Divco defined the delivery van

As America suburbanized in the 1950s and ‘60s, demand for home services led to an expansion of the country’s fleet of house-to-house delivery vehicles. People wanted milk bottles placed on their doorsteps or deposited through chutes into the kitchen. Bakery products were also delivered, and laundry was picked up at the door and returned cleaned and pressed a couple of days later.

Thanks to designers’ and engineers’ insights, the trucks doing such specialized work had started developing 40 years earlier, and they uniquely blended form and function. “It is amazing how creative people can be when they know and understand the customer,” remarked David Cole, chair emeritus of the Center for Auto Research.

Replacing horse-drawn wagons, which remained in use until the early 1920s, the new trucks could be driven from a standing position. They featured walk-through cargo areas and even had handy flat surfaces in front for a few cases. They incorporated extra heavy-duty generators, brakes and cooling systems. The powertrain, though, was of secondary importance: top speed was limited.

Once renowned manufacturers like Brockway, Deliveral, Federal, Pak-Age-Car, Walker and Ward are now nearly forgotten. And few recall that Mack’s Junior series included a milk delivery van. It was Divco, a small company from Detroit, which emerged as industry leader. Originally formed in 1925 as the Detroit Industrial Vehicle Company, Divco made a series of walk-in trucks and perfected the genre’s formula. Finally, in 1938, Divco released the immortal Model U.

“Styling has been improved and the lines now flow front to back,” reported Automotive Industries. Indeed, the all-steel, snub-nosed Model U had a streamlined quality. It lacked 90-degree angles and the headlamps were flush-mounted. It somewhat resembled a 1934 Chrysler Airflow with a large rear cube. Overall, it was a friendly looking thing, as well it should have been considering how it prowled your neighborhood several mornings a week.

Inside the Model U, conveniences for the driver abounded. For example, the route book could lie open atop the wide instrument panel. And there was storage space under the floor for the driver’s personal items. Semi-automatic folding doors also eased the driver’s day. Continental’s 140-cubic-inch four-cylinder engine produced 38 hp at 2,800 rpm—more than enough power considering the U’s top speed was governed at 32 mph.

Eventually, the Model U would stretch beyond the original 100.8-inch wheelbase, and a six-cylinder engine and three-speed automatic transmission would become available. While General Motors and other Detroit manufacturers churned out vehicles like popcorn, Divco operated on more of a slow-roasted standard, making 6,385 trucks in 1948. “They were lean and mean, and that’s how they stayed in business as long as they did,” said Divco Club of America president John Sterly. Attesting to the design’s perfection, the Model U remained in production in its basic form until 1986.

International Harvester, the nation’s third-largest manufacturer of all trucks, responded in two ways. First, International commissioned industrial designer Raymond Loewy to design the Metro. Built from 1938 to 1975, this brilliantly conceived step van was nearly as enduring as the Divco Model U. The Metro had a philosophy professor’s squinty face with a pencil-mustache bumper and towering forehead of glass. Many young boys of the 1950s were thoroughly charmed.

International also produced a stand-and-drive delivery truck based on the ‘53 R-series pickup chassis. Fat fenders and a long snout stretched in front of a Metroette cargo body. In 1955, a Hydra-Matic transmission became available. As collector Jay Crist told Vintage Truck magazine, “These transmissions were good for light-duty or bread trucks, but weren’t strong enough to handle the load of a milk truck and had to be rebuilt every 18 months.”

Metro variants ranged from school bus to bookmobile. In Atlantic City, N.J., the Metro entered jitney service.  There were one-half, three-quarter, and one-ton versions and a range of wheelbases. By 1958, one of the Metro’s best years, buyers chose among overhead-valve “Black Diamond” six-cylinder engines displacing up to 264 cubic inches and producing as much as 153 hp and 248 pound-feet of torque. The Metro-Mite, built on a 96-inch wheelbase, had an overhead-valve 90-cid four-cylinder. A minor redesign in 1964 gave the Metro an opening hood for engine access, and the body’s corners were squared.

Here are brief descriptions of some other important house-to-house delivery trucks of the 1950s and 1960s:

  • Dodge Route Van earned “Job Rated” status in 1952. This shapely van showed some of the best of the Divco Model U and International Metro, with flared fenders and slightly snubbed nose, a high-rise windshield and slabby sides. The cargo body stretched up to 9.5 feet in length. At least one Route Van was converted into a radio and TV remote unit in 1953, an early such adaptation.

  • Ford Vanette, a capacious delivery truck, lacked style but was sturdy. Contemporary collectors convert them to serve as food trucks and band vans.

  • Chevrolet Dubl-Duti was offered as a homely, three-quarter- or one-ton forward-control truck that was sent from the factory as a bare chassis. Bodywork was provided by any of several approved coachbuilders. The Dubl-Duti nameplate also extended to a conventional one-ton chassis and cowl from the 3800 series truck that had been introduced since 1947.

  • Boyertown Body Works was a leading producer of van bodies for truck chassis from various factories. Perhaps most notably, in 1959, Boyertown built 800 Mr. Softee trucks on Ford’s one-ton forward-control chassis. Boyertown’s agreeable-looking Merchandiser step-van bodies were already familiar. Also in the 1950s, the S-7 Step-N-Serve delivery body was engineered for mounting on traditional truck chassis with wheelbases ranging from 108 to 125 inches. Ultimately, the Boyertown Multalloy step van incorporated steel panels and castings of various strengths to achieve lighter weight.

  • Studebaker truck chassis served as the basis for walk-in delivery vehicles but were uncommon. More significantly, in 1963, Studebaker received the contract for forward-control postal delivery Zip vans. These tiny trucks could be driven from sitting or standing position. More than 4,000 were made, and the Zip van’s angular shape became familiar nationwide.