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 vitriol 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.
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 vehicles 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 road 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 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 not 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.