By on October 8, 2009

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Regression to the mean. Lowest common denominator. Thinking inside the box. These over-used expressions are all-too often applied to Detroit iron. But which vehicle most fully lives down to them? Here it is: the crudest, simplest, most wretched-handling and least-safe vehicle made by the Big Three in the sixties. It’s a box with two cart axles, a motor and transmission, and useless brakes. Throw in a couple of milking stools, and you have yourself a Handi-Van.

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GM once had technically ambitious plans for small vans, but had to notch it down two big steps to compete with the lowest but winning common denominator. The 1955 GMC L’Universelle concept was very forward looking for the times: a FWD van with a low, flat floor. Lacking any kind of transaxle, GM cobbled up a complicated V-drive arrangement. High production costs killed before it saw the light of day.

In 1961, the CorVan, or Corvair 95 (Greenbrier in passenger format) appeared, using the Corvair’s platform and mechanicals. The rear engine allowed a very low floor, but only in the middle section. Handling, steering, traction and braking were all well above the norm. Meanwhile, Ford defined the modern cargo and passenger van with its 1961 Econoline. With the engine in a dog-house between the front seats, it wasn’t exactly an original configuration, having been used by the Jeep FC pickup, and the rather L’Universelle-styling inspired FC van concept. I’m sure that wasn’t the first either.

CC 27 186 800The Econoline, like its Falcon donor, was a more pragmatic and cheaper to build solution than the CorVan. But with all that weight in front, and none in the back, traction, steering handling and braking were all atrocious. But it sold. GM realized the limitations and expense of the Corvair, both car and van, and a crash program resulted in the utterly uninspired pragmatic Chevy II, and its van offshoot, the ChevyVan (Sportvan; passenger version). And of course, GMC got its version with that eminently memorable name, Handi-Van. They appeared in 1964, and by 1965, the Corvair vans were history. I will find one.

The original Econoline/Handi-Van format is a concept that just won’t go away either. Asian brand vans with this configuration abound around the globe, especially in developing nations. At least they’ve moved on to independent front suspension. The vans from the Big Three were the last mass produced American non-4WD vehicles with solid beam front axles. They were as simple and crude as it gets, but they got the job done, no matter what. Well, unless you had to brake quickly. A tired Dodge A100 with a bed in the back was my car, home, love pad, work vehicle and desert explorer all wrapped in one. And I could change the perpetually fouling plugs even when it was raining outside. A mighty Handi Van indeed.

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45 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1965 GMC Handi-Van...”


  • avatar
    tony-e30

    Say what you will about the simplicity, crude technology, and terrible braking, but this is a fantastic vehicle with amazing potential; all for the simple reason that a “For Sale” sign resides, perhaps too permanently, in the windshield.

  • avatar

    Oh, cripes, well I blew that curbside classic clue. Only PN could make this thing fun to read about.

  • avatar
    rnc

    Isn’t this the “mystery machine”?, perhaps Fred fell on hard times.

  • avatar
    Axel

    I see one of these things in my rearview, I don’t think “Mystery Machine.” I think, “They’ve found me. I don’t know how, but they’ve found me!” … and then wonder if the Libyan nationals are packing an RPG.

    (I think that was actually a Microbus, but this is still evocative of third-world crazies.)

  • avatar

    Loved your L’Universelle link… couldn’t help but to draw comparisons to today’s CUV’s… expensive, versatile people-haulers. That’s one concept that was way ahead of its time.

  • avatar
    CopperCountry

    I love Curbside Classics, but one minor correction on this one – Dodge pickups had a beam front axle until ’72. Oh wait, you said “mass produced”. Never mind.

  • avatar
    grog

    This series is the *only* reason to come here.

    Anybody remember “Chevy Van” by one-hit wonder Sammy Johns? Egads I hated that song. Every bit as atrocious as the vehicle it was sorta about.

  • avatar
    john.fritz

    On old acquaintance dropped a nitroused 327 in the front and some 4:11′s in the back of one of these. Kept the piece of shit three speed column-shift manual in between. Probably 25 years ago now, I still get shivers remembering riding in that thing. Shivers of terror, just to be clear.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    Nice find
    A friends father had one for deliveries. My friend would get it on weekends. We did some crazy stupid stuff in that thing. Hey, a box with four wheels and an engine. what more do 6 or 8 teenagers need? What could possibly go wrong?
    The first time around a corner was great. No handling and you are sitting in front of the front wheels.

  • avatar

    If anyone’s curious, here’s a 1961 Corvair Greenbrier Sportwagon:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/argentla/2895843837/

    …and a ’62 Rampside (a clever idea I understand was extremely popular with telephone crews):

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/argentla/3838611120/

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    I love Curbside Classics, but one minor correction on this one – Dodge pickups had a beam front axle until ‘72. Oh wait, you said “mass produced”. Never mind.

    International Harvester 2wd pickups and SUVs (Travelall) had beam axles through at least 1975.

    As for the HandiVan, the only thing I don’t like about them is that modern vans killed the panel truck, one of my favorite types of vehicles.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    Maybe I’m just older and wiser now, but it would scare me to death to drive one of these everyday. About 3/32 of an inch of sheetmetal between the front of the driver and the outside world. You ARE the crumple zone.

    A friend has a 66 Econoline, similar concept, as was the Dodge A100 (I always wanted to drive one of the latter equipped with a V8 – had to be a sensation similar to bungee jumping, thrilling and terrifying at the same time).

    One ride in one of these and you can see why these gen1 vans were no threat to station wagons in that era.

  • avatar
    texlovera

    Holy cats. I had never heard of or seen a L’Universelle. God, it fits right in with the nuclear age, particularly in that metallic bronze/copper paint.

    Utterly fascinating. Do any of these still exist?? I’d love to see one up close…

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    A great, concise chapter in a great series.

    As much as I like most things 60ish American, looking at the Handi-van, and remembering how in a Norbye-Dunne test it refused to brake in a straight line, I kinda think us Euros had it a lot better with the weirdtastic, corrugated sheet metal, Citroen H:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citroen_HY

  • avatar
    twotone

    I had a 1969 Dodge van back in the mid-70′s. Not sure if it was the van or the drugs which made me who I am today.

    Twotone

  • avatar
    Stingray

    RWD XJ Cherokees had solid axle in front.

    Same for the RWD WJ Grand Cherokee, which was the last one with front rigid axles.

    I could correctly call that WJ GCH as the last mass produced 2WD vehicle with a solid axle.

    I expect some arguing about the Jeeps having tube axles intead of beams. Also for being suspended by coil springs rather than leaf srings.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    OH GREAT!
    There was this song I remember as a kid about doing it in a ChevyVan, and now you just showed this, thing, to me. Naseating images about this wrecked box rocking and everything – nasty!

    I thought it was some kind of cool vehicle – AAH!

  • avatar
    njoneer

    Thank you for this curbside classic!

    Despite the crude box-on-wheels technology here, I like the style. The flat glass and round lamps make it look more real than the overwrought styling on today’s vans. I prefer this version to the Corvans before and the later SportVans with curved glass.

    This is even the right-size box-on-wheels that nobody sells in the US anymore, except for maybe the Mazda5.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Thank you all for the solid axle corrections. I try to throw you a curve ball, but you guys always hit them, right back at me. Keep it up!

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The Ford E 150 used a 2 piece straight axle into the late 90s. The cab-over engine design dates back to the 30s in commercial trucks. Vans were very practical work trucks for many trades. This was in an era when automatic trans and a radio were goodies. Keep ‘em coming Paul.

  • avatar

    I made it a life mission to live the philosophy of the cheesy Chevy Van song back in my misspent youth.Had to use a Dodge van though-but it was nice to have goals as a kid. http://www.mystarcollectorcar.com/

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    Grog:
    There is A LOT more to come here for. Period. Will someone please join me in telling him (or her) to go and read a Motor Trend Magazine? Maybe they have the Truth About Cars grog is looking for.

    I absolutely and completely LOVE this website, to the point of looking forward to it when I haven’t had a chance to view it for a day or 2. And I will defend it tooth and nail, RF and EN!!

    So this time I’m not flaming, just defending our territory. I feel like family when I’m here.
    So if anyone has anything else like that to say about this beloved website, just don’t come here at all. Please.

  • avatar
    davejay

    A buddy of mine has one of these, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d; evidently it used to be a school bus. The interior is still yellow, it’s flat black on the outside, lowered on huge chrome rims.

    It also has no muffler worth noting, and very little power. It’s a slow, rough, noisy ride. But it sure does look nice.

  • avatar
    td47

    I had the ’64 Chevy model. Bought it in ’69 for $700 with my father’s help. No passenger seat? No problem. Toss in a plastic patio chair. Attached a U.S. Navy ship cot to the wall, throw in an old couch my girl friend’s mom gave me and I had the perfect surf wagon for trips to Santa Cruz and LA. Austin Powers would have been proud. Lots of memories. Thanks for posting.

  • avatar
    ZekeToronto

    The L’Universelle was freakin cool for ’55. Lose the heavy chrome bumper with the obligatory 50s torpedo bays and it would look decent even today. Kind of a funkier Flex.

    On the other hand, I prefer engines to be well in front of me or behind me. I’ve driven too many full-size vans (of the era with the engine doghouse between driver and front-seat passenger) to believe it would ever be possible to make that setup handle well.

    Oh and those Corvans seemed pretty modern and practical for the early 60s. Very much a super-sized VW van. I don’t ever remember seeing one though. Were they sold in Canada (as were Corvair cars, of course)?

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I still remember our first trip to the mountains in our new Greenbrier. Hot temperatures, slow, steep, winding roads, and an air-cooled engine are not a match made in heaven. I’ll bet it took us four hours to drive 40 miles with all the stops to let the engine cool off.

    A friend of mine bought one in the early 90s. He entered it in a contest by an LA radio station to have it destroyed by Quadzilla or one of his brethren at a monster truck event in the Rose Bowl. I think they paid him a thousand bucks, now the van is pushing up daisies…or maybe roses.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      GM’s quality control on the Corvair engine was laughable at best. I have four of them and every one has poor aluminum casting quality problems. The fins for the heads are in some places not even clear so the air can pass through and actually provide some cooling effect. The Corvair enthusiasts have well documented what needs to be done to make these engines run, perform, and last. It starts with using an 1/8″ drill bit to clear the casting flashing out of the head fins. By comparison the VW engines typically have all had good casting quality.
      I’ve long owned aircooled VWs and none have overheated no matter where I took them or what the weather was. The engine has to be reasonably clean, the cooling system intact and the flappers open, and when in doubt shift down and drop your speed so the fan spins faster. Even towing a compact car from VA to TN with a Beetle in July the head temps never exceeded 350F-360F. My Corvair friends will tell you the same.
      Not saying it can’t be done though… GRIN!

  • avatar
    oldyak

    In my first full time job I worked for ‘Sears parts and service’ We had a fleet of Ford Econolines and I must tell you that the straight 6 mated to a 3 speed on the column was a blast to drive!!!
    I was young and never tried anything like going around corners or testing the brakes in a company truck but the ‘in your face’ driving position and the howl of that straight six was GREAT!
    memories……Thanks for waking one up!

  • avatar
    Stingray

    Andy D :

    The Ford E 150 used a 2 piece straight axle into the late 90s

    Econoline still uses the twin-I-beam arrangement.

    Same for the F-Series Super Duty trucks.

  • avatar
    mburm201

    Jay Leno and his crew did wonders with a Corvair Rampside: http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/at-the-garage/trucks/1961-chevrolet-corvair-95-rampside/#more

  • avatar
    zenith

    My ’97 Ranger was the last year you could get Twin-I-Beam in a Ranger.

    The two full-sized Fords I had in the ’70s through ’80s ate right-front tires like crazy unless you took the owners’ manual’s advice and rotated tires every other oil change.

    I’m on only my 3rd set of tires in 140K miles and
    rarely rotate, so it’s a shame that Ford got rid of something that they finally perfected.

  • avatar
    50merc

    The Corvair vans may have been history by 1965, but did the instrument panel live on in the Handi-Van’s dash? Sure looks familiar.

  • avatar
    NickR

    Funny, there was the pick-up version of the Econoline for sale near my old house for ages. I did finally sell, but probably not for much. It was pretty rough. I am surprised it didn’t tip over onto it’s nose just sitting there.

    The Dodge A100 was still the goofiest looking of the Big Three’s vans.

    Can I make one request? Please don’t expand your CCs into 70s vans. I think all of us who lived through that will thank you.

  • avatar
    Joel

    Paul, I saw I think a CorVan at the U-Pull it in King City, south of Tigard not too long ago. But, as pickaparts go, it’s probably met its maker already…

  • avatar
    Lug Nuts

    Ah, the van with a name only an In Living Color skit could love, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNiIU74yS6Q

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    Where are the engines on these vans? Right in the middle between the seats or???

    Just curious. Never saw one up close.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Right between the seats. Always wondered how a person worked on a  greasy engine without getting the interior greasy too.

      We both have the same user name? Hmmm… Or maybe I wrote that and don’t remember? WEIRD.

  • avatar
    starbird80

    I once owned a well-worn example of the ’66 Chevy version. The previous owner had replaced the head on the I6 by the simple expedient of torching out the grille area and pulling the engine out, forward. (Yes, joe, between the seats.)

    The van was OK for my intended use (occasional cargo/moving runs). Got over 20mpg on the highway with the three-on-the-tree. I did once have to ask a heavy-set friend to climb out so I could back into my driveway – was losing traction due the weight up front, but not (quite) in danger of tipping forward.

    I later owned a ’69 Dodge van with the 318 V8 and auto with the shifter on the dash. Much easier to access the engine there. Drove somewhat better too. Hope to see a similar van on Curbside Classics someday.

    Never had a contemporary Econoline. My next-door neighbor has an early-60′s pickup version, ex-US Air Force, quietly rusting in the driveway, awaiting restoration.

  • avatar
    DearS

    A box with wheels is one fun vehicle. It looks like an RC to me.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    My dad has a great story about this kind of van. A friend of his (in rural Ohio) was the only one that had anything to haul a bunch of them around. To hear him describe this van makes one wonder how any of them are still alive today! Sheets of wood covered the numerous holes in the floor. Since there were no rear seats, some lawn chairs were taped to the wood that covered the holes in the back of the van. It seemed to burn more oil than gas. Exhaust smoke sometimes turned the interior into a real “Purple Haze.” It ran when it wanted to and always seemed to break down at least 10 miles from civilization so it was pushed a lot!

    But the fact that he still remembers all of the quirks that his friend’s van had speaks volumes about the charm and awful quality it had! Yup…they don’t make them like they used to!!!

    And if I’m looking at the interior photo correctly, is that a CD player in this thing? I’d be afraid to turn up the volume of that stereo – you don’t want to shake the rust loose!

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    One ride in one of these and you can see why these gen1 vans were no threat to station wagons in that era.

    Yeah, but you have to wonder why the modern mini-van concept took so long to hatch (lack of FWD?) They were almost there. They had passenger versions of these things.

    One of my uncles had an Econoline passenger van. Seating for – I don’t know – 18 people?

    One of my brothers had an A100. Drove it for years.

  • avatar
    dmrdano

    I just sold my ’67 Chevy Van last year. I cannot tell you how much I loved it, and how much it pained me to sell it before my son got his driver’s license (I wanted him to live). I had a straight six, but you could put any small block Chevy V8 in the doghouse. I could spin the tires indefinitely, as it weighed about 12 pounds in back.

    Most of these were bought new by Bell Telephone, Sears and Roebuck, and the Army (stateside use for moving food and junk). Mine still smelled of “grass” after 3 years in a junkyard when I bought it for $50. It fired up to drive onto the dolly, as the standard 250-6 was bullet-proof. It still had Grateful Dead ticket stubs under the bed in back. Sammy Johns probably owned it before me. Considering I was a pastor at the time, I thought I should get rid of everything inside. Quickly.

    My brother had the ’61 Ford 8-door van. Extra cool. My dad ran his ’71 Ford (second generation, still with the engine beside you) head-on into a ’70 Road Runner. Dad walked away, the other guy got a ride in an ambulance.

  • avatar
    chefdan

    Is this beautiful example of American engineering still for sale, or did some lucky stiff already grab it up?

  • avatar
    johngrazier

    I have a 1966 GMC Handivan, —not running, rusted out rocker panels. I have owned it for about ten years. It hasn’t run in about six years. I know the feeling of terror when someone else (my son, an aggressive driver) is at the wheel, and, as a passenger, looking out the vast expanse of windshield and knowing there is nothing but glass between me and some telephone pole. But, knowing its’ tendency to tip a little on corners, if prudently driven, it is a great ride. To me it is a (–an extremely simple, functional) Cadillac. I am in the process of having it completely restored in every respect, body, springs, crate engine, (Holly carburetor as the rebuilt originals are no good). I can’t wait.


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