RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 8: The Ultra Van!
While the annals of motorhome history are full of minor or short-lived brands that achieved some measure of fame and/or notoriety (as in the Daystar saga), very few can be said to have inspired the enthusiastic loyalty of a true “cult following”. One vehicle that surely meets this description is the Ultra Van. The story of this odd motorhome reportedly began with an aircraft designer named Dave Peterson being frustrated by having to choose between towing a Spartan trailer or a boat on his outdoor excursions. In 1960, he hit upon the solution of a custom-built creation on the then-new Chevrolet Corvair chassis. The design saw production of fifteen units through 1963, and then was licensed out to the Prescolite Corporation, a manufacturer of fiberglass. Rechristened the Ultra Van, the vehicle was manufactured in modest numbers from 1964 to 1970. Peterson tried to revive the brand in 1972-1973. While often characterized as a camper van, the Ultra Van’s entirely original body fully warrants the description of a true, purpose-built motorhome. The ovoid hull and aluminum and fiberglass construction converged strikingly with the Dodge Travco, and even its 22-foot length was competitive with contemporary motorhomes. The vehicle’s most unique features were a heating system that reused thermal energy from the rear engine and a mindboggling gas mileage of 15 to 17 mpg, a still-impressive figure that for its time was 50% better than competitors and comparable to a standard car.
Ultra Van’s estimated production run was 370 units, of which more than 200 survive. The impressive number of extant specimens is surely a testimony to the loyalty of owners, a number of whom have reportedly collected multiple units. Unsurprisingly, the legendry of the vehicle includes efforts to assign blame for its demise, mainly to some combination of the discontinuation of the Corvair and the energy crisis of the 1970s. In my opinion, the controversies surrounding the Corvair (itself surrounded by energetic loyalists) can be discounted as a red herring: The use of the Corvair in the first place was by all accounts dictated by what was available at the time, and several alternatives were tested. Dave Peterson himself reportedly held variants using the engine of an Oldsmobile Toronado to be far superior to the original Corvair-based design. The role of the energy crisis, which certainly devastated the RV industry as a whole, also appears to be a red herring: While oil supplies were undoubtedly strained throughout the early ’70s, the outright shortages that defined the “crisis” did not occur until late 1973. The truly obvious culprit in the demise of the Ultra Van is its price tag, which consistently approached $10,000 at a time when Winnebagos were being offered for $5,000. The culminating irony of the Ultra Van story is that the energy crisis was, if anything, the one thing that could have turned the vehicle’s fortunes around if it had survived. Instead, the brand was decisively defunct at precisely the time when consumers might have considered its unique fuel economy as enough to make up for its price tag.
Image (rear interior) and information courtesy of The Ultra Van Page.