17 February 2017

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.

7 Reader Comments

  • 1
    John rienzo New York February 19, 2017 at 21:10
    Great article. I remember MH Renken's Divco delivering milk in the late 1950's. Liked the truck so much I bought a 1960 Model 15 in 1993. Still have it today along with several other's including a 1930 G, 1937SF and a 1963 Model 54 Alumivan. Check the Divco Club of America for more info.
  • 2
    Ray Hull Albany, NY February 23, 2017 at 13:58
    I always liked these friendly faced trucks and discovered, on family vacations to various areas, that the one common denominator among all the lakes, oceans, mountains was the Divco trucks--usually for dairies that would pick up our family account the day we moved in. Talk about efficient enterprise! Thanks for the recollection, and the detail that they were Macks. Now, if I try hard enough, I can recall that tangy smell of sour milk when I peered inside one!
  • 3
    George Randall Granby, MA February 23, 2017 at 15:16
    When I was 15 back in 1965, I had a weekend job as a runner for a route milk delivery driver for All Star Dairy in South Hadley, MA. I would get to the plant early, load the truck per the order slip and then shovel snow into the back to keep the product cool. On the days when Mickey was "under the weather" I would leave and start the route. I didnt have a license then and he would catch up with me on the route sometime during the day when he was able to drive. The DIVCO was a neat old truck. Good memories from a half century ago.
  • 4
    Joe Zangari homosassa fl February 23, 2017 at 16:42
    Back in penna. in the 1960's, my father used divco trucks to deliver waterice, that he manufactured and sold door to door.
  • 5
    Arthur Esdaile London, Ont., Canada. February 23, 2017 at 20:47
    In the 1960's I delivered milk door to door in a Divco for Silverwoods Dairy. It was very easy to drive while standing, and was very easy to enter and exit with its low drive train on the floor. It had 2 back doors for easy loading. The dairy also had Chevrolet and Ford trucks, but with a very high drive train floor, which was really inconvenient. My Divco was the best at that time, and I treated her like a friend.
  • 6
    harvs florida February 24, 2017 at 08:00
    What happened to the White Horse. Built by White Motor Co. late 30s, early 40s.
  • 7
    Dan D Ind. February 25, 2017 at 16:09
    In the late "60"s I bought a 1960 A.H. Sprite with a blown-up engine. Found a replacement BMC engine in a I.H. metro mite delivery van in a junk yard. Replaced the head and duel carb manifold from the blown-up engine and away it went. Drove it for a couple of years (with very little oil pressure), gave it to a friend, who drove it for a year or two then gave it to a neighbor for a father/son project.

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