Jay’s 1967 UltraVan Adventure: Part 1

UltraVan as found

While I love looking at cars that are for sale, I find reading about some of the projects parked in our reader’s garages, sheds, and barns to be even more enjoyable! If you are like me, than you will love this special treat we have for you today! Reader Jay P recently shared the tale of his rare UltraVan and the ensuing adventure it took him on as he drove it from California to Oregon! It sounds like the adventure of a lifetime and he was wise enough to document the entire trip, which has plenty of twists, turns, and humor to make for a great read.

UltraVan

From Jay – This is a Corvair powered UltraVan. Around 400 of these aluminum and fiberglass egg shaped RV’s were built in the 60’s and early 70’s. Each is numbered, like Airstream trailers, and this one is #307. Fairly sure the number means #7 of the 300 series. 30 years or so ago my parents owned this RV. Dad did much work to it and made many improvements. (Apparently I exist because of this monster and a trip to Canada…) After I was born the RV was sold and mostly vanished. The new owners had it painted and rebuilt the engine after a valve seat fell out and the 140 horsepower Corvair flat six digested it and died a presumably awful clattery death. Years later they offered to sell it back to my parents but they declined as they didn’t have the money at the time. Once more it vanished. A few months ago a random phone call from the historian at the UltraVan club caused the RV to once more surface.

UltraVan 2

They were looking for info on it’s history for the club roster and my parents were the oldest recorded owners. Dad helpfully filled them in on it’s history and I inquired if the thing was still around. Turns out it was, and it had been for sale for most of the last decade as it sat mostly hidden in a fenced storage lot. So much glee on my part to hear this! The next trip I took to CA was shortly after and for an unrelated thing that happened to put me a town over from where it was parked, so I got to see the big egg as it sat wedged between a dead Ryder moving truck and a rusted out lowrider crew cab Chevy truck. To shorten up a month or so of negotiations I’ll just say that I bought it over the phone, booked another flight down there, wrestled with wedging a tool kit in under the checked baggage weight limit and headed off to fire up, then drive the RV 1500+ miles away to it’s new home with it’s former owners. And so the giant egg’s ill advised road trip adventure began. Hooray! I think.

UltraVan - Toolkit

It’s hard to whittle down a toolkit for a journey like this. I had to fit it into checked baggage with other supplies and clothes and stuff. Sacrifices were made to bring a Harbor Freight bore scope camera and a bitchin’ first aid/apocalypse survival kit. Yes some of the tools are pink. Nobody steals pink tools. Don’t judge me Earl.

UltraVan Bedroom Floor

The bed in an UltraVan, at least the 300 series anyway, takes up the rear third of the RV. It’s larger than a California King size bed and has the added bonus of warming itself up for you while you drive. The mattress doubles as a sound deadener and you can barely hear the engine back there on the road. Originally they had plywood flooring but my father, years ago, spent a billion or so hours making aluminum hinged covers for everything. The center section has the engine, the one towards the back is storage, and the one closest to the bottom of the picture lifts up to get at some of the heater guts and engine electrical parts. The side boxes don’t open to the inside but provide propane tank, jack, and 120V electrical storage areas on the outside of the coach.

UltraVan Engine

Corvairs used an air cooled flat six engine. Think VW engine with two more jugs nailed to it. The 140 horsepower engine has large valves (same as the big block chevy V8 of the era), two carburetors (with blanked ports for two more in case you really enjoy playing with carburetor linkage) and for the era used advanced and specialized build materials on par with Rolls Royce. They’re also known for leaking fluids like an Exxon tanker with an STD and flinging fanbelts into low orbit. For added fun you’ll note that the fuel pump is wedged between the alternator, fan belts, and the distributor. Sure, just put that thing anywhere guys. I mean it’s not like any of those could possibly ya know, ignite. As a side note, the Corvair fuel pump failure mode when the rubber diaphragm goes out is to pump the entire engine full of gasoline. Also the big central fan blade is made of magnesium. Did I mention all this is under the bed? To be fair they don’t throw fan belts if you adjust them right, which you should with any vehicle, and the fuel lines are all steel in the engine bay. Modern Viton gasket materials pretty much cease any oil leakage as well. As for Corvairs being known for flipping over for no reason at all, that’s mostly bull. It’s possible but the suspension this uses is from the revised 64 and newer vehicles that greatly mitigated that possibility with improved parts. Also, ya know what, that stupid book about it picked on VW bugs just as much if not more and people don’t fuss about that…stupid Herbie Huggers…*grumble*

UltraVan - Phil Working on Carbs

Phil is the reason the RV is not still in Longbeach. Phil is a heck of a guy that let me stay at his place a few days while we scrambled about to get parts and things for the RV. Here we see Phil in his natural habitat, buried to his elbows in Corvair carburetor parts. The 140 has two identical carburetors. They used to work fine but after sitting for years they had become gucked up and clogged. Phil was awesome enough to show me how to rebuild them (this came in handy later…) and provided two new carburetor kits to do so. Corvair people are a great group and are remarkably helpful. Thanks again Phil!

UltraVan - Kitchen

Not the best shot, and also everything is filthy from sitting. The fridge and stove and sink are all in great shape. Unsure if any of them work but nothing has been modified or beat up. A whole lot of cleaning will really help this look tip top. The carpet is (despite what my dad says) awful. The 70’s mottled brown shag is more than enough reason to throw it out but it’s also really really really holy crap sunfaded, torn, worn, and otherwise filthy. Out it goes when I get home.

UltraVan Interior

The front seats are on swivel bases and have a table you can put in between them. Every corner has some sort of light fixture, the insides are white and off white formica so it’s remarkably well lit and open feeling. Again, it needs a lot of cleaning and those seats are from a subaru or something. They will be tossed in the swapmeet pile once home. Currently they sit on plywood screwed to a lazy susan spice rack swivel. I’m…not completely sure that is DOT crash rated…I think your seat mounts should be more sturdy than $3.75 can provide. The passenger seat base was mounted to particle board. Let that sink in a moment. At any rate they’re better than what they came with, which was two seats that your butt and the seatbelts held down. They weren’t actually mounted to anything. You could haul them outside to sit in the shade if you wanted. I have those seats but I don’t think they will be going back in due to having a nice set of Flexsteel RV seats with arm rests and comfy butt padding and such.

UltraVan ready to roll

Hooray, the carbs seem to be working, the oil was changed, the valves were adjusted (done while running, good times), the electrical was (mostly) sorted so (almost) everything (kinda) works again, the wipers were changed, tires aired up, and everything is once more (not at all) peachy and ready for a great (frightening) trip!

UltraVan on the road

The breeze blowing every bit of storage dust directly into my eyeballs, the pleasing sounds of OH GOD WHAT WAS THAT NOISE! *fret fret fret*, the smell of nature and a whole lot of hot elderly vinyl interior fabric and leaking engine oil. Man, what more could ya ask for on a hair brained road trip? What could possibly make this trip better? Glad you asked…

UltraVan Carb Problems

So…remember how I was asking what would make this trip better? Turns out that going down a mountain pass with a stuck wide open throttle was that thing. No I didn’t poop myself. Well, maybe a little. Driving down the Pachecho pass between i5 and San Jose I noticed a funny thing. The GPS was telling me I was doing 70. That’s odd because I was going downhill and had been maintaining a sub speed limit pace the entire trip. It was also a bit curious because OH SWEET BABY JESUS THE BRAKES AREN’T STOPPING THIS GIANT WHITE TORPEDO! That’s the first time I’ve ever needed to shut the key off to kill the engine while driving. I tried neutral restarts as I coasted along, both times the engine went full tilt and was shut off again. Well THAT ain’t good. I coasted into a side road for some big cow ranch and began a furious search for the cause. The linkages looked fine, nothing at the pedal or under the coach. How odd. Upon pulling the air cleaners off I noticed something awry. Ya know those little tiny brass screws carb kits normally come with that hold the butterfly in place in the throat of the carb. Well there should have been two. I had one. Now, in my defense those stupid screws have been tight on every single carb I’ve ever checked. Normally if you try to get them out they break off or strip. They’re not really a thing you tinker with for any reason and in the chaos of getting this up and going they had been neglected. That’s my fault, but I can totally see why it happened so I don’t feel bad. They’re simply not a thing that ever seems to fail. Well…these did. I removed the driver side carburetor and snugged up the remaining screw. It’s head snapped off and was lost on the carpet leaving the butterfly with one broken screw and one missing. I’d barely touched it so it was about to break off anyway. All things considered it’s good I caught that actually. I managed to vice grip the remaining part out and then replace the two screws with one from each choke butterfly. They were the same brass screws and even if it fell out the choke butterfly can’t get sucked into the engine. Remember that Harbor Freight bore scope I brought? Well, THANK EVERY DIETY EVERYWHERE I did. I scoped out the inside of the intake runners looking for that screw to no avail. Well, if it’s gone into the engine it’s probably found a place to get mashed flat on the head or it’s in the muffler somewhere. Guess that’s all I can do. I put it back together and everything fired right up and ran fine. For about two seconds. It was at this time the engine decided to tell me a clever joke. KNOCK KNOCK “Whose there?” Screw “Screw who?” Screw You

UltraVan at Rancho El Toro

Thank god this turn off was here. It was almost dark and there was not another turn off for another mile or two down the road. This put me well off the highway out of harms way and was rather pretty. It was some big gated entrance for a ranch of some kind. I did see a lot of bored looking toros milling about staring at the big egg with hungry beady little cow eyes. A half dozen trucks went in and out before one actually stopped to ask if I needed help. Not surprising really, I was all greasy and filthy and totally looked like I had a meth lab going in there or something. Why do I never break down when I’m dressed nice? Seriously, how does that happen?

UltraVan - Screw in cylinder

Whelp…guess I’m staying the night in the middle of noplace. Much furious discussion on the phone happened. Dad had this happen on a V8 at one time and it mashed the screw flat and ran fine after that. They’re a fairly soft brass so while it’s not good, particularly if it gets in the way of the valve, you *could* run it in there if you had to and the engine *probably* won’t detonate. Probably. I didn’t like those odds so slept on it (covered in oil and gas, obviously) and in the morning pulled the plugs looking for that sneaky little bastard down the piston holes. Hole 2 contained the screw. This picture shows it slammed against the quench shelf (lower flat portion of the head, there for compression reasons). It looked to be burried into the aluminum head but luckily far away from the valves or cylinder walls where it could actually hurt something. I did the happiest little dance ever. Seriously, I was so giddy a basket full of gay kittens woulda been like “damn son, tone it down”. I set to work looking through boxes of junk in the RV for something to fish it out and MacGyvered a hooked tool from a rusty coathanger. Thank god for these opposable thumbs. Bein’ a monkey is awesome. After prying the screw loose (every Corvair owner has at least one) I chased it down with an electrical taped sticky tipped coathanger and fished the little bugger out. Again more dancing. The kittens were like “the boy ain’t right…”

Screw compared to quarter

The offending lost screw…yeah it’s tiny. It made a *lot* of noise as it tried it’s darndest to become the world’s loudest carbon knock. (A carbon knock in an engine is when carbon and kruft in the cylinder piles up atop the piston and is hammered against the head each time the piston comes up. Some cruddy old engines will do this after sitting for a long time where the junk falls down on the piston as it sits, then when it’s started all that stuff tries real hard to become diamonds. )

UltraVan start of day 2

Day two of the giant tic-tac shaped hayride began just opposite of the previous days adventure. Now with everything put back together and pulled out onto the highway the coach decided it no longer wanted to do freeway speed. I went from doing 70 to doing 35. Oh this is just wonderful. After pulling over in a far more sketchy turn out and making more phone calls I figured the transmission was low on fluid. These have a two speed automatic transmission called a PowerGlide. I think that means that real power went gliding on by and ignored this little two speed slush box like a popular kid ignores the kid with braces and head gear. When PowerGlides are low on fluid they simply won’t move. Problem is that currently the fluid was full. A bit overfull even due to knowing it was going to leak on the trip. Balls. Maybe the events last night somehow cooked it or jammed it in first. It shifted fine, and drove normal…but there was simply no power. The engine seemed to run fine and the RPM was normal…what gives? I pulled into a local fire station parking lot to ask for transmission fluid. They didn’t have any. I offered to buy some, still no dice. *sigh*

Truck at Casa De Fruta

They did however tell me about Casa De Fruta, some big fruit stand antique strewn gas station roadside attraction place a mile up the road, so I checked the parking brake to see if it was dragging, it wasn’t, and away I went. Slowly. While I was there I took a bit to look around and took some pictures of a bunch of old farm equipment on display. Sorta made me sad, a lot of it was very cool stuff. This phone company truck with a neat covered service bed for instance. I’d *love* to have that in running condition and just drive it mostly like that. What great Patina. After a few more phone calls I narrowed the issue down to the carburetor again and lifting the air cleaner I found one of the linkages had popped off (Or I forgot to clip it all the way on, lets go with that first one) and the engine was only running on a single carburetor. Honestly I’m impressed. Three cylinders working, dragging three cylinders not working and it still managed to get to 35 mph. The linkage was hooked up and hooray (again) it worked. By now the basket of kittens had gone off to open an upscale kitten and puppy fur styling boutique so they weren’t there to judge my increasingly frequent dancing. Back on the road I went and within an hour I had arrived in San Jose area where the RV is currently parked for a few days till I make the longer northbound leg of the trip home.

UltraVan after a bath

Well it sounds like this has been a fun trip for Jay so far and hopefully a great read for you guys. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of his journey tomorrow! Special thanks to Jay for sharing his tale!

Update – Here is Part 2 of Jay’s journey!

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Comments

  1. Fred

    Very entertaining read. Probably the most oddball vehicle on Barn Finds and that’s saying a lot. When back on the road here is my contribution to the DIY Corvair handbook: When you think the fuel pump is out, sometimes a BB (as in Daisy) placed between the pump and the pushrod can get you going. At least it worked on my ’62 Monza in 1974.

    • JayGryph

      I’ll have to keep that BB trick in mind.

      That trip was in late 2013 and up until a month ago the coach had mostly sat in the barn waiting for further repairs. That should be an entertaining write up as well. What I didn’t know at the time was just how much unseen stuff was lurking, all of which could have sidelined the entire trip. Things like awry steering bits, exploded U joints, and the best one, the distributor gear shearing off it’s keeper pin due to an aftermarket oversized oil pump putting too much strain on it. That happened right after I pulled it into the barn. So very very close to failure.

      So, on that note, it’s going to Burning Man in a week or two, and currently is parked in front of the house with the carbs doing their best to replicate an exploded view and all of the spark plugs and wiring strewn about.

      Get out there and drive em, folks. It’s what they were built for :)

      Thanks Josh!

      • Smitty

        Has this been published before? I’m pretty sure I’ve read this. Luckily, I don’t remember the ending (and I’m not going to look for it in old emails/Google).

  2. L.M.K. Member

    Jay , You are a brave man and a good writer. I enjoyed your adventure. Looking forward to the conclusion. Thanks for sharing….

    • JayGryph

      I’m not sure ‘brave’ is the right word, though I suppose blissfully unaware of how sideways and on fire things could be at any given moment may look a little like bravery!

      I’m way more retrospectively nervous about that trip now that it’s completed and I’ve taken a bunch of the drivetrain apart and seen what horrors I was riding atop. The axels were too long and punched out one of the U joints nearly completely, for instance. Thanks for the read!

  3. George

    Great read! I saw one on I81 in VA last summer. Unfortunately it was going the other direction.

  4. Ken

    Living vicariously here. Thanks for the story Jay. I’m looking forward to the rest of the story.

  5. David Frank David Member

    Thanks for sharing your great fun story! I look forward to hearing about the continuing journey.
    Going up 5? If you haven’t left yet, let me know if you need anything on the way by. (Sacramento) Believe it or not, we have a much stranger looking RV in the museum, based on a 70s front drive Cadilac. The retired fighter pilot who built it drove it all over the country and I’m told when he ran out of road he donated it to the museum.

    • jaygryph

      This write up was from 2013 so the location info is a bit off. Submitted a weird craigslist car to BarnFinds and got to chatting with Josh about the UltraVan and he offered to do a write up on it.

      The RV is under wrench at the moment to get it to BurningMan and back, which should produce another write up about all the repairs to it done in prep for the trip (there were a LOT) and the trip itself.

      I’ve seen pictures of that strange looking gold RV and always wondered where it was at. What museum is that? Would love to see the thing in person!

      • Will

        It is at the national rv museum/hall of fame in Elkhart Indiana. I love this museum. I stop by every year when I go visit my mom in Michigan. http://www.rvmhhalloffame.org/rvhall.cfm

    • Phillip burcham

      SO where is this museum and what is the name please!!

    • Eric

      Donated? I can haz?!

  6. KO

    Fantastic story and very entertaining read!! Thanks!
    There sure is something wonderfully adventurous and enjoyable about driving a vehicle where you have no idea if it will get you home.

  7. Charles

    Jay, you are a natural writer! Your account is very entertaining and imformative.

    I remember those Ultravan’s from back in the day. You definitely have a unique piece of RV history.

    I have often wondered if the folks at Winnebago got their inspiration for the LaSharo of the late 80’s from the Ultravan?

    I look forward to reading more of your rolling egg adventures.

  8. Dolphin Member

    Well it ain’t pretty, but it sure is big. I’m amazed that a Corvair aircooled engine could motivate a rig that size. You’re definitely a braver man than me, but I guess the Ultravan has some sentimental meaning, so you have the motivation to own and run her. All the best in getting it home and whatever journeys you take with her.

    May the wind always be at your back—you know, of your rig. I’m guessing that every little bit helps.

    • jaygryph

      Crosswinds are the enemy of an Ultra. As are semi trucks, head winds, small battery operated fans, or pictures of tornados. Really anything that even hints of wind or air resistance.

      The whole coach weighs around 3500lbs with the waste tanks dry, so it’s around what the Corvair donor vehicle weighed. This one has a 140 hp engine with an Isky 270 cam, deep sump clifford oil pan, dual exhaust, and oversized (55) jets in the carbs so it’s a bit of a hotrod compared to the 110 horse engine they came with.

      If it werent for having the wind profile of a barn it probably would be much quicker than it is.

  9. Jamie Palmer Jamie Staff

    Jay, I really enjoyed the write up! Looking forward to sequels 😀

  10. Smitty

    There’s a shop about a 2 minute walk from me that specializes in putting Subaru engines into VWs. I’ve thought about trying to see if it’d work in a Corvair or Ultravan. Maybe after Burning Man you can try that and let me know how it works out!

  11. JW

    Never seen one of these things but then again back in those days my folks were not in to camping and in fact never were in to camping. My mom knew she would have to do all the work and my dad liked to be waited on and that is why we never ate in fast food places.

  12. JeffH48

    What a cool story….and a cool looking “shaggin-waggin”, too….:)

    cheers……JeffH

  13. paul

    Great story & as a 63 Corvair Spyder owner it’s great to hear when someone saves one…. We have one of these in our club, but I am still waiting for a ride.

    • jaygryph

      Any idea what number it is? They are all numbered like Airstreams.

      • paul

        I’ll get back to you , he maybe at a tech this weekend.

      • paul

        He didn’t know the # but he does have the same 140 2 carb motor as you, his is a 67. He did say that after 69 they went to a V8 in the rear, then to Toronado front wheel drive set up before GMC took over the camper business for GM when they went to the 6 wheel.

  14. gunningbar

    I salute yr patience… and skills.. I think I wd have hitch hiked home!

  15. stillrunners stillrunners Member

    still really cool…..and you had the gas to drive it back………..

  16. rich

    Great read. I used to have 333 till I had to sell her when I got sick. If I win the lotto will have another one for sure. Most smiles per miles I ever got in a car. We used to get 17mpg cruising at 65. They my be big but don’t weigh much more then a Corvair van
    but your pushing one lot of air . My old one has been restored and has made a few cross country trips in the last few years. If you have not already join Corsa the Corvair club and the Ultravan club. Not sure where you are in Oregon but we do have a few Ultra’s in the Eugene to Portland area.
    rich

    • jaygryph

      There are a couple running around here, yeah. 333 was lookin’ pretty good from what I remember seeing of it on the internet. Already a member of Whales on Wheels. It’s surprising how many coaches ended up here in the PNW.

      It really is the most smiles per mile you can get. I think in that whole trip I only stopped once or fuel and didn’t talk to someone about it. Haven’t checked the mpg but it was actually decent from what I recall, or at least it didn’t seem like a lot of stops for fuel and I was being fairly cautious because I didn’t know how well the fuel gauge worked.

      Thanks for the read, they sure are fun vehicles :)

  17. George

    Don’t forget the leading role of an Ultravan in “My Girl,” 1991.

  18. JeffH48

    I’m pretty sure that I’d be forced to put a “Happy Face”, even if only magnetic…and I too would love to read of it’s future developments, so please do keep us up to date.

    cheers….JeffH

  19. Mike

    I agree with Charles. Great writing!

  20. '59FORDfan

    Jay, you were born, to write! Your narrative style and, style of wit, had me wishing each part, of the story, was more lengthy; great job!

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