Van body manufacturer uses bonded design to serve specialized markets

Van body manufacturer uses bonded design to serve specialized markets

There's no business like show business. And if you are going to manufacture truck bodies for people in show business, there's no place like Los Angeles.

American Truck Bodies and Repair does just that. From its location in the Los Angeles suburb of Fontana, the company has carved out multiple niches for itself, in part because of the unusual way it manufactures van bodies.

“We are a supplier to all six of the major movie studios,” says Ralph Giordani, who along with Amado Torres, launched the custom truck body manufacturing company in 1997.

The highly custom specifications, including vans that double as remote studios, were a good match for what Giordani and Torres set out to do when they started American Truck Bodies.

“We wanted to be a premier body manufacturer,” Giordani recalls. “We said to ourselves, ‘Hey, let's build truck bodies the way we want to — the best we can do at a fair price. We will listen to the customer and provide him with the specifications that will meet his needs.”

In doing so, Giordani and Torres set themselves apart from the standard van body approach that was more the business model of other companies for whom the two had worked. The result is high-content truck bodies that can carry a price tag that can be more than the cost of the chassis on which they are mounted.

The fact that American specializes in custom vans does not mean that the company cannot competitively build a standard van body.

“We sell bodies to all of the major leasing companies in our area,” Giordani says.

American is now in the second year of an agreement with Scully Truck Rental and Leasing, a regional leasing company with locations in California and Arizona. The company was recently acquired by Ryder.

Under the terms of the agreement, American provides Scully with its truck bodies, including vans, reefers, and stake bodies. American also handles Scully's truck body transfers and repairs.

One distinctive that American offers is the bonded construction of its van bodies. The company relies on adhesives to hold the skin to the side posts and roof bows. The only rivets used in the body are there to secure the perimeter of the walls.

“We have been manufacturing rivetless bodies for 13 years,” Giordani says. “We are to the point now that we don't offer a riveted design. The bodies we build with adhesives hold together, they are easy to repair, and customers like the smooth sides that make decal installation easy.”

Giordani also believes that bodies with bonded sidewalls tend to generate less noise than those built conventionally.

American bonds its van bodies with 3M's VHB (Very High Bond) closed cell acrylic tapes — one formula for dry vans and a different formula for reefers. The company is confident enough in the durability that it offers an eight-year warranty.

“The key is surface prep,” Torres says. “The surface needs to be clean. But that can be done by wiping the surface with alcohol.”

Repairing bonded vans is a simple process, Torres says. 3M offers a tool that can be operated by hand or in an air chisel to separate taped joints. Minor repairs such as small punctures can be patched with a matching sheet of aluminum that is taped in place.”

American is working toward becoming a manufacturer that produces 100% recyclable products.

“Our company's future is to be as green as possible,” says American's Clive Melville. “It's a challenge today, though, because of the higher costs associated with products that are more environmentally friendly.”

“We recycle as much as possible,” Torres says. “We use recycled plastic for our stake bodies, and we are looking into ways to use it in our van bodies.”

Torres likes composite plastics as a building material. He points out that, unlike wood, it does not splinter. And unlike steel, it does not rust. American uses wood, steel, or composite plastics on its stake bodies, but the company encourages its customers to specify the composite whenever it makes sense.

Many of American's customers share the company's environmental goals. American believes approval by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) would reinforce that commitment in the mind of customers.

“We want to earn CARB's symbol that signifies we are a 100% recyclable manufacturer,” Melville says. “That is important to many of our customers.”

Fast start

American got off to a surprisingly fast start when Giordani and Torres launched the company in 1997.

“Ralph and I had been planning to start our own company,” Torres recalls. “We were going to start right after we received our income tax refunds, but we had to start earlier than we planned because our employer quit.”

Torres says he was stunned by the announcement, but the good news was that he and Giordani now had $35,000 in orders that were on the books when their employer closed the doors.

“We had to build them right away, and we didn't have a place to do it,” Torres said. “We bought some rain suits because we were working outside, and we moved a bunch of truck chassis into my backyard. I was pretty nervous about that, because I knew that the city would make me move.”

Torres quickly found a small location — a five-bay shop on a 1.1-acre site — to rent for $4,000 a month.

“We had trucks all over the place,” he says. “And we outgrew that facility almost as fast as we outgrew my backyard.”

American initially bought van body shells from other manufacturers and finished out the inside to meet the needs of the customer. The decision to manufacture its own van bodies made finding a larger location more urgent. The company secured a manufacturing facility on a three-acre site. Torres designed the layout of the plant and had a contractor build it out. The company moved in on September 11, 2001.

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