Road Trip Outtake: Ultra Van – Corvair Powered Ultralight Motorhome

(first posted 1/8/2018)       If you’ve been around here for a while, you know I’ve got a big thing for the Ultra Van. It’s my ultimate motorhome, combining Corvair underpinnings (front suspension, rear drive train and suspension) with an air-craft type lightweight aluminum body (total dry weight: 3400lbs). I’ve written its full story here, but seeing one in the wild is always an occasion that needs to to be documented. I saw this green one zipping down the highway on the opposite side before we went hiking, and then here it was parked at Pioneer Town afterwards.  Ultra cool and ultra desirable, especially with dual rear wheels, a custom modification I’ve not seen before on an UV. Just the thing for driving in the desert.

I should have gotten down on the sandy parking lot to shoot a picture of the dual rear wheels, which was possible due to a custom fabricated arrangement. Or a shot of the Corvair engine from below, with its custom headers and exhaust. The owner, who came out of the restaurant just as we were going to leave, told me it has a 140hp four-carb 164 inch version, pushing through the obligatory Powerglide. He said it rolls along nicely at 60-65, and has had it up to 75 or so, thanks to its aerodynamic shape and light body.

The 140 hp was not stock, as most of these were built with the early 140 and 145 lo-po (80-85 hp) originally, but not surprisingly, most have been upgraded.

The last batch of the Ultra Vans had a 307 or 327 V8 in place of the Corvair engine, still driving through a PG and then a shaft forward to a marine vee drive, and then back to a Corvette IRS. Those are the hot rod Ultra Vans. Beyond ultra.

The Ford Econoline headlights on this one identify it as one of the first 15 or so built, by UV creator David Peterson and a bunch of California high-school shop students on the side. He built the first one for himself, in 1959, and other folks wanted one too. But after these first 15 or so, he licensed the UV to a Wichita, KS outfit, which put it into production, albeit on a fairly low volume. Its airplane-type monocoque construction was intrinsically expensive, and once Winnebago started cranking out its big cheap boxy motor homes at huge volumes, the UV’s future became dim.

Despite the non-original paint, this UV is in very nice original condition, not exactly a common thing anymore. The two front benches swivel to make a dinette, and fold down to make a bed. There are two beds in the aft bedroom too. The spartan driver’s compartment is a bit unusual, compared to most RVs. No need for power steering either. And the brakes are the Corvair’s manual drums.

Behind the front benches is a good sized room with a galley to the left, and a large sofa on the right, that makes another bed. Later versions often had a dinette instead.

The cabinetry and appliances are original, and there was a fine vintage pattern on the Formica wall behind the sofa. I should have asked the owner to let me inside. He’s had for some 15 years, but doesn’t use it much. it does make an annual appearance at Palm Spring’s Modernism Week.

I’ve fantasized way too much about having an UV, but it just isn’t in the cards for us. No cab a/c, no heat to speak of, and of course the endless care and feeding of such an unusual vintage machine. I prefer to using my camper, not having it be an endless project. But every time I see one, my mind starts spinning…


CC: Ultra Van – Cross An Airplane With a Corvair For the Most Radical RV Ever