There was a time when traditional step vans ruled the roads, when clumsy bread vans and rackety walk-in vans bearing the logos of companies such as Frito Lay and Drake's Cakes could be seen tooling the back roads, on their way to service local stores and supermarkets.
Those days are over.
Today, distributors are using more efficient types of vans, as well as class three, four and five trucks, in both conventional and cabover models.
"In the food industry, over the last couple of years, there's been a movement away from the traditional step van," says Todd Bloom, vice president of marketing, Isuzu Commercial Trucks Of America Inc., Cerritos, CA. "Step vans are very uncomfortable for the driver because of the way they're built. Plus, they rattle all over the place, they don't maneuver well and have poor serviceability."
In contrast, today's delivery vehicles are much easier to operate, provide even greater fuel economy and much greater driver satisfaction.
For vehicles that are making daily deliveries, going to and from stores and providing basic needs, Bloom says the new trend is toward smaller, lighter delivery vehicles.
The idea is the lighter and smaller the vehicle is, the lower the operating costs and the less the initial purchase price, making them practical choices for route vehicles.
"The trend is to downsize the vehicle to the right size for the operation-you match the vehicle to the specific distribution needs of the product," he says.
He notes that others are opting for sprinter vans, which are traditional vans with high roofs, also known as high-cubed van, such as the ones offered by Dodge.
Beverage companies are following suit.
"We're seeing smaller six-or-eight bay beverage bodies that are being put on class four trucks for deliveries," notes Glen Ellis, national manager, sales, marketing and dealer development for Hino Motors Sales USA Inc., Bloomfield Hills, MI. He attributes that to the growing number of smaller brewing and water companies, as well as the up-tick in wine distribution throughout the U.S.
Other experts say the trend is toward heavier truck purchases.
"We're seeing more class fives than class fours and one of the reasons for that is versatility," notes Dave Trussel, director of marketing for Nissan Diesel America Inc. in Irving, TX.
"About all you can do with a refrigerated vehicle in a class four truck is a 14-foot body. We're seeing 18-footers every day on class five trucks." The reason for this, he notes, is that having the larger truck is actually more efficient and allows distributors to add four or five more stops onto a driver's route.
The interest in sustainability has also promoted the use of heavier trucks among organic farmers as well. One of Trussel's customers, who owns an organic farm in Amador County, CA, started delivering his produce in a pick up truck with ice chests in the back and as he grew, the size of the truck he needed grew. "The next thing you know, there he is out there with a class five truck," he notes.
The experts say refrigerated trucks are one of the big success stories in the class three-to-five field. "We're seeing the use of a lot more refrigerated and temperature-controlled vehicles in the cabovers," says Isuzu's Bloom.
Hino is also seeing more success with that market segment as well with its conventional line of trucks. "It's a pretty heavily driven cabover market and we are one of the few companies that offers a true conventional truck in that market," says Ellis.
According to Nissan's Trussel, many food distribution companies are now using a secondary refrigeration compressor on their trucks that is being run off the engine to power a chiller body, rather than using a self-contained refrigeration unit.
"We see a lot of that in class three and four trucks and some in five-a few manufacturers are offering a kit that allows the dealer to retrofit the dual compressor system to the truck engine," says Trussel.
Cabovers Vs. Conventionals