By on July 8, 2015

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With the number of people collecting “mid-century” artifacts, the stuff of middle class American life in the 1950s and early 1960s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise there are folks who collect vintage travel trailers. Actually, if you’ve gone to enough car shows, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all as owners of cars of that vintage sometimes bring along period trailers and make their show displays more eye-catching (though I suspect some of those trailers are indeed trailer queens and are trailered, not towed, recursively, to car shows). In the corner of Cobo Hall’s basement at this year’s Detroit Autorama, someone set up their ’50s car with a period correct travel trailer. Two years ago, the Packard Proving Grounds’ annual summer car show had vintage trailers and RVs as a featured class.

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If you have an old Airstream or a vintage Shasta trailer and you’ve been hoping to someday tow it to shows with your ’59 Mercury Colony Park station wagon, but it looks a little shabby, you’re in luck. Self-professed “Camper Man” Tony Secreto’s Ynot Camper Restoration in Jackson, Michigan can make your camper or RV look just as good as it did when it left Elkhart, Indiana.

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That’s not a joke. The recreational vehicle industry employs a large number of people in Indiana. As a matter of fact, the RV Museum and Hall of Fame is located in Elkhart. Since RV enthusiasts love the open road, I’m guessing that some even make the RVM&HoF a destination for road trips. I once did a museum tour road trip of western Michigan and northern Indiana, with stops near Kalamazoo (the Gilmore), in South Bend (Studebaker) and Auburn (the ACD and NATMUS museums). Finding myself in a motel in Elkhart waiting for the Studebaker National Museum to open at 10 AM, I checked out the RV museum and definitely found it to be worth a visit if you’re already in the area.

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Ynot’s portfolio of completed restorations includes names you might recognize like Airstream, Shasta and Gypsy, along with obscure brands like the 1955 Tiny Home they restored. Secreto is currently working on about 10 campers and also has a small inventory of vintage travel trailers for sale. Perhaps the most interesting is a restored Ultra Van, a self contained RV using a Corvair drivetrain.

The Ultra Van, at 22’x8’x8′ with a 152 inch wheelbase, is called by some “the world’s largest production Corvair” and is even considered a genuine Corvair by the Corvair Society of America (CORSA). The creation was the brainchild of California based aircraft designer David Peterson. Like an airplane, it has a monocoque construction using aluminum spars and a stressed aluminum skin, with fiberglass caps for the front and rear ends of the vehicle. Using the Corvair drivetrain, mounted low at the back of the Ultra Van, meant more usable space inside as well as a flat floor from front to back. The air-cooled Corvair engine also didn’t need a radiator, allowing for simpler construction and a smooth, aero-friendly face. Peterson cleverly used the mobile home’s four aluminum tanks — for fresh water and holding grey water and sewage — as structural members, much as some race cars of the era incorporated fuel tanks into the vehicles’ chassis.

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After building 15 Ultra Vans in California, assembly was moved to Kansas, home of Cessna and much of America’s general aviation industry. A Wichita concern bought the rights from Peterson in 1964 and by 1966 two Ultra Vans a month were rolling off an airplane hanger assembly line. Production ended in either 1969 or 1970, at least in part due to General Motors’ discontinuing their own production of the Corvair and it’s unique powertrain. About 330 Ultra Vans with Corvair drivetrains were built. Some sources say ~370, but that includes 46 second-generation Ultra Vans that used V8 Corvette power and a marine drive unit. About 200 still exist and they have their own enthusiast community that dates to the RV’s original production run, the Ultra Van Motor Coach Club.

TTAC’s Curbside Classics reviewed the history of the Ultra Van back in 2011. Paul Niedermeyer said the ultimate death knell for the Ultra Van was the introduction of Winnebago’s first mass produced truck chassis based RV, which was substantially cheaper than the UV, even after considering the Ultra Van’s significantly better fuel economy. For an even more complete look at the Ultra Van, you can check out a dedicated section of the Corvair.org website devoted specifically to the RV.

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If you’re a Corvair collector and your family has outgrown your Greenbriar van, Ynot will sell you their Ultra Van for $35,000, thought that price is a bit of any outlier. The Ultra Van website currently shows seven other motor homes for sale ranging in price and condition from $500 to $14,900. This one in Otsego, Michigan at $1,800 looks like a promising project. With aluminum and fiberglass construction, rust shouldn’t be a problem and Corvair parts are easy to find.

If you do buy one, you’ll be welcome at a variety of car, truck and RV & camper shows and gatherings. I spotted the white Ultra Van pictured here at one of the annual Orphan Car Shows held in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park where it was parked with the fine selection of Corvairs that show always features. Coincidentally, Riverside Park was the same location where I came across Secreto’s restored Ultra Van, though it was at this year’s Vintage Volkswagen show. When I asked him “what’s a Corvair doing at a VW show?” Secreto told me that he simply told the show organizers that it was rear engined and air-cooled. Actually, back in the 1960s when the Ultra Van was in production, swapping in a Corvair engine to give a Vee Dub more power was not uncommon, and it’s still a popular topic with air-cooled VW enthusiasts (here, here, and here).

Photos by the author. The full galleries can be seen here.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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23 Comments on “You Can Buy the Largest Corvair Ever Made...”


  • avatar
    danio3834

    These must be brutally slow with a stock Corvair powertrain.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      I was wondering if that means they all have Powerglide too.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Oh hell yes. My family had a Greenbriar van, I remember slowly climbing up mountain roads in the Sierras as the motor approached melt down, then stopping for an hour too let the motor cool off. Made for a loooong day before we got to our campsite, and it wasn’t too long before the Corvair was replaced by a van with a V8.

      But if you’re not in a hurry and kept to the flatlands, an Ultra Van would be ultra cool.

  • avatar
    BunkerMan

    I’m one of those vintage camper lovers. I currently own three:

    1978 Cygnet 18′ (for parts)
    1974 Cygnet 16′
    1973 Travelux President Elite 29′ (My avatar)

    I’m a member of a couple of vintage camper groups and we try to make it out to one or two rallies per year.

    Camping in an older trailer is just simpler and more enjoyable. You meet great people and spend most of your time enjoying the camping itself and not just taking a copy of your home with you somewhere. If I wanted to watch satellite TV in front of a propane fireplace, I’d stay home.

    Another plus is that most older trailers were designed to be towed by vehicles with a lot less power than modern ones. As a result, they tend to be lighter, and in most cases smaller than the average “Taj Mahal” that is common today.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Vixen > Ultra Van

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    Classic RVs are fascinating. I’ve been to a few large concours that had displays of these and they were always huge hits with the crowds and the kiddos love checking out the insides.

    I’ve been a bit intrigued by small campers/RVs. The most modern equivalent of these I can see were the VW Eurovan Westfalias. Have you seen what good-condition Eurovan and Vanagon campers are going for used? They are amazingly expensive with some topping $50k. Plus, these frankly aren’t any faster than this Ultravan. I drove a 5-cylinder Eurovan weekender with a manual trans and I don’t think that thing could have topped 70 mph with a tailwind and was dangerously slow around town.

    It leads me to wonder why nobody makes a new equivalent of a pop-top camper. The newer Chrysler vans are pretty square and would seemingly take a pop-top conversion well… yet I’ve never seen one. There are add-on pop top tents for Honda Elements and folding tents that mount on top of a new Jeep. But short of a $100k+ camper rig on a Mercedes commercial van, there doesn’t seem to be anything out there. The value of used Westys leads me to think there is pent up demand out there, but perhaps modern liability concerns and costs would just make them impossible to manufacture and sell profitably?

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I met a guy last year who had a pop-top Element. Very slick little rig.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      http://www.camperize.com/poptops.html

      There are still some companies offering pop-top conversions. One factor that may make them less necessary is the existence of high-roof Nissan NVs and Sprinters. If vans are available that already offer standing room, spending seven grand raising the roof of one that doesn’t becomes less tempting.

    • 0 avatar
      MadHungarian

      The Chrysler van conversion exists, for a rental company, go to http://www.jucyrentals.com

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I’d think these ancient RV’s are just utterly awful to drive. Little tiny wheels, built on a car chassis with little power. A flat seat with zero support anywhere.

    Just stay at the Ho-Jo!

  • avatar
    7402

    The genre peaked with the 1973-78 GMC Motorhome, built around the Olds Toronado drive train. One that has been nicely kept or restored is more comfortable, and likely more powerful, than anything made since.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      If it’s on that Toro drivetrain, it’s FWD? Is that very good for an RV?

    • 0 avatar
      cbrworm

      We had two of the GMC 26′ (Green) motorhomes into the mid 1980s, I think a ’76 and a ’78. They were great back then, and would be pretty useful today. They were not the most reliable things on the road but they were great for hauling your family around the country in something that you could park at the supermarket.

      They were FWD Toronado based, I think the first one had a 455 V8 and the second one may have had a slightly smaller V8. Our second one was infinitely more reliable than the first, which required an engine replacement at less than 10K miles.

      There is a company in our area who rebuilds the GMC’s and sells them with modernized drivetrains and other upgrades. I have been tempted a few times, but then I recall the maintenance required to keep them running 35 years ago.

    • 0 avatar

      I have a post on the GMC Motorhome in the works.

  • avatar
    carve

    That top-mount AC really screws up the lines and aerodynamics. They should stick them to the back or make them retractable if they’re an ad-on

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    I like those Winnebagos made on a Renault van platform more.

  • avatar

    classy looking piece of art deco

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Where? I don’t see any! Also this was about 20 years after art deco was over.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        Blorpy, roundy minimalism like the Airstream trailers is legitimately considered Deco, so I agree with that description for this.

        Deco will never completely die because some people will always resonate to blorp.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          Ah that’s right. I guess it loses it for me when I see the extra bits attached for the motorhome versions versus trailer versions.

          To me, Art Deco is this:
          http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/dela-7.jpg

          Or this:
          https://stevemckelvie.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/talbot-lago-4.jpg

          Ahhhh

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      I see a lot of Dymaxion in there:

      http://images.gizmag.com/inline/dymaxion-car-at-salon-prive-1.jpg

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    “Like an airplane, it has a monocoque construction using aluminum spars and a stressed aluminum skin”

    I think the technical term for that is half-assed monocoque. Real monocoques are stressed skin only, consequently rather few in number, other than party balloons and real rockets.

    Modern aircraft typically have ring bulkheads as well, taking them even further from the monocoque ideal


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