Curbside Classic: 1965 GMC Handi-Van – Thinking Inside The Box

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(first posted 6/3/2015)   Regression to the mean. Lowest common denominator. Thinking inside the box. These over-used expressions are all-too often applied to Detroit iron. But which vehicle most fully lives down to them? Here it is: the crudest, simplest, most wretched-handling and least-safe vehicle made by the Big Three in the sixties. It’s a box with two cart axles, a motor and transmission, and near-useless brakes. Throw in a couple of milking stools, and you have yourself a Handi-Van.

GMC 1955 _L-Universelle_Concept_Truck_06

GM once had technically ambitious plans for small vans, but had to notch it down two big steps to compete with the lowest but winning common denominator. The 1955 GMC L’Universelle concept was very forward looking for the times: a FWD van with a low, flat floor.

L Universelle_lede

It would have been GM’s first FWD vehicle. But lacking any kind of transaxle, GM cobbled up a complicated V-drive arrangement. The radiator located behind the driver and fed with a roof-top vent probably wasn’t practical either. Meanwhile, Citroen had been building FWD vans for years by then. High production costs killed L’Universelle before it saw the light of day.

Corvair 1961 Corvan advertisement

In 1961, the CorVan, or Corvair 95 (Greenbrier in passenger format) appeared, using the Corvair’s platform and mechanicals. The rear engine allowed a very low floor, but only in the middle section. Handling, steering, traction and braking were all well above the norm.

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Meanwhile, Ford defined the modern cargo and passenger van with its 1961 Econoline. With the engine in a dog-house between the front seats, it wasn’t exactly an original configuration, having been used by the Jeep FC pickup, and the rather L’Universelle-styling inspired FC van concept. I’m sure that wasn’t the first either.

The Econoline, like its Falcon donor, was a highly pragmatic and cheaper-to-build solution than the CorVan. But with all that weight in front, and none in the back, traction, steering handling and braking were all mediocre, at best. But it sold.

chevrolet truck 1964 Chevy Van_id70

GM realized the limitations and expense of the Corvair, both car and van, and a crash program resulted in the utterly uninspired pragmatic Chevy II, and its van offshoot, the ChevyVan (Sportvan; passenger version).

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And of course, GMC got its version with that eminently memorable name, Handi-Van. They appeared in 1964, and by 1965, the Corvair vans were history.

The original Econoline/Handi-Van format is a concept that just won’t go away either. Asian brand vans with this configuration still abound around the globe, especially in developing nations. At least they’ve moved on to independent front suspension. The vans from the Big Three were some of the last mass produced American non-4WD vehicles with solid beam front axles. They were as simple and crude as it gets, but they got the job done, no matter what. Well, unless you had to brake quickly. A tired Dodge A100 with a bed in the back was my car, home, love pad, work vehicle and desert explorer all wrapped in one. And I could change the perpetually fouling plugs even when it was raining outside. A mighty Handi Van indeed.

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This Handi Van is being used well. Handymen and others that need to carry tools and such long ago realized that vans were so much much better for the job than a pickup.

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The front compartment in these vans are almost identical, whether it be a Ford, Chevy/GMC or Dodge. The seating position requires a bit of a hunch over the bus-like steering wheel. And the column-mounted shifter will barely clear ones knee when dropping it into third. The six cylinder between the seats makes itself all-too noticeable.

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Needless to say, the rear end on these vans is light-footed, unless there’s a cargo being hauled. Traction and braking are thus affected negatively. Yet somehow I managed to drive my A100 through desert sand-trails and up steep craggy jeep-trails in the Anza Borrego Dessert and Death Valley.  I did have oversized mud & snow tires back there.

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No question; the GMC had the best name of the bunch.

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As crude as they were, their innate appeal was strong. There was no cheaper and simpler way to transport sleeping quarters or gear in the dry. These vans helped spark what became the great van era in the seventies. Proto-van, in other words.