December 15, 2019

VW strengthens its conversions range

Peter Ringham reports from Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles Converter Expo.

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles (VWCV) is redoubling its attack on the specialist conversions market as demand booms. It is doing so in conjunction with a group of 17 approved converters, including well-known body builders such as VFS, Paneltex, J C Payne and Ingimex as well as equipment suppliers such as Penny Hydraulics, with its onboard cranes.

Their efforts are being supported by VWCV’s team of local business development managers, now working with VW van dealers to help them increase sales to small- to medium-size businesses. “We’re 12 weeks into this programme, it involves 40 of our Van Centres and the managers are working with 14 of them particularly closely,” says specialist sales manager, Nick Axtell.

Several of VWCV’s approved converters recently exhibited at an event held in Shropshire at the Telford International Centre. It was put together by the manufacturer with the aim of giving customers a better understanding of what they can deliver.

Approved converters are expected to match the warranty VWCV offers on its products as well as the standard of its aftersales back-up. “They have to work within our guidelines,” Axtell says.

VWVC’s conversions programme involves a two-pronged attack on the market.

Engineered to Go describes a line-up of standardised off-the-peg products that appear in VWCV’s price lists.

Leading the way are the tippers, dropsides, and Lutons that Ingimex builds on Crafter chassis in a highly-automated plant based on a six-acre site a few minutes away from the Telford centre. They are put together on three short assembly lines.

The body is assembled separately from the chassis from a pre-picked rack of components. Once it is complete, the vehicle is reversed underneath and the body is mounted on it.

The approach Ingimex uses means that it can make extensive use of semi-skilled rather than skilled labour and turn output up and down quickly depending on marketplace requirements. “It’s hard to get skilled people, and when you’ve got them, it’s hard to retain them,” says managing director, Justin Gallen.

“We started producing Engineered to Go Crafters in earnest in January,” he continues. “Around 22% to 24% of our output is on VW chassis.”

Ingimex’s involvement with Engineered to Go and the appearance of its bodies in a VWCV price list meant that its products and practices first had to undergo a thorough assessment by VW experts sent over from Germany. “They made us sweat,” Gallen recalls.

Alongside what it can offer on Crafter, Ingimex has additionally developed a dropside and a tipper based on VW’s Transporter chassis cab. Built on a 3.2-tonne chassis, its Tip-up tipper can shift up to 1,000kg.

That is as much as some 3.5-tonne tippers are able to carry, but Tip-up has a far smaller footprint.

The body comes with a steel floor and tailgate but the sides are made of aluminium, and it relies on an aluminium and steel sub-frame.

Ingimex showcased what it can offer on Transporter on the VWCV stand at last year’s IAA Commercial Vehicles Show in Hanover, Germany.

Engineered for You denotes conversions that are more closely-aligned to individual client requirements, and may serve niche sectors. A lightweight car transporter based on Crafter and built by Advanced KFS of Clay Cross, Derbyshire is a prime example.

Among the body builders present at Telford, CoolKit of Burnley, Lancashire was displaying a dual-compartment temperature-controlled medium-wheelbase front-wheel-drive 3.5-tonne Crafter van.

Fitted with an Alex Original refrigeration unit, it comes with a sliding bulkhead which allows the operator to alter the respective sizes of the front frozen and rear chilled compartments. The bulkhead can be removed if required.

The van can handle a 908kg payload – a competitive figure for a van of this size.

Both the side and rear door apertures are equipped with an air curtain rather than the more-familiar plastic strips. It is a downwards-facing fan designed to minimise the amount of cold air that escapes when the doors are opened.

It makes it quicker and easier for drivers to unload products when making deliveries, says CoolKit, because they do not have to fight with lots of dangling plastic.

Demand for specialist conversions is soaring regardless of the continued uncertainty caused by Brexit say bodybuilders.

“It’s a strong market,” says Gallen. “We’re aiming to produce 2,300 conversions this year, which will be 30% up on 2018.”

“We received a lot of orders for Lutons during the first half of the year, and we’ve just supplied 50 to a well-known daily rental company,” says Scott Hadley, head of sales at Aldridge, West Midlands-based J C Payne.

The chassis-cab-based light commercial conversions market is a substantial one says Gallen, with roughly 20,000 sold annually. “Tippers, dropsides and Lutons account for around 18,000 of them,” he says.

Sales are surging ahead despite the challenges generated by changes to Euro 6 and complications caused by the roll-out of WLTP (Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure), which is changing the way official fuel consumption figures are calculated.

A conversion can have a significant  impact on a vehicle’s WLTP status.

Nor are they likely to be dented at present by rises in steel and aluminium prices; bodybuilders use both materials in considerable quantities and would have to pass on any increases. “Fortunately prices are quite stable at present, with no significant movements up or down,” says Gallen.

The standardised Engineered to Go bodies chime in well with Ingimex’s approach of producing bodies in volume with as few modifications as possible.  “We can fit items such as access steps and a tail-lift, but if you want lots of variations then that’s really not our thing,” he says.

It makes as many of the parts it fits as it possibly can in-house, including wiring harnesses and even the load-locking track for Luton bodies, thereby ensuring both quality and availability, says Gallen. Minimising body variations makes it easier to supply replacement components if a body is damaged, he adds.

Maintaining Ingimex’s position in a hard-fought market involves extensive capital outlay. “We’ve invested £1.8m over the past year and we can spend £500,000 to £800,000 annually on equipment,”
he says.

VWCV is not ignoring the minibus market. This year’s Commercial Vehicle Show saw the company showcase a wheelchair-accessible 16-passenger Crafter-based model produced by approved converter TBC – Taxi Bus Conversions – in Northern Ireland.

The passenger seats can be released quickly allowing the minibus to carry up to six people in wheelchairs. Various different wheelchair and occupant restraint systems can be specified.

A manually-operated front entrance door is fitted along with a modified step-well. Wheelchair access is by means of a rear inboard-mounted Braun Vista Split passenger lift and the minibus is classed as an Engineered to Go conversion.

Somewhat more specialised is the Crafter-based police riot van – more decorously-known as a Police Support Unit – produced by Coleman Milne Specialist Vehicles in Wigan, Greater Manchester. Features include a cell at the back, rear seating for seven officers and racking for riot shields, helmets and other police equipment.

The windscreen glass and the protective mesh grille often fitted to such vehicles have been replaced by reinforced, flexible plastic said to be impact resistant. So if a furious rioter hurls a brick at it, the brick should bounce off; and the van’s occupants will be saved from injury.