(first posted 11/12/2013. Updated 8/6/2017) 1960-1961 were the two most significant single years in the history of the American Automobile industry. Never before and never again would the Big Three make such a dramatic expansion to their model lines . After essentially building only “full size” cars and watching the imports eat away over 10% of the market in the later fifties, Detroit launched the great compact counter-revolution.
And there were analogues to the compact sedans: compact forward-control vans, and even pickups. Although compact passenger cars more or less became a permanent mainstay, the compact trucks were a short-lived phenomena. Ford, the leader in the field, pulled the plug first in 1968 and replaced the compact Econoline van with the first full-sized van, conveniently parked across the street. By 1971, Dodge and Chevrolet followed the leader, and the compact van was dead. Of course not for good, but that’s another (mini-van) story.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of the VW Transporter in the US during the fifties. There was simply no comparable vehicle on the market, that combined such superb space utilization, carrying capacity, economy and an un-truck-like ride to boot. We covered the Transporter in depth here; and the passenger VW Bus Samba here.
Chevrolet’s entry in the 1961 compact truck market was the Greenbrier passenger van (CC here), the Corvan cargo van, and the Rampside Pickup (CC here), based on the rear-engine Corvair, of course. They were technically ambitious, and had some superb dynamic qualities, thanks to fully independent suspension front and rear, balanced weight distribution, and resultant good handling, braking and steering. Without giving too much away; the Corvair compact trucks had an even shorter lifespan than the Corvair itself, the reason being the Econoline: it was to the Corvair van what the Falcon was to the Corvair.
Just like with the Falcon itself, Ford’s compact trucks were highly pragmatic. Which is of course what vans are ultimately mostly about. There were of course three versions of the Econoline, including the Pickup (CC here), the “Station Bus” passenger van, and the cargo van. We’ll stick to the cargo version here mostly.
The 1961 Econoline was a new and unique unibody, but utilizing as many of the Falcon’s mechanical components as possible. That meant a crude box with leaf-spring solid axles front and rear, with the little Falcon 144 CID six in a doghouse between the front seats. This kind of configuration is intrinsically front-heavy, unless carrying a substantial load. And it handles accordingly. And spins it rear wheels at the slightest suggestion of a low cohesion of traction. And locked up its rear wheels under heavy braking. In other words, the polar opposite of the Corvair van.
But the Econoline trumped the Corvair (and VW Transporter) in one very key way: a flat floor, all the way from front to back. And it turns out that’s what Americans really wanted most of all from a van; forget the driving dynamics. This machine is a hauler, pure and simple, with an accent on the latter.
Of course, this one has a bench seat installed back there, but otherwise it’s pretty basic and stark, pretty much like my Dodge A100 before I paneled it (tastefully in birch plywood, not shag carpeting, mind you!).
The passenger compartment, like the rest of these rolling tin boxes, was crude and sparse. The engine, either the 85 hp 144 or the 101 hp 170, resides there in what also functions as a heated third stool. I’m actually surprised they didn’t offer an optional official seat that attached to the engine housing, but maybe that would have made servicing the little six too difficult.
The instrument panel literally looked like a panel. Very sparse.
Transmission: only a standard column-mounted three speed manual. The two-speed Fordomatic available in the Falcon and Fairlanes were apparently not deemed up to the task of vanning. Meanwhile, the Corvan had available Powerglide. But in 1964, the new three-speed Cruise-O-matic (C4) became available on the Econoline, but only with the optional 101hp 170 cubic inch six.
And starting in 1965, there was also a Heavy Duty version available, with higher load capacity and the 240 CID “Big Six”. As well as an extended rear-body “Super Van”, which was the first shot at busting out of the compact van market altogether. In seventh grade I spent every afternoon riding in my newspaper delivery driver’s Heavy Duty Super Van, and I can still smell the ink and paper of stacks of freshly printed Baltimore Afternoon Suns, one of which was my seat back there. Dodge and Chevy soon countered with extended wheelbase vans. The brief intermediate van era.
Needless to say, these Econolines came in almost any configuration your heart could desire, from fully windowless, to fully windowed. And even doors on the driver’s side were available, for deliveries on one-way streets or such. A box with lots of openings; how convenient.
The view out the front was of course stellar, only beat by a fish-bowl GMC transit bus. FWIW, in my day the Dodge, which came a few years after the Econoline, seemed to benefit from its slightly later start. It just felt a wee bit more substantial than these early Econolines, and certainly the Dodge 225 slant six was a stouter engine than the Falcon six. But these were just everywhere back in the day, the cheap gateway to the great vanning scene of the seventies.
And today they’re rare on the streets, especially as an original truck like this one. It looks like it just came out of the time warp machine. Or maybe it is one.