Thinking inside the box

The alternate universe of forward control pickups

The 1960s was a magical era. In Europe, you had the Cobra-Ferrari wars. In space, you had the moon landing hoax. And in Detroit, you had the Big Three designing perfectly good vans and then shearing them of all that made them “vanny,” leaving us with the “forward control” pickup, a light-duty truck that served briefly on America’s roads. But they weren’t exactly invented in Detroit.

The van part of the equation is the key here, of course. Volkswagen had been on that since 1949 with its Type 2 bus/van/Kombi/Microbus/Samba/Transporter, etc. It came as utilitarian or as passenger-friendly as you liked. By 1952, VW had whacked off the back to create the Pritschenwagen, a singlecab pickup with three-sided drop gates, a wood-slatted bed and lockable under-bed storage. The three-quarter-ton truck offered 45 square feet of cargo space in a bed that sat fully above the 25-horsepower, 1,131-cc engine, with another 21 square feet in the locker.

Coachbuilder Binz (and VW itself, after 1958) offered the Doppelkabine, or “double cab.” Several purpose-built commercial variants also appeared, including ladder trucks, cherry pickers, tippers, wide beds and the Tieflader, or low loader, with a side ramp. Type 2 trucks continued through 1979, though you don’t find many post-1963 VW trucks on our roads, thanks to the “Chicken Tax,” a 25-percent tariff placed on light trucks and various foodstuffs in response to German and French import duties on U.S. chicken.

VW’s success led to America’s own van-based pickups from Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge. While full-size pickups had been a part of the U.S. auto scene for decades, the light truck was new. Chevrolet and Ford both entered that segment in 1961, with the Corvair 95 and Econoline models, respectively.

For Chevy, the Corvair’s setup provided a VW-ish platform, with a rear-mounted, air-cooled 145-cid flat-six producing 80 horsepower. Decent weight distribution and four-wheel independent suspension made for manageable handling and solid rear-wheel traction, and two half-ton models were offered: The Corvair 95 Loadside featured a 32-squarefoot bed with fixed sides and a tailgate, while the aptly named Rampside took a cue from the Tieflader and featured a passenger-side ramp for easy loading of mowers, barrels, concrete mixers and any other rolly things Chevy had on hand at PR-controlled construction sites.

Whereas VW put the entire bed above the engine (at 38 inches), with easy access from anywhere via the dropgates, the Corvair’s bed featured a double step down, with the highest point at the tailgate. Not really an ideal design in the ease-of-use department. No matter, because by 1964, the writing was on the wall, with both a new, front-engine van in the G10 and the return of the El Camino to satisfy any light-duty trucking requirements. Or you could just get a C10 and be done with it.

Ford entered the fray with the Econoline van and forward control half-ton pickup. The bed featured 37 square feet of cargo space, with the engine up front between driver and passenger. The Econoline shared many of its components with the Falcon, including the 144-cid inline six, which made 80 horsepower and 134 foot-pounds of torque. A 170-cid six was optional. Despite 165-pound ballast weights placed in the rear, when unloaded, the leaf-sprung, front-heavy layout meant an unnerving sacrifice in traction, braking and handling. In fact, Corvair marketing efforts of the era proudly (and truth twistingly) showed the rival Econoline failing in poor conditions and emergency situations, including a magnificent nose dive under heavy breaking.

Still, the Econoline sold and sold, with more than 44,000 trucks produced through the end of 1967. It was quite popular as a commercial work truck with builders, landscapers and painters, and even Ma Bell put them to use when other options were either chicken-taxed beyond reason or simply oddities with terraced beds.

Dodge was last to the game in 1964, with its half-ton A100 vans and pickups. The truck offered 36 square feet of cargo space, with a layout similar to the Ford. But the A100 came standard with a 170-cid slant six making 101 horsepower and 145 foot-pounds of torque, while a 140-horsepower 225-cid slant-six was optional — the largest engine in the class. By 1967, a 210-horsepower 318-cid V-8 was also available.

A100s captured the imaginations of hot rodders everywhere, thanks to both the Deora Autorama custom (made into one of the first Hot Wheels, in 1968) and to Bill “Maverick” Golden and his Hemi 426-powered Little Red Wagon, which spectacularly pioneered wheelstanding on the dragstrips of America.

With the last A100s built in 1970, the age of the forward control pickup truck in America came to an end. By then, Datsun and Toyota had seized the light-duty truck market, and the Big Three returned their attentions to the full-size trucks that remain their bread and butter to this day.

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