Curbside Classic: 1963 Ford Econoline Pickup – Keep The Sand Bags Handy

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(first posted 4/14/2013)    History does tend to repeat itself, especially in the car business. Detroit’s more recent efforts to compete with import compact trucks was once a serious undertaking, but has largely dwindled away. The same thing happened once before, in the early sixties. In response to real (or imagined) incursions into the light truck field by Volkswagen (pre-chicken tax), Detroit launched a barrage of new compact vans and trucks.  Ford was the most prolific in the 1960-1961 period, offering no less than three distinct types of pickups (Ranchero, F-Series, Econoline), the last being the most creative and nontraditional. Not surprisingly, it was the least successful of the three, and petered out after a few years. Americans know how they like their Ford trucks, and the Econoline was not it.

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Of course, the Econoline van and pickup, as well as the Corvair and the later Dodge versions were all inspired by the VW Bus and pickup. The success of the VW Beetle, bus and pickup put Detroit on edge, and largely precipitated the creative rush of compact cars and trucks that all came gushing forth in ’60 and ’61.

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Ford and Chevrolet based their new compact vans and trucks (loosely)on their respective new compact cars, the Falcon and Corvair. The Econoline shared the Falcon’s drive train, but otherwise was mostly unique, with a sold-beam leaf-sprung front suspension. And just like with the car versions, the pragmatic and utterly conventional, simple and cheap to build RWD Falcon trounced the adventurous rear-engined air-cooled Corvair in the car segment, so did their offshoot trucks. The Econoline van instantly became the best seller in the field, and Chevy quickly cobbled up a Chevy-II based van-only version to compete, and Dodge followed the same steps with their D-100 Van and pickup.  Obviously, the Corvair van’s (CC here) inherent advantages of drastically better traction, braking and handling were offset by its lack of a flat floor throughout.

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It doesn’t take more than a casual glance at the Econoline pickup to tell that it has a serious weight distribution problem. Ford installed a 165lb weight over the rear wheels in a effort to mitigate the problem, but lets just say this is not the thing to take out in the snow. But it was remarkably compact, yet it sported a 7.5 foot long bed and a roomy cab with storage behind the rear seats; essentially the first extended cab pickup ever. And it was economical to run , with its light weight offering modest resistance to the little 144 and 170 cubic inch sixes. Ford claimed that it could get up to 30 mpg in its ads. Optimistic, undoubtedly.

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The Econoline pickup faced a lot of internal competition as well as external. In 1960, Ford relaunched the Ranchero as a Falcon. And a conventional F-100 cost a mere $86 more. That left a pretty compact niche, and public utilities turned out to be the big buyers of the little Econoline and Corvair Rampside pickups (CC here). Phone companies loved the space efficiency and low operating costs. But even then, after first year sales of 14k Econoline pickups, their sales steadily dwindled, down to two thousand in their final year, 1967. That pretty much coincides with the birth of Japanese small pickup sales on the west coast.

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I’ve always been drawn to these trucks for their compact size yet roomy cabs, despite their limitations. Of course, as the former owner of a Dodge A-100 van, I can well imagine what they handled like with another couple hundred pounds less in the rear quarters. And the front crush zone is a comparable to a can of Orange Crush. But it makes a handy around-the-town scooter, like this one, which is the daily driver of Joe, who does superb vintage restoration work on European cars out of his small shop. He picked it up recently, rebuilt the tired 170 six, and will eventually get to the body. Don’t ask why, but I love the exhaust sound of that little Falcon six,which has a pleasant raspiness when working hard.

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For some reason, this is a vehicle that I can’t quite take my eyes off: the combination of its odd proportions that challenge the conventions, and its jaunty cuteness. It’s also an extremely European-looking vehicle, although pickups in the American sense just weren’t hardly a reality there. And those red wheels don’t hurt either. These pickups may have been a sales dud, but they sure brightened up our carscape in their day. And today. Enjoy.

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