Who Are You Calling 'Mini'? The History of Vociferous Vans

Carter Johnson
by Carter Johnson

There comes a dreaded moment in many automobile enthusiasts’ lives when the reality of having a family and the need for practicality outweighs all other considerations.

Enter that dreaded “V” word.

Getting a van — especially a minivan — is for many the automotive equivalent of getting neutered. You’ve given up, capitulated. Your desires to apex corners and outrace sports cars are now parked firmly in the third-row tier of importance, and haulin’ ass has been replaced by just hauling asses.

But getting a people-hauler doesn’t have to be all bad. In fact, there are quite a few vans people claim are “good to drive.” While I’ll take their word on such things for the time being and soldier on with my wagon addiction, let’s take a look at some more inspired options for heavy-duty hauling that made the prospect of a van actually seem quite cool.

Ford Transit Supervan

Ford was the first to explore square sporting potential with its popular Transit van. Although it looked much like a normal Transit with silly wheels fit, it was actually mostly a GT40 chassis replete with a Gurney-Weslake 305 V8 good for a claimed 435 horsepower mounted amidships.

It was simply called “Supervan”.

The custom flared body barely contained the massive tires, and the chassis and aerodynamics struggled even more with the speed possible from the V8. In tight corners, the inside front wheel lifted; flat out, the entire chassis tried to take off.

Ford revisited the Supervan idea with the second model, now based on a 500-horsepower Formula 1 DFL 3.5-liter V8 and the next generation of Transit (at least, in look). The chassis was a Group C Ford project car, and the look incorporated many more aerodynamic aids to keep it planted. It was clocked at 174 mph at Silverstone and was utilized for both promotional displays at race tracks and automobile exhibitions.

Supervan 2 was rebuilt into the even more extreme Supervan 3 (shown above) in the mid 1990s. Moving on to the Cosworth HB V8, the Transit now packed 730 horsepower and utilized a Benetton-derived six-speed sequential gearbox.

Chevrolet Sportvan/GMC Vandura

Do Bill Cosby, narcotics and scantily clad women sound like an edgy cocktail? The 350 2-barrel V8 in the van he drove provided the soundtrack to push it over the top!

The “vanbulance” was the unsung hero in the movie Mother, Jugs and Speed. Starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel, the movie followed the crazy adventures of independent ambulance crews that raced to (and sometimes caused) the scene of the accident. Watching the trailer with the hindsight of recent Cosby headlines is all the more disturbing. Despite that, their weapon of choice was an all-too-cool red, white and blue 1975 Chevrolet Sportvan.

The GM van kick continued, of course, with the most famous van perhaps ever made. If you could find them, The A-Team would come roaring to the scene of your injustice with guns blazing (but no one dying, importantly) in their GMC Vandura. Performance modifications were confined to a spoiler, big American Racing wheels and tires, and the coolest paint scheme on the screen. But not liking the A-Team van was akin to being a Communist sympathizer at the time.

A cultural icon of the ’80s along with the DeLorean DMC12, the Vandura has recently appeared on The Last Man on Earth and may currently be for sale.

Volkswagen/Porsche B32

What do you do when you’re Porsche and need a support vehicle for your all-wheel drive, air-cooled Dakar Rally cars? Make one, of course.

The Volkswagen B32 isn’t likely to be a creation you’ve heard of, but the concept was pretty simple: take a Volkswagen Transporter and slap a bunch of sister-company Porsche’s 911 bits on. The result was impressive performance for a people-carrier in a very discreet package.

Replacing the anemic four-cylinder in the back was a 911 Carrera 3.2 flat-six rated at 230 horsepower. Brakes, suspension and wheels were upgraded from various Porsche models, as was the gearbox. The result was a 130 mph, production-ready van using off-the-shelf parts instead of bespoke race items. Outside the obvious addition of the 911 Fuchs wheels and some not-so-obvious additional venting, these vans appeared just about stock. The B32 project was axed after a relatively brief production cycle of 11 vans.

Perhaps even more impressive was Volkswagen tuner Oettinger, the firm that built a 16V Volkswagen before Volkswagen did, which you may remember from the BiMotor article. Oettinger created the WBX6 by custom-casting its own flat-six to slot into the Vanagon. Though not as potent as the Porsche, a claimed 700 were made.

Renault Espace F1

Normally, a ride in a French minivan with a guy called “The Professor” would sound to most like the antithesis of a good time.

Well, that formula got a lot better in 1994 with some single-seater influence. Apparently inspired by Ford’s Supervan, Renault played the same tune in 1994. Celebrating both its victories in sales success with the original minivan along with Formula 1 success as an engine supplier, Renault married the two with help from the racers at Matra.

Like the Supervans 2 and 3, the basic silhouette of the Espace was all that remained; a carbon fiber chassis, Williams FW15C gear and, of course, an 800-horsepower 3.5-liter V10, were lightly disguised under massive flares, wings, and a not-particularly-subtle gold paint scheme. To one up Ford, the Espace F1 had up to four seats, so you and your best three buds could go deaf with the wailing V10 soundtrack motivating you at ludicrous speeds.

And that Professor? None other than five-time World Champion Alain Prost.

Ford Transit XJ220

During the development work for Jaguar’s XJ220 supercar in the 1990s, Tom Walkinshaw Racing (of Touring Car and Group C Rover and Jaguar fame) built a Transit utilizing the twin-turbocharged V6 slated for the supercar, plopped in the middle and developing well north of 500 horsepower. The Transit also gained massive wheels to cope with the power.

Though it was just a test bed, the Transit XJ220 didn’t die, as Don Law Racing kept it running (as they do with most of the XJ220s in existence). The Transit XJ220 still makes regular runs at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, but you probably remember it from its appearance on Top Gear.

Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG

While there are plenty of fast vans available now, there’s one pretty special and extremely bonkers people carrier that trumps all of them.

The Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG began as an awkward seven-passenger crossover, but delivered a potent punch thanks to a M156 6.2-liter V8 normally reserved for sporty models. The result was a 507 horsepower, 5,300 pound, $88,000 answer to the question no one ever asked. Zero-to-sixty was gone in 4.4 seconds and it would casually brush up against its 155 mph electronic limiter with disturbing ease. For many, the R63 still ranks highly as the coolest uncool vehicle ever produced and is a bit of an urban legend among enthusiasts because of its scarcity.

These beasts had to be special ordered from AMG and were produced for only one year, with a reported 200 sold worldwide. Somewhere around 30 were sold in the US market and a claimed 5 (!) in Canada.

BMW X5 “Le Mans” V12 LMR

Okay, calling the BMW X5 a van of any sort — never mind a minivan — is a misnomer of internet-breaking proportion. Nevertheless, there’s a pretty noteworthy E53 chassis X5 that should be mentioned here.

Granted, the current X5M and X6M will rip your face off. But in terms of sheer audacity, what BMW Motorsport created in 2000 far surpasses the latest M mall crawlers. That’s because to celebrate its 1999 victory at Le Mans with the V12 LMR, BMW shoehorned the namesake motor into the X5.

Why the X5 and not one of their normal super-sedans? Well, the X5 had just launched and so it made sense to generate some impressive numbers with an X5. Hired hotshoe Hans Stuck was more than happy to fling journalists around race tracks in the 700 horsepower X5. And when it came to business, the ex-DTM champion and Le Mans winner was more than happy to lay down a sub-eight-minute lap of the famed Nürburgring.

What was perhaps most impressive was, unlike the bespoke tube-frame Espace and Supervans, this was a production X5. Even the normal key still worked, so you didn’t need a team of 10 mechanics to get it going. Subtle flares highlighted the magnesium BBS racing wheels and lower suspension. Still, outside of a modified hood with integral scoop and central exhaust, it looked like the X5 you see in the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru every morning. It remains one of the more epic sleepers of all time.

You can watch a great video of the X5 Le Mans here.

Carter Johnson
Carter Johnson

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  • APaGttH APaGttH on Dec 29, 2016

    ...Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG... Had no idea these were this rare. Saw one at E@RTC this past spring and was in complete love. The owner was very humble.

  • Shortest Circuit Shortest Circuit on Jan 02, 2017

    I heard the Espace F1 was created to give tetraplegic team boss Sir Frank a memorable ride.

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X As much problems as I had with my '96 Chevy Impala SS.....I would love to try one again. I've seen a Dark Cherry Metallic one today and it looked great.
  • Susan O’Neil There is a good reason to keep the Chevrolet Malibu and other 4 door family sedans! You can transport your parents and other somewhat handicapped people comfortably and safety! If someone can stand and pivot you can put them in your car. An armrest in the back seat is appreciated and a handle above the door! Oh…and leather seats so your passenger can slide across the seat! 😊Plus, you can place a full sized wheelchair or walker in the trunk! The car sits a little lower…so it’s doable! I currently have a Ford Fusion and we have a Honda Accord. Our previous cars were Mercury Sables-excellent for transporting handicapped people and equipment! As the population ages-sedans are a very practical choice! POV from a retired handicapped advocate and daughter! 😊
  • Freddie Remember those ads that say "Call your doctor if you still have...after four hours"?You don't need to call your doctor, just get behind the wheel of a CUV. In fact, just look at one.I'm a car guy with finite resources; I can't afford a practical car during the week plus a fun car on the weekend. My solution is my Honda Civic Si 4 door sedan. Maybe yours is a Dodge Charger (a lot of new Chargers are still on dealer lots).
  • Daniel J Interesting in that we have several weeks where the temperature stays below 45 but all weather tires can't be found in a shop anywhere. I guess all seasons are "good enough".
  • Steve Biro For all the talk about sedans vs CUVs and SUVs, I simply can’t bring myself to buy any modern vehicle. And I know it’s only going to get worse.