In a past life, I proudly served as a city carrier for the United States Postal Service. In other words, I was a mailman. One of the biggest takeaways for me in my experience delivering mail is that the stereotypes about dogs and mailmen are absolutely true.
But the thing that was simultaneously most fun and most infuriating about the job was the truck — a Grumman LLV. You know the one: that white, aluminum box on wheels with the red and blue stripes and the big eagle on the sides and the back.
Before I even started working at the post office, I heard these trucks were miserable pieces of garbage. "What year were you born in?" the postmaster asked me in my interview. I replied, "1991," thinking it was some sort of administrative question. "All of our trucks are older than you," he responded, before introducing me to the fleet.
That’s when I first got up close and personal with a Grumman LLV. Grumman was mainly an aircraft company that also built bodies for trucks and buses before it became Northrop Grumman in 1994. One of their most famous vehicles is the LLV, which stands for Long Life Vehicle. The LLV was produced from 1987 to 1994, and it was built on a chassis based on the Chevy S-10 Blazer. The biggest modification to the chassis was that the front wheels were closer together than the rear wheels to improve the turning radius. This trick worked really well, because the turning radius on the LLV is one of its few virtues.
You might think they would’ve gone with a 4-wheel-drive Blazer, since these trucks have to power through snow all winter in a large chunk of the country — including Wisconsin, where my route was located. Nope. These babies are rear-wheel-drive, and they’re absolutely miserable to drive in the snow. No limited-slip differential, no traction control, no snow tires and no hope. It wasn’t a matter of if you ever got stuck in the snow, but when — and what to do about it. There were a few times where I had to get pretty clever and pretty ambitious to cross some snowy terrain, but I never got stuck to the point of having to call for a rescue.
Under the hood of the LLV, which is a pain to open and close, lies the infamous GM 2.5-liter "Iron Duke" 4-cylinder, lashed to a 3-speed Turbo Hydramatic 180 automatic transmission. Fuel economy was in the single digits, thanks to the constant stop-and-go nature of how mail trucks are driven. Apparently, some later LLV models had a 2.2-liter motor with aluminum heads, but every one I ever had the pleasure of driving was powered by the same Iron Duke found in some of the most pathetic vehicles GM ever made — including the 4-cylinder versions of the Camaro and Firebird from 1982 to 1985, the Chevy Citation and various badge-engineered versions of the Chevy Vega (but never the Vega itself), like the Pontiac Astre and the Oldsmobile Starfire.
During my training on how to drive an LLV, I remember the instructor telling me it wouldn’t be as fast as the car I normally drive. Joke’s on them, I was driving a 3-cylinder Chevy Metro at the time, which was even slower than a mail truck (this was a very low-horsepower time in my life). An Iron Duke-powered LLV probably made about 90 horsepower when it was new, but I would love to see one on a dyno now. When you slam on the gas pedal in a mail truck, it makes a lot of noise and it barely moves.
Regular driving around town was usually pretty bearable, but driving an LLV on the highway shouldn’t even be legal. I’ve only had to do it a few times, and those times were probably the most terrified I’ve even been while operating any motor vehicle. Riding a motorcycle over 100 mph? No problem. Merging onto the highway on a mail truck? You couldn’t pay me to do it again. The sluggish acceleration, deafening noise and harsh vibration were all bad enough, but knowing the body of that vehicle would crush like a soda can in an accident is what made it such a frightening experience.
Interior amenities in a Grumman LLV include … almost nothing at all. There’s no radio, or even a clock. You get a 1980s Chevy Blazer gauge cluster and a simple steering wheel that says "CHEVROLET" in the middle. There’s only one seat, which is famously on the right side of the vehicle. Right-hand drive is weird at first, but the learning curve is surprisingly small. There were crank windows on the two sliding doors and vents toward the back that popped open to help the truck breathe. Next to the driver’s seat is a big sliding tray where you put the mail, and everything behind you is a big, empty cargo area for parcels, with a sliding lift gate that opens up in the back. Let’s just say comfort and technology are not priorities in the Grumman LLV.
There’s a lot to complain about when talking about the LLV. It’s slow, ugly, unsafe and lacks any creature comforts at all. But despite its many flaws, it was kind of a fun thing to drive around. After all, just about any vehicle that stands out in traffic is fun to drive — and no amount of discomfort, noise or getting stuck in the snow can take that away from a mail truck. Find a used Chevrolet S10 Blazer for sale