Ford Econoline: The van that rocked

The Ford Econoline van, marketed after 2001 as the E-Series to draft off the popularity of Ford’s F-Series pickup trucks, launched in 1961 as a compact budget van to compete with Volkswagen’s Microbus.

By 1975 the Econoline had grown to the proportions beloved of customisers, US government operatives and airport hotel shuttle constructors, embedding this vehicle deeply into a nation’s motoring consciousness.

That’s what 8m vans built over a span of 53 years will do. But that’s coming to an end, as the global Transit van usurps the venerable E-Series’ place in the Ford lineup this year. “Venerable” is no hyperbole; the E-Series has been the top-selling full-size van in the US for 31 years.

The new Transit, based on a model already plying UK roads, will be better than the Econoline/E-Series in every conceivable way, as it will be built on a modern frame with the latest componentry rather than utilising the antiquated hardware known to countless touring rock bands.

As was the case with the Volkswagen bus, the original Econoline was built on the company’s unibody compact car platform  – in Ford’s case, that of the Falcon – and was offered in panel van, “station bus” and pickup variations. That modest original version buried the base engine, an 85-horsepower 144 cubic-inch in-line six-cylinder unit, between the front seats, as was the fashion of the day. It was succeeded by the not-quite-as-stubby ’69 Econoline, which bore a hood tentatively pushed forward, a clear break from the previous slab-nosed generation, and front doors flipped from ahead of the front wheels in VW fashion to behind them – a sop to regulators who criticised the previous van for poor frontal impact performance.

The ‘69 bore its engine slightly ahead of the front seats, but still kept it inside the cab, under a cover. The standard engine became a 100hp 170 cubic-inch straight six. By comparison, the 2014 E-Series has a 225hp 4.6-litre (that’s 281 cubic inches) unit as the base engine, and tops out with a 305hp 6.8-litre (415 cu-in) V10.

In 1970, Ford stretched the remit of such vans with the Econoline Kilimanjaro Safari Van concept, created by  Larry Shinoda – who previously informed the shape of the Ford Mustang Boss 302, and before that, the third-generation Chevrolet Corvette. The Safari was a four-wheel-drive observation platform, a sort of spiritual forerunner to the Explorer SUVs that populated the 1993 film Jurassic Park.

In 1975, the Econoline evolved into its final form, with truck-style, body-on-frame construction and a hood to cover an engine positioned entirely ahead of the cabin, for reduced interior noise and better frontal impact protection. This is the layout that would deliver the Econoline to its roll of a lifetime – that of ubiquitous, if anonymous, beast of burden.

Soon the Econoline was the basis for various shuttles, ambulances, motorhomes and band vans, being classified by the US transportation department as a so-called chassis cab, essentially a van with just the front portion of the body and a bare chassis in the rear. (This iteration of the E-Series will continue to be available, though Ford will leave the purpose-built aspects for its customers to sort on their own.)

By 1996, the third generation of the Econoline had reached drinking age in the US, and Ford sought to celebrate by creating concept editions such as the Chicane, which was cast as a racing-motorcycle tow vehicle. Of course the Bimota sportbike used as a prop likely cost more than the van itself.

The E-Series’ chunky, brick-lick form was never meant to convey anything other than utility. This partly makes the futuristic new Transit – which looks as if it could sprout a triangular array of wings and affect a Star Wars transport – seem overly, well, nice. Even if it does resemble a movie prop, the Transit will never chew the scenery like a ’78 Econoline trimmed out in stripes and porthole windows.

Ford says the Transit weighs 300lbs less than an E-Series van, and will consume 25% less fuel. But it will be a long while before it achieves the kind of reputation that has made its predecessor a quiet pop-culture colossus.