18 August 2009
Virtually all major light commercial vehicle manufacturers offer a range of standard ready-bodied chassis cab-based conversions these days. Steve Banner looks at what is available and why they exist
Buy a mattress in Norfolk and there's every chance that it will be delivered by a Citroen.
Norwich-based Mattressman.co.uk has acquired four Relays to deliver mattresses, beds, headboards and other items of furniture. The Relays are part of Citroen's award-winning Ready to Run programme. It's a pre-packaged approach to building and selling bodied chassis and conversions that has been adopted by manufacturers such as Ford, Nissan, Fiat, VW, Renault and Vauxhall.
So how come so many manufacturers have brought in ready-to-go-to-work packages? And how do they work?
Go back a few years and anybody who wanted a light tipper would order a chassis from his chosen dealer. The bare chassis would eventually arrive at the dealership and the dealer would set about having an appropriate body built and installed by a local body builder.
The whole process took time, and the quality of the bodywork was variable depending on how competent the body builder was. If problems arose, the dealer blamed the body builder, the bodybuilder blamed the dealer and the customer was caught in the middle.
Vehicle manufacturers eventually decided to take control of the situation by working with selected body builders to provide vehicles delivered ready-bodied to the dealer who could in turn deliver them quickly to the operator.
"Most of our conversions can usually be carried out and delivered within two weeks," says a Fiat spokesman. "The vehicle arrives ready to go."
Each bodybuilder involved in these ready-to-go-to-work schemes has to meet exacting standards set by the chassis maker to ensure that his products don't disintegrate the first time they're used and that aftersales support is in place should there be a glitch. He has to warrant his work too, but in turn gains access to sales opportunities that might otherwise be denied to him and to sales volumes that help him keep costs under control.
If a problem does arise, then it's up to the dealer to resolve it. The customer doesn't have to get involved in wearisome three-way disputes over who is to blame.
Critics of this approach to supplying bodywork point to its alleged drawbacks, with some hinting that certain manufacturers have only launched programmes because their dealers are incapable of specifying bodywork correctly themselves.
Mercedes-Benz does not run a ready-to-go-to-work scheme and makes no apologies for it. "Unlike some of our competitors we sell our vehicles through a specialist network of commercial vehicle dealers," van sales and marketing director, Steve Bridge, told BusinessCar sister title What Van? in an interview earlier this year. "They've got plenty of experience when it comes to specifying bodies to fit every conceivable chassis and they know that one size does not necessarily fit all."
Mercedes, however, does work closely with certain bodybuilders. They include Alloy Bodies, which among other things makes Luton bodies for Sprinter chassis.
Some schemes are starting to enter more specialised areas. Vauxhall, for instance, is now promoting a Movano chassis cab specially bodied as a grounds maintenance vehicle designed to suit the requirements of groundsmen and park keepers among others. It also offers a lightweight all-alloy beavertail car transporter body for Movano.
VW expects converters accredited under its Engineered for You scheme to be "commercially viable". Among other things they must have had no county court judgements made
against them, adhere to a quality control system such as BS EN ISO 9001 and be in a position to match VW's three-year warranty. They also have to be inspected by the Freight Transport Association.
Citroen is one of many to move into more specialised sectors. It has a car transporter in its Ready to Run line-up alongside Berlingos, Berlingo Firsts, Dispatches and Relays converted for use by glaziers. Renault too includes glass-carriers as well as tippers and Lutons in its Off the Shelf range.
Ford markets a Transit-based three-way tipper as a One-Stop model. Its range also embraces a standard end-tipper, a box van, a dropside and a curtainsider. Though favoured by many truck operators because it makes it easier to load and unload cargo, the last-named type of body remains unusual on a light commercial chassis.
But the conversion industry could be in for a conversion of its own, in the form of legislation likely to have a massive impact on the sector - European Whole Vehicle Type Approval.
As things stand only the chassis has to meet what are known as the Type Approval rules, which ensure that it complies with all regulations. EWVTA means that the whole vehicle, including the cargo body, will have to comply.
It doesn't mean crash testing. What it does mean is the use of specified components that meet the requirements of approval bodies such as the Vehicle Certification Agency. If the chassis has to be stretched, or the fuel tank moved, these will also need approval.
A voluntary EWVTA compliance programme was introduced in April. A compulsory scheme will be brought in gradually from next October, with full compliance required by October 2014.
Bodybuilders will need documents to prove that they are complying with the rules. If a dealer selling LCVs doesn't have the paperwork available then he will not be able to register the vehicle.
Bodies that are either unique or built in small volumes will be subject to inspection by the VCA or the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency under a national type approval programme.
While the plan should result in better-quality bodywork, the need for some to be inspected by officials could slow down delivery and bump up costs. The agencies concerned won't provide their services for free; and the bill will likely be passed on to the customer.