Just about all of the major 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 Citroën. Norwich-based online business Mattressman.co.uk has acquired four Relays to deliver mattresses, beds, headboards and other items of furniture, not just throughout its home county, but throughout the east of England too.
The Relays are fitted with either 20- or 30-mattress capacity Luton bodies constructed by Buckstone as part of Citroën’s award-winning Ready to Run programme. It’s a pre-packaged approach to building and selling bodied chassis and special conversions that has been adopted by a number of other manufacturers in recent times, including Ford, Vauxhall, Fiat, Volkswagen, Renault and Nissan.
The last-named manufacturer launched its ready-to-go-to-work scheme under the Good-To-Go banner in autumn 2007 with a line-up that includes dry freight box bodies, refrigerated bodies and tippers based on the Cabstar.
Fiat introduced its Built for Business programme in spring 2008 — it made its debut at the British Commercial Vehicle Show — with tippers, dropsides, Lutons and box bodies all based on Ducato. It additionally features a Ducato double cab van conversion courtesy of Snoeks.
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, say, a light tipper would order a suitable chassis from his chosen dealer. The bare chassis would eventually arrive at the dealership and the dealer would then set about having an appropriate body built and installed by a local bodybuilder.
The whole process took time, and the quality of the bodywork was variable depending on how competent the bodybuilder was. If problems arose, the dealer would blame the bodybuilder, the bodybuilder would blame the dealer and the hapless customer would be caught in the middle.
Several vehicle manufacturers eventually decided to take control of the situation by working with selected bodybuilders to provide a variety of vehicles that would be 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-corned 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 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.
The key limitation of the ready-to-go-to-work approach according to its decriers is that the bodies are standardised; built to a set length, width and height, and all with the same level of equipment.
One or two minor variations in specification may be permitted. Buckstone, for instance, deleted the full-length cargo lashing rails normally fitted to Ready to Run Lutons from the bodies supplied to Mattressman.co.uk to improve capacity and provide a smooth sidewall for ease of loading and unloading.
For the most part, however, what you see is what you get. Ready-to-go-to-work bodies are off-the-peg rather than made-to-measure products. Supporters of ready-to-go-to-work programmes usually point out that many of the variations requested by customers – a load deck that’s 100mm longer or sides that are 50mm deeper – are often not really necessary. The client only wants them because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ – an approach that may date back 40 years or more.
It’s a fair criticism. It’s equally true to say however that ready-to-go-to-work bodywork isn’t really appropriate for niche applications where the body has to be specifically tailored to the task in hand. Its fans don’t disagree, pointing out that this is not what such bodies are designed for and adding that a number of specialist bodybuilders are available who can build complex products that fall outside ready-to-go-to-work schemes.
That said, some schemes are moving into 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.
Constructed by Roadload, the body comes with a beavertail ramp to make it easier to load and unload ride-on mowers and small items of plant. Rear air suspension is fitted that can be lowered to make the task even simpler.
Fitted with six load tie-down points and eight under-body rope hooks, the body can be ordered with an optional lockable plastic belly locker plus a range of optional lockable storage boxes. Roadload also produces a lightweight all-alloy beavertail car transporter body for Movano. A powered winch is one of the options.
Vauxhall classes these vehicles as Recognised Conversions rather than Core Conversions. It’s an avenue followed by a number of other manufacturers, and one with important implications for the buyer. Core Conversions carry Vauxhall’s full three-year/100,000-mile warranty on both the chassis and the conversion work. With a Recognised Conversion Vauxhall warrants the base vehicle only but has technically approved the conversion concerned.
Such approvals may also require compliance with the manufacturer’s commercial as well as its technical requirements. A number of bodybuilders have gone out of business over the years and manufacturers want to be as sure as they can be that this will not happen to a firm that they have recognised.
Volkswagen, for example, 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 with a three-year warranty of their own. They also have to be inspected by the Freight Transport Association.
Despite such strictures, approved firms can still end up in administration. That’s what happened to Boalloy — one of VW’s accredited converters — some 18 months ago. Edward Stobart, formerly boss of haulier Eddie Stobart, subsequently acquired the Boalloy Fastruck part of the business. It has retained its VW accreditation.
VW also markets a standardised selection of Crafter-based tippers, Lutons and dropsides — they too boast bodies constructed by accredited conversion specialists — under the Engineered to Go label.
Vauxhall’s Core Conversion catalogue embraces a dropside Vivaro along with a dropside-, tipper- and Luton-bodied Movanos. As well as the vehicles mentioned earlier, its Recognised Conversion range also includes a Movano-based low floor box van with a loading height of just 550mm and 18.2m3 of cargo space. The body is constructed by Trucksmith.
High-reach vehicle-mounted access platforms for Vivaro and Movano from Versalift are classed as Recognised Conversions as well, as are Combo, Vivaro and Movano fridge vans.
Citroën too has moved into more specialised sectors. It has a car transporter in its Ready to Run line-up alongside Berlingos, Berlingo Firsts, Dispatches and Relays that have been converted for use by glaziers by Supertrucks, a leading specialist in the field.
Each van features an externally mounted glass-carrying rack (frail) alongside two internal racks designed to carry glazing. Also fitted is an anodised aluminium roof rack.
Renault too includes glass-carriers in its portfolio of bespoke conversions and offers tippers and Lutons as part of its Off the Shelf range.
Sometime ago Ford began marketing a Transit-based three-way tipper as a One-Stop model. Not a product commonly found in the UK, a three-way body allows cargo to be discharged from either side of the body as well as from the rear. It’s a configuration that tends to be favoured by firms that regularly repair pavements because it avoids the need for the vehicle to be positioned at right-angles in order to tip, blocking the street.
The One-Stop 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.
Ready-to-go-to-work programmes often feature minibus conversions. Even if the manufacturer builds minibuses on the production line, it may prefer accessible versions for example to be produced by a specialist because of the added complication of installing wheelchair access ramps and other equipment.
Citroën’s Ready to Run programme includes 12-, 15- and 17-seater Relay minibuses converted by Advanced Vehicle Builders along with wheelchair-accessible variants. Vauxhall’s line-up features wheelchair-accessible Vivaros and Movanos converted by Oughtred and Harrison.
A development that is likely to have a massive impact on all bodybuilders is something called European Whole Vehicle Type Approval (EWTA). As things stand only the chassis has to meet what are known as the Type Approval rules, which ensure that it complies with all the regulations in force. EWVTA means that the whole vehicle, including the cargo body, will have to comply.
It does not mean crash testing. What it does mean, however, is the use of components that are legal and match the requirements of the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) or an equivalent approval body. If the chassis has to be stretched to accommodate the body, or the fuel tank moved, then these changes will have to be approved too.
A voluntary EWVTA compliance programme was introduced in April. A compulsory scheme will be brought in gradually from October of next year, with full compliance required by October 2014. Bodybuilders will have to be able to demonstrate that they are consistently complying with the rules and produce documents to prove this is the case.
If a dealer selling light commercials does not have them available then he will not be able to register the vehicle in question. Bodies that are either unique or only built in small volumes will be subject to inspection by either the VCA or the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency under a national type approval programme.
While the plan should in theory result in better-quality bodywork, the requirement for some bodies to be inspected by officials could slow down delivery and bump up costs. The agencies concerned will not be providing their services for free; and the bill is likely to be passed on to the customer.
Anyone looking to acquire a standard bodybuilt conversion should take a look at the offerings available from the manufacturers. If they fit the bill they make a great deal of sense.