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End of the (Econo)Line: The Ford E-Series van

When word came down a couple of months ago that Ford was discontinuing its venerable Econoline van -- known since 2001 as simply the E-Series -- the news was greeted with consternation and dismay by large swaths of the American public. Newspapers carried the story on Page 1 and the airwaves were filled with Ford_E-Series_wagonvitriol at Ford's unfortunate decision and high-minded praise for a vehicle that has been a crucial part of the American road for over 50 years -- not to mention the best-selling full-sized van since 1982. Indeed, the reaction was so strong that we here at Car Lust simply had to finally take notice and deliver a post to you, the CarLusting public, commenting on the unfortunate demise of this mainstay of automotive Americana.

Okay, I made most of that up. There wasn't much reaction at all and, for what it's worth, I found all of 3 news stories regarding the decision, none more than a few paragraphs long. True, full-sized vans don't generally get that much attention anymore, certainly not since the minivan made its appearance and caused us all to bemoan (or celebrate) the day when we became minivan-driving-soccer-moms/dads, or when the SUV started grabbing a significant market share leading to all sorts of smackdown by partisans on either side.

It doesn't get many props, the humble cargo van, but chances are you've either used one or depended on one at some point, probably recently, and often never even noticed it. They're a staple of commercial fleets for hauling cargo, for use as mobile workshops by all manner of craftsmen, and have been a staple of various organizations for hauling people around. But now, as it is about to fade into memory let's take a few minutes to, well, notice it for once.

The Econoline got its start in 1961 as a compact van based on the Falcon, about the same size and shape of the existing Corvair-based Corvan and Greenbrier from GM, and the VW Microbus. Both of those had the engine far in the rear, but Ford decided to make theirs a traditional front(ish)-engined RWD vehicle: they retained the flat-front shape but stuck the engine in the crew compartment as a large bulge between and aft of the front seats. Since this caused the vehicle to be very front-heavy, they had to put a counterweight in the back to compensate. On the other hand, it made for a large cargo area and a flat floor in the rear unobstructed by the engine compartment which made it ideal for contractors and large companies Ford_Falcon_vanlooking for a vehicle with large cargo space and low operating costs (Bell Telephone was a big customer of both the Econoline and the Corvair van). It was an immediate hit and Ford ended up selling over 50,000 units in various configurations in its first year on the market. Chevy's Corvair-based vans couldn't compete and they ended up scrapping it for a more traditional configuration for the '64 model year and Chrysler soon followed suit with its Dodge A100.

Having the engine sitting between the driver and passenger was a bit. . . .unconventional, and only lasted until the '68 model year when Ford pushed out the nose a bit and put the engine in its proper place, under a short hood. This was probably the most significant development since the original (and since) because it allowed for a large cargo and passenger compartment with a flat floor from front to back. It was also now based not on a compact car but on a truck (the F-series) giving it the hauling and towing capacity of a pickup truck but with an enclosed space to work with. From then on, the Econoline was properly far more of a truck than a car.

At this point mention must be made of the van's part in 1970s pop culture: the custom van craze. More will be made of these things in a future post, but suffice it to say that these were almost magical Fordeconolineadvehicles back then. Who knew what mysterious and exotic things were happening within the confines of those bedazzled boudoirs of the highway, with their shag carpet, beanbag chairs, and. . .well, I'll let the reader fill in the rest. Get yourself a wild air-brushed mural on the side, a porthole window in the back and mag wheels on one of those things and you were the ultimate in cool. . . .more likely you were some stoner pothead, but we may as well maintain the latter-day Casanova fantasy. My memory tells me that Dodge and Chevy ("and that's all right with me") were the preferred platform, but Fords definitely had their fair share.

Otherwise, by 1975 Ford had pushed the engine still further out and with its full frame design it could be converted into virtually any configuration by basically lopping off the back and adding a specialized big-box cargo area. You'd see these used -- in either original or converted form -- as delivery vehicles, ambulances and paramedic vehicles, plumbers' trucks, electricians' trucks, and virtually anything that required a pretty basic truck with a large cargo area. And how many garage bands got their start hauling their equipment from gig to gig in one of these? Cheap, lots of room, and relatively easy on the gas compared to larger cargo trucks.

Perhaps their most ubiquitous non-commercial use was as sort of a mini-RV, the Campervan. These could be had as either a straight conversion of a regular van, sometimes raising the roofline a bit for more headroom, or replacing the back end with a wider compartment but with a more aerodynamic shape than the usual commercial truck variety. Perhaps the most famous Econoline campervan -- at least from a literary perspective -- is "Ghost Dancing" a 1975 Econoline used by author William Least Heat-Moon on his epic Ford_Econoline_150_Camper_Wagonroad trip across America as chronicled in his 1982 book Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. I always thought this was the (almost) ideal sort of RV: small enough to drive like a reasonably normal vehicle, but large enough for most of the amenities required for self-sustained travel (bath and toilet facilities generally being the main drawback, though those could no doubt be fitted in with some ingenuity). It's a classic book in the travel genre and well worth reading.

Well, there is one slightly more famous van. . . .

The other context one is most likely to find them is as people haulers, especially for church and school groups. Outfitted with a lengthened cargo area and equipped with bench seats, the Econoline could carry up to 15 bodies at a pop, plus a bit of luggage, in relative comfort. Church groups, schools, scout troops, etc., have all used them as affordable people-haulers, without requiring a commercial license to operate. This has caused some controversy in recent years as various lawsuits have been filed alleging that the vehicles are prone to rollovers because of their high center of gravity. Whether this has any merit is beyond the scope of this post, but from my own experience they can be a handful when fully loaded.

As for me, I did some archaeological fieldwork back around 1990 in one, my field school used one (which I once drove rather over-enthusiastically across said field), and we rented one to move into our current'95-'96_Ford_E-250_School_Bus house. A field geologist of my acquaintence rented one for some drilling work that I monitored recently and he loved it; compared to his usual pickup truck it had loads more room for equipment and he could set up some of his testing apparatus inside and out of the weather. On top of that, it had decently high ground clearance, moreso than his truck, the only drawback being a lack of AWD.

The Econoline is set to be replaced by Ford's European Transit full-size van, not to be confused with their Transit Connect, a much smaller model that has been sold in North America for a couple of years already. The new Transit -- technically to be called the "T-Series" -- is lower, lighter and more aerodynamic than the Econoline and lacks V8 power, but substitutes 4- and probably 6-cylinder diesel engines so perhaps towing capacity won't be impinged upon all that much. And the smaller diesels ought to reduce fuel costs as well. Chrysler has seen some success with its INCP Sprinter and the Transit is no doubt a reaction to that success, as well as part of Ford's overall strategy to combine product lines worldwide.

Frankly, I'm not overly sad to see the Econoline go since the Transit is a worthy successor in its own right, having sold some 6 million copies in Europe over the last few decades, so it's not like the old and venerable Econoline is being replaced with some young upstart. The Transit will probably be easier to maneuver for the non-commercial driver and from what I can see probably offers a better and more easily accessible cargo space as well. And it's not like the traditional cargo van is going away, Nissan is set to pick up the slack with its NV Cargo Van and GM still has the Express and Savana models so we shall WhitneyCoronerVannot be bereft of traditional van choices -- with their higher ground clearance, traditional vans might just maintain their niche among contractors and other businesses that often find themselves on less than ideal road surfaces, though the vans have been losing ground to pickups in that regard for a few years now. I haven't seen any pricing info on the Transit, but my guess is it will be pricier than the Econoline, so we'll see how it fares.

I've barely scratched the surface with the examples and photos included here. There are custom conversions that transform the E-Series into truly bitchin' AWD vehicles for any number of applications. The plumbing company I employ on occasion (enough to know their vehicles well, sadly) uses them as panel vans and, as the above photo demonstrates, they're also used by many coroners' offices to transport personnel and human remains -- that particular photo is the van that recently carried Whitney Houston's remains and may end up being the most photographed E-Series van in history.

Credits: All photos are from Wikipedia with the following exceptions: The custom van ad I got from the We're Dog Lovers.com blog (check the link for another great ad/sticker); and the coroner's van was posted on 2Space.net, apparently from a Reuters photographer.

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It's time. After 20 or so years (Of this generation), and as good and as successful as these vans have been, there's always room for improvement. A new, large van squeezing out even a couple more MPG is always a good thing, I hope.

The name "Transit" or "T Series" is OK, but I always felt that "Transit Connect" made little if any sense. "Hi! Want to see my Transit Connect?" might get your face slapped in some places. But that's not important right now.

The best thing about these vans, IMO, is that a pretty good one can be bought, well used, for about $8,000. Then get an icebox, carpet, some plywood, do some "sweat equity," and voila, you have the basis for a small, affordable camper.

Just don't tell the folks over at Top Gear that you're building one. ;)

I worked for a bus fleet that had e-350 cutaways. They were optioned with the Mighty 7.3L Super Duty Turbo diesel engines. When I left the fleet they all had the original engines. Still going strong with around 340,000 miles showing on the clock. The 350 series with a diesel engine option is one tough customer.

Sad to see these go, there still is the Savanna & Express, but meh...

I've always enjoyed the Dodge Ram Van a bit more. But these vans are still awesome. Where else in the world can you get a full size van, with 15 passenger space, AND a V10 engine? I'm all ears.

I drove one with a straight 6 for a Integrated circuits delivery job. My Dad had an IC's distribution business. I think it was an 83 or 84 model.

It had two tanks. No side windows, Just a base model. I must say I actually kind of enjoyed it. The power was more than adequate, the view was good outside, the gauges were clear. The vinyl seats were adequately comfortable.

Not fancy by any means, but seemed well engineered and designed...must be why they changed so little all these years.

I would not have minded turning it into a camper.

They remind my of my Safari window style hot wheels van.

My Dad's friend had one all van conversioned out. Must have been a late 70's one since it has round headlights. It was yellow with mag wheels. I recall it as a pretty young kid. Loud stereo playing Survivor real loud. Carpet all over the back.

I could see owning one... if it weren't for the poor gas mileage.

Tough vans that take a lot of punishment from sailors. That's the best thing about this class of van.

I owned (bought new) both a first and second generation Econoline.

The 1961 was actually a pickup but I installed an aluminum shell on the back and outfitted it with folding cots and curtains at the windows. I paid $1635 for the truck and $200 for the shell. If I remember correctly, it was just about the first year that shells like that were available (had to be special ordered from Indiana). It had the 144 six between the seats and you could raise the lid while driving, to check it out.

The 1970 had the short snout with the engine mostly tucked under the dash. This had the 240 six, which was an excellent motor. I built a bulkhead about 2/3rds of the way back with shelves accessed from the rear for tools and such. I had a bunk across the top of that unit, crosswise. I think this one cost me about $2800.

I can attest that nothing illegal was ever smoked in either of these rigs. We were too innocent then to even know that such things existed.

I really liked these. Very useful for working, for camping, for everything. Have not really owned a Ford product since, tho. They got too big, too thirsty, too chancy, reliability wise.

I bought a new Toyota in 1988 ($7400). And its still my daily ride.

I rented one a couple years ago. With 300 miles, the passenger side power window didn't work. The side doors flapped in the wind and both the interior and rear axle rattled just like they do in Econolines with 100,000 miles. The 5.4 liter engine thrashed while merging onto the highways as if it had 300,000 miles instead of 300. It still had the guillotine bench seat releases I dreaded from using old ones too. Every time I drove one, I couldn't help but to think that this is what all Fords would be like without Japanese competition.

I remember riding my Schwinn Stingray up to Theo Robbins Ford in Costa Mesa where only a couple years earlier the sales staff would put up with the kid (me) sitting in the Boss 302 in the showroom shifting the Hurst"T" 4-speed. Now I was transfixed by the Grabber Orange Econoline Van with black tuck n roll interior and smoked portholes.Shod with American Racing mags & Mickey Thompsons that was one badass pussy magnet.Down at the Newport Pier you'd see totally decked-out airbrushed vans with goofy names like VANTASY, rip VAN winkle or VANGINA cruising the parking lot.

"IN A VAN BY THE RIVER !!!"

http://suspiciousvan.com/

At our school these Ford 12 and 15-passenger vans are probably the most popular family vehicle and known as "Catholic Assault Vehicles" I borrowed one for a family vacation, it held a family of 5, 5 bicycles, coolers, boogie boards, and luggage for a week, all inside.

Oh yeah, I forgot: What will happen to White Van Speakers????

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