The current U.S. auto market is defined by the pickup. Through the years, manufacturers tried various configurations to satisfy the range of users from cattlemen to commuters, the latter eventually dominating and driving the market. Some were successful, like extending the cabs and shortening the pickup boxes, others languished with low sales numbers as the years passed, filling a niche or simply a preference like the car-based GMC Caballero. Yet with all the different versions of pickups out there, one effort to appeal to the pickup buying masses failed to thrive.
Set the Wayback Machine for 1960. American trucks ruled the roost and nearly any tradesman could be served by a pickup or panel truck which was a pickup with an enclosed back, sort of like a current SUV without any rear, side windows or doors. Panel trucks were a van, more or less, before vans found their niche. And speaking of vans, coming up fast from the rear was the venerable Volkswagen Type II Bus; an efficient, albeit underpowered compact carryall and suddenly the big American automakers were behind the eight ball in the light van market.
By 1961, Ford brought forth its forward control, mid-engine Econoline van based on the Falcon compact car. Quick to design and cheap to build, the original Econoline, like the Falcon, had no frame. Instead, it used unibody construction and was equipped with the Falcon’s straight six-cylinder engine and three-speed manual column shift transmission. Ford quickly discovered they could also produce a pickup version of the van with little effort or added production costs.
The Econoline pickup was embraced by utility and phone companies for their commonality with the van, their ample (for their size) 7½-foot bed, and their lightweight construction. These commercial vehicles were cheap to buy, cheap to maintain, and rugged. The drawback was in their front-heavy design that required a counterweight in the rear to balance the empty truck.
Chevrolet went directly to the VW playbook when, in 1961, they introduced their unconventional Greenbrier van based on the air-cooled, horizontally opposed, rear-engine Corvair. With six cylinders rather than Volkswagen’s four, Chevy’s forward control van was a bit more powerful and spawned the Rampside pickup. The Rampside offered a low bed floor and was named for the “tailgate” that was mounted midway on the passenger side and hinged down beyond 90 degrees to form a ramp — a rather ingenious way to access the bed and overcome the issue of its rear engine obstructing a conventional tailgate and rear loading configuration.
Dodge eventually caught up a few years later in 1964, with the A100 van. The Dodge van was also a forward control, mid-engine (between the axles) design meaning the driver sat over the front wheels allowing for a tight turning radius, and the engine was between the seats and behind the front axle. What set the A100 apart from the competition was the availability of an optional V-8 and like the Econoline and Rampside the A100 was available in a pickup version, perhaps the most famous of which was a heavily modified drag racing wheelstander called “The Little Red Wagon” raced by Bill Maverick.
The Econoline, Rampside, and A100 pickups weren’t the first cab-over pickups to be released on the American consumer. As far back as 1957, Jeep tried to offer their own Forward Control line of pickups known as the FC-150 and FC-170, four-wheel-drive, one-quarter- through one-ton trucks. These were more heavy-duty vehicles with full frames and off-road components, but they were still odd and specialized and only survived until 1965. Also, though not popular here, VW did offer a pickup version of its Bus in single and double cab. These were configured with a flatbed above the engine and short folding sides with storage underneath.
The era of the forward control — also called cab forward and cab over (engine) — vans and pickups was short-lived. The Corvair Greenbrier and Rampside were in production from 1961 through 1964 before Chevy abandoned the Corvair platform in favor of a more period-appropriate, mid-engine, forward control van but with no pickup option, the Econoline was built from 1961 to 1967, and the A100 was made between 1964 and 1970.
By the early 1970s, all three manufacturers replaced their obsolete light commercial units with more conventional vehicles by American van standards. Short hoods were added and engines moved forward allowing a more standardized driving position. These “modern” vans signaled the end of the line for the odd, little cab over van-based pickups which never really caught on in the U.S. market.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 26 Portland St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies. For more, email email@example.com.