(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
No question; the GMC had the best name of the bunch.
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.
Having “lived” in a ’67 Dodge a100 in 1979-80 All these “forward control” vans will always find love with “me!
I was driving a later forward control van a couple of weeks ago I still like em this one was a Hiace by Toyota 3L turbodiesel 5 speed plenty of boogie for its loading capabilities reasonable handling ok ride all the things this GMC wouldnt have had theyve come a long way in the last 40 years or so.
Those things were all over Costa Rica when we were there. I have no idea why Toyota doesn’t sell them in the United States.
I’m guessing Toyota is more interested in the Chrysler-style minivan market instead. There may be crash-safety issues as well.
Nice big and powerful engine for a HiAce, we never had them with that kind of displacement. I assume it’s the same 1KD-FTV engine (since 2000) as in my LC 90-series.
Na much earlier I think the van was a 96 ex JDM, same engine family as the 2.8 diesels
Speaking of the L’Universelle concept, I see absolutely no sense in a FWD van, especially with its engine placed behind the driving wheels. The more you load it – the less the traction is, possibly it even would not climb a steep hill when fully loaded. Ridiculous, or at least built just for show.
The Handi-Van ? Well, wouldn’t win any Concours d’Elegance, quite obviously. But, just as Paul says, it gets the job done.
I’m surprised, by the way, to see such an amenity as the column mounted gearshift lever – and of the oldest type possible at that, with the shaft parallel, not concentric, to the column itself, may have come right from a ’49 Chevy – on such a simplistic vehicle.
The more you load it the more weight that is between the axles and on the drive axle, plenty of front wheel drive vans are on the market currently and have been for decades and nobody seems to be complaining.
Your mentioning the column mounted shifter brought to mind a bit of the history, or at least as I know it. GM moved the gear shift lever in it’s cars from the floor to the steering column in the late thirties. My ’49 Olds shop manual refers to it as “remote control”. The name GM gave it was “Handi-Shift”. How appropriate in the case of this van. I believe this type of innovation was done mainly in the interest of getting more women behind the wheel, just as Boss Kettering’s electric starter had done decades earlier.
I think most US cars went to the column shift in 1939-40. One of the bigger reasons for it was that it opened up the center of the front seat for another passenger. Only a few years earlier, the front seat area had been only wide enough for 2, but car bodies got progressively wider through the 1930s.
It seems to me that this should have better weight distribution than the front-engined vans that followed it. Which of course are not good when unloaded, but still generally better than a 2WD pickup.
But maybe the front overhang was too much?
Sranislav: Are you aware that that a very significant percentage of large delivery/utility vans (and small ones) are FWD?
And a flat windshield – how cheap can you get!
Nice spotting. I’d noticed that interesting bodymould framing around the ‘screen, but didn’t realise the glass was flat.
That moulding would be a real air-catcher. Aerodynamic it ain’t!
I see old vans like this and Neil Young’s “Tonight’s The Night” starts playing in my head. The packaging with these little vans just seems so much more efficient than the current crop of monster trucks we have roaming our byways. I guess they just don’t look as imposing as an F450 SuperDuty King Ranch Lariat XLT with a 145″ wheelbase hauled around by a 6.7L PowerStroke diesel making nearly 900 lb.-ft of torque.
But why doesn’t someone take the basic packaging concept and upgrade it for modern use? Imagine one of these about 25% bigger in all dimensions, AWD, and updated safety features? Maybe it’s all just moot, there is something about the shape of these little old vans that gives off a “creepy stalker” vibe. All this one’s missing is “Free Candy” crudely spray painted on the side panel.
I have always wanted one of these for running around town and was just looking at a 65 econoline beater that is for sale in my neighborhood. That said, I can’t see any functional advantage of this layout over the modern Dodge Caravan in an all wheel drive layout. Driving position in these sucks and front seat crash protection is a joke. The modern front drive van alleviates these and still leaves a flat load floor, etc.
Won’t happen, I’m afraid. Vans with completely flat fronts are history, they will never meet today’s crash safety regulations (in the US and Europe).
You’ll probably end up with something like this. Safe, not too big, and 4×4.
It’s funny that you mention the WB on an F-450 when the F-150, the half-ton, is the only one with a 145″ WB. Since every F-450 pickup is only available as a crew cab/8′ bed, the WB is something like 172″. Most Super Duties, being of the crew cab/6.75′ bed variety, have a WB around 156″. That’s still pretty big, I guess, but it’s all a matter of comparison. A lotta guys, after driving tractors, semis, or giant dump trucks all day, won’t feel an F-250 or -350 is all that big.
Hah! I was just making wild guesses at the stats without looking them up and figured I was exaggerating if anything. In my neighborhood the trucks are so huge they barely fit in the driveways. Garaging them is out of the question.
We have an ’08 F-350 as our work truck, and it fits in the garage my uncle built as a high school project back in ’83 just fine lengthwise, because it’s just a regular cab and is actually shorter than some of the ’70s landyachts that were in that garage. But we have to fold one mirror in to get it in, because back in ’83 the mirrors on the vehicles that usually went in that garage were about the size of the puddle mirror on the new Super Duties. I love driving that truck (V10 with a 6-speed manual), but it’s a bit of a pain to drive around town. A half-ton is all the truck I would ever need.
A lotta guys, after spending the day working in the factory, or the office, or a really tough day stocking shelves, just have to have a gigantic truck to drive themselves home in.
“Bruce Berry was a working man, he used to load an Econoline van”
-Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night, 1974.
Have used the Toyota HiAce van for many years as a work vehicle. It gets the job done, reliably. That’s all you can say about,really.
The Toyota dealership nearby may had some of the last brand new HiAce vans in stock, before the HiAce was withdrawn from the Euro-market a few years ago.
Now Toyota only has the ProAce van, which is exactly the same as the Citroën van I posted above (aka Fiat Scudo and Peugeot Expert).
True indeed. They’re no longer sold, even though the eurospec, front engine HiAce was superior to what was being sold elsewhere. But probably too expensive for other markets and too few takers in Europe: impossible to get through the dominance of VW and fiat/peugeot/citroen, except in Norway where the Toyo vans could be seen everywhere.
I assume the same applies to the light Toyota Dyna COE truck: off the list too.
Always interesting to read what happens in other countries. “…the dominance of VW and Fiat/Peugeot/Citroen…” reads really strange to me. In Australia vans are almost universally Japanese, and nowadays usually Toyotas at that – boring! The Europeans’ dealer network is too patchy here to be taken seriously by most commercial users, especially once you get out of the major cities.
Carolus M. is right…and then you also have to mention Ford (Transit models), Mercedes (Vito and Sprinter) and Renault (Kangoo, Trafic, Master).
We had the Toyota / Mazda / Mitsubishi vans and light COE trucks though, plenty of them around in the past. But all gone now.
The advantages of a FWD van? Well you get a low van floor to rear = greater capacity.
Wow, i drove past this van’s Chevrolet twin that was parked in someone’s driveway last evening. It was too dark for decent photos. Now that one has been written up, I will probably park next to it at lunch today.
To me, these always displayed a complete lack of character. Both the Ford and Dodge had their inimitable headlight treatments, but these were like someone set out to design something completely anonymous for surveillance work.
Handy Van is a great name, though.
I’ll just leave this here…. 🙂
…”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.”
I’ve learned that also. In the early 2000s I used a 1992 Ford Ranger for a courrier job for two long years. Then I decided to buy a 1994 Mercury Villager.
Boy.. why haven’t I done that before!!!!!
I’m learning it right now, being in the middle of moving lots of personal stuff to one of three storage lockers (big ones) prior to a pair of 25 June house closings. The job has been made much easier using my gutted ’08 Kia Sedona, than it would have been using my prior ’03 Ford Ranger.
Dumping that pickup for a van was one of the smarter moves I’ve made in the past decade or so.
GMC L’Universelle… What a freaking cool looking van!!!!
A friend had one of these in the early 1970s – a 1964. Same flat windshield. That van was a real piece of work, not to mention a lot of fun as well, and I could spend thousands of words describing the many hours spent in and around that thing, not to mention a couple of memorable road trips.
I will add this one experience: On our 8-hour(!) odyssey from STL to KC in 1974, the fuel tank had so much crud in it that it was clogging the fuel filter in the carb. Every 50 miles, the engine would start cutting out, so I would raise the engine cover, disconnect the fuel filter line, remove the filter, blow it out, replace it and the fuel line, my buddy would turn on the key, and we’d be good to go for the next 50 miles.
All of this was done on the roll on I-70!
To say that van was a tank is an understatement.
Wish I had a photo of that van, it would explain a great deal!
In 1964 I drove a new Econoline stick for West Valley Office Supply on Stevens Creek Blvd in San Jose doing deliveries all over the valley. I loved it! Quick and nimble, fast revving, smooth shifting. Dry traction was fine and visibility was great. Later in the ’70’s and early ’80’s I drove a succession of Econoline V-8 auto’s with ladder racks and extensive shelving for electrical material and tools all over Silicon Valley for Valley Electric. A very useful hard working vehicle the company bought the gas and I commuted from Palo Alto to Evergreen at least 5 days a week. Great visibility, OK handling, pretty good power and I didn’t care how much gas it used. Once I towed a tar bucket home to oil the driveway, parked on a hill with the pressure relief lower than the oil level it started spouting hot tar all over the ladders and van when I turned it on! OMG! What a mess! It dripped tar on hot days for a few years. LOL For some reason Toyota did not sell Hiace vans in the US. I would have had one if they did, always admired those with the diesel.
Hello John. I wish I had known San Jose and the Valley back then. It must have been nice. I didn’t get there until 1985. i ‘ve been here 30 years and still pretty much like it. On the van note. My Dad bought a used Greenbrier van and we drove it to Mexico City in 1962 or so. Threw some fan belts unless the exact specified one was used. I guess it was the twist the belt had to make to that almost right angle bend.
HI Jose, It was a great place to grow up, I remember living on East St James next to my grandmothers 866 or something like that, on my 4th birthday in 1949 we moved to Doris Ave up on the east side. I grew up there and went to James Lick class of ’63. Orchards and dairy’s were all over the place, mostly ‘cots and prunes, with walnuts and cherries for variety. I learned to drive with my grandfathers ’39 Chevy pickup and my dads ’52 Ford country squire wagon, both sticks. I’ve been to Mexico City several times, a great city! I moved away in ’88 the traffic got to be too much for me.
If you ever wonder why America is wedded to things like Camry’s and Corolla’s, and other (for their time) absolutely boring designs, keep in mind:
For the 1960-61 model years, General Motors came out with technical adventuresomeness, if falling shot of technical brilliance. Ford came out with CHEAP. After having been humiliated in the sales race, by 1962 GM was doing CHEAP.
And the accountants ruled from that day on.
Which means that the true blame for all those uninspiring, cheap cars falls totally on the customer. If you want neater cars, you have to be ready to pay for them.
You are 100% right. The average motorist is not a gearhead; they just want to get from point A to point B as cheaply and reliably as possible. Ford, for the most part, has been providing this service since the Model T days.
It’s not the cars that are boring, it’s the drivers. Flabby Ford Elites et al. are history, most compact & midsize cars today are well-rounded, and can be driven hard if desired.
Then again most compact & midsize cars today weigh in closer to a flabby Ford Elite than they do their direct 1970s ancestors.
According to Wikipedia, a 1976 Ford Elite had a shipping weight of 4169 lbs. No doubt cars with actual options like air and power windows tipped the scale closer to 4400 lbs.
At 2015 Accord, a mid-size, has a curb weight of 3192 lbs.
A 2015 Corolla, a compact, has a curb weight of 2800 lbs.
I’m nearly certain those were both standard options on the Elite, and neither would tack on 230lbs, If it had the optional 460, that’s another story. But I said weighed closer to it than their predecessors, so…
1976 Accord at 1993lbs is 62% the weight of a 2015 Accord
2015 Accord at 3192 lbs is 76% the weight of a 1976 Elite
And a first generation Accord in base trim weighed in at 1962lbs.
So 3192 – 1962 = 1230lbs
And 4169 – 3192 = 977 lbs
So XR7 is right in the case of the Accord, the weight of the current one is closer to an Elite that of it’s 70’s ancestor.
We can play semantics all day on this, but the 1976 Accord was a sub-compact and today’s is full-sized.
As usual you bend the truth Len. The original Accord was in the compact class, not sub compact. The current Accord is in the mid-size class not the Large class even though they made a fat Accord for a few years that indeed did fit enough ping pong balls to barely make it into the large class.
We can play semantics all day on this, but the 1976 Accord was a sub-compact and today’s is full-sized.
Umm, that was the point. If a car baloons up from subcompact to full sized there’s some serious bloat and/or mission creep going on.
Hold on a minute! What I meant by “flabby” wasn’t merely high weight, but the almost total lack of agility (under-damping, high inertia, strong understeer) typical of large American cars back then with luxury pretensions, esp. Fords. The Elite was the best example I could think of.
I do agree that cars are getting heavier, but that doesn’t mean they’ll start handling like Ford Broughams.
“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.”
Really? This was the worst? I know you had an A100 but neither these nor the original Econolines were any better if it all. They all exhibit scary handling traits in the most innocuous conditions. It was a sham that they sold these as passenger vehicles.
Nonetheless, I still believe the original incarnation of the Chrysler minivan was the successor to these vans, with regard to utility and economy. That they were light years ahead in terms of safety and capacity is only gravy.
Geo, he’s just biased against anything GM. In reality they we generally better than the other OEMs, or at least no worse.
I admit I preferred GM/Chevy products most of my life, especially these last 15 years because my ownership experience has been stellar. If it hadn’t been, I’d be driving something else by now. For the previous 20 years I was a Chrysler fan.
My buddy mentioned above had an Ford Econoline just before the Chevy, and a Dodge immediately after. Aside from the name of the OEM, there was little to no difference between any of them. The Dodge was in the best shape when he bought it, so I guess that’s something.
Geo: Relax: that line was meant to apply to all three of the vans built by the Big Three! Their little vans were the worst handling vehicles in their respective line-ups. Get it? 🙂
I love these vans; had one myself. But yes, they were very crude, and the ride,handling, steering and braking was primitive. That’s the truth.
Paul: It doesn’t read that way, at least to me.
It reads like this Handi Van is the worst vehicle you could buy back then. I wanted to point out, even at the time, there were equally bad versions from the Big Three.
Having had spent time (but not lived in) many of these vans, I can agree with you that (from personal experience) these things are pretty poor drivers.
Scooby Doo, where are you?
I’d so seriously paint one of these like the Mystery Machine. Maybe put a Scooby and the gang mural on the back.
You’re not the only one.
I owned one of these , it was crude but being technically a panel truck , it did _exactly_ the job is was designed to do reliably and without complaint .
When Dad and I were at the Ford dealership the day after my oldest sister wrecked our ’66 Country Sedan, my plan was for Dad to purchase the black ’67 Country Sedan that was on the lot. Instead, we went home with a ’65 Deluxe Club Wagon. What a disappointment. It was, however, pretty well equipped, with the rugged 240 six, two toned pleated interior, third row seat, chromed bumpers and auxiliary heater under the rear seat. It did have the column shifter and manual transmission. All of my legal driver’s training took place in that bus. It drove well, had plenty of power, great visibility and good looks for a bus. I remember the brakes as being as good as any other car with drum brakes that I had driven. Whenever we needed to haul something, I would unbolt the rear seats and pull them out. It was a great dual purpose rig. That car became mine when Dad moved on to a ’68 Ambassador. I had a lot of fun with that bus. My friends named it “The Club”. I was the only one with wheels, and that’s where we hung out. Today, I own a ’72 VW Campmobile and I love it! But functionally, those Ford Econoline buses were heads above the VW Bus. The bus in this picture from a brochure is identical to the one we had.
Oh yeah, those VW vans were pretty bad, too. One company I worked for in the mid 90’s had an early 70’s Kombi as a delivery vehicle. Admittedly, it was pretty tired as it was 20 years old, but I drove that thing a couple of times and it was some of the scariest driving moments I had in Atlanta traffic! It had no power (or brakes or steering, really). But my cheapskate boss at the time wouldn’t get rid of it because it was paid for… Yeeesh!
My favourite van has always been the Corvair Van. I’d take the Greenbrier passenger van if it was available at the right price and was driveable.
Another favourite van is also the Toyota Hiace, never available here in the USA. It was a C.O.E. design that can be dangerous if you hit something solid hard enough. But can make an awesome van for anyone who wants something more manoeuvrable than your average car. 🙂
This was the last gen Toyota HiAce we had here. As you can see it clearly has a nose with a hood and a front engine, and certainly wasn’t a death trap.
It was a popular high-quality van for many years and generations in a row. But at some point it just lagged behind and I guess that Toyota didn’t want to invest a large sum of money to develop a whole new diesel van (the last ones had a 2.5 liter D4D engine) for Europe. Just updating the HiAce was not an option anymore, given the qualities of its Euro-competitors.
Interior of the same HiAce:
I loved the early VW vans but the feeling was not mutual. I would have bought a Corvair van but they quit making them by the time I was actually making money. This van would probably have been better than either and I can only remember one reason I didn’t buy one. Fuel economy. A buddy had a flat faced Chevy with a 230. 12mpg. Gas may have been cheaper but so was a sailors paycheck.
Even though there were a lot of hot rods in the parking lot, fuel economy sold a lot of beetles, six cyl camaro/mustangs etc. I love the thought of driving this thing but that would make it grow old quickly. I am sure that some did better. Paul, does that resemble how yours did at the pump?
BTW, the name seems a ripoff of my handyman wagon.
I remember visiting a relative for a few days about 30 years ago….She lived 8 floors up in an apartment building and I could look down from her window and see a fellow working on his old Handi-van….Apparently he could not get it running and one afternoon, he got irate, slammed the door shut and took the license plates off of it…
I don’t know what happened after that….he either sold it or junked it because it was gone the next time I visited my relative a few,months later.
My dad had a slightly later, post-facelift (curved windshield and low headlights) Handi-Bus for his glass business. It was old even then and I don’t remember it ever running but for the summer I was 4 the cab was a big part of my and the neighborhood kids’ play environment (only the front cab, not the gutted rear compartment because of glass); the back seats stayed on the back porch for a couple years after that.
A high school friend had one of these. In grade 12, he rear ended a pick-up truck at maybe 10 mph. Both shins were compound fractures. He had a permanent limp for the rest of his life.
While on the topic… might as well give the Electrovan a shout out:
I had forgotten that the Handi-Van (and presumably its Chevy equivalent) had a first-generation Corvair instrument cluster.
Does anyone remember the early 60’s Econline could be had with a 4 spd sourced from Ford of England with column shift? Although not very robust it held up well with the 144 – 170 six cylinder engines that it was mated with.
Yes I do ~
These were very thin on the ground when new and like hen’s teeth these days .
Wasn’t that the same four speed box that was in the Falcon Sprints ? I remember it was fairly delicate when mated to the 260 CID V8 , broke easily and Ford Dealers claimed no parts available .
Anybody notice that the early versions of the handi-van and chevy van had a corvair instrument panel?