Home » How Our Daydreaming Designer Would Turn An Old Mail Truck Into An Amazing Mini Camper

How Our Daydreaming Designer Would Turn An Old Mail Truck Into An Amazing Mini Camper

Topshot 36

There’s a timeless quality to all-aluminum recreational vehicles. Even if you look beyond the light weight and almost matchless durability, there is something iconic about the exposed rivets, the rounded corners, the sliding doors you can hang out of while driving..

Yes, I said sliding doors. Did you think I was talking about an Airstream? No, I’m referring to something equally iconic and soon to be extinct: the Grumman LLV. Yes, I know it’s a US mail truck and not a camper, but I will fix that.

Much has been written about the Grumman LLV (Long Life Vehicle) mail trucks; our own Autopian staff has gone into great deal about its history, details, and even a strange alternate reality; I highly encourage you to click on the links and waste precious work time learning more. I won’t take the deep dives they have done, but this ubiquitous vehicle was made between 1987 to 1994 by defense contractor Grumman, a company that also made civilian products like canoes. With aluminum bodies and durable chassis components and ‘Iron Duke’ engine from a Chevy S-10 truck, the 100,000 or so built seem to have lived up to their ‘Long Life’ name.

Composite

source: CNET and Consumer Guide

It’s hard to believe that the last LLV left the factory almost thirty years ago, yet they’re still out there roaming the streets. They’re part of the fabric of suburban living, taken for granted by almost everyone except for superfans like our own Mercedes Streeter or my oldest kid who, when still thumb sucking, demanded things like LLV Christmas tree ornaments and ‘to be a mail truck’ for Halloween, which is not something you can go to Party City and purchase:

Halloween

source: The Bishop

While the aluminum bodies of LLVs typically in the same condition they were thirty years ago, the moving parts of most are not faring as well. Mechanics are supposedly getting sick of patching them back together, and you’ll often hear the awful blatty exhaust sound of the one in your neighborhood approaching before you see it come around the corner. The LLVs were all supposed to be out of service years ago, but the search for a replacement vehicle has taken much longer than expected.  The new mail truck, made by Oshkosh Defense, is finally arriving, so the days of the LLV are finally numbered.

The fact is in today’s litigious society the government will likely choose to crush all of the remaining LLVs. Despite many being in such poor condition, it does seem a shame to destroy something that is such a part of our history and that was finely crafted (at least the body) by an aerospace firm out of such durable materials. My parents recently got rid of a Grumman canoe that was purchased by us new, run through rocky streams, sat outside for forty years, and was still in identical condition to the day it was brought home. It’s like when you replace a harvest gold colored 1976 refrigerator in an old house with a brand new one that runs for just a couple of years before it shoots craps.

Anyway, let’s take a look at this thing:

Llv Stock

source: veh-markets

What could be done? Well, the overall shape and size seems ideal for a ‘van life’ style camper. It’s boxy and has maximum interior space for its exterior size. Also, the mechanical parts could be upgraded in stages from refurbished current parts up to electric power- it could be ready for the next thirty years.

[Mercedes Note: The Bishop surprised me with pictures of his ideas for what to do with all of the Grumman LLVs that may soon no longer have a job. As I’ve said before, the Grumman LLV is a dream vehicle of mine. I’d love to just use one as a small mobile motorcycle garage and drive around with the sliding door open. I have visions of my foot propped up in the open door like I’m driving a Jeep. But an LLV turned into a camper? Woah, that’s an even cooler use!]

Outside, I’d want to keep it mostly stock. I’ve seen bare aluminum ones and it just doesn’t work- the trick is to keep the classic mail truck look. I did black out the metal around the windows to make it more ‘Cybertruck’  than cobbled-together-Government-job in appearance, and rocker panels to try to visually tie in the bumpers. I stripped off a few of the mirrors, added new wheels, and on electric models you could add more lights up front into what were the radiator grille openings:

Llv Main

The space in back of an LLV does not allow you to stand up, but that’s no different from a Ford Transit Connect or other ‘Van Life’ vehicle. The space can be configured with a ‘kitchen’ on one side with a tiny sink, cooktop, and cabinets above. Opposite this would be a large ‘couch’ where the center cushion could become a small table. There’s another seat next to the ‘kitchen’ that can also become a table or worksurface.

These items could be reconfigurable; you could even add a toilet module if you chose to.

Floor Plan3

 

Interior3

You could sleep on that couch, but why not pop the top for a large sleeping area? An access opening (with fold down ladder) allows you to get to this space without going outside of your camper and risk people seeing you naked or bears consuming you.

The rear sliding door would block roof access so it’s replaced with a bump-out featuring a standard door with a screen option. Torch detail: note that LLVs have an extra set of blinkers at the top of their rear light clusters, independent of the rear signals. These would be replaced by two ‘porch light’ outdoor lamps.

1991 Grumman Llv Long Life Vehicle Rhd Rare Passenger Seat Option Usps Postal 9

Extra light comes into the space through plexiglass side windows shaped like mailing envelopes. The ‘flap’ of the envelope opens for light ventilation or the whole ‘envelope’ can tip outwards.

Envelope

So we have the overall design, but what about those mechanicals that have been slammed around suburbs every day for the last thirty years? As I mentioned earlier, I see two approaches to that, or stages if you will.

Phase 1 would be a mechanical refresh. Considering that the LLV was based on GM’s popular S10/s15 trucks, parts are readily available to get one back in shape. Plus, after three decades the common problems are known, and well-known fixes and improvements could be implemented. The same goes for the ‘Iron Duke’ four cylinder engine under the hood, though I do wonder if adding an upgrade, like the popular 4.3 liter V6 from the time, would be a worthwhile improvement.

Phase 2 could happen now or years from today, considering the durability of the LLV body. This solution involves ripping out most of the old mechanicals and adding a full electric chassis, something like a ‘skateboard’ all-in-one battery and motors unit that could slip under the old body. There are companies offering these kind of things now, and converting 100,000 LLVs might be a good boost to their business. This chassis-under-a-chassis might lift the height of the truck a bit, but I am imagining a dual motor four wheel drive system so the extra height will be ideal.

The all-electric version would have the engine compartment empty and available for other uses, be it cargo, shrimp on ice, or even twin hibachi-style grilles. The grille idea would be outstanding, but you’d need to change the hood to steel if it’s gonna act as a lid.

Hibachi

Sadly, it seems like the optics of such an option might be bad, considering that recently a number of time-worn LLVs have become engulfed in flames (but a refurbishment should prevent that possibility).

Grumman Llv Mail Truck A Miserable Tin Can Designed A Fighter Plane Company 182048 1

source: CBS

Is this a lot of work to preserve something obsolete? Is it better that it might be left to die? Possibly, but you could say the same thing about old trolley cars, Piper Cubs, or even SJ Grand Wagoneers (and you KNOW how much those are worth today).

I promise you that thirty years from now a 2023 Ford Transit Connect will be a pile of brown rust dust while the body of an LLV will still likely look exactly the same as it does today. You might find that despite being obsolete in many ways, some objects have intrinsic qualities that make them worth saving.

Read more on The Autopian

 

Want to write for The Autopian? Pitch us here. Or check out the stories on our homepage.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit

44 Responses

  1. I would gladly give up some storage space under one of those rear seats for a good crapper. Having said that, getting the other occupants to go outside in the rain while you tear one off might be complicated.

  2. Retired Postal worker here (I’m unarmed). I wasn’t a carrier but knew plenty of them and not one of them had a good thing to say about these vehicles. Noisy, slow, leaky, and unbelievably hot. I give them credit for doing the job but let them go.

      1. mdharrell- remember, we need to give it the upgrades I discussed (or even the electric chassis) before we can give it a fair shake. I promise you that if Jeep Wranglers still had the chassis from 1941 (or even 1981) it would NOT be as popular as it is now.

    1. Iwannadrive- I don’t want rain on the superfans parade, but I did read just such criticisms online from real letter carriers like yourself. Still, for the Phase II with an electric ‘skateboard’ chassis and air conditioning system, it would go a long way to helping if you could get the door seals and other leaks fixed.

      1. For sure you fixed the unfixable. I particularly liked the blackout trim around the windows. I was just having knee-jerk flashbacks. I’ve SEEN things, Man….

      2. I’d be curious if the heat sources were drivetrain and/or the daystar. Both are relatively easy to mitigate through insulation. Thinsulate, the stuffing in high-end ski jackets and the like, is a wonderful insulator in automotive use if left fluffed. It’s the go-to insulation in the vanlife world.

        An alternative is XPS insulation, which can be found at any Home Depot. XPS keeps insulating in cold temperatures, unlike the white stuff generically referred to as styrofoam. Because the LLV is essentially a cube with few curves, XPS would be trivial to install, and cheaper than Thinsulate.

        As for cooling, I wonder if swapping in an AC system from a vehicle powered by an Iron Duke would be possible. Or, install a small rooftop RV AC. Would need a second alternator to keep up with the power demand though.

        Love the pop-top idea. Might be able to source one from a wreaked Sportsmobile. Or, a possible cheaper route might be cutting the bottom out of a fiberglass roof top tent and permanently affixing the RTT to the center of the roof.

        This would only be viable as a super-cheap build. The LLVs are worn out and will need constant maintenance to keep them roadworthy.

    1. basspaul- True, you really don’t need twin hibachis. The Rivian fits a full kitchen in the width of the truck so it’s possible. It could slide out but really doesn’t need to.

  3. Unfortunately, I have a feeling all these are going straight to the crusher due to USPS’ legal department’s concern over liability for what happens if someone buys a used LLV at auction and gets injured in a wreck. We live in a different society than when the old DJ-5s were disposed of. Which is a shame, because rural mail carriers who have to provide their own vehicles bought quite a number of those surplus Jeeps and many of them would probably also go for an LLV instead of a 25-35 year old Japanese market van with no technical support in the US, as many of them are now

    1. For liability reasons, I think all will need to be destroyed. There’s likely no way that the government can legally protect themselves from stupid lawsuits, no matter what agreement the purchaser signs. A true waste.

      1. Why would there be liability? They were not built by the government, they were built by a manufacturer like any other car. Just like any other sale of a old used car, the previous owner is just the guy, or entity that owned it last.

        1. Unclewolverine- I can’t begin to tell you how much I totally agree with you. Sadly, the fact is that some people will attempt to sue ANYONE remotely associated with a product, especially if the pockets of the person they are suing are deep. The government will not want to risk even the remote chance of legal fees associated with defending themselves against any lawsuits.

          I could certainly be wrong- any lawyers out there, please weigh in.

          1. Remember – they cut all the M151 Truck, Utilities in half rather than sell them intact. Of course, the DOD did sell the halves, and aftermarket companies did buy them and weld them back together, but that was the ’80s and ’90s.

        2. Agreed. The government sells surplus military stuff all the time. If they are that afraid of getting sued, they need to do a better job keeping empty grenades and such out of the hands of Army surplus stores.

          1. This is where my head was at. Hummers and FMTVs seem readily available on gov planet. I assume that we’ll see a similar pattern with the LLVs when the time comes.

    2. They already sell them to private parties! Just look up LS llv. Being a pov rural carrier, I would love the chance get ahold of one of these and drop the body on a 4wd s10 chassis, but alas, even powered by the legendary 4.3, I believe it would still be inferior to my mighty RHD xj.

    3. There’s another reason as well, which the RCR video on one of these discusses: they don’t have VIN numbers and can’t be registered. The rare exceptions were originally sold to entities other than USPS. But if you’re just gonna put the body on a new chassis I guess it doesn’t matter.

      1. The need for a VIN really varies state to state – usually a serial number will work just fine. Ex. Some states will absolutely never register a surplus HMMWV and some will happily take your money. If these were to ever come up for sale, you’ll need to be sure that you get a SF97 which is a government issued certificate to obtain title for vehicle.

      2. I’ve checked the one that delivers to our store. They don’t have license plates, but they certainly have VINs.

        There are some of these in private hands already. Not many, but they’re out there. Check the “before” in the article, it has a license plate on it. Thus, privately owned.

  4. You might be better off starting with a small used step van – basically the same concept, but easier to acquire and probably newer too. Heck, if you started with an old food truck you, would have a head start with gas, water, and refrigeration.

  5. outofstep- based on the missing parts, at least the dead ones are obviously giving life to the living, since that’s the only source of replacement parts. And ‘rotting’ is not really the right word since the Grumman bodies are still in reasonable shape.

  6. As far as legality, I wonder what makes selling these LLVs to the public different from when the parks service for example auctions off their old pickups. Or cop cars. Not having a vin seems like an easy problem to fix.

  7. I run past a USPS depot full of parted out LLVs. The street view is 3 years out of date but the last time I ran past them in September they had about 40 of them lined up in the grass near the fence you see in the picture with missing lights, doors, seats, and windows. It’s sad just seeing them rotting out.

    https://goo.gl/maps/rHtgAnbzRYRJjQTf6

  8. “and ‘Iron Duke’ engine from a Chevy S-10 truck”

    Also from the base model Pontiac Fiero! Sometimes when I hear the LLV coming down the street, it brings back some memories of driving my old 84 Fiero because it sounds just like it

  9. I see my poor letter carrier driving one of these around my neighborhood in the 100+ degree summer heat and my heart goes out to these guys. Day after day in the broiling heat, with no AC, in an aluminum box. The sound of that engine exhaust is immediately recognizable from around the corner.

  10. Great design. I especially like the rear “porch” lights idea.
    Now I want to find one of these and convert it to a mobile dog grooming business van, just for the irony.

  11. Love the envelope window. I’d have one of these. I could consider myself a non-vanlifer and still take this away with the dogs for a weekend.

    Well done, sir.

  12. As always, love your work.
    Question on the access panels for the pop-up: why have the access hatch centered? It feels like it would warrant consideration to push the access panel towards the right or left rear corner and be able to stand on a seat in stocking feet to make entry and exit easier. Also, it seems like it would either open up more foot room for any sleepers if the hatch remained open, or make it easier to flip only a corner of the bedding up and off the hatch cover when entering or exiting.

    Locating the water tanks could be a bit of a problem in the electric skateboard version?

    1. Origami- Glad that you like it! Moving the panel there would be a good idea and remove the need for the fold down mini-ladder. I think the water tanks would be pretty small regardless what the chassis would be.

    2. There was a small step van the size of an LLV that used to park in an apartment complex near my house. From the outside it was a typical dull white work van. One day I was walking by it when a door was open… inside it was gorgeous!! The whole interior had been redone like an European sports sedan. 4 black leather Recaro seats, full carpet & headliner, custom dash that was simple but seemed high quantity. To this day I remember it clearly and think about making something similar for myself!

  13. I appreciate the photo of the flaming POS postal vehicle. Our idiot in my area has a gas powered one, and seems intent on either blowing that shit up in the conventional manner. If that don’t work it appears he wishes to retire early from the postal service as a result of an “accident” and a good Workman’s comp case…Fuck him. This as swipe makes Herschel Walker look fuckin intelligent. That turd is gonna get his one day though. I just know it.

    1. Stupid auto correct: ASSWIPE. Seriously Snoop Dogg has his shit together 1K times more than the monkey we are underserved by. The only thing worse than Govt. waste is a waste of a job on a piece of shit humanoid tree dweller.

  14. When the topic of LLVs came up on my friend’s FB wall, I did a little poking around GM history on recent powerplants and decided if it were me and I had an LLV and more money than sense, I’d put in a 3.0 Cadillac engine and convert the vehicle to AWD.
    Other people were saying the Ecotec and Saturn engines are good enough alternatives to the Iron Duke if all you wanted was to keep the same level of performance.

  15. There was a small step van the size of an LLV that used to park in an apartment complex near my house. From the outside it was a typical dull white work van. One day I was walking by it when a door was open… inside it was gorgeous!! The whole interior had been redone like an European sports sedan. 4 black leather Recaro seats, full carpet & headliner, custom dash that was simple but seemed high quantity. To this day I remember it clearly and think about making something similar for myself.

  16. Great idea here. Putting the beds up top really adds space/versatility. And I really like the envelope window. This would be perfect for a roaming single. But the wheels and tires are a hard no: those jagged black wheels with fake bead-locks are the new stick-on hood scoops in my area. They are not particularly strong, and always paired with low-profile ‘off-road’ tires that aren’t worth a damn. Watch Matt’s Off Road Recovery on yt: a good majority of the trucks stuck where they should have been able to get through have them. Just NO: they’re for posers!
    /rant. Not the least sorry:had to be said

    1. TOSSABLE- no apologies needed. Hell, rolling stock is hardly that big a deal to change. A lot of that will be dependent on what the ‘roller skate’ electric chassis that would mount under this version would look like. For the Phase 1 (basically stock chassis), I’d just get some nicer looking Chevy S-10 or GMC S-15 wheels and pop them on.

      1. Yeah, little bit triggered there: tired of asshats in brodozers. Should have kept it to myself as people can do what they want with their vehicles.

        It would look great with steelies & poverty caps-or maybe moon discs for the clean look

Leave a Reply