Vintage Car Life Comparison: 1961 VW Bus, Corvair Greenbrier, and Ford Econoline – Wherein A 40 HP VW Bus Ties An 80 HP Greenbrier In The 1/4 Mile

The VW bus was a truly revolutionary vehicle, of the kind that appear very rarely. Its utility, economy and space efficiency put it in a class of its own, which is why it rightfully became so iconic—and valuable. It’s impact in the US should not be understated; it sold quite well during the second half of the 50s, either as a compact van (Transporter) or the “Kombi/Station Wagon” people hauler.

In 1961, the VW bus finally got some serious competition from Ford and Chevrolet, not wanting to cede this growing niche to VW. A box on wheels is in many ways the ultimate car, and someday in the future when we  ride in autonomous shuttles, they will invariably be boxes on wheels too. In 1961, there wasn’t yet a consensus as to what these rolling boxes should be called. Car Life called them “station buses”. Today, they’re obviously vans.

CL points out that station wagons were the hot new thing some years back, but then they tended to be more utilitarian. By the end of the ’50s, they had lost some of that quality, being based on cars that had gotten so low and long. In that environment, the VW was a breath of fresh air. They called it “Station Wagon”. The Greenbrier was dubbed “Sports Wagon”. And the Econoline was called “Station Bus”. CL decided to use that name.

The three had distinct characters; the VW was the most economical, the Greenbrier, with Powerglide and plush suspension had the greatest comfort, and the Econoline was the quickest (in relative terms).

The driving experience, in addition to being on the slow side, was of course very different, sitting up so high and right up front. They were very maneuverable, with their short wheelbases and short overall lengths; the Econoline was 3.5′ shorter than a full size Ford station wagon. Yet cargo space was of course “fantastic”.

And they can carry up to 9 adults in relative comfort, with upright benches.

The VW was of course the least powerful, with its 40 hp 1192 cc four out back (the 1500 would come along within a year or so). The excellent 4-speed transmission and low gearing make the most of its inherently limited power-to-weight ratio. It might be surprising, but the VW tied the 80 hp Greenbrier in the 1/4 mile run, both coming in at about 25 seconds. The Greenbrier was doing 55 mph at the end, compared to the VW’s 49 mph.

As to the 0-60 run, the VW never got there, with a top speed of 59 mph. Yes, these 36 and 40 hp buses were slow; one had to be patient. But they eventually got one there, and it seems Americans weren’t in such a hurry back then, because its limitations in this regard weren’t exactly red flags. And the top speed can be maintained for hours on end without harm. “Long uphill grades, however, can become a bit annoying, although the VW is as nimble as a chamois on twisty mountain routes”.

The heating system was deemed “virtually ineffectual” due to the long travel through uninsulated ducts from way back there to way up front. But the fresh air system, with its overhead intake, was deemed excellent. The VW’s ground clearance was the best (9.5″) making it ideal for off-road travel. And the brakes were more than up to the task. And the steering was the quickest and easiest of the three.

It was the new seating arrangement, with two individual seats in front with an aisle between them that cam ein for high praise, allowing movement between front and rear areas.

Fuel economy was the best of the three too, with a range of 18-22 mpg.

The Greenbrier had a lot of attractive qualities, starting with its styling. It was a bit lower than the other two, and looked a bit less utilitarian, with some flair. Combined with the nimble handling, it almost lived up to its  “Sports Wagon” name. What let it down was the lack of power. Its 80 hp air cooled boxer six teamed with the optional 2-speed Powerglide just didn’t cut it. It was appreciated in busy stop and go traffic, but the engine was either lugging or revving, without much effect. CL recommended the 4-speed manual that was just becoming available on the Greenbrier. Mileage was a modest 17 mpg; still significantly better than most big full-size V8 wagons.

Its conventional IFS and rear swing-axle IRS contributed to a ride that was softer, but still with good handling. Steering was slower than the VW’s, but light and pleasant.

The Greenbrier’s interior came in for good marks; the front bench allowed three-across seating. And the second row bench can be mounted either facing forward or rearward.

The Ford Econoline was curiously called both “the most radical of the 3, yet the most conventional in design” and “suffers a little in convenience and sporty appearance.” With its engine housed between the front seats, a solid beam front axle and RWD, the Econoline’s packaging had pros and cons; one of the ovious pors being a flat floor all the way to the back.

The 85 hp 144 cubic inch teamed with the three-speed manual (automatic not available) made it the fastest to the three, but that’s not saying much, with a 0-60 time of 25.8 seconds. The transmission had a non-syncro first gear, and the gap between 2nd and 3rd was unpleasantly large. CL notes: “However, the long gap between 2nd and top ratios could mean you’re not going to pass the VW going up that long grade, while the Greenbrier, with torque converter at work, might pass them all.”  There’s more to real life driving than a 0-60 time. A good 4-speed transmission in a low-powered vehicle is not to be undervalued. As is a torque converter.

The interior of the Econoline was starker than the others “and resembles more a converted van than a station wagon.” Doh! That’s exactly what it is!

The Econoline’s ride was harsher than the others, and the front-heaviness caused some undesirable  jouncing. CL was not fond of the engine inches away: “we kept getting a piston-in-the-ribs feeling“. But there’s an upside: “tune up adjustments could be carried out while underway.” While driving? Even I didn’t try that in my Dodge A100.

CL says: “This engine location also makes “swapping” easier, something the power fiend will find almost impossible with either the VW or the Greenbrier.”  Really? As in engine swapping? There’s nothing easier and quicker than popping a VW engine in or out; in ten minutes, for those with some experience. And dropping a Corvair engine has to be vastly easier than lifting out an engine out of the Econoline’s front compartment. Or am I missing something? Swapping in high performance parts, perhaps? Still mighty easy on the VW. Whatever.

The Econoline was also the noisiest of the three; the rear engine Greenbrier’s engine was hardly audible.

In conclusion, CL recommends trying them all to see which one suits you best. Which would suit you best?

Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1965 VW Deluxe Micro Bus “Samba” – Tinnibus

Curbside Classic: 1963 Corvair Greenbrier – We Don’t Want A Better VW Bus

Curbside Classic: 1961-1967 Ford Econoline – The Leader Of The Pack