Putting a light-duty consumer market vehicle to work as a commercial vehicle can lead to some tricky maintenance challenges, especially when that vehicle has been modified by an upfitter before entering the working world.
"Usually it's the upfitting" that causes service problems, says Wayne Seale, maintenance manager for San Gabriel Transit, El Monte, CA. Seale ought to know: his transit agency maintains its own fleet of buses and vans, and provides contract maintenance for other Southern California transit and paratransit fleets.
According to Seale, the upfitter will install components from a number of suppliers onto the OE cab-chassis, so when a finished shuttle is delivered to the customer (often months after it has left the OE assembly line), there can be a lot of gray area in the warranty coverage.
"You take it to the dealer, and a lot of the time the dealers have to be educated on what is actually covered," he says. "Even though most of the components are stock—like, the rear air suspension is GM built—once the configuration changes a bit, the floor is dropped or whatever, the first thing the dealer tells you is, ‘Oh, no, it's not covered because somebody modified this.' Then you have to go back and a lot of the time get the dealer rep involved, and explain to the dealer that this is still covered."
"Or, say, the upfitter redoes the fuel tank," Seale continues. "It's a completely different tank built by a different company, and they take the stock GM fuel pump module and put it right back in this custom-built tank. Well, the dealer gets under there and sees that the tank is in a different position now, and if there's a fuel pump issue, the first thing he says is, ‘No, it's not covered,' because he sees this different tank, even though there's a GM pump in it which is actually covered."
"It's tricky, and it's hard for us to get final feedback on warranty issues, because some of the fleets have warranty capabilities on their own, some service facilities have warranty capabilities on their own, let alone what they're willing to bring back to a Ford dealership," says Jerry Renauer, account specialist for ambulance, bus and parcel delivery, Ford Motor Company. "So we don't always see some of the things that are going on until it's way downstream.
"Unlike automobiles and SUVs, a shuttle bus is not sold by a Ford dealership," he explains. "They are sold by the distributor network of the upfitter."
Nonetheless, Renauer says that Ford wants shuttle fleets to bring the vans directly back to a Ford dealer for service. It's up to the Ford dealer, he says, to determine whether the modification was the cause of the problem, in which case the fleet will have to take the van back to the upfitter's distributor for service.
"We issue guidelines (to upfitters) that say ‘This is how we would like you to go about attaching to our systems,'" he says, but the upfitters are not obligated to follow Ford's guidelines, or to ask for Ford's advice.
"For instance, we put a stator, or shroud, around the fan that funnels the outside air to the right points of the engine," Renauer says. "We've seen where they cut the shroud away so that it's just the outer rim, but the fins that were guiding the air have been totally removed, so that they could put another compressor or another alternator through. But it changed the airflow to the extent that you're getting overheating."
As Renauer says, "It's tricky."
"That's one of the biggest issues, is convincing the dealer, or getting the dealer educated that these are (OEM) components and (the OEM) approves the modification," says Seale. "During the warranty period you try to get it handled at the dealer as often as possible. That's 36,000 miles, which peels away pretty quickly, probably in the first year."
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