A Short History of the Modern Van

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Sep 02, 2011

Observers as diverse as Karl Marx and Bachman-Turner-Overdrive have long understood, the working man always gets the short end of the stick. Take van drivers, for instance.

In the old countries of Europe, they frequently make fun of White Van Man, an un-socialized, unsociable misanthrope with a powerful need to get somewhere in a hurry, one who proceeds without sufficient reference to what might stand in his way or to the fact that he is in no condition to drive his white van, due to impairment by any one of the hundred illegal substances coursing through his bloodstream. Or perhaps it is a full-blown psychosis? Place him behind the wheel of a white van, and the young man’s deep-seated homicidal tendencies blossom.

Oh you big European blouses. Sounds to me like any driver from Boston, Massachusetts, irrespective of age, gender, creed or association with the Brothers Magliozzi (though this last attribute doesn't hurt).

We don’t have the concept of White Van Man here in the United States, where the freedom to drive badly is a birthright. Instead, the true affront to the American working man is the fact that he doesn’t really drive a white van. That is, we don’t even have vans as good as the white ones Europeans send into battle. Big European vans -- think Sprinter vans -- tend to be taller and narrower than their American counterparts, but they’re also faster, more economical, and more nimble. They weigh less, but they carry more. That’s because they are altogether more modern -- diesel-powered, unibodied instead of body on frame -- and, in a word, better.

Ford Transit Connect (Rudolf Stricker)

Small vans, an option we're only getting around to seeing with the commendable Ford Transit Connect (and not even in its most efficient diesel form), are also everywhere in Europe, while we make due with vans that are often larger and thirstier than need be, not unlike the cars many of us drive, and, come to think of it, us.

To think that the surrender monkeys of France are driving around in vans superior to that of my van-driving brethren here in America, well, it burns my deep-fried, artificially flavored, apple pie pride. And I am a not infrequent van driver by virtue of my close professional associations with the sort of down-market rock bands who don’t always get to tour in million-dollar custom coaches. I’ve done my time in Ford Econolines and my music management company just sold a Sprinter we used for nine years and 170,000 miles as a crew and gear transporter, so I know of whence I speak.

Of course, we have no one to blame here but American industry. Van technology on this side of the pond has been stifled by an all-too-obvious, gentleman’s non-compete agreement; a tacit understanding that the steady demand for work vehicles makes sales inevitable and therefore investment in product development a pointless luxury.

It was plain that the prospect of easy profits had overtaken all other considerations when Chevrolet let its van hit a semi-Jurassic seventeen years before introducing the only modestly updated Express in 1995 -- and guess what? It's still here 16 years later. Ford took an identically relaxed approached to its 1975 Econoline, which hung on seventeen years, too, until 1992, when its development costs and their amortization were distant memories. Most customers were never the wiser that close to a dozen and a half years of key developments in road-ability and safety had passed them by.

Ford Econoline

Today, the replacement for the Econoline -- no spring chicken at age nineteen -- is on a drawing board, somewhere, we hope, unless they lost the drawing board. Though we can seriously thank Ford for the Connect, like I said, but if they really respected American vannistas they'd sell us a diesel.

We can take a moment to blame the accomplished European van makers who’ve failed to bring their wares here (Volkswagen), those who haven't tried hard enough (Fiat/IVECO -- coming soon to a Ram dealer near you, one expects), or those who haven’t even tried at all (Peugeot, Renault, etc.). But history buffs will know that the lifetime non-achievement prize goes to Chrysler. Its Dodge Tradesman (later Ram) went into service around the time man landed on the moon and was only laid to rest in 2001. It is an enduring testimony to engineering sloth, spanning five decades, yet still on the road today, to show us just how bad they used to build them in the old days.

Of course, one of the few happy moments in Van World (and also in the disastrous Daimler-Chrysler merger), occurred when Team Germany helped the under-funded Chrysler side, in 2002, by giving it access to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, which, I found as a satisfied customer, took the van-building game to a whole 'nother level. Sold first as a Freightliner, then badged as a Dodge, before becoming a Mercedes-Benz as well as a Freightliner (which are the two nameplates it is now sold under following the dissolution of DaimlerChrysler), the Sprinter was so obviously fit for the task of replacing a van whose life spanned almost a third of a century that then-Chrysler boss Dieter Zetsche laid plans to assemble as many as 100,000 a year at a new, purpose-built plant in Alabama. But then the German combine’s growing penury reared its ugly head and the new plant was cancelled from on high. Instead of 100,000 units, 8,000 to10,000 Sprinters would be assembled each year from knocked-down kits sent from Germany at a small facility set up in South Carolina; which is where Sprinter -- frightfully expensive, on account of short supply and no competition -- stands now.

2007 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter (Thomas Doefer)

In the wake of Chrysler's ultimate cop out, Ford shelved plans to build a new, tall van to replace the Econoline, which soldiers ever on. Meanwhile, last year, Nissan followed the American makers' lead. Like Ford and GM, the Japanese firm actually knows how to build a decent, modern, economical, diesel-powered, unibody van for customers outside of the U.S. (as opposed to the hoary body-on-frame jobs they're foisting on us now). But with the new NV line of high-roofed vans it introduced, Nissan has jumped into the fray, building not what is right but with a half-hearted variation on what the Americans are already doing wrong. Take away its high roof and startlingly off-putting looks and you have another 12 mpg, body-on-frame V8 van that fails not only to move the van game forward but manages to not even get an inch closer to the standard of the rest of the civilized world. Sharing much with their not very successful Titan pick-up brethren, another shameless and shameful bid to beat the Americans at their own cynical game, the NV reminds us that van drivers are still being treated here like the Third World-ers for whom carmakers have saved their worst, most backward products.

Van drivers of the world unite. It's time take care of business.

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