Curbside Classic: 1969 Ford Econoline – Ford Builds a Better Box

In May of 1954, a group of unknown musicians released a new record.  I recall reading a review of it in an old magazine, and the reviewer was not impressed.  It was, he said, one of the worst jazz records he had heard in quite some time.  Only later would everyone realize that it was not a jazz record.  It was called Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and his Comets, and is often considered to be one of the very first examples of a new musical genre that would become known as rock and roll.  The point is, that sometimes the world changes in a fundamental way, and nobody really notices until later.  In a way, the same thing happened upon the introduction of the second generation Ford Econoline.

The original 1961 Ford Econoline was one third of a brief wave of “forward control” vans built from the innards of a compact car.  Along with the Chevy Corvan/Greenbriar (CC here) and the laggard Dodge A-100 (CC here), the Econoline provided the world of commerce with a compact and economical way to haul the most stuff in the smallest package.  The thoroughly conventional Econoline immediately jumped to the head of that class, outselling its competitors by a wide margin.

But the first generation Econoline (which lasted from 1961 through 1967) was not a perfect vehicle.  Its packaging involved placing the driver (and possibly a passenger) atop the front wheels, with a covered engine right between them.  Unloaded, these vehicles were terribly front-heavy.  Also, any kind of service was a royal pain, and involved removing the unwieldy engine cover and crawling over or around the front seats.

The 1960s was typical of many decades in American life in that it exemplified the attitude of “bigger is better.”  So, when it was time to replace the original Econoline, was anyone surprised at the larger dimensions of the new version?  Although the second generation Econoline was not that much longer, it was a fair amount wider.  But the big news was that the era of forward control was over.  Ford, the company that was so fond of better ideas, came up with a pretty good one:  The front wheels and engine would move forward and the driver would move back.

And with the engine now at the front of the vehicle, a little teeny tiny hood (or an “outside service center”) was provided to permit some basic maintenance functions to be done without removing the pesky engine cover.  Now, the driver of a van could check the oil, water and battery just like he did in every other common vehicle – from the outside.  In the process, the boys at Ford set the template for the modern van, a template that remains firmly in place forty-five years later.

Actually, there is some debate about when this revolution started.  The new Econoline was planned for introduction as a 1968 model.  However, a strike at the vehicle’s assembly plant delayed the start of production until midyear 1968.  At that point, although some units were built in the second half of 1968, Ford gave up on the ’68 model year and assigned the entire 1968-69 production run with VINs for 1969 models.

As if one was not enough, the redesigned van would bring a second paradigm shift: the second generation Econoline would no longer be passenger-car based.  Instead, the new van would share most of its components with the Ford F series pickups, right down to Ford’s signature Twin I Beam suspension system.  The vans would offer a choice of two sixes (the 240 and the 300) and for the first time, the 302 V8.   With its two wheelbases (105.5 and 123.5 inches), the new Econoline would boast a 23% boost in cargo capacity compared to its 1967 Falcon-based counterpart.  That higher cargo capacity could be shouldered by 200 and 300 versions to match the 3/4 ton and 1 ton versions of the F series.  The ’69 Econoline would prove quite popular, selling over 98,000 units, plus another 32,000 Club Wagons.

These vans are etched pretty deeply into my memory.  In high school, one of my best friends was Tom.  Tom’s parents had two cars – a gold early 1970 Falcon sedan and a moss green ’69 base model Club Wagon.  I spent a lot of time both riding in and driving both of them.  When I say base model Club Wagon, I refer to one nearly as spartan as the car pictured here.  Instead of carpet or even rubber mats, the van featured painted metal floors that were worn down to the shiny steel from constant shoe traffic.  There were metal interior side panels that were probably as much to keep occupants from being cut on sharp metal pieces in the body as for any kind of decoration.  The seats were black vinyl of a grade commonly found on forklifts and dump trucks.  I do not believe that there was even a headliner behind the front seats.  The thing was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and noisy year round.

Tom’s family’s Club Wagon was also notable for something else – in the mid 70s, the little truck was approaching the 200,000 mile mark, a very unusual feat for a vehicle of that era.  The 300 cid inline 6 was mated to a three speed column shifted transmission.  Power was put to the road via eight lug wheels, which would indicate at least the 3/4 ton Econoline 200.  The driving position was much like I imagined would be in a city bus – with upright seating and a nearly horizontal steering wheel.

Tom’s van spent its life in northeastern Indiana where snow, ice and road salt are facts of life.  His van exhibited a kind of rust that I soon realized was a unique signature of these second generation Econolines:  the little dots where body stresses pulled at the spot welds around the rear wheel arches.  I have never seen another vehicle rust like this, but this affected every one of these that I ever saw.  Even before the rust started, the smooth bodysides would soon be dimpled where the stresses of the vehicle pulled at the valiant little spot welds, as they heroically held their ground.  At the time, both Tom and I were overjoyed when his parents splurged on a new ’76 Custom Club Wagon with a V8, an automatic and air conditioning.   Color-keyed rubber mats on the floor, even.  No sense in being extravagent.  But deep down, I missed that rugged, spartan old van.

This particular van demonstrates the degree to which rust was a problem on these.  These old Gen2 E-Lines may still rumble around in Oregon or Texas, but here in the midwest, I cannot tell you how long it has been since I have seen one of these in the wild (or anywhere else, for that matter).  This van has been catching my eye by periodically sitting in a parking lot along a busy highway.  After seeing this old bus off and on for months now, I finally found the time to get off the highway and find my way into the parking lot.

The owner is following the time-honored approach of enthusiastic van owners everywhere and for all time: Customize it!  First, some cool wheels.  From the looks of things, he has some hydraulics planned.  But before he finishes this one, he has a lot of rusted metal to deal with on the lower third of the body.  And what you do with those dimpled rear flanks is anybody’s guess.  But although his taste differs from mine, I salute him.  There are not many people gung ho enough to try to take a (hopelessly?) rusted out Gen2 Econoline and bring it back to its former glory.  Particularly, since these never had any glory to begin with.

The Falcon-based Econolines have long had a retro-chic kind of respect.  These, however, fell in some sort of crack between the campy early models and the more utilitarian later ones.  Maybe this is the place where the fan club of these old buses can get started.  Because they really were revolutionary, in a quiet sort of way.

I doubt that anyone realized what was happening when the first Gen2 Econolines started to hit the streets in the middle of 1968.  However, the engineers at GM and Chrysler certainly did, at least once they got a look at the newest Ford truck.  GM and Chrysler would soon follow the Econoline’s design playbook when their 1971 models were introduced.  For a time, Dodge would take the sales lead with a more civilized version, until its 1970s quality woes caught up with it.  And Ford would not stand still, for a third generation of the Econoline would be out for 1975, leapfrogging the competition again.  The hood would be longer and the engine would be even farther forward, but this time the change was a natural evolution from the pattern set with the ’69 model.

The result would be that while the second generation would be the Ford van with the shortest production run of them all, it was also the one that set the pattern for how every domestic van would be packaged right up to the present day.  The Mustang is everyone’s favorite example of the most influential car of the 1960s.  But think about it: With the exception of the all-steel station wagon, is there really a more influential post WWII vehicle than the 1969 Econoline?  This is certainly a question for debate.  What is beyond debate, however, is that the world changed in a subtle but significant way when this van hit the streets.  And we had no idea at the time.