Historiography: Stand by Your Van

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All Photos by Randy Stern

How could a brief drive in a van remind one of it's history?

Perhaps it is because we take vans for granted. We do, these days. We see them dropping off our packages from our internet purchases, rolling up to fix the plumbing or the washing machine, delivering new carpet or the new television that we could not take home last night. They also deliver flowers to the ones we love.

Let us not forget about the countless rock bands who have lived in them tour after tour.

The van business in North America used to be a competitive one. All three domestic automakers had one to entice fleet and commercial consumers to buy at least a few to keep business going. These are not just measured by its price, but its productivity and depreciation over time.

In North America, we know the van in two ways. The minivan is perhaps the most popular by volume of the two, mainly designed for passenger use. That history I will tackle later. The other way is the full-sized van – the ubiquitous plain cargo type or the passenger version – that is put to work every day. This is the van I grew up knowing about.

The word "van" came from "caravan," a term for a covered wagon dating back to the beginning of this country’s history. That concept carried over to the horseless carriage – i.e. the automobile. Covered trucks were considered the earliest vans since they resembled a modern interpretation of the kind. However, the earlier van/trucks were made for hauling goods across town or between cities. This would be the way until the 1930s when we saw an evolution of the breed.

By the 1930s, steel bodies became popular over the hybrid of metal and wood. The possibilities of using steel bodies for various purposes opened up a new kind of vehicle – the sedan delivery. Manufacturers took a light truck frame, brought the ground clearance down and created an extended wagon-type shape from the cab rearward. The sides of the vehicle were clean metal – where windows would possibly appear. Compared to its ancestors, the load height was lower for ease of transfer.

The ultimate output of the sedan delivery was the expansion of use for the vehicle – including hauling broken appliances back to the repair shop, or to fit it with parts and tools to fix them at home. The sedan delivery opened up new conveniences for both homes and businesses because of the ease of operation and convenience brought about by its design.

2014 Ram ProMaster 3500 1

One innovation came as an output of post-World War II society. Ford and General Motors noticed how much control a driver could have if they moved the "cab" forward – positioned above the engine bay. Ultimately,. They noticed the Volkswagen Type 2 – a forward cab design with its air-cooled engine in the rear. VW began selling variants of the Type 2 in North America much to the head scratching of business owners and its North American competitors.

The VW Type 2 arrived in 1950. It was simply the only show in town for an entire decade. That was until the Big Three presented their answers to the Type 2 van. First was the Corvair-based Chevrolet Greenbrier, also known as the Corvair 95, for 1961. With its rear-mounted six-cylinder engine, it was thought to be the perfect match against VW’s Type 2. It was certainly stylish, using a lot of General Motors' design language of the time. The floor was completely flat, allowing access to the engine via the rear floor. Unlike the VW, the Corvair van could be had with a Powerglide automatic transmission.

What killed the Corvan and Greenbrier in 1965 was the fact that it was based on the Corvair – a victim of Ralph Nader's consumer advocacy. The solution for these vans was to have the engine up front – in-between the driver and front passenger. Ford developed exactly that for 1961 with a Falcon-based forward cab van. Cargo versions wore a name that would endure for decades – Econoline. Similar to the Chevrolet, the front end of the Ford van was flat. A cover protected the engine from the cab area – mainly using the Falcon’s four- and six-cylinder motors. This was actually the way to go for many global competitors – some in use today.

Chrysler joined in with its front-engined, forward cab van, the 1964 Dodge A100. What was different about the Dodge van was an expanded range of engines – including V8. The A100 had a truck-based platform that was lowered to equal the load heights of the VW, Chevrolet and Ford vans. The same year, GM would switch to the front engine, cab-over format with the ChevyVan and the GMC Handi-Van.

The van evolved another way by the end of the 1960s. Some mechanics and operators complained that they could not access vital areas from the engine cover inside the cab. How could anyone check fluids without tearing apart the cab? The next design move was to move the front end forward to accommodate a small hood. That way, manufacturers would design access to the oil dipstick, coolant fill, power steering and brake fluid reservoirs.

For 1969, Ford presented its new Econoline. The hood touted the benefits of lower downtime in van use. A new front end also ushered in an improved cab environment that was more designed similarly to the F-Series pickups, but with less of an engine cover to work with. Even that remained a part of van design for as long as they were made as bodies on frames.

In 1970, the Dodge B-Series provided a larger hood and better access to fluid checks and refills. General Motors finally joined the extended front end design trend in 1971 for Chevrolet and GMC. This would become a long-running design that would last until 1996.

Crunch's Ambulance and FSNorth's Van

Leave it to Ford to stretch the bar further on van design with ease of maintenance and increased productivity in mind. The 1975 Econoline stretched the front clip further almost resembling its F-Series pickups. Its cabin became more modern and advanced for its time. The basic design format would serve Ford well into 2014. GM would not be able to match Ford's design concept until 1996, when the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana debuted with its modern looks and extended front clip.

Vans became ubiquitous. They were tools rather than conveyances. However, these full-sized vans were always offered in a passenger version. While they were used for commercial and non-profit purposes, families used them as the best way to haul a family of, say, nine. Smaller vans that sat up to eight competed against large station wagons, the Chevrolet/GMC Suburban, Jeep Wagoneer and International Travelall.

That market came crashing down in 1984. Chrysler introduced the minivan. It was a simple transportation revolution practically killed retail sales for large passenger vans.

The full-sized van was not entirely dead. It did get some company for a while when minivans were repurposed as panel models. The Japanese began to bring their cab-over panel vans over to our market as minivan competitors. A few were sold as panel vans – a niche market that would be the precursor of another recent van revolution in North America. Toyota and Mitsubishi sold their wares against the Dodge Caravan C/V, but not everyone was buying. Fleet and commercial buyers extolled the virtues of the full-sized van and their multitude of jobs they could still do.

There were limitations to the North American full-sized van. If you want people to work inside of them – getting parts or boxes for delivery – you have to raise the roof. The solution was to buy a chassis from a manufacturer and have a customer panel van body slapped on top of it. Or, you cut the roof off and get a third-party to build a new higher roof on top of it.

The full-sized van was never good at parking or getting around tight areas. They could barely get through garage limitations, as it is. North American vans adopted a pickup truck approach tom performance – big engines, mainly V8s, including diesels. Even with big V8 diesels, the bottom line was challenged due to rising fuel costs.

Something had to be done – and quick.

In Europe, van makers built their products with different roof heights and body configurations. Some of these vans were built on a unibody, which could either be great or not so much. However, they had efficient diesel engines that pull weights and capacities equal to their North American counterparts.

2011 Freightliner Sprinter

In 2001, Chrysler was still involved in the "merger of equals" with Daimler. Both sides of the company looked at their Dodge Ram Van and concluded that they would be dinosaurs soon enough. The idea was to a completely knocked down version of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van and sell it through various outlets. Freightliner first began selling the Sprinter, mainly to fleet and commercial customers. Then, Dr. Dieter Zetsche and company turned the Sprinter over to the Dodge brand in 2003.

The Sprinter was the first European-style van to be sold in this country. It offered not only wheelbase and body length choices, there were choices as to how tall you want your roof to be. This was straight from the factory. It opened the door to the possibilities of workspaces inside the van for North American tradespeople. It had an efficient diesel with torque equaling gas hungry V8s. The Sprinter opened the door to what the future would look like in the van business.

Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz still sell the Sprinter. They are now joined by new competition attempting to emulate their formula of offering roof heights and lengths – even efficient diesels. The Fiat Ducato is being sold as the Ram ProMaster, though it offers a gas V6 along with a Fiat diesel. Though Nissan does not offer a diesel in their NV, it did create a hybrid of North American and European van design elements, along with offering a gas V8.

The big news is the arrival of the Ford Transit to our market. Built at the Kansas City assembly plant, the Transit is designed to compete with the Sprinter, but do so by upping the ante on components, construction and configurations.

Ford may be taking the lead in the new van revolution. They already started another revolution in vans – small, European-based cargo vans designed for urban use using a smaller footprint to do the job. The Transit Connect arrived in 2011 to start this revolution. The only competitor is the Ram Cargo Van – basically a Grand Caravan with panels covering what used to be windows. However, there are some eyes on this segment with potential growth through new products. Fiat Chrysler Automobile has slated their Ram ProMaster City for a late introduction, all based on a small Fiat van.

The van may be ubiquitous, but they do serve a purpose. Back in the day, vans were welcomed to my family’s home – especially ones with the Sears or Montgomery Wards logo on the side – to tend to our broken appliances. Vans also delivered some of the goodies ordered form many places – after waiting days in anticipation. As I got older, vans became shuttles to the airport and the hotel. I am trying to calculate the many times I used vans to relocate from one place to another – within a metro area, of course.

There are many things about vans I have learned over the years. One, they are not the most stable vehicles in snow and ice – especially when empty. Size matters, but if you do not drive these every day, they can be handful. Oh, and do not forget how tall they really are. That will help in trying to negotiate certain passageways.

Still, the van is the backbone of American business – on a localized scale. There is a brighter future for the van that keeps this country's commerce and services flowing to us. Imagine life without a van…pretty hard, is it not?

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