The Evolution of The Cargo Van

By: Jeff Jensen, Editor
Posted: Aug 21st 2006 10:23AM

panther-cargo-van.jpgIn expedited trucking's relatively brief history, the cargo van and the straight truck have been the two primary vehicle types associated with this industry. 
The cargo van, a 1/2-ton to 1-ton enclosed window-less delivery truck, has remained a staple of the typical expedited carrier's fleet despite the growing trend towards larger vehicle sizes. 
Expedited customers still have a need for this vehicle size 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.
The birth of the modern van
 In 1961 Ford introduced a new Forward Control (see Forward Control below) 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 Microbus, its placement was between the front seats, over the front axle. This allowed the use of existing drive train components.
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.
The 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.
The 1965 Econoline line was expanded to include a Supervan featuring an 18-inch body extension (a sign of things to come) and the 170 ci, 105 hp motor became standard. By the beginning of the 1967 model year, over 400,000 Ford Econolines had been sold.
After General Motors' entrance into the van market with the Corvan 95, a rear-engined van model named for its 95-inch wheelbase and produced from 1961-65, the automaker introduced its own front-engined FC van under both the Chevy and GMC nameplates.  
Dodge was a bit slow out of the gates with their vans. The first Dodge A-100 appeared in 1963 with a 90-inch wheelbase model powered by the venerable slant six engine.  For 1965, the company introduced its 108-inch wheelbase model (the A-108) with an optional 318 V8.
NOTE: Throughout the light van's history, Detroit's Big 3  have produced a bewildering variety of cargo van, passenger van and pickup models based on the FC design and the semi-forward design that exists today.  Unfortunately, there just ain't room to cover 'em all!
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.
Except for styling, today's Ford E series and GM Express/Savana are largely unaltered from the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Big 3 replaced their last cab-forward designs.
expedited-cargo-van.jpgWhile American vans have become frozen in time, the same is not true overseas. In Europe, where the full-size pickup is almost unknown, light commercial vans are offered in an almost staggering variety of forms.  Big and small, cargo van, bus and chassis cab are all standard catalog items. While both American and European vans offer multiple wheelbases, modern European vans also offer different roof heights and crew cab chassis, eliminating the need for aftermarket conversions and specialized bodies.
The evolution
One of the key areas in the evolution of the cargo van has been payload capacity.  We probably all remember the sight of carpet installers with a full load of 12-foot long carpet rolls stacked in the back of one of the 1970's short
wheelbase vans with the back doors held together with a bungee cord and the tail of the van dragging on every bump in the road. 
It took the van manufacturers some time to realize that larger payload capacities were required, until today's latest models.  (It should be noted that Dodge's A-100 vans had a payload rating of 2,110lbs and a total cargo area of 213 cubic feet; a respectable capacity for the mid-60's.)

Both Ford and Dodge vans offered extended body lengths after the change to semi-forward control designs, with GM entering the stretched van arena with the introduction of its longer wheelbase models in the  early 1990's.

The first significant cargo van upgrade in decades occurred in 2001 with the introduction of the DaimlerChrysler Sprinter van to the U.S. market.  This vehicle has been a European favorite since it hit the foreign markets in 1995. 

Despite its "unconvantional" appearance and unique 5-cylinder diesel engine, the Sprinter has found a home with many expedited cargo van owners who appreciate its optional extended body length and stand-up headroom.  Even these "oversized" dimensions will be  expanded with the 2007 models which will be longer,taller and wider with more powerful engine choices and higher GVW's.

Improving the comfort level of cargo vans in earlier days of expedited trucking usually required that the owner be skillful with the tools and materials necessary to insulate the vehicle and install the basic necessities such as the bunk, inverter, etc.
Many of the home-constructed conversions have been impressive, with foldup bunks, folding bulkheads, overhead storage and TV racks, etc.  Over the last few years however, commercially constructed sleepers have been gaining popular acceptance.
With today's professional conversions from companies such as Alumi-Bunk, Midway Specialties, Bentz, Phoenix Conversions and others,  the cargo van driver can now choose a spartan conversion with the basics of a bunk and storage compartments to a conversion that is close to the comfort levels of the bigger trucks, albeit on a smaller scale.
Some of the features that these commercial conversions include are:

Length of cargo bed 
The sleeper manufacturers have been able to retain a sizeable nine feet of cargo area behind the bulkhead. This allows the transport
of two full-size pallets, long considered a gauge of sufficient cargo length in a van. 
All of the conversions feature heavy-duty bulkheads that separate the cargo area from the sleeper. The bulkheads provide driver protection from a shifting load, they help insulate the sleeper area and enhance the truck's heating and air conditioning and provide a sturdy surface to mount storage cabinets.
The conversions utilize both wall and recessed floor-mounted e-track securement systems.
Comfort and convenience items
Just about anything that will fit.  Bunks w/underneath storage, reading and accent lighting, refrigerators, microwaves, flat panel TV's, DVD players, surround sound, full-length cabinets and desks are some of the most popular accessory items to be found in today's commercial sleeper.

With the introduction of the Sprinter to the U.S. market, cargo van expediters and the conversion companies found they had more room to work with and new levels of comfort.

The cargo van - still changing, still evolving.

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