One of the things I have most admired about the recreational vehicle industry are its hard charging people of remarkable determination, able to identify and satisfy a market need, no matter how small the niche. Ever since automotive-hauled fifth wheel trailers came into use a hundred years ago, a number of unique and specialized solutions to haul them most effectively have been created, like this Cabriolet fifth wheel trailer hauler built from a Ford Econoline E-350 chassis.
The advantages of fifth wheel travel trailers were discovered early. The earliest fifth wheel travel trailer dates back to 1912; this one is an Adams Motor Bungalow from 1918.
In the late 1920s, when the money and inclination for motorized camping really took off, fifth wheel trailers were easily adapted to the coupes of the times, with their short tails. Fifth wheel trailers track much better than conventional trailers, as a substantial portion of the weight is taken in the front, directly over the rear axle, just like a semi-trailer truck.
It didn’t take long for specialized tow rigs to appear, built on a truck chassis. This yielded a large passenger compartment or extra storage space, as well as being a heavier duty chassis for even larger trailers.
Designed by Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, this elaborate fifth-wheel trailer “Jungle Yacht” was used by Commander Gatti for his well-publicized trips through Africa.
During the 50s through the 70s, fifth wheel trailers grew in popularity and size, as it allowed ever larger living space without compromising towability. Pickups now were the default tow rig of choice.
But the possibility of an exceptionally roomy tow rig was not overlooked by some manufacturers, like this 1969 vintage “Ultruvan” Econoline conversion, which kept the front/middle section of the van, and used an extended frame to allow an over-the axle fifth wheel.
International created its Wagonmaster specifically for fifth wheel hauling, but almost shockingly, flubbed the design, because the bed was too short to allow the hitch to be directly over the rear axle. That limited it to fairly small trailers only.
There were several conversion companies that made purpose-built fifth wheel tow rigs during the boom years of the RV industry. Centurion was the largest, and Cabriolet also joined in for some years. These were built on a Ford E-350 cutaway chassis, as would be used by motorhome manufacturers or for cube vans.
Like Centurion, Cabriolet company, based in Constantine, Michigan, also offered customized crew-cab pickups for this role, with luxurious interiors to make life on the road a bit more comfortable.
The area directly behind the driver’s seat of the Cabriolet is a combination of factory van doors and custom fiberglass bodywork planted on the cutaway Ford RV chassis. The result does possess a swell behind the drivers compartment, but it’s roughly the same width as the trailer it was designed to tow, and allows for the availability of a bed in the cab for on-the road snoozing.
The first thing one notices is the sheer size of this rig. For illustrative purposes, this is our subject vehicle parked next to a Ford Transit. Their rear bumpers line up perfectly to show the difference in their length. This is not a small vehicle.
Nor is it a shrinking violet, a vehicle that will effortlessly blend into the scenery. The acres of tape adorning the flanks are a result of the 1980s pasteurization of 1970s era kitsch. The yards of tape gleefully slathered all over this Ford certainly add to its curb weight, but can you imagine this rig in nothing but white? The amount of sunlight reflecting from its body surfaces would blind a person.
Sadly, one of the larger injustices thrust upon this poor, hapless E-350 is the Chevrolet tail lights. This is likely a bigger automotive faux pas than slapping a Cadillac badge on a Chevrolet Cavalier, and it runs counter to polite automotive decorum.
Given the abundant visual sparkle of this E-350, there had ought to be some mechanical sparkle to back it up. Indeed there was: The prospective buyer of this custom E-350 could opt for the stout 460 cubic inch (7.5 liter) V8 or the determined 6.9 liter naturally aspirated diesel engine. This rig was intended to pull, built for jobs in which heavy loads were the norm, jobs that would relegate any lesser vehicle into a steaming pile of rubbish.
Both of these engines have cultivated reputations for gingerly (well, with the diesel, not as gingerly) managing burdensome loads. That one could do so with a higher degree of creature comforts was simply icing on the cake.
Our subject is powered by the 6.9 liter diesel. In a move not uncommon for the time period, it has had an aftermarket Banks turbocharger added. This was a savvy move by whomever owned it at the time. Having experienced one of these diesels in its original form, it would do what was asked of it but certainly took its sweet time doing it.
Regardless of drivetrain, this E-350 was more than able to deliver the desired result of moving heavy trailers over long distances while providing comfort and power. All things come with a cost, as those twin fuel spouts along the side are reminders both of these engines have a zesty appetite for fuel. The upside is that one can go much further between pit stops which is handy if you were a commercial operator with a deadline.
The Cabriolet was a product of its time, before the more recent crop of ever-larger double cab turbo-diesel pickups have become the fifth-wheel tow rig of choice. But there are alternatives still, for those wanting something a bit larger and roomier. And they’re not all that uncommon. I suspect that a fair number of retired truckers can’t quite give up the life on the road. Or maybe it’s folks that always harbored a yen to be a trucker; what else is retirement but fulfill those desires?
Having seen this rig at least twice daily for three months, my demeanor toward it has vacillated wildly. One day it is the biggest visual abomination ever, a slap in the face of good taste. Other days I see it for what it is, a purpose-built fifth-wheel hauler, as function generally trumps form in my mind. However, what truly reigns in my thought process is how single-purpose this rig is.
If one needed nothing but a vehicle to pull trailers, this was a good choice. There is no shortage of passenger space, either drivetrain was stout as could be, and this was made to pull any type and size trailer imaginable. It could get a lot of work done efficiently and reliably.
On the flip side, this E-350 embodies all the shortcomings of a van with inferior foot room for the driver, poor accessibility to the engine and inadequate outward visibility. It is a hybrid between a van and a pickup, possessing a bed that is both made of fiberglass yet shallower than a factory pickup bed. Typical pickup duties of hauling livestock in the bed, obtaining a loader bucket of rock, and hauling firewood simply won’t happen with this vehicle, unless it is hooked up to a trailer.
There is undoubtedly a fan base for these, just as there is for nearly any vehicle. However my exposure to and researching of this rig has simply not added me to their legion, due primarily to its overly-narrow purpose in life. I’ll stick to four wheels.