LLV is an acronym for “Long Life Vehicle” but, for some, particularly age 30 and under, it could just as easily stand for “life-long vehicle” since they’ve known no other mail truck. Despite the abundance of LLVs on the roads and their many years of exposure, they remain a bit of a curiosity. Looking inspired by 1990s sci-fi movies, the Grumman LLV’s cartoonish shape and guardrail bumpers were in fact around well before Arnold’s cinematic run-in with a suicidal cab-driving robot.
Unlike flimsy movie props, however, the demands placed on United States Postal Service delivery vehicles are very real. For years, those demands had largely been carried out by the Jeep DJ-5, also known as the Dispatcher. Besides right-hand-drive and, later, fully-enclosed cabs, the DJ-5s were given only incremental improvements following their 1965 introduction. Going into the 1980s, the Jeeps were deemed ready for replacement but the next round of vehicles would be different. Instead of another retro-fitted consumer-based product, the USPS solicited purpose-built prototypes and even established baseline criteria. In order to even qualify for consideration, applicants first had some flaming hoops to clear. The list of prerequisites included:
- Drive 11,520 miles over a gravel road at 30 to 45 mph;
- Drive 5,760 miles on a closed loop, 5-mile-long paved road at 50 to 55 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, ranging from 3 to 4 inches high, at 10 to 14 mph;
- Drive 960 miles over potholes at 10 to 14 mph, ensuring that each wheel hits a pothole 35,000 times;
- Make 100 consecutive stops from 15 mph
Upping the ante, the vehicles had to carry a 400 pound load during one-half of the road tests and a 1-ton load during the other half. Rising to the challenge were three entries, out of which only one was from a car manufacturer, American Motors, and theirs was also the only entry that was developed alone. The other two were team efforts submitted by Poveco (a Fruehauf/General Automotive Corporation collaboration), and Grumman (teamed with General Motors).
It’s no surprise to say the Grumman LLV won the contract but did you know that this is the same Grumman that was one of the leading 20th century U.S. producers of military and civilian aircraft, responsible for the Apollo Lunar Module, and later acquired to form Northrop-Grumman? Yeah, that Grumman produced the LLV.
Styling notwithstanding, part of the LLV’s appeal was its estimated 24 year lifespan. Now, if you’re quick with math, you’ve figured out that anniversary has come and gone. Since the LLV entered production at the tail end of 1986, that means they were stamped to be pulled off the shelves by 2011. As of 2011, however, there were 141,319 LLVs still in operation which constituted 75 percent of the USPS fleet. So, what happened — why are LLVs still on the road in 2016?
By 2009, the USPS realized that 2011 wasn’t a terribly convenient time for new trucks. Then, the powers that be, discovered 30 was the for reals number of years the LLV could survive. Okay. Applying a little more math tells us, as of this writing, they’ve got about a year left and a replacement is nowhere in sight. To their credit, on January 20, 2015, the USPS did issue a solicitation for a Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (RFI-NGDV).
To be accurate, not all LLVs were built in the first year. In fact, orders were filled annually through 1994, so some are technically still in their original 24 year operational range. But the USPS provided some sobering numbers, saying “nearly all the LLVs have had their engines and transmissions replaced at least once, and often twice, and some of the LLVs have had nearly all their parts replaced, including their frames.” The USPS estimated between 2008 and 2010, 4,489 frames were replaced, costing about $5,000 each.
Sounds bleak considering, on average, LLVs rack up a mere 18 miles per day. That’s just 5,388 miles per year… but oh how laborious those miles are. According to the USPS, during a typical delivery route, an LLV will endure about 500 stops and starts. Unladen, mileage for the LLV is estimated at 17 mpg (16/18 city/highway) but the USPS says, in real conditions, LLVs average 10 mpg.
While the LLV’s efficiency numbers are primarily a byproduct of its lot in life as a beast of burden, the mechanical issues are largely credited to age and overuse. A recent study involving USPS maintenance facilities mechanics concluded, “the LLV is a well-designed, highly functional vehicle that is easy for mechanics to work on, and its long-lived aluminum body has held up well.” Thanks to that aluminum body, the LLV only weighs 3,000 pounds and can carry 1,000 pounds of cargo.
By this point, you may be wondering where GM fit into the Grumman LLV picture. Almost like the old days of coach-building, GM supplied the running gear, such as chassis and suspension, from the first-generation Chevy S-10, in addition to three-speed transmissions and engines. The early model LLVs were fitted with Pontiac’s 2.5-liter, inline four-cylinder “Iron Duke” while later models came equipped with Chevy’s 2.2-liter, inline four-cylinder. As well, some basic interior components were borrowed from GM’s parts bins (notice the Chevy steering wheel, above).
Though there’s little progress on the LLV’s replacement, following January 2015’s call for proposals, GM did express great interest in participating in the development of the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle. After all, with roughly 180,000 vehicles on order, at an estimated cost of $25,000 to $35,000 each, it’s a multi-billion dollar proposition. For what it’s worth, the average cost for each LLV was $13,000.