The Cargo Van - Where it All Began

By: Lee Kurtzmann - Associate Editor
Posted: Dec 11th 2003 3:18AM

In expediting's relatively brief history, the cargo van and the sleeper-equipped straight truck, have been the two primary truck types associated with this industry. 

The cargo van, a ½-ton to 1-ton enclosed window-less delivery truck has remained a staple of the typical expedited carrier's fleet in spite of the growing trend towards larger vehicle sizes.  Expediting's customers still have a need for this sized unit along with the carriers in the Air Freight, Parcel Delivery and Pickup & Delivery segments of transportation.

The cargo van has also been the first choice (and possibly only choice) of vocational wheels for countless thousands of painters, electricians, building contractors, dry cleaners, carpet installers, etc.

It seems as though the cargo van has been with us forever, but interestingly, this vehicle, as we know it today has only existed for a little over forty years and it began life as a pickup truck.   

64evcover.jpgOf course, light-duty delivery vehicles have been around since the earliest days of motorized transport.  From the early 1900's, the delivery panel van was on the scene, which with evolutionary modifications and styling changes, lasted into the 1960's.  By the time the cargo vans were developed, the light delivery trucks American automakers were selling were still the panel trucks of conventional cab design.

Truck-based station wagons like the Chevy Suburban and Dodge Town Wagon were offered for passenger use. These were little more than panel trucks with windows cut into the sides and extra seating capacity. This formula of offering both cargo- and people-carriers on the same platform would be continued with the advent of vans.

In the mid-1950s, the idea of a van as we know it now was, pardon the pun, foreign to the US market. The only Forward Control design was the ubiquitous Volkswagen bus from Germany.

What is Forward Control?

The Forward Control (FC) configuration places the driver's legs forward of the front wheels (modern day cargo vans are categorized as Semi-Forward Control).  Forward Control offers a very unique driving experience, full of peculiar sensations and fraught with peculiar shortcomings.

corvairvan.jpgAn automotive journalist once compared driving a Forward Control van to weaving in and out of traffic atop a motorized bar stool on wheels.  Due to their tall profile and the driver's location over the front wheels, FC vans exhibit tippy handling, odd ergonomics, and some would say, a poor ride. Due to their extreme forward weight bias when lightly loaded, front-engined FC vans offer poor braking and poor traction.

The placement of the engine cover also creates a barrier between the cockpit and rear of the vehicle, places the dirty and greasy affair of engine maintenance among the van's interior appointments, and poses a noise and exhaust problem if not well sealed.

As with any cab-over-engine configuration, the FC driver is guaranteed to be the first one at the scene of the accident, with only thin sheet metal between the driver and the point of impact in a front-end collision. Also, the lack of replaceable fenders made them easy to total in any accident.

greenbrier_interior.jpgSo, is there anything positive to say about Forward Control?  It maximizes cargo space within a given wheelbase and vehicle length. The interior engine access does offer some protection from the elements when doing light maintenance or repair.  Besides, these vans never had much in the way of interior upholstery or carpeting anyway.

The lack of legroom found in modern semi-forward control vans is absent in a true forward-control design.  FC offers great maneuverability and the view from the drivers' seat is panoramic. The construction of these vans was basic and access to components ensured easy maintenance.

Volkswagen produced the first Transporter in pickup truck form in 1952. The handy "single cab" pick-up was a good match for trade and industry. It provided a payload of approximately five square feet but was severely underpowered. Its four-cylinder engine only produced 36 hp.

greenbrier_side_view.jpgThe "double cab" pickup, a precursor to the club cab, was produced for sale in November 1958.  The Transporter vans and pickups spawned an industry-wide production trend - soon nearly everyone made handy dandy FC vehicles.

In 1957, Willys-Jeep introduced the FC series of rugged four-wheel-drive pickup trucks.  The unique "flat front" look had outgrown its delivery route origins, but only as a four-wheel-drive vehicle with an open bed. And the FC trucks were still more likely to be found on a farm or construction site than in a family driveway. It would take three more years for the first true American van to arrive.

The birth of the modern van

In 1961 Ford introduced a new Forward Control vehicle called Econoline. The totally new body was unitized and functioned also as the chassis frame to which the running gear was attached.  And, instead of putting the engine in the rear like the VW, its placement was between the front seats, over the front axle. This allowed the use of existing drive train components.

64ad.jpgThe new Econoline was an immediate success. It was a versatile and functional vehicle that was easily adapted for many uses. The Econoline Van was a hit with over 50,000 produced annually.  Its 144 ci six-cylinder produced an under-whelming 85 hp.

For 1961 the body styles were the Econoline Pickup, Delivery Van, and Station Bus.  The year 1962 was another highly successful period for Econoline. The Station Bus was reclassified as a passenger car and declared a Falcon. The Econoline Pickup and Delivery Van continued to be offered.

In 1963 the Econoline Pickup increased its rated payload capacity and offered an optional custom cab. The 1963 Econoline Van added standard dual outside rearview mirrors, heavier roof rails, and 8 door options. The Station Bus continued in the Falcon line.

For 1964 a new model joined the Econoline family and was called the Panel Van, which really was a standard van without the side cargo doors. The Econoline Van model offered 2 significant options - a heavy- duty package, and left hand cargo doors.

64ad2c.jpgThe 1965 Econoline line was again expanded to include a Supervan featuring an 18-inch body extension and the 170 ci, 105 hp motors became standard. The 1965 Van sported stronger, more massive bumpers, a lower, more comfortable driver's seat, an integral package tray, and a more efficient heater.

In 1966 the Econoline-based family of Club Wagons was broadened, and the interior trim scheme was improved. By the start of the 1967 model year, over 400,000 Ford Econolines had been sold. 1967 Econoline's new features were the dual brake master cylinder, padded sun visors, 2 speed wipers, and back-up lamps. 1967 marked the end of the Econoline Pickup and the end of the first Econoline generation.

General Motors
Forward control Corvairs?  Yes, Chevy joined the party from 1961-65 with the Corvair (or Corvans) 95 line of trucks. The Corvair 95s were named for their 95-inch wheelbase.

64ad4.jpgThe automotive giant realized the FCs were good in the city traffic and got good gas mileage. They introduced four body styles: a conventional pickup called the Loadside; a pickup with fold down side ramp known as the Rampside; plus their line of vans - the Corvan delivery vehicle, the Greenbrier window van plus optional Sportswagon or Corvan with window option.

The Corvairs were produced at Flint, Mich., and St. Louis, Mo., from parts manufactured and partially assembled elsewhere.  Like the Volkswagen product, the Corvairs used a rear mounted engine, but with a more powerful standard engine. In 1961-62, the standard motor was the aluminum block 145 ci six-cylinder that produced 80 hp. It was a heavy-duty version of the Corvair car engine.

In 1964, GM introduced its own front-engined FC van under both the Chevy and GMC nameplates, but would never introduce a front-engined, forward control pickup truck after the demise of the Corvairs.

66ad3.jpgThe Corvans never could compete with the Econolines introduced at the same time and production was stopped completely in 1965. 

In 1967, the Chevy and GMC vans received a modest styling facelift, but the writing was on the engineering wall and forward control Chevy/GMC vans were phased out in 1970.  

Dodge was a bit slow out of the gates with their vans. The first A100 appeared in September 1963 with a 90-inch wheelbase with a lineup similar to Ford's.

They did come out with an optional 318 V8 in 1965 (A108) to make them the most powerful vans of the sixties.

Dodge Forward Control vehicles were in many ways the best of their time. Among their competition were the Corvair Rampside/Loadside, Corvans, and Handi-Vans from GM; the Econoline vans and pickups from Ford and the Microbuses and transporters from VW.

In 1964 when Dodge introduced the A-100 line of forward control vehicles, they had many advantages over the competition. One was the A-100's totally flat cargo floor, capable of handling all kinds of loads.

a-100_ad_with_all_models.jpgWhen compared with the rear-engined competition of VW and GM, the A-100's proved to be more versatile. In `65, the advantages grew to include an optional small block V-8 engine to muscle around town with.

The standard engine was, of course, the mighty slant-six. But with available V-8 inspiration, delivery drivers could carry more vanloads faster while others could simply haul more stuff. Dodge was the last to come on the market with their vans and compact trucks, so they were able to give the public more for their money with the right features in the tough A-100's.

A-100 vans had a payload rating of 2,110lbs and a total cargo area of 213 cubic feet. The wheelbase was 90 inches until 1967 when a 108-inch model was made available, appropriately named the A-108 van. Also new was the option of having the LA-318 engine installed. This option made the A-100 van the most powerful compact van around.

The end of the beginning

a-100_ad.jpgThe Corvair lineup fizzled, but the Econoline just kept gaining popularity over the next few years. The success of the Econoline, along with the continued success of the VW bus, prompted Dodge to manufacture similarly designed forward control trucks and vans for 1964.

The van age was in full swing, but Ford was first to recognize the drawbacks of true forward control designs. They slid the engine forward slightly in their new design for '69, and the semi-forward configuration was suddenly the style to have. Within two years, all the vans offered for sale in America were semi-forward designs. All the forward control pickups were gone by the end of 1970, too.

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