Body Conversions: No end in sight for body-build boom

The recovery in commercial vehicle sales is putting pressure on the body-building sector as more and more fleets opt for off-the-peg body conversions.

Off-the-peg body conversions have been available from the majority of light commercial manufacturers for a number of years and the reasons behind this long-standing initiative are not hard to fathom.

It gives customers the ability to acquire a chassis-cab based product – typically a tipper, dropside, box van or Luton – or other approved conversion with a single warranty that embraces both body and vehicle.

If there are any problems then the dealer has to sort them out. The operator does not have to engage in a protracted wrangle between the dealer and the body builder, with the former blaming the latter and vice versa.

Delivery is quicker than it might otherwise be because the bodied vehicles are kept in stock either at dealership level or centrally. The alternative is for the bare chassis to arrive at the dealership and for the dealer to make arrangements for it to be bodied locally, which may take time.

The bodybuilders involved in these schemes tend to be well-known businesses such as Ingimex, Tipmaster and VFS, with UK manufacturing facilities. They build to a standard agreed with the chassis makers and in line with the requirements of European Community Whole Vehicle Type Approval (ECWVTA).

‘Oven-ready’ approach

From the dealer’s viewpoint the off-the-peg approach makes life easier for sales staff because they do not have to engage in the often quite complex minutiae of bodywork specifications. They can supply the purchasers with what is in effect an oven-ready chicken which will satisfy most requirements and one that typically appears in the chassis manufacturer’s published price list.

Ford’s Transit-based One Stop off-the-peg programme has gone a long way towards helping it win approximately 70% of the annual UK light tipper market and roughly 45% of the dropside market, says Dave Petts, Ford’s Transit product manager.

VFS builds Ford’s tippers (“we offer both one-way and three-way models,” he says), dropsides and curtainsiders, while Ingimex produces its box vans and Lutons. Chassis cabs account for 20% of total Transit volumes.

Aside from the warranty support and product quality, one reason why One Stop appeals to some fleets, says Petts, is that the leasing companies and price guides take the view that bodied light commercials embraced by such schemes offer better residuals than those that are not. That can have a positive impact on contract hire rates.

There are drawbacks to such programmes, however. Because the product is standardised, there is often little room to tailor it to the customer’s individual specifications.

Ingimex managing director Justin Gallen explains: “We can integrate the installation of, for example, tail-lifts and safety rails into our standard production processes, but if you want a body that’s a bit longer or a bit wider then we can’t do it unless you’re prepared to order it in very large numbers.”

To a degree that has always been the case, but the need to meet ECWVTA – or National Small Series Type Approval (NSSTA) if the vehicle is sold solely in the UK – has imposed tighter restrictions on what can and cannot be done to unregistered chassis. The Individual Vehicle Approval route can always be pursued, but that takes time and can be expensive.

Fleets that want non-standard bodies should also ask themselves why they require that exact specification, Gallen adds. Dig deeper and you may discover that there is no logical reason for it or, if there once was, then it has been lost in the mists of time.

Iveco product director Martin Flach adds: “It’s also worth noting that customers are likely to be a lot less rigid about their requirements if they need a vehicle quickly and you’ve got one available.”

Recognising that mainstream conversions may not be appropriate for all, some chassis manufacturers have introduced a separate range which caters to more specialised, low-volume requirements.

Vauxhall’s approved (as opposed to core) conversions line-up, for example, includes a car transporter built by TGS and a low-floor Luton by Trucksmith, both Movano-based.

Such conversions tend not to feature in manufacturer price lists and the chassis and body are warranted separately by the vehicle and body maker respectively, although the warranties usually mirror each other.

For some van fleet managers, the manufacturer’s offer is not sufficient; they need bespoke systems tailored to their precise needs rather than one-size-fits-all generic products.

So says David Healy, commercial director at recently-launched Cartwright Conversions. Set up by trailer builder Cartwright Group, it is housed in a 30,000sq ft building near Doncaster. With two production lines, 30 bays and 20 engineers, it specialises in installing cargo bay equipment - shelves, cupboards, lighting and so on.

So far as firms that provide property maintenance services are concerned, the requirement for bespoke racking coincides with a different way of working, says Healy. It is intended to ensure drivers do not put everything they are ever likely to need into the back of a van and risk overloading.

“The idea is to stop them packing in six 5kg bottles of bleach for example when they are only likely to need one,” he explains.

Instead, individuals will go to their home depot and sign out everything they are likely to need to, say, hang a set of doors in a house. All the items required will fit into the racking.

Having completed that task they will go back to the depot, return all the items not used and sign out everything they need to complete the next job. Again, the racking will be designed to accommodate it.

“It’s an organised approach that has been imported from Germany and it works,” says Healy.

Truck manufacturers

Truck manufacturers have been less-inclined to go down the off-the-peg body route than their light commercial counterparts, mainly because the requirements of their customers are usually bespoke. However, some have introduced one-stop body programmes including DAF.

“We started six years ago and we’re mounting around 800 to 1,000 box and curtainsider bodies on 7.5 to 18-tonne chassis annually at our Leyland plant,” says marketing manager Phil Moon.

“Once the vehicle is built we can take it straight off the line, PDI it, register it and get it to the customer quickly. We designed the bodies and we manufacture them ourselves.”

The standardised bodies will not suit everybody, agrees Moon, but they certainly appeal to fleets – rental operators such as Ryder, for example – who want something built to standard specifications.

“We also supply them in ones and twos,” he adds, “and we can alter the bodies to meet the needs of individual customers if a big enough order is placed.”

One business that has recently taken delivery of factory-bodied DAFs is Richard Read Transport, of Longhope in Gloucestershire. It is deploying seven LFs. a mix of 8, 12 and 18-tonners, on pallet work with the Pallex network which it has recently joined.

The tie-up with Pallex means that Richard Read is now regularly delivering around 180 pallets daily to recipients in its postcodes and collecting a similar number, a 20% year-on-year growth that has seen new jobs created.

Working in conjunction with body builders, DAF is also promoting more complex bodywork under the Skip, Tip, Grab and Hook banner.

It embraces an LF 18-tonne skip loader and a CF 32-tonne hook loader, both using equipment fitted by Hyva and CF 32-tonne tippers and tipper/grabs equipped with Thompson Loadmaster steel bodies.

Cutting a long wait

DAF has done this to help satisfy customers who would otherwise be faced with a long wait to get the bodies they need built.

“The construction industry is buoyant at present and we want to be of help,” says Moon.

Iveco and Scania are among other manufacturers taking the same journey. Iveco offers the latest Eurocargo with tipper, box and curtainsider bodies, as well as tipper, dropside and Luton bodies on Daily chassis.

Dealers themselves are getting in on the act too, says Flach. “We’ve got one who is offering a 6x2 Stralis rigid built to builders’ merchant specifications, complete with a crane,” he says. “Order one now and you can have it in a fortnight.”

Mercedes-Benz dealer City West Commercials has joined forces with Refuse Vehicle Solutions (RVS) to help the latter offer off-the-shelf 26-tonne Mercedes-Benz Antos 2527L refuse trucks under the RediTruck banner. Fitted with Dennis Eagle compactor bodies, trade bin lifts and axle weight measuring systems, three of the first five to be built are now in service with Exeter-based Devon Contract Waste.

“Order a new vehicle from scratch and you can wait up to nine months for delivery,” according to RVS managing director Spencer Law.

“As a consequence, operators who have to start work on a recently-won contract at relatively short notice may have to hire a vehicle to tide them over and that can be expensive.”

Longer delivery times

At the lighter end of the scale, an urgent order placed by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) for 85 Renaults was in part fulfilled by eight front-wheel-drive medium-wheelbase off-the-shelf Master tippers. They have all been bodied by VFS, part of Italian body builder Scattolini.

The vehicles will be used by the NIHE to help it maintain some 89,000 dwellings.

The waits faced by fleets that need bodies constructed – especially if they are to non-standard specifications – are stretching into months rather than weeks.

At the start of March, Bevan Group managing director Anthony Bevan was quoting August delivery dates. 

“We’re at capacity,” he stated at the time. “We couldn’t squeeze out any more if we tried and I can’t see the boom coming to an end.”

Gallen adds: “There’s no indication that demand will let up. Our order books are very full.”

Longer delivery times are the consequence of a boom in commercial vehicle sales leading to pressure on a body building sector that, for understandable reasons, did not invest heavily in capacity during the recession and is struggling to keep up.

“I think a lot of body builders downsized in the recession and may be wary about up-sizing again,” says Flach. “There’s a general hesitancy about investment.”

Bevan Group has in fact invested significantly.

In recent years it has acquired two other body builders plus a business that specialises in glass-carrying systems, set up a specialist products division and started assembling refrigerated bodies for rigids on behalf of Schmitz Cargobull. It has been busy developing its graphics and aftercare businesses too.

Bevan insists, however, that he is more cautious about investment than he was prior to the recession.

Back then, he might have been willing to contemplate taking the odd risk, safe in the knowledge that if it didn’t pay off completely then the business was unlikely to suffer significant harm. Nowadays, he won’t.

Has the capacity shortage been exacerbated by body builders shutting up shop completely because they cannot cope with the rigours of ECWVTA?

Ford’s Petts does not think so. “One or two have certainly dropped out of the market but suggestions that there would be vast numbers of closures have turned out to be a bit like the Millennium Bug scare,” he says.

However, while the catastrophe that was predicted has not materialised, Bevan believes that a shake-out in the body building industry over the next few years is very much on the cards. “I think more businesses in the sector will be taken over, amalgamate or close,” he says.

While van and truck manufacturers have become much more heavily involved in body building, their official programmes still account for a minority of heavy truck bodies, while a high percentage of light commercial bodies fall beyond their auspices, too.

“Although One Stop has been a success I would estimate that around half the tipper bodies fitted to Transits are not covered by it,” Petts comments.

Meanwhile, Tipmaster managing director Matthew Terry says: “We build Relay-based tippers for Citroën’s Ready to Run range and it’s working really well for us. The guys at Citroën are putting a lot of effort into the programme and into ensuring chassis availability.

“We do a lot of work on Relays that falls outside Ready to Run, though,” he adds. “I’m thinking, for example, of fitting scales for waste management companies so that they can weigh the consignments of waste they’re being asked to transport.”

Such a specialised requirement falls outside a standardised scheme unless, of course, it is done post-registration.

Tipmaster has opted for NSSTA and Terry makes the point that maintaining Type Approval credentials is an ongoing commitment for a body builder. That means increased costs which cannot necessarily be passed on to the customer.

“This year we’ve had to do three new Type Approvals on vehicles – we’re about to start our fourth – and we’re due for our audit by the Vehicle Certification Agency,” he says. “That costs £1,000 a day plus expenses.”

Body builders are usually the ones actively developing new methods of construction and investigating the use of different materials as they look to reduce weight.

However, there can be a price to play. “A polypropylene lining kit is half the weight of a birch ply timber lining,” says David Healy. “Unfortunately it’s twice the price.”

Meanwhile, Doyles Commercial Body Building has come up with a 3.5-tonne Luton with a 20cu m body made from a recycled composite material which it says is half-a-tonne lighter than a standard Luton. It increases payload capacity to 1,550kg, an impressive result for a 3.5-tonner.



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