The majority of commercial vehicles sold undergo some sort of modification, and manufacturers are increasingly after a share of this lucrative market

A van is a simple machine, with a cabin for a couple of passengers positioned ahead of a large box-like carrying space.

Vauxhall in house Signwriting

Vauxhall is now offering factory van conversion

To really do their job, though, most businesses need a bit more than that, which is why it is estimated that around 80-90% of vans sold in the UK undergo some form of modification, also known as a conversion, before they head out into the world of work.

For many years, the van industry has been similar to that of the early days of the motor car – you buy the base, and then send it off to a separate converter (or coachbuilder) to strap on the body of your choice, be it a tipper, dropside, large Luton body or simply some racking that allows greater use of the interior space.

SEEKING APPROVAL

Increasingly, though, manufacturers are seeking to bring this process in house. Several brands, such as Ford and Vauxhall, have offered a limited range of official conversions for several years, but the market is changing all the time. An increasing number of brands are partnering with companies to provide approved conversions that match the manufacturers’ offering on quality and warranty.

Convenience is the biggest reason for this, with Vauxhall’s CV manager, Brad Miller, saying: “Traditionally, customers would buy a van from us, then it goes somewhere else to be fitted, after which it’s given a PDI. The fact that we can do it all at the plant is a big bonus – it is ready to earn money from day one.”

“Between 80 and 90% of vans in the UK go under s conversion before starting work”

Toyota, Volkswagen and Ford have all recently announced expansions to their line-ups of approved converters, with these partnerships allowing a company to offer more choice than is feasible by sticking to what they produce in house.

“If you have a standard Luton, dropside and tipper range you are covering 80% of the market,” explains Citroen’s head of commercial vehicles, Jeremy Smith. “If you start getting into other things you’ll suffer diminishing returns. With the converters we have got, that offers us the flexibility to offer 85 or 90% of the market.”

These more bespoke offerings might not extend to the really specialist needs of companies that want large TV screens mounted on the back of a van, for example, but it does allow a greater range of choice. Despite the conversion being done by an outside company, in almost every instance the customer gets the same reassurance as if it is a standard OEM product.

Ford Dropside

Ford offers credit on its in-house alterations

A spokesman for Ford says: “There is a big document that they have to conform to. Even to get half way there is about two weeks’ work. One of our engineers goes over and spends about three days assessing them.”

On top of this, almost every manufacturer insists that the converter matches the vehicle’s warranty, although some items, such as tail lifts, may be excluded, so it is still worth checking.

EMERGENCY STOCK

One development that hasn’t made its way across the whole industry yet, is that of immediate stock. Citroen is the one manufacturer that is making a point of offering vehicles that are available at very short notice, under its Ready to Run scheme.

“I have been confident enough to build enough chassis and have the converters convert them so we have a bank stock of vehicles,” says Citroen’s Jeremy Smith. “So, if somebody turns up and wants a dozen tippers for now, I have got them ready to go.”

USED UNCERTAINTY

The wariness surrounding used commercial vehicles extends to the secondhand market.

Toyota is one company that is happy to look at bringing converted vehicles back in house. 

“We have a used LCV scheme, we remarket and the network has access to closed auctions,” says Gareth Matthews, Toyota’s LCV manager. “We would remarket our own products that have been converted through that channel.”

Volkswagen is also positive, with UK boss Carl zu Dohna saying it would be happy to remarket both in-house and approved conversions: “We know how they were built in the first place so it is easier for us to buy them back – they were built to certain standards.”

Vauxhall does offer some used conversions, but it is not a universal scheme. “We have Network Q which is very specific for used, but that is a retailer by retailer proposition,” says Brad Miller. “Tippers and dropsides are pretty easy to deal with, but with converted vehicles it is not as easy.”

Andy Picton, chief commercial vehicle editor at Glass’s, warns that this is because buyers that go truly bespoke are not likely to get their money back. 

“What is good for one person might not suit others,” he says. “The more bespoke and unique a vehicle is when new, the less likely you will find a second buyer.”

For those that want to protect residual values, sticking to the standard offering is best.

He points out that there are two situations where a customer might be in the market for such a vehicle. The first is a distress purchase, where the customer’s vehicle might have failed its MoT or be beyond economical repair and they need a replacement at short notice. The second is when a business has suddenly picked up a new contract.

He estimates that 80% of the Ready to Run sales in 2016 were to SMEs that were feasibly in such a position, and about 80% of these were sold to cash buyers.

The offering of a real drive-away solution is not yet widespread, but is set to grow, though, with Peugeot and Mercedes believed to be creating similar programmes.

Volkswagen’s CV brand director, Carl zu Dohna, recognises the importance of this market, too, saying: “We are planning to bring the [VW Crafter] dropside and the tipper from the factory and we need to make sure we have them in stock. Customers in this area often have an urgent need for a van and if you can’t supply it they go elsewhere.”

FUTURE FUNDING

Alternative methods of funding the purchase of new vans haven’t reached the market in the same way they have on cars, or even standard vans. Manufacturers are averse to offering a guaranteed buyback on a vehicle that is being used as a tool, first and foremost.

Ford, for example, currently offers credit on its in-house models, but this doesn’t extend to the approved partners, although the plan is to roll this out across the range. Toyota also offers funding on the in-house products, and hopes to do so on the approved options.

Miller at Vauxhall points out that there’s no simple answer, due to the different companies involved.

As for Volkswagen, zu Dohna says: “With the dropside and the tipper you can [offer finance], because it is a standard offer, but with the others we are working with financial services to hopefully offer something at launch. We will certainly be offering a single invoice.”

With single invoicing, one point of contact at the manufacturer and the peace of mind of a warranty that is as comprehensive and long lasting as the one on the base vehicle, conversions are not as complicated as they once were. However, the lack of universality on used and financing means picking a tipper or equivalent is unlikely to ever be as simple as choosing a plain panel van.

 

Tom Webster