By on December 29, 2016

1995 Ford Transit Supervan 3, Image: Ford

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to apex corners and outrace sports cars are now parked firmly in the third-row tier of importance, and haulin’ ass has been replaced by just hauling asses.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.

1964 Ford Transit Supervan, Image: Ford

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.

1984 Ford Transit Supervan 2, Image: Ford

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.

1985 GMC Vandura, Image: A Team Van Rental

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.

1985 Volkswagen/Porsche B32, Image: Car Builder Index
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.

1995 Renault Espace F1, Image: Renault
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 XJ-220, Image: Don Law Racing

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.

2008 Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG, Image: Daimler

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.

2000 BMW X5 V12 LMR, Image: BMW

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.

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18 Comments on “Who Are You Calling ‘Mini’? The History of Vociferous Vans...”

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    Three kids is where it all falls apart. Sanity, time, finances, vehicle choice. Once you need that third row it’s over. That said, a Vanagon with a Porsche flat six and suspension tuning without any exterior giveaways looks interesting.

    The Mercedes doesn’t count as a van and if I can afford one of those I may as well just hire an au pair instead.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    The opening of this article is so chock-full of dated clichés that I thought it was a parody of Yahoo-level automotive writing.

  • avatar

    “Your desires to apex corners and outrace sports cars are now parked firmly in the third-row tier of importance”

    The reason I sold a GTI and bought a van was to haul a race car. If you don’t have a fifth wheel trailer a van makes for a better support vehicle than does a pickup, it’s easier to access what’s in the van than what’s in the back of a pickup.

  • avatar

    Our old ’05 Nissan Quest SE was a pleasure to drive up to the smokey mountains a few of summers ago. Plenty of power up the steeper grades and it ate up every twisty section we encountered. And all the while the kids were oblivious to the kayaks and coolers rattling around behind them, as long as Finding Nemo was playing on a constant loop.

    I liked that van a lot.

    Now that we don’t need strollers anymore, I’m having a tough time finding the right replacement. None of the newer minivans do too well in the newest battery of crash tests, so SUV ownership seems unavoidable. Maybe a Volvo wagon…

  • avatar

    One error in this article: the Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG is not a van.

  • avatar

    I still say America deserves a Transit Connect ST and a Transit Connect RS. Got to be available as the long wheelbase 7 passenger wagon version.

  • avatar

    One of the two reasons we have our Kia Sedona is for camping at the racetracks. And while the wife is a die-hard NASCAR fan, my tastes have always been to motorcycle road racing, F1 and endurance racing.

    I’d kill to have that Espace F1. I can just see taking it to either Montreal or Austin for the races. It would be a complete blow away at Virginia International Raceway on my three or four trips per year there.

  • avatar

    Supercharged Previa or GTFO.

  • avatar

    …Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG…

    Had no idea these were this rare. Saw one at [email protected] this past spring and was in complete love. The owner was very humble.

  • avatar
    Shortest Circuit

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

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