End of the Ford Econoline marks a new era for great American vans
If you ever wanted to really get to know a Ford E-Series van, better hurry. Because after a long — check that, absurdly long — run, it's finally retirement time for America's most famous and most geriatric hauler; take a bow, you body-on-frame, mostly V-8 people mover. It's so old it always looks like it's starring in some '70s Quinn Martin production or an episode of Dragnet.
When the former Econoline receives a gold watch for service at the end of the 2013 model year, Ford will finally begin building for the American market the unibody Transit van they sell in Europe and around the world. It's a big deal, and although many of us can't help holding a sentimental, snuggly soft spot for the Econoline, the cue for this old stager to shuffle off comes not a nanosecond too soon.
Like the upcoming Chrysler Ram vans, based on a couple of Fiat's home-market schleppers, the Doblo and the Ducato, Ford's Transit launch in the U.S. is what counts for meaningful progress along the slow road to a more rational U.S. fleet. Here's why:
What stands out in this look back is a remarkable reluctance to move beyond a formula that works. While European buyers have always been able to look forward to new models every five or six years, the American van buyer has had to wait dozens of years and usually more for the sorts of big improvements only a redesign with the latest thinking and technology can bring. In the same time frame as we've gotten to know, for instance, eleven complete redesigns of the Toyota Corolla, pens have been lifted extensively but two or three times in service of the vans of the formerly Big Three since the '60s.
One central irony: Faced with serious competition abroad, American companies started offering better vans to their customers outside the United States in the '60s and '70s, with great strides made every decade since. But here at home, competition was stayed, as was progress. Van design, like a woolly mammoth in a late 1960s ice floe, was frozen in time as the companies collectively appear to have agreed, with the willing assent of the federal government at its bipartisan best, to call a truce amongst them selves, skip a development cycle or three, and collectively supply their countrymen with less than the best vans known to man.