When Philip Rubio saw his new mail truck, the first thing he noticed was the missing rearview mirror. The Grumman “Long Life Vehicle” — the U.S. Postal Service’s now-ubiquitous delivery van, which first hit the streets in 1987 — didn’t have a back window. It didn’t have an air bag. It didn’t have air conditioning. The heating system was unreliable. But shoot, if it didn’t look good.
“Everybody has their own LLV story,” said Rubio, a retired letter carrier and a professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University. “I think it was a morale booster for 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 preparing to spend as much as $6 billion to retire those trucks starting in 2023. The fleet replacement is long overdue: LLVs have far exceeded their projected 24-year life spans and now have a reputation of catching fire after hundreds of thousands of miles of overuse. They are loathed by many postal workers, who say they broil during the summer and shiver in the winter when the heating system is inadequate. And they get only 10 miles to the gallon.
But in their day, LLVs were a triumph for the mail agency, experts say. Not only did they go on to become one of the most recognizable vehicles to travel the country’s streets, but they also transformed the Postal Service, boosting its reliability and marketability, and helped usher in one of the agency’s greatest periods of expansion.
And they’ll retire as the Postal Service tries to navigate existential crises: The volume of mail is falling and that of packages is skyrocketing; questions are swirling about the replacement truck and its potential to run on battery electric power.
This month, House Democrats lined up behind an $8 billion funding package to help the Postal Service purchase the “Next Generation Delivery Vehicle” fleet and electric charging stations. The new trucks offer nearly everything Rubio and other postal workers said the LLVs lacked: standard safety features, better navigability on dense streets and other amenities. But with the first replacement mail vans still two years away, the LLVs won’t be able to ease into retirement yet.
“Maybe it sums up the state of the Postal Service today, that it’s both dependable and in trouble,” Rubio said. “It’s a vehicle that still looks shiny and new, but they’ve aged out and are becoming less safe all the time. It had safety issues all along, and carriers are looking forward to the next generation of postal vehicles. But it’s still there. The Postal Service has been through so much, and yet that vehicle is still there.”
The agency was relatively new in its transition from Cabinet-level Post Office Department to a free-standing federal agency when it began phasing out its old mail jeeps in the early 1980s for the LLV. Boxy with a large nose, the jeeps were themselves decades old. They’d grown too small for the sharp rise in mail volume that occurred over 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 mail jeeps.
More than that, the Postal Service desperately needed to modernize. When the mail service was spun off into an independent agency in 1970, it no longer was supposed to rely on taxpayer funding. That meant marketing itself as a private-sector style, fast-moving, innovative machine, a transportation broker and business solutions partner. Its new mail truck would help solidify the image.
“Much has been said about the new U.S. Postal Service in the last year or so; about how this 200-year-old institution is moving in new directions, using the latest technology to carry out the task of delivering the nation’s mail,” then-Postmaster General Preston R. Tisch said at the 1987 ceremony to take delivery of the first LLVs. “What could be a better symbol of these new directions than these shiny new vans moving us forward toward greater efficiency and economy?”
The agency ordered bidders to submit prototypes specifically designed for mail delivery. That meant right-side drive to allow letter carriers to reach roadside mailboxes out their windows, said Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, low steps for entry and egress, and a cargo bay with a low lift gate so carriers could more easily move heavy bales of mail.
The Postal Service road-tested trucks from Grumman (partnering with General Motors), Poveco (Fruehauf & General Automotive Corp.) and American Motors on a 24,000-mile course in Laredo, Tex., in the summer of 1985. Among the challenges, the vehicles had to travel 11,520 miles over a gravel road at 30 to 45 mph, drive 960 miles over cobblestones and another 960 miles over potholes.
Each firm’s engineering team was allowed five “unscheduled maintenance actions” to repair components expected to last the full life of the vehicle. Trucks were eliminated if they experienced the same problem twice. The Grumman prototype was the only vehicle to complete the test. Postal Service officials gushed over its durability.
“The children of the drivers behind me,” Tisch said during the 1987 ceremony, “could one day deliver mail in the year 2011 using the very same vehicle their father or mother is driving today.”
That was an entirely new concept for American mail delivery. Before the LLVs hit the street, the Postal Service had slapped its new logo on jeeps to replace the old Post Office Department insignia. Standardized mail delivery vehicles were barely a decade old. In the 1950s, postal workers still delivered mail using horse-drawn carriages in some major cities, Heidelbaugh said.
The Post Office Department began delivering mail by truck only on a whim. The first motorized mail delivery began in the early 1900s in Baltimore organized by Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock, who also pioneered airmail. Two drivers contracted to the post office set off in Columbia Mark 43s with satchels of mail lying on the seats; a letter carrier stood on a step bolted to the back of the vehicle to access mailboxes.
By 1921, according to the Smithsonian, the mail fleet consisted of 4,000 trucks of 43 discrete types from 23 manufacturers. The department didn’t begin widespread standardization of its vehicles until 1954, and even then it had to modify the vehicles it purchased to make them better suited for mail delivery.
Before the LLV, the agency replaced its jeeps nearly every six years, said Scott Bombaugh, the Postal Service’s chief technology officer. The LLVs did not have to be similarly transformed. They’ve lasted so long, said Han Dinh, the agency’s manager of vehicle engineering, that Grumman and GM stopped making certain replacement parts. The Postal Service had to re-engineer those parts, then contract with a manufacturer to keep producing them.
“In my opinion, selecting the LLV was probably one of the best decisions the Postal Service ever made,” Dinh said.
The LLV fleet will slowly start to be replaced in 2023, when the Oshkosh “Next Generation Delivery Vehicle” makes its debut. The “NGDV” is larger to accommodate more packages, comes with a backup camera, features more-ergonomic designs and — letter carriers around the country rejoice — air conditioning.
The trucks are designed to run on either an internal-combustion engine or a battery-electric drivetrain, which has a higher purchase price but would save the Postal Service money over time in fuel and maintenance. A House bill with wide Democratic support includes $8 billion of public funding to purchase electric or zero-emissions vehicles and electric charging infrastructure under the NGDV procurement. Without the money, postal officials say, the agency will be able to make only 10 percent of the new fleet electric.
Until then, the LLV fleet, already on its last legs, will continue carrying the Postal Service’s load and helping it weather its financial and service crises. It has a well-earned retirement on the horizon, if it can make it that far.
“In that sense, the LLV symbolizes the crossroads of the Postal Service,” Rubio said. “What will it be? Will it continue to another generation, or will it flame out?”‘