The versatility of a panel or light van can be extended substantially by the addition of a second row of seats. Steve Banner takes a look at the ins and outs of aftermarket seating.
When light commercial makers scent an opportunity to fill a niche in the market and make a profit out of it, they tend to go for it big-style. That’s certainly the case when it comes to supplying vans with a second row of fixed or folding seats plus a cargo area to the rear.
Years past the installation of extra seats used to be left to independent aftermarket specialists such as Atlantechs. These days, however, a lot of the available business is being mopped up by van manufacturers themselves. They are energetically marketing vans with back seats and a bulkhead behind them fitted either on the production line or installed at a special options centre prior to delivery to the dealer. Ford’s Double Cab-in-Van version of the Transit is a good example.
That’s not to say that aftermarket seats aren’t still available — they are — but Atlantechs would be the first to admit that demand has shrunk significantly over the past ten years. Because of the way the market has changed it’s increasingly fitting them itself at its Northamptonshire site rather than sending them out for installation by dealers.
It argues that one advantage it has over the manufacturers is flexibility; in other words, it can within reason tailor the seats and their position in the vehicle to match the precise needs of the customer. Van makers cannot always do that.
One problem that has beset the fitment of aftermarket seats over the years has been concern over the quality of the product and the way in which it is secured in the vehicle. Horror stories abound of back-street cowboys happily bolting seats that are little better than camping stools into van load areas using cheap fasteners and penny washers. The first time the driver hits the brakes hard in an emergency, the seat and its occupant are likely to break loose and hurtle forwards; with disastrous consequences.
Atlantechs advises that all seats, no matter whether they are fitted to a vehicle before or after first registration, must comply with tough EU legislation. It is essential says the company that the van’s owner satisfies himself that any seats that are installed in his vehicle are legally compliant.
One of the most important pieces of legislation is ECE 14, which governs seat belt anchor strength. It says that the belt fixings for each seat position must be capable of withstanding a load of 3.0 tonnes applied over 0.2 seconds without failure or frame deformation. The loads are applied simultaneously, points out Atlantechs. This means that a two-place seat is subject to a load of 6.0 tonnes, a three-place seat to 9.0 tonnes and so on.
Surprisingly, there is no legal requirement for either lap straps or lap-and-diagonal safety belts to be fitted to aftermarket auxiliary seats installed in vans, says Atlantechs. However, if they are fitted then they must comply with both ECE 14 and quality standard ECE 16.
Any seat installed must also comply with ECE 17, which involves subjecting it to a series of independently conducted static and dynamic tests to make sure it doesn’t either collapse or break loose in a collision. It is a test of the way in which the seat is anchored to the vehicle as well as a test of the seat itself.
“Tests are only valid if they are conducted at accredited facilities empowered by the Department for Transport to issue certificates of compliance,” warns Atlantechs. It has invested heavily to ensure that its products are thoroughly tested and meet the regulations.
Seats are often described as being either M1 or N1 compliant — M1 means that they are in accordance with passenger car requirements, N1 means that they can be used in a van — but in the firm’s view is that’s misleading. Such a designation cannot be applied to seats or brackets in isolation and is only valid if they’re installed in a vehicle and then meet all the necessary EU rules.
Atlantechs is not the only company capable of supplying properly tested auxiliary seats. Fenwick, Kilmarnock-based Scot Seat Directcan do so too and points out that testing does not come cheap; it has spend thousands and thousands of pounds on having tests conducted over the years, it reports.
When it comes to extra seating one company that is having a major impact on the UK market is Snoeks Automotive. Based in the Netherlands, it provides rear seats and bulkheads that are installed in conjunction with the manufacturers in a number of vehicles on sale in Britain, including Vauxhall’s Vivaro and Movano.
It has already come up with a rear seating and bulkhead double cab package for the latest Volkswagen Transporter, due to go on sale in the UK early next year. A similar Snoeks kit for the current Transporter model is installed by Salisbury, Wiltshire-based CoTrim as part of VW’s Engineered for You conversion programme. “We supply around 1,800 Transporter kits and 800 Crafter kits a year across Europe,” says Michiel Abbing, area manager at Snoeks.
Forthcoming European Whole Vehicle Type Approval (EWVTA) legislation is set to have a major impact on converters. At present only the vehicle itself has to be constructed in accordance with the Type Approval rules, which ensure that it meets the required regulatory standard. Any conversion work carried out — mounting a body on a chassis cab for instance — does not have to comply.
Once EWVTA is fully enforced, however, the entire vehicle will have to match the regulations. A compulsory scheme will be introduced from October 2010 onwards with all new commercial vehicles and trailers obliged to come into line by October 2014.
Crash-testing is not required. Converters and bodybuilders will have to make sure, however, that any parts they use are legal and match the requirements of the Vehicle Certification Agency or an equivalent body. Modifications to the vehicle’s structure, lengthening or shortening a chassis for instance, will require approval too. If there are no documents to show that EWVTA has been met then it will not be possible to register the vehicle.
While EWVTA will affect ancillary seats fitted prior to registration, it will not apply to seats installed post-registration, at least in the UK. It’s a loophole that Abbing believes needs plugging on safety grounds and he may have a point. It would be yet another way of eliminating from the market those seat suppliers who hawk around poor-quality products that have never been subjected to any independent testing at all; and represent a hazard to anybody who uses them.
If circumstances change and the need arises for a second row of seats there are products available, but make sure they are reputable. This is not a time to cut corners.