By Michael Petti
“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is what the executives of Studebaker must have been singing when the U.S. Postal Service awarded the South Bend firm the contract to build Zip Vans. When Frank Haines got his 1963 Zip Van he must have sung, “My oh my, what a wonderful day”.
Haines began his career in 1962 for the post office in his hometown of Seymour, Conn. Out of all the trucks he drove in his 42-year career, the Studebaker Zip Van was his favorite.
Haines retired so that he could take both his wife and their 36-year old daughter in for chemotherapy. Sadly, his wife Carol and his daughter Traci Haines both succumbed to cancer at essentially the same time. “After my retirement and the death of my beautiful wife and daughter, I went looking to take my mind off of things, and give myself something to do,” he said.
In 2008, Haines saw a classified ad in Farm Collector Magazine for a 1963 Zip Van that was set to be auctioned. When the hammer went down, Haines had the winning bid. For the former postal worker, the van struck an emotional cord.
It was on April 25, 1963, that the U.S. government issued Purchase Order # 3-2-03116 to the Studebaker Corporation for post office trucks. Byers A. Burlingame, who at the time was Studebaker’s vice president for finance, signed this contract. He would later be its president, and take the company out of vehicle manufacturing.
Studebaker supplied the chassis and attached the unitized body that was fabricated by Met-Pro, Inc. of Landsdale, Pa. The latter firm is now involved with environmental cleanup. Met-Pro set up the Bede Manufacturing Company to handle the Zip Van project.
The cab-over-engine Zip Vans were right-hand-drive. There was a sliding door for the driver, and no door on the left side. The tailgate door went up and down like a garage door. The keystone grille symbolized the nickname of Pennsylvania.
The vans have two gas pedals. One was used when sitting, and the other is used when standing. “Driving standing up is a bear of a feeling,” Haines noted. The turning radius is 19 feet, 7 inches. “You need 40 acres to turn around,” Haines quipped. Creature comforts consisted only of a heater and an adjustable seat that allows lots of leg room.
Haines' mail truck is 143 inches in length and has a wheelbase of 85 inches. It has a gross vehicle weight of 4,350 lbs. The Zip Van is motivated by Studebaker’s 170-cid overhead “Skybolt” six that is good for 112 hp. The vans were equipped with a Warner three-speed automatic. They originally came with six-ply Firestone Transport tires that were 6.70 X 15. Surprisingly, there was no spare.
The dashboard in the van is a table. The instrument panel is square and is perched upright. It looks like an alarm clock sitting on a bureau. The gauge cluster was taken directly from Studebaker’s Transtar pickup. The Studebaker mail trucks were dubbed “Zip Vans” because it was on July 1, 1963, that the U.S. Post Office first used zip codes for mail distribution.
Initially, plans called for 3,391 Zip Vans to be manufactured. An additional 847 units were ordered for a total of 4,238 built. The U.S. Post Office accepted the “pilot” model on Sept. 3, 1963. In order to complete the government contract, the Zip Van continued in production after Studebaker shut down its civilian truck manufacturing.
It may be true that the Zip Van was nothing more than an assemblage of aging Studebaker truck components on a flat, square body supplied by Met-Pro. But, in the collector field, the first Zip Vans have become iconic.
Like all other Zip Vans, Haines' truck is painted red, white and blue. The truck was from the upper desert of Oregon and remains in pretty good condition, except for the wooden tailgate door. Son-in-law Chris Orcutt went with Haines to pick up the van in Oregon. Back in Connecticut, Orcutt also did all the mechanical repairs.
When displaying his Zip Van at car shows, Haines has all kinds of publicity items from the U.S. Post Office. Among them is a tall plywood display of the animated character “Mr. Zip”. The poster has become synonymous with Haines. Now he's known far and wide, not only to fellow hobbyists but also by friends and neighbors, as "Mr. Zip."