BBC Autos

The Roundabout Blog

Heart-shaped boxes: The 10 greatest vans

  • Beyond utility

    Vans move us. They move our stuff. They bring us ice cream and wedding cakes and letters from home. They help Scooby and the gang solve mysteries, and Hannibal and the A-Team rescue the girl. They get surfers to the beach, rock bands to their gigs and the kids to Disney World. What they don’t get is much respect. In celebration of this humble conveyance, BBC Autos picks history’s 10 most memorable vans.

  • Citroën H Van

    The aroma of fresh bread veritably wafts from this prototypical French delivery van. Or maybe it’s plumber’s grease. Or shoe polish. Or fish oil. It’s a tough call. Rare is the machine that feels more of its time and place – mid-century France, specifically – and rarer still is the vehicle that so fully assimilates the profession of its pilot. Here, then, is the plumber’s chariot. Or is it the boulanger’s truck? Or the fishmonger’s mobile market? (Photo: PSA Peugeot-Citroën)

  • Ford Econoline

    “Bruce Berry was a working man, he used to load that Econoline van.” So sang Neil Young in 1973, testifying to the upright Ford’s blue-collar utility. But Young might not have known that the Econoline and its successor, the E-Series, would become the de facto band van in North America, shuttling musicians on the road to stardom – or ruin – for the next three-decades plus. With its engine mounted between the driver and front passenger, the original Econoline could also be configured easily as a stout pickup. Call it a proto-crossover. (Photo: Ford Motor)

  • Volkswagen Type 2

    Whether called the Kombi, the Microbus or der Bulli, Volkswagen’s Type 2 is best known as the breadloaf-shaped conveyance of choice for a generation of free spirits. The hippie-van reputation, however, bypasses recent decades of Type 2 history, particularly in Latin America, where the vans continue to serve as school buses, livery cabs and extra-urban transport. Volkswagen do Brasil announced in August that it would shut down its Type 2 production line in December 2013, ending an unprecedented run for the iconic people-mover. (Volkswagen, via Newspress)

  • Chrysler minivans

    Marketed across the Plymouth (Voyager), Dodge (Caravan), Chrysler (Town & Country) and Ram (CV Tradesman) brands, the vehicle widely credited with spawning the minivan niche – and hastening the retreat of station wagons from suburban driveways in North America – arrived in 1984. Today, the minivan market has been eroded by dynamic three-row crossovers, but in 1984, the future of family mobility was the minivan’s – and Chrysler’s – to savour. (Photo: Chrysler Group)

  • Toyota Van

    Although it beat the Chryslers to market by a few months, the Toyota Van (what else to call it?) was a peripheral player until 1987, when four-wheel-drive became offered at every trim level. Suddenly, the machines were spotted climbing the shoulders of Andean volcanoes, motoring across the muddy steppes of Outer Mongolia and kicking up red dust in southern Africa – most likely with jerry cans of water and fuel sloshing on their roof racks. Like the Land Cruiser, the near-indestructible Toyota Van 4x4s have developed a fierce cult, as have similar vehicles produced at the time by Nissan and Mitsubishi. (Photo: Toyota Motor Sales)

  • Ford SuperVans

    Before the Renault Espace F1, there was the Ford SuperVan. Rolling gimmicks designed and built in the UK, this series vans featured racing-car mechanicals beneath rectangular bodies. The original SuperVan – a Ford Transit with the mid-engine chassis and 400hp V8 from a GT40 – debuted in 1971. In 1984, SuperVan 2 arrived with 590hp, and in 1994, SuperVan 3 arrived with a 650hp Cosworth Formula 1 engine. Respect the van, indeed. (Ford Motor, via Newspress)

  • Renault Espace F1

    Not to be outdone by Ford and its SuperVans, Renault leveraged its Formula 1 expertise in 1994 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its Espace minivan. The result, the très dangereux Espace F1, featured the 3.5-litre V10 engine from the 1993 Williams-Renault FW15C Formula 1 car. With 800 horsepower, this mightest Espace could vault from 0-60mph in less than three seconds and press on to a top speed of 194mph. (Photo: Renault)

  • Ford Transit Jaguar XJ220 development mule

    The ladder and length of pipe atop the roof of this nondescript 1989 Ford Transit suggest that it is nothing more than a handyman’s hauler. Don’t be fooled. These workaday wheels served as Jaguar’s secret test mule during development of the XJ220 supercar. And though the ladder and pipe were just for show, this van could haul nonetheless: With a 542hp twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6, the Transit mule could sprint to 60mph in less than five seconds. (Photo: Jaguar Cars, via Newspress)

  • Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

    That a van should carry its passengers in comfort is a given. That a van should be as luxurious as a sultan’s limousine is a notion put forward by one van, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Perhaps owing to the glinting three-pointed star on its grille, the Sprinter is the favoured mule for customisers whose clients expect executive-jet luxury on terra firma. American upfitter Becker Automotive Design offers a Sprinter customisation package, appropriately called the JetVan, that commands nearly $500,000. (Photo: Becker Automotive Design)

  • Nissan NV200

    Bubbling out of factories in Japan, China, India, Indonesia, Spain and Mexico, the versatile NV200 is Nissan’s little van that could. As next official taxicab of New York, London or Tokyo, a commercial carrier or private people-mover, the cheeky NV200 – with gasoline, diesel or electric power – aims to slay a legion of old-school commercial vehicles. But the NV200’s path to world domination is not entirely clear: Ford’s handsome 2014 Transit Connect arrives next year, and 2015 will see the debut of the Fiat Doblò-derived Ram ProMaster City. (Photo: Nissan North America)

  • *Bonus* Kar-a-sutra Concept

    From 1972, the Citroën-based Kar-a-sutra was the free-love brainchild of the Italian architect and industrial designer Mario Bellini (whose credits include the iconic Olivetti Lettera 10 typewriter and the Fujica DL100 camera). Sixteen feet long and equipped with a levitating greenhouse and a reconfigurable beanbag-chair sleeping pit, this verdant van – Bellini called the Kar-a-sutra a “mobile environment” – was designed to accommodate as many as 12 occupants, sans luggage, in various states of, um, repose. Groovy. (Photos: Mario Bellini)