Curbside Classic: Ultra Van – Cross An Airplane With A Corvair For The Most Radical RV Ever

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Slow_Joe_Crow Slow_Joe_Crow on Nov 29, 2010

    It seems like there have already been some latter day UVs. The Vixen http://www.vixenrv.com/description.html from the 80s with similar styling and 25mpg from a BMW turbo diesel seems fit the mold. The VW Eurovan based Winnebago Rialta from this decade is also close. Although they are closer to the truck based RVs in concept the new Itasca Reyo class A based on a Mercedes Sprinter is also a smaller more European style motorhome.

  • J Sutherland J Sutherland on Nov 30, 2010

    Good article-these are the vehicles that really pushed the limits back in the day. I've never heard of this Corvair based RV before today-great read.

  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.
  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys dudes off the rails on drugs and full of hate and retribution. so is musky.
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