(first posted 3/11/2016) The story of Studebaker’s final few years are well known here. However, there is one vehicle that remains quite little known and has been seldom seen since the early 1970s. May we present the Zip Van.
1963 was a grim year in South Bend, Indiana, and nowhere more so than in the company’s administration building. Big investments (big by Studebaker standards, anyhow) in the Gran Turismo Hawk, the Avanti, the Wagonaire and even the workaday Lark had failed to boost the company’s sales volume in any significant way. What looked to be at least part of a solution appeared in the latter part of 1963 in the shape of a contract to supply over 3,000 mail delivery vehicles for the U. S. Post Office.
According to a history of Studebaker trucks by the Studebaker Drivers Club (found here), what was technically called the Model 8E5FC had been designed by Studebaker engineering in order that the company could make a bid for Post Office business. The mechanical components were all readily at hand, and included the 112 hp overhead valve Skybolt Six, the Borg-Warner Flight-O-Matic transmission, an instrument cluster from the Transtar truck line, and all of the other suspension and running gear bits that would be quite familar to anyone who had ever been under a postwar Stude.
Interestingly, it appears that these also came equipped with the Packard-designed Twin Traction limited slip differential. I wonder if anyone ever squeezed one of the V8s in front of that Twin Traction? For Express Mail, of course.
The van was designed with but a single seat, since mail delivery tends not to be a team activity. That seat had a bottom cushion that could flip up or down, and a unique pedal arrangement (with two accelerator pedals but a single brake) that allowed the truck to be driven from either a sitting or standing position.
The steel bodies were supplied by Met-Pro, Inc. of Lansdale, PA. Met-Pro had never built a truck body before, but was located in a depressed area, which evidently factored into the Government mandating that Studebaker use Met-Pro as its sole body supplier. Although the little truck had only an 85 inch wheelbase, it weighed in at over 4,300 pounds, according to the single source I found that mention’s the little vanlet’s weight. One source indicates that these bodies were of a unitized design, thus lacking a traditional frame. Could the inexperience with unit construction by both Studebaker and Met-Pro have been the cause of the high weight? The grille design was said to pay homage to the Keystone State where the bodies originated. Of course, that same general shape had graced many Studebaker front ends as well.
Although Raymond Loewy had designed many Studebakers and designed the new 1970 logo for the Post Office (by then called the Postal Service), he clearly had nothing to do with the styling of the Zip Van – which was a sort of anti-Avanti. Studebaker’s winning bid on the Post Office contract priced each van at $1,883.24, or roughly $300 less than the cheapest 1963 Lark.
This was not, of course, Studebaker’s first purpose-built mail delivery vehicle. Unlike other auto manufacturers, Studebaker had a long history as a manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles. Although the Post Office was not then in the habit of standardized vehicles for delivery, Studebaker designed at least one wagon specifically for rural mail delivery. The unique design allowed the postal carrier to remain inside the closed wagon with the horse’s reins coming in through a front window. And in the era of local and regional contractors, it is quite likely that Studebakers of various sorts had their share of mail transport duties. But as far as a national contract to supply thousands of purpose-built mail delivery trucks, the Zip Van would be the first. And last.
The name was undoubtedly chosen to coincide with the rollout of the Post Office’s new ZIP Code. Many readers are old enough to remember when a name, address, city and state would get a letter from one person’s mailbox to another. In fact, it was not uncommon to see envelopes where the word “City” was the only thing after the street address, and which everyone understood to mean the same city where the letter had been mailed.
But times were changing, and mail volume had doubled in the twenty years before 1962. The Post Office’s “Zone Improvement Plan” was the answer. The country was divided into a series of numbered postal zones. These numbered zones would allow number-reading machines to begin their role in mail sorting, a role that has continued unabated. In the early 1960s, however, forcing the general public to use five unfamilar numbers on each piece of mail met with a lot of resistance. The Post Office met this resistance with an extensive ad campaign featuring a new animated spokesman, Mr. ZIP.
Production of the Zip Van did not get underway until September 3, 1963, which was after the start of 1964 model year truck production. These were, however, all designated as ’63 models, apparently to comply with the federal contract. Remember that bit of history that the last Studebaker produced in South Bend rolled off the line in December of 1963? Well, that history is not actually true. That December shutdown may have affected all retail vehicle production, but the last actual vehicle was probably a Zip Van, which remained in production in South Bend into early 1964 in order to fulfill the Post Office contract. The Post Office must have been satisfied because it exercised its option under the contract for an additional 25% on top of the original specified quantity. All in all, a total of 4,328 of these were built before Studebaker closed South Bend vehicle production for good. In 1964.
With the long life that most Postal delivery vehicles have had, why have most of us never even seen one of these? These were pretty much all gone from Postal duty by the early 1970s, mostly replaced by the Jeep Dispatcher. Like with other classes of vehicle, Postal vehicles (especially those with steel bodies) did not live as long in those days as in modern times. These were sold off to the public as surplus when they were done delivering the mail, and their fate was probably like that of most Studes during the ’70s – to the junkyard with the first need for a moderate repair. The company that ran ice cream trucks in my neighborhood in the ’70s ran some of these, as I recall. The lazy S on the white hubcaps gave it away.
Several sources indicate that the Zip Vans were liked quite a lot by letter carriers and that they were in regular service for seven years instead of for the five years that had been planned. Unfortunately, with Studebaker being a Canadian company in 1965-66 (and one that did not produce trucks in any case), the chances of a second contract for Zip Vans (even with the GM engines used by Studebaker Canada) was somewhere from slim to none.
It is interesting that the Postal Service never sought to buy more Zip Vans with chassis supplied elsewhere to mate with the Met-Pro bodies. However, the Jeep FJ-6 Fleetvan was offered in postal spec starting in 1965, which was close enough in size and concept. Later vehicles like the Jeep Dispatcher and the Grumman LLV have been a bit smaller. With the modern Postal System’s increasing reliance on parcel delivery, something the size of a Zip Van might be more suitable again.
I have a habit of wasting time by checking my local List of Craig for Studebakers. I don’t see a lot of them, but I am sometimes tempted by the occasional Lark or Champion. I had never, however, seen a listing for a Zip Van until this one, which was for sale in Lafayette, Indiana, about fifty miles from me. For some reason, I want this very badly. But is there anything less suitable for a play vehicle? One seat and probably quite miserable to drive. Of course, if I want something fun to drive, I have a Miata for that. And this is a Stuuuuudebaaaaker! [Author slaps self.] So no, I will not be buying a Zip Van. Which is why this is a Craigslist Classic and not a Curbside Classic, because had I actually found this and seen it in person, it may have come home with me. And then I would have to sleep in it.
By 1966, the public’s compliance in using ZIP codes when addressing envelopes had improved to 50% and would continue improve from there. Mr. ZIP undoubtedly gets a lot of the credit, likely from making the kids pester their parents and grandparents into obedience. I know that I can still remember my family’s first ZIP code, though I managed to learn it without getting one of these board games. What I did not know at that tender age was that the very last American Studebakers were instrumental in moving our ZIP-coded mail.