Curbside Classics: 1971 Dodge Maxiwagon and 1979 Dodge Maxivan – Dodge Pioneers The Really Big Van

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(first posted 4/28/2016)    In 1971 and again in 1972, Dodge pioneered two very significant developments in light trucks. The 1971 Maxiwagon/Maxivan (foreground) was the first extended-body large van, which allowed it carry 15 passengers or just more cargo. It took a few years, but eventually both Ford and Chevrolet got on board, and today extended body (and high-roof) vans are very common. The only mistake Dodge made was in not extending it quite far enough, so in 1978, its rear end was pushed out another eight inches, as conveniently seen by one of the later versions in the background.

In 1972, Dodge pioneered the first extended-cab pickup, the Club Cab. It too should have been longer, as Ford soon showed with its much more successful Super Cab. But Dodge’s pickups didn’t sell nearly as well as their vans, and so Dodge just limped along with it, and never got the boost they had hoped for. But their B-series vans were perpetual strong sellers, and the Maxiwagon and Maxivan played a big role in that.

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Admittedly, Dodge wasn’t the first to extend a van by elongating its body behind the rear wheels. Ford did it back 1965, with their Econoline ‘Super Van’.

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That prompted Dodge and GM (Chevy shown) to come out with extended versions of their compact vans, but they did it by extending the wheelbase, not just the body, which is of course the preferred course for better weight distribution.

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Dodge’s all-new B-series vans arrived for 1971, in three body length and two wheelbases. The shorty van, which sat on a 109″ wb, was available in 5 and 8 passenger versions, as well of course as a cargo van, as were all of them. These were quite compact, with an overall length of only 176″.

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This shorty passenger van is from the post-1979 period, with its larger nose. Chevrolet and Ford both had short versions of their new engine-forward vans, but they never sold all that well, and were eventually discontinued. Ford’s last one was in 1988, but I can’t peg down the last year for the Chevy/GMC. Dodge kept making the short ones, perhaps in part because the then-popular Super Shuttle service bought them in large volumes. Did they make them right to the bitter end, in 2003?

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The next size was the 127″ wheelbase, with the normal body. These were the volume sellers, and the passenger  version could accommodate up to 12 passengers, in three rows of seats behind the front two seats. They were also popular for conversions of all sorts,which was the rage in the 70s. This ’73 is a survivor from that era. It’s 194″ long.

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So far, I’ve been able to use shots from my files, but I don’t have a 127″ wb regular body passenger van. It was obviously aimed at large or growing families.

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That brings us to this Maxivan, which I shot the other (beautiful) morning on my pre-breakfast walk with the dog. The 18″ rear extension is very noticeable, especially on this one, as it has suffers from some sort of body disease. Hyper-extended rear end?  Overall length is 212″, still shorter than most big American passenger cars of the time.

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In it s first few years, engine choices were limited to the 198 and 225 CID slant sixes, and the 318 CID LA V8. The 198 was probably installed in a few manual transmission short vans, but realistically, the 225 was the six of one wanted one. Given that these were quite a bit bigger than the A series that they replaced, V8s were the more common way to go, except for the very thrifty and in the shorter versions.

The 360 became available in 1972, and in 1977, the 400 and 440 big blocks were even on tap. But that was for just three years only, as the sudden jump in gas prices in 1979 put them out to pasture in 1980.

This is a B-300 series, identifiable by it’s full-floating rear axle and eight-lug wheels; basically the same chassis components as used on Dodge’s so-called 3/4 ton pickups.

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Although these B-Series vans did share drive trains and chassis components with the D-series pickups, they were different in a key respect from them as well as the vans from Ford and the later post ’96 GM vans: these are unibody vans (the 1971-1996 GM vans had a similar unibody). They do have substantial chassis “rails”, but they are welded directly to the floor structure. The advantages were the usual: lighter weight and a slightly lower floor.

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Even the cutaway versions used for RVs kept this floor structure, like my ’77 Dodge Chinook, here at Glacier.

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This larger Class C is still sitting on the same 127″ wb ‘platform’, with extension rails to support the long rear.

Dodge motorhome 1977

There are extended wheelbase Dodge motor homes from this era, and presumably they have some sort of frame rail extensions welded to the existing uni-rails. if I ever find one (they’re getting rare), I need to look under it to see just how these unibody platforms were extended this far.

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Dodge utterly dominated the cutaway motorhome market during the 70s. Chrysler built them in large volumes, and it became a significant profit center. Most are powered either by the 360 or 440 V8s. Combined with the A727 HD Torqueflite, these drive trains are hard to kill, and helps explain why so many of these now quite old Dodges are still on the road. Or parked for long periods of time in certain parts of town where nobody minds.

But the RV industry is profoundly cyclical, much more than the car and truck business. Its cycles are exaggerated, and during recessions, it takes a severe beating. The second energy crisis and the nasty recession that followed, beginning in 1979, absolutely reamed Chrysler’s motorhome business, and as part of their near-bankruptcy reorganization in 1980, they completely pulled out of that market. That explains why motorhomes from the 70s are mostly Dodges, and the ones from the 80s are all Fords and Chevys.

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This looks mighty familiar, as its pretty much the same as my ’77 Chinook, except for the seat upholstery and steering wheel design. The front compartment of these is pretty miserable, as the driver’s feet are pushed into a small area due to the wheel housing. I end up propping my left foot up on the housing, for lack of any place else to put it. But that’s still much better than what the passenger has to deal with, as the engine (and its housing) is offset to the passenger side. that results in an absurdly small are for their feet. And of course it’s noisy, and the engine throws off heat. I’m going to be looking for a replacement this coming year.

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This Maxiwagon has the optional single captain’s chair in the back.

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These old vans inevitable tend to attract clutter. No need to ever throw anything out, when you have this much room.

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Dodge had the extended van market for itself for a number of years.

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It wasn’t until 1978 that Ford copied Dodge and once again pulled out the ‘Super Van’ name, as it had done back in 1965. Like the Dodge, the rear-most seat lacked a window. Unlike the Dodge, Ford added a a bit more; 20″ instead of 18′, resulting in a whopping 226″ overall length. The Ford was a bigger van to start with, sitting on a substantially longer 138″ wheelbase, most of which went to putting the engine further out front, which resulted in a much smaller ‘dog house’ engine cover in the front compartment.

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Dodge was not about to be outdone by Ford, and give up the lucrative 15 passenger market. So for 1978, Dodge came up with a new rear end cap, eight inches longer than the old one, resulting in a total stretch of 26″, and a total length of 224.7″, still a bit less than the Ford.

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But this time, there were windows back there, so all those kids heading off to camp could see where they were going. of course, nowadays that wouldn’t be necessary, as kids have totally stopped looking out windows. Might as well just ferry them in a windowless van as long as it has Wifi.

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Dodge took two year to transition to its gen2 version of these vans, although maybe v1.5 is more appropriate. In 1978, Dodge changed the body from the cowl back, eliminating the small windows and putting the side rear doors (sliding or twin hinged) right up against the front doors. And of course the new extended Maxivan was part of those changes. But the ’78s still had the previous sloping nose. In 1979, the new blockier front end arrived, to make the transition complete. A new dashboard was also part of the make-over.

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Here’s how the passenger side doors were before the change. On the short 109″ wb jobs, the little window behind the front doors was just eliminated.

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I’m not really sure of the exact year of this Maxivan, as they looked pretty much the same for a number of years.

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This one belongs to a handyman, and it’s always filled to the gunwales. Realistically, this is what I should have, and just store much of my tools in it instead of loading and unloading.

These extended 15 passenger vans were very popular with church, athletic, educational and other organizations that needed to haul lots of kids, mostly. But they got a bad rap when a disproportionate number of them rolled over or otherwise wiped out, due to a combination of the heavy loads and inexperienced drivers. There were lots of lawsuits, and ironically, Dodge eventually got out of the business, and stopped building their extended vans. A lot of the 15 passenger Econolines got dual rear wheel axles to improve their stability.

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GM took its time getting into the extended van business, but when they finally did in 1990, they did it right, by extending the wheelbase instead of just the body. The wheelbase grew by 21″, to 146″. Overall length was 223″, still less than the Ford. But regardless of the approach, these long vans had a rep for feeling a bit squirrely in high wind or on curvy roads.

In 1994, the Dodge vans got another facelift, with a more aerodynamic front end. And finally, the engines were entering the modern era too. Back in 1988, the 3.9L V6, basically three-fourths of a 360 V8, replaced the slant six. The the 318 finally got fuel injection, and the Magnum treatment. In 1989, the 360, now called the 5.9, was also treated to fuel injection.

And in 1998, the engines were pushed forward, resulting in a more user-friendly and drastically updated front compartment, thanks to a smaller engine housing and a more modern dash. The outside rear view mirrors were also now the modern style mounted near the front of the window, which had lost its vent pane. This resulted in the Maxivan/Maxiwagon now being 231.2″ long, or some 20″ longer than the first version.

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Despite constant upgrading of performance, safety and other aspects, the Dodge vans were hopelessly out of date compared the the competition from Ford and GM, both of whom had continued to invest in their vans, while Robert Eaton was stashing away cash for a rainy day; until Daimler got their hands on it. The Dodge van, still largely the same basic vehicle since 1971, soldiered on through 2003, after which time it was replaced by the Sprinter, a Mercedes product.

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And now of course, the Ram Pro Master, a Fiat Ducato adapted to the North American market, has given Chrysler a competitive product in the field again, with FWD no less, and a wide range of lengths and roof heights. Now GM is playing third fiddle, having failed to invest in a modern van. It’s very high on the list of possible replacements for the Chinook. (Update: I bought one last year and am completing a complete camper conversion at this time)

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The 1971 Dodge Maxiwagon/Maxivan led the way into an era of ever bigger and more versatile vans, and gave Dodge the single most competitive product against Ford and GM for years. That warrants an extended round of applause.


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