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Ultra, Van: 350-Powered 1970 UltraVan

Is the car hobby driving you into the poorhouse? Here’s a project car you can live in! One of the last examples built of the pioneering compact UltraVan motorhome, this 1970 model trades the usual Corvair powerplant for something a little burlier—how does Corvette power sound to you? If that’s got you ready to call your mortgage broker, hold the phone; the asking price on this mobile domicile is just $5,000. You can find it on craigslist in Buckland, Massachusetts, with a tip o’ the cap to Rocco B. for sending it our way! (Archived ad.)

The first prototype UltraVans were built in late 1960 and 1961, shortly after the introduction of the Corvair, which lent its compact engine and transaxle power team to the lightweight (under 5,000 pounds), compact (about 22 feet long) motorhome, but series production didn’t really start until 1966, at which point the Corvair’s days were already rumored to be numbered. This proved true, and by 1969 the Corvair-powered UltraVan needed to find an alternate power source. After some experimentation with both front-mounted and flipped and rear-mounted Toronado running gear—which resulted in the related Tiara motorhome—the UltraVan adopted a backwards Chevrolet 307 small block V8, routing power through a two-speed Powerglide to a Corvette rear axle, complete with disc brakes. Just 47 such vans were built in 1969 and 1970. There’s lots of great reading about the UltraVan’s history here, courtesy of the UltraVan Motor Coach Club, a chapter of the Corvair Society of America.

Now, you’ll notice I said Corvette power up there, and the 307 was not a Corvette engine. This UltraVan, however, is said to run a 350, and, hey, it could have come from a Corvette! It could also be the original 307 and the seller could be misinformed, although engine swaps on Ultras are not uncommon. In any event, it is said to run well. The condition of the rest of the van’s running gear goes unmentioned.

Also left entirely to the imagination: the interior. No two UltraVans were exactly alike, each being built to the buyer’s specifications from a lengthy option list—and most have been modified since to suit the whims and needs of their successive owners. We know that this one needs some windows and has a new front vent and bathroom fan (ergo, it has a bathroom!). The exterior is in need of some aluminum work; the rounded corners are fiberglas, but the rest of the body is aluminum sheets riveted to an aircraft-style monocoque. UltraVans are prized classics in their own quirky little corner of the automotive world, and V8 power ups both the performance and the rarity of this late model. Could you see making this one your home away from home—or just your home?


  1. XMA0891

    Wasn’t an episode of “American Pickers” centered around one of these? I believe it was in NH, and the guy wouldn’t part with it.

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    • Steve in Charlotte

      Not sure if this is the same one. He wanted 10k and Mike & Frank passed on it. I believe that owner said it was only one of two east of the Mississippi. Since this one is going for 5k my guess it’s not the one that was on the show.

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      • Jaygryph

        There was one on an episode of Hoarders as well. That one was broken in half because some moron outfitted it as a radio rig with plate steel bumpers and spots for like 8 truck lead acid batteries. The whole front end collapsed and the guy selling it wanted about 2k for it, but had never really seen it in person. He ended up selling it for about $400 to someone that was going to drag it out to the desert to live in, which was about all that one was good for. I ended up getting some parts off it for mine, so that was pretty neat.

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  2. Mark

    Looks like truck Oscar Meyer wiener mobile was made out of.

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    • RS

      In those days the Wiener Wagon was built on a 59 Chev car chassis.

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  3. Mountainwoodie

    Maybe the seller didn’t dare go inside to take pix! Interesting concept but too bad so many of them were left to rot.

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  4. Russell

    One of these in nice shape resides in South Lake Tahoe, CA where I moved from. It was rumored or confirmed that there was at least one powered by an Olds Tornado drivetrain mounted in the rear.

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  5. Humperdink

    The last 100 or so Ultravans had 350 SBC installed. $5k for this is a lot. One can buy (currently) a nicely refinished Ultravan (based in Vancouver) for $15k. My rec is to pass on this unless you really want the challenge.

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  6. Jaygryph

    In case anyone here hasn’t seen it, this was the adventure I took in mine when I bought it. http://imgur.com/a/L6JkB

    There’s currently another guy doing similar with one he just bought, except he is going cross country.

    My father owns the prototype that was hand built by the creator of these and it’s quite different in many ways, so really is a prototype, tho he built it for himself and only went into serial production because so many people liked it and wanted one.

    The ultravan is well designed for a light air cooled rear engine, and the 140 4 carb engine in mine scoots it down the road and keeps up with traffic just fine, even loaded with gear for camping or living in it a while.

    The V8 RV’s are another matter entirely because they took an engine that two people could lift, and pitched it in favor of a cast iron V8, heavy transmission, and steel and cast iron rear axel, boat V drive, and more U joints than you can shake a stick at. Seriously they’re hilariously ‘bad idea’ when you see under the bed, which by the way raised up about a foot to clear all of that. Oh then there’s the weight of the coolant water, and a radiator, and all of this hangs above and behind the rear axel centerline.

    Cooling was an issue. I have seen more than one V8 coach burn to the ground from engine overheat fires. Balance was an issue, because, jesus they made it into a giant trebuchet as far as chassis balance went. Structural integrity was VERY MUCH AN ISSUE, because they hung all that heavy, high center of gravity cast iron crap on aluminum sheet that was never EVER intended to hold that weight.

    These were some space age stuff when they were built and this was a last ditch effort to save the brand, but there is a reason they built very few in this style. It was a horrible retrofit idea that never should have happened.

    Now, that said, these are still super rad. 5K is pretty high for this, it’s more than I paid for mine and mine is overall in probably better shape than this one. He completed another one, so this one was a parts coach for that I would wager.

    The windshields are NOT easy to find, and will be expensive if you do find them. They are 1959 Chevrolet step van windshields, and are flipped upside down, and have 6 inches cut off the inside so you can put a square piece of flat glass to make up the rest of the width. Running them standard requires cutting a weird shaped piece of glass for the center section and reworking the frame around them. If you buy the glass, that’s only half the battle as you then have to find someone to cut it without breaking it, and you have to do that twice as there is a left and right glass section. The side windows are either flat plate or plexiglass, the aluminum frames do come apart, but easy and incredibly tedious and prone to breaking something in the process are in this case probably the same thing.

    This is one of these vehicles where the glass can kill the entire project.

    There are no pictures of the interior, but it looks like the maple interior, they had dark brown, light brown, and white. White is by far the most rare and hardest to find, so the light brown is the more common one. The floors of these are plywood, so if that’s rotted, plan on removing the entire floor and building a new one. The floor goes under the cabinets and shower pan, so you can imagine how much a pain in the ass that is to replace. I know, I will have to do that on mine when I ditch all the wood for aluminum sheet.

    The front suspension on these is cast aluminum A arms. It may have the heavier style, but they are both prone to cracking if this was ever overloaded, and most likely it was. People see V8 and think, oh it can haul anything. No, it can’t. The corvair powered ones ran about 3500 lbs, not much more than the corvair the power plant came from. The engine it was designed for moved it just fine.

    So, my suggestion is, yes this is super cool, but this price is not a good one for the work and missing parts, particularly the glass. What this would be best for is to pick it up for $2500, or if the interior is perfect, sure maybe 5k (but I doubt it is in that kind of shape), and then remove ALL of that V8 bullship from the rear of it, sell it off, and use that money to find a front wheel drive setup out of a modern car. A V6, ecoboost turbo 4 cylinder, something small that will fit back there, and put that in. No it will not be a V8, but it will get better mileage, and will have better power to weight, and won’t have to haul around some antique iron in a shell that was never built to have it shoved up it’s big aluminum butt.

    These things ARE amazing to drive and you will never run out of people to talk to, but man, the V8 ones are a terrible idea. The floor plan is super wide and open in the middle, they’re nicely laid out for a camper, even by modern standards, so it’s worth saving.

    Oh, there’s more than 100 of these things around. The ultravan club knows of about 200 of them still around, which is pretty good since 300 or so were built across the various model runs.

    I hope someone buys this and keeps it on the road. They won’t regret it.

    Oh, you should probably rewire the entire thing. They liked those little clamp on wire connections at the factory and frankly they’re horrible (and probably the cause of some of those fires I mentioned.)

    Cool find, always love to see these. :)

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  7. Gay Car Nut

    I’ve heard of the Ultra Van, but I’ve never seen one in person, either with the Corvair air-cooled boxer engine, or the water-cooled V8 engine. For a vehicle like this, I would think a Subaru Boxer engine would’ve been a better choice than the V8 engine.

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    • Jaygryph

      The Subaru engine is a rather good choice, even though it’s a water pumper. The radiator requirements for that are much lower than that big ol’ V8 will be and modern electric fans will be much better than the belt fans of old like these used. A nicely ducted side intake and the correct fans and shrouding should keep it plenty cool on even the longest hauls, and having self adjusting EFI at your command would really help a lot. Be great MPG. Heck, put an STI WRX setup in it and you’d probably be able to pick the nose up on launch and do some killer burnouts.

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  8. whippeteer

    About 3 years ago I saw one driving through VA on 81. Alas it was going the other direction.

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