(first posted 7/27/2015) It’s not just because of this van’s name that makes it the official CC step van. These Olson-Grumman vans are the finest ones ever made in the land, with a body made totally of aluminum. One never scraps an Olson Kurb Side, just like one never tosses out a Grumman aluminum canoe. Which sort of makes this the ultimate CC.
A NYC Chevrolet dealer, Walter Heingartner, is credited with conceiving of the aluminum-bodied step van in 1939 or so. Seeing all of the many independent laundry companies, he rightfully theorized that an aluminum body would be lighter, more efficient, and of course more corrosion-resistant. He was friends with Jimmy Olson, then head of the State Liquor Authority, who agreed with him, and happened to know “Jake” Swirbul, one of the founders of Grumman.
Grumman was the single largest producer of carrier-based planes in WW2, like this F6F Hellcat, and knew a thing or two about aluminum. After the war, it was open to new ways of using its expertise.
The first Grumman aluminum canoe was built in 1945, one year after a Grumman VP got the idea while portaging a heavy wood canoe in the Adirondacks.
The aluminum step van was conceived before the war, but took a bit longer to enter production. But by 1946, Grumman-Olson vans were in production, and they quickly caught on, with large fleets like UPS as well as independents.
UPS was a major G-O customer, until more recent years. Chassis were most typically Chevrolet or Ford., and usually hard-working six cylinder engines did the hard work. It would be interesting to know just what kind of mileage UPS got out of its Chevy 292 and Ford 300 sixes. Of course, with the constant starting and stopping, the total miles may not have been that impressive. But I miss the hard-working sound of a gas six being caned by a UPS driver.
I don’t know the vintage of this Kurb Side, but except for the seats and steering wheel (more on that later), it exudes a rather 50s or early 60s vibe. I couldn’t see properly into the engine well, but I see the air cleaner is off and a can of starting fluid on the dash.
This crop shows what appears to be a Chevy small block V8, likely a more recent transplant. Looks like a relatively more modern distributor.
The steering wheel threw me. It’s not readable in the photo, but it says “Ambassador Power Steering” on the center hub, and looks like it started life on a 1966 Ambassador. That undoubtedly goes for the tilt column too.
This van lives a few blocks down Friendly Street from our house, and was in the driveway until the other day, allowing me a chance to shoot it properly. Its cargo of indoor grow lights and accessories reflects a business that is fairly common in these parts.
The step van delivery truck is primarily an American design and institution, but like many other distinctly American truck designs, is being replaced by European designs. Grumman-Olson went bankrupt in 2001, but was revived by managers as Morgan Olson. They still make a large step van, but the bulk of their business is converting Euro-van based vehicles.
Although the time efficiency of a walk-in van for frequent deliveries is unbeatable, presumably the van-based vehicles with custom bodies are less costly.
The Morgan Olson UDV is a hybrid of the two, adding a curbside door directly from the cargo body to accomplish much the same, although it’s still not quite as efficient (in terms of space and driver movement) as the classic step van.
But these classic step vans will be around for a long time yet. Many are being used as food carts, but others are still at work, like this one, even if it’s a part-time job. I’d love to have one myself; perfect for my winter-time hauling needs.
I’d be happy to just get one of these emblems, to hang on my wall just above my monitor. It might inspire me…to write another Kurbside Classic, by Niedermeyer.
More Step Vans: