohio

Horseless wagons began to appear in Europe and America in the late 1800s. American postal officials, continuously seeking faster and more effective ways of moving mail, were drawn to the possibilities of these new self-propelled wagons. The match between postal service and vehicle was a great success. By 1920, the U.S. Post Office Department controlled the largest civilian vehicular fleet in the world. By the 1960s, these vehicles had become an essential tool of city delivery service. Today letter carriers and their vehicles are commonplace in neighborhoods across the country.

Speeding Along and Setting a Standard

a postal worker riding in a horseless carriage
A horseless carriage

In December 1899, an automobile mail wagon was tested for the first time. It was manufactured by the Winton Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The test was conducted with snow both on the ground and falling. Even in those conditions, the new vehicle covered 22 miles of paved and unpaved streets in just under two and one-half hours, stopping at 126 mailboxes along the route. The average time for a horse and wagon over the same route was six hours.

Officials cheered the dramatic increase in collection speed and soon postmasters across the country were testing motorized vehicles. Collection times were cut at least in half in most trials. This was exciting news for the time-conscious Post Office Department. 

On The Road, Moving the Mail in America's Cities intro screenshot

On the Road video

This video chronicles the use of motorized vehicles to move mail within America's towns and cities.

Model T mail car loaded with mailbags

1906 - 1920s

In 1906, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock organized a test of two Columbian Mark vehicles in Baltimore, Maryland. The drivers worked for the vehicle contractors and the carriers for the postal service. The Columbian Marks could carry two mailbags and a few small parcels. The carrier stood on the back of the truck for easy access to mailboxes along the route. The success of these tests helped drive the demand by American postmasters for motorized vehicles in more cities.

postal workers posed in front of their mail trucks

1921 - 1940s 

By 1921, the mish-mash of vehicle types that was the U.S. postal fleet had become unwieldy. The 4,000 trucks owned by the Department consisted of 43 different types of trucks by 23 different manufacturers. The cost to maintain parts and train mechanics to service all the vehicle styles was draining the postal budget.

photo of a mail truck

1950 - 1986 

For the first half of the 20th century, mail trucks transported both carriers and their mail to the spot where the daily rounds began on foot. Faced with more homes to reach, and more mail to bring, the Post Office Department’s solution was to put their letter carriers behind the wheel. By using vehicles to haul all that mail, carriers could complete longer routes in the same amount of time.

Down The Road

Long Life Vehicle on display in the Postal Museum
This 1986 Long Life Vehicle (LLV) was the first model off of the assembly line. It is now on exhibit at the National Postal Museum.

As of 2004, there are 188,613 delivery vehicles in service in the United States. These white vehicles are common neighborhood sights. We watch and wait as carriers use them to help bring us our share of the over 600,000,000 pieces of mail processed in the U.S. each day.

In the 21st century, demands on postal vehicles remain great. A new set of challenges faces the postal service. Vehicles must not only be able to help carriers improve delivery service, but must also help the Postal Service lower their reliance on fossil fuels. The latest postal delivery vehicle is the Flexible Fuel Vehicle, or FFV, manufactured by Ford Motor Company, which has delivered 21,239 right-hand drive FFVs to the postal service. The vehicles use an Explorer SUV platform and a specially designed durable aluminum body from Utilimaster. They can be operated on 85% ethanol fuel, gas, or any combination of the two fuels in the same tank.

Ford Flexible Fuel Vehicle on the road
Ford Flexible Fuel Vehicle 
Photograph courtesy of Utilimaster.

This exhibit was made possible through the generous support of Ford Motor Company Fund.