The Truth About Cars » david peterson http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 29 Jul 2015 21:00:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars » david peterson http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com You Can Buy the Largest Corvair Ever Made http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/07/can-buy-largest-corvair-ever-made/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/07/can-buy-largest-corvair-ever-made/#comments Wed, 08 Jul 2015 12:00:02 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1108969 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 […]

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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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Curbside Classic: Ultra Van – Cross An Airplane With A Corvair For The Most Radical RV Ever http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-ultra-van-cross-an-airplane-with-a-corvair-for-the-most-radical-rv-ever/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/curbside-classic-ultra-van-cross-an-airplane-with-a-corvair-for-the-most-radical-rv-ever/#comments Sat, 27 Nov 2010 18:38:54 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=374511 In 1959, David Peterson, a professional aircraft designer, had a dilemma: he owned a travel trailer and a boat, but couldn’t tow them both at the same time. He dreamed of putting an engine under the floor of the trailer, and towing his boat with it. When the Corvair appeared that year, he decided to […]

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In 1959, David Peterson, a professional aircraft designer, had a dilemma: he owned a travel trailer and a boat, but couldn’t tow them both at the same time. He dreamed of putting an engine under the floor of the trailer, and towing his boat with it. When the Corvair appeared that year, he decided to act on it. He rented a large garage, tossed out the trailer, started from scratch, and four months later out rolled the first Ultra Van, weighing a mere 3,000 pounds. It was way ahead of its time then, and it still is today. Which probably explains why it was a commercial flop.

To help put the UV into perspective, here are a few basic stats: it’s a “full size” RV, 22 feet long, 8 feet wide with full 6’2″ stand-up headroom, yet it’s only 8′ tall overall. It has all the usual amenities of a Class A RV, including a large bedroom in the back, full galley, bathroom, etc. The production versions weigh about 3,400 lbs (dry), about the same as a new Camry. And it can get up to twenty mpg on the road.

It’s a brilliant marvel of space and weight efficiency; if Colin Chapman, Buckminster Fuller, Ferdinand Porsche or Gordon Murray had been asked to design an RV, this is what they would have come up with. David Peterson deserves to join their ranks.

If you’re getting the drift that I rather like the UV, you’re right.  And finding this one in a church parking lot the other day is my biggest CC find to date: I love stumbling unto cars like the Packard and Caddy, but I wasn’t really looking for them. I’ve had an eagle eye out for an UV for years. As much as I can wax eloquently about big Detroit iron, fundamentally I’m a Chapman/Fuller/Porsche/Murray sort at heart. And as an RVer, the UV is my dream rig. Here’s the history and the details of my heart throb:

Peterson didn’t just transplant a Corvair engine under his travel trailer. He started from scratch, and designed the only RV (to my knowledge) that was built just like an airplane, where light weight is paramount. The UV is a true monococque (self supporting) structure of aluminum ribs with an aluminum skin riveted to it. The aerodynamic front and rear caps are fiberglass, and those bumpers are made of foam.There are four aluminum tanks for gasoline, water, gray water and sewage carefully integrated under the floor, and the bottom of the coach is fully sheathed in aluminum skin as well.

It’s important to understand that Peterson wasn’t just trying to build the world’s lightest RV. His goal was that the UV could also be used as a second car too, unlike the large and unwieldy RVs that were (and still are) being built on truck chassis. The UV was not that much longer than the big land yachts at the time, and its steering allowed a 50 degree inside wheel angle so that it was also very maneuverable.  And of course, its fuel efficiency played into that too. Even if it wasn’t exactly going to be used daily,  in any case, there certainly was no need to have a dingy car towed along behind.

In my obvious enthusiasm, I’ve jumped ahead of the story a bit, because originally Peterson had no plans to build his invention for others. But he got pestered about it enough that he found some technical school apprentices, and built fifteen of them. They were priced at $7,000 ($50k adjusted). And those early ones had all of 80 hp, which feeding through the two-speed Powerglide meant a leisurely ride, especially with a boat in tow.

In 1964, a Wichita Kansas company bought rights to build the UV, in an attempt to properly commercialize it. But only some 330 Corvair powered UVs were ever built before production ended in 1969, for several reasons. One of them was that the Corvair was known to be ending its production, meaning no new engines. But the biggest reason by far was Winnebago.

In 1966, Winnebago revolutionized the RV industry by offering Americans the equivalent of the Big Mac Value Meal, an family-sized RV for half the price of the going rate. They did it the Henry Ford way: it was the first mass-produced production-line RV. And it was the polar opposite of the UV in every way: a cheaply framed box sitting on a cheap truck chassis; heavy, gas-sucking, ill-handling; and Americans snapped them up as fast as Winnebago could make them. Cheap, big and inefficient: the American mantra for success whether it’s with cars, houses, or a cross between the two.

The UV’s brilliance was also its downfall. Its airplane construction was intrinsically more expensive.  If gasoline had always been at European levels here, there would likely be an UV dealer down the road today.

After 1964, Ultra Vans came with the bigger 164 CID Corvair engine, in both 110 and 140 hp tune. Since a shift linkage was out of question, they still pumped through the Powerglide. For those more leisurely times, the Corvair engine did the trick, cruising happily up to 65 mph (on flat terrain). But by the late sixties Americans were getting power-hungry, and even with their RVs.

So after the Corvair engine went bye-bye, Ultra engineers tested several alternatives. The Olds Toronado FWD power train was promising, and versions with it in the front and back (not both at the same time) were tried. These experiments led to an offshoot, the Toro-powered fwd Tiara, which if there are any left in the world today, would be quite a find. But the Ultra experimental department kept at it, and finally hit on a solution to replace the weak chested Corvair: “Corvette” power!

But not in the Corvair-like configuration. As best as I can make out from the iffy descriptions, the small block Chevy sits in the back under a bed, and then sends its power to the rear through a Powerglide, then a marine V-drive sends it back forward to a Corvette independent rear suspension with disc brakes.

These so-called “Corvette” Ultra Vans have sparkling performance wit their very un-RV like power-to-weight ratio. Mileage dropped to a still respectable 12 -15 mpg. Only 47 of these were made, of which some are still prowling the roads of America looking for stoplight drags with Chrysler 440 powered Winnebagos in order to settle an old score.

It was all in vain; the UV was getting even more ultra-expensive, and Ultra shut its doors in 1970. Peterson tried to revive it with another fwd Toronado version, saying that if the Toronado had been available in 1960, there never would have been a Corvair UV. His ideas were picked up by others, including the second-most radical RV ever built, the GMC Motor Coach (above).

Ultra Vans have an enthusiastic and loyal following, and some 200 of the 370 ever built are still on the road, or hoping to be soon. Obviously, there are challenges and limitations to Ultra Vanning: one has to travel lightly, since its total wight capacity is limited, especially with those little 14″ tires (early ones had 13 inchers!). This UV has obviously and wisely had its rim widened. There’s no air conditioner. The brakes are little unassisted drums. The tanks and complex sewage system can become problematic. At least there’s no power steering to get leaky. You get the drift: this is for minimalistic RVers, which would suits me fine.

When I was young, I shared Peterson’s dream: whenever I saw an Airstream trailer, I imagined turning into a self propelled sleek and low RV. I became aware of the UV in the early seventies, and have played out many re-powering scenarios: a Porsche air-cooled six with a TipTronic with 911 suspension and brake upgrades was a long favorite.

Now I lean more to maximum mileage: a Subaru turbo-diesel boxer (sold in Europe) is the current candidate. But how to change the rotation, after flipping the drivetrain 180 degrees? I’m convinced an UV would hit 30 mpg with a modern tubo-diesel. Its low clearance and lack of off-road capability, as well as the huge amount of time and energy it would take has so far kept me from Ultra-insanity.

I’m rather intrigued with the idea of whether a modernized update on the UV would be able to find a market today. Perhaps one using the Prius’ hybrid drivetrain, or even an all-EV version, since every campground has electric hookups. No more fuel cost whatsoever! With a 100 mile range, one would be forced into leisurely excursions, but isn’t that the point? Solar panels on the roof and on a pull-out awning for charging batteries in undeveloped sites. My imagination runs rampant, like David Peterson’s. The trick is knowing whether to act on them, or not.

For more info. head to the Ultra Van section at Corvair.org

Click this link to check out the 200 other Curbside Classics.

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