The latest developments in van conversions. By Dan Gilkes.
The conversion market has become an increasingly important sector of the light commercial vehicle business, particularly for van manufacturers. Where van builders were once content to supply chassis cabs to dealers and customers, to let them find their own body builders and converters, the majority now offer a wide range of conversions direct from the dealer or from their approved body builders.
It’s a business model that VFS (Southampton) knows better than most, as an accredited supplier to the majority of the big name chassis builders, including Renault, Vauxhall, Volkswagen and Fiat Professional. VFS is also the main provider of dropside and tipper bodies for the Ford Transit, which in itself makes the company one of the biggest body providers in the UK.
Indeed around two-thirds of the firm’s business is Ford-related, with two of its three main assembly lines dedicated to Transit tipper and dropside production.
Originally founded in 1995, as Victoria Forge Southampton, VFS was acquired by Italian body building giant Scattolini Automotive Truck Bodies, itself part of the global Faist Group, in 2009. Scattolini is an approved supplier to Fiat and Iveco in Italy, to Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen in Germany, to Renault, Opel and Nissan in Spain and France, and directly to Ford’s Transit plant in Turkey.
With the backing of this much larger business, VFS has been able to invest and expand the service on offer. This year the company will unveil several new bodies and will open a second production facility, in Wakefield, Yorkshire, to meet the needs of customers across the UK.
Central to the company’s continued success is a focus on doing what it does best, building mainly dropside and tipper body conversions for LCVs up to 5-tonnes GVW. VFS also makes a number of Luton and curtain-side bodies, but has not felt the need to chase ever more diverse conversion sectors, or to move up in weight to the truck market.
That’s not to say that VFS is limited in its outlook, the company’s Southampton base is far from a simple assembly plant. With full CAD/CAM design facilities, high-speed routers, programmable punching machinery and a multi-colour powder coating facility with quality levels that would put some much larger vehicle manufacturers to shame, VFS offers a complete vehicle conversion service.
This includes the design, engineering and installation of a range of additional equipment, such as tail-lifts and cranes. The company also offers bespoke health and safety solutions, such as hand-wash facilities, zero-harm anti-fall side rails and body mounting steps.
“We don’t sit still,” said sales and marketing director Ashley Morris.
“We are always looking at other manufacturers and products and we have had to diversify.”
That said, this year’s biggest news is still tipper related, with VFS introducing an aluminium tipper body, that can be used with a range of chassis. The alloy body is said to cut weight by as much as 150-160kg, versus the firm’s popular high-strength steel tipper.
“One thing that we’ve been developing with manufacturers is to bring down the weight of bodies,” said Mr Morris.
The weight saving doesn’t stop with the metalwork either, as VFS has created a lightweight tipper cage too, with a heavy-duty nylon mesh instead of steel.
The company has also been working with Ford to develop tipper and dropside bodies for its front wheel drive Transit models. Traditionally Ford customers have purchased tippers on a double rear wheel chassis, quoting the need for off-road traction and towing ability as prime reasons for the layout. However chassis continue to get heavier.
The addition in most cases of an AdBlue tank to meet Euro 6 emissions standards, along with increasingly impressive specifications that include air conditioning and numerous safety systems, continue to push tare weights, reducing payload within a 3.5-tonne overall weight.
Ford claims that moving from a double rear wheel layout to a single rear wheel rear-drive model can save 100kg. Move to front wheel drive and it’s possible to knock another 100kg off the unladen weight, further boosting payload.
VFS is also working on a front-wheel drive Luton body for Ford, to be launched at the CV Show, offering similar weight savings. In addition the company will use the base of the Luton body to develop a new Curtainslider model, though this is not expected until 2018.
For those less concerned with weight and more conscious of the bottom line, VFS is also launching an entry-level steel tipper body, built by fellow Scattolini company Cabreta in France. The Excalibur tipper will be around 50kg heavier than the firm’s own high-strength steel body, but provides a third option for buyers. Eventually VFS expects around 60% of demand to be for the new alloy tipper, with 30% staying with the current steel body and 10% opting for the entry-level steel model.
The VFS North conversion centre in Wakefield will be home to the front-wheel drive Luton conversion for Ford. However the site is strategically placed to deal with other manufacturers too, particularly those importing chassis through Immingham.
The purpose-built site has the capacity to securely store up to 450 vehicles, which should become the monthly capacity for conversion. The firm’s Eastleigh head office site currently has a monthly throughout of up to 750 conversions on a single shift.
VFS has employed a general manager for the site and is currently putting the infrastructure in place to open to customers in August of this year. The sales team is being assembled and body building employees will be recruited throughout May and June, undergoing training at the Southampton site. VFS intends to take on 20-25 staff in the first year, rising to a team of 50-55 by year three.
“There is still a lot of the market to go for,” said Mr Morris.
“We see positive market growth in 2017. Last year was the most successful year we’ve ever had in the UK. The market has grown, but VFS’ market share has also grown. We haven’t seen a drop in the number of vehicles coming through VFS, in fact we’ve seen a slight increase in the first three months of the year.
“The market is still buoyant and the country is reported to be still forging ahead. We believe the market will continue to get better,” he added.