Whales on Wheels

I saw something yesterday that I had never seen in-person before. I am talking about a group of Corvair Ultra Vans, and these “whales on wheels” constitute a truly unique chapter of American automotive history.

There is an Ultra Van Club, and some of its members are holding a rally in Kearney, Nebraska, this week. On Wednesday, they parked downtown and very generously opened up their vehicles to the general public while patiently answering everyone’s questions. The club has a website that you can check out for more information about these fascinating vintage motorhomes.

Created by an aircraft designer in the 1960s, they are a true “monocoque” structure. I had to look that word up, but it means that the skin itself is structural and supports the load. In other words, it has no frame or chassis. The center section is built like an airplane with sheets of aluminum riveted over aluminum ribs.

The curved front and back are fiberglass. According to Ultra Van owners, all of these lightweight materials enable the Ultra Van to get better than 15 mpg while cruising down the road.

The Ultra Vans are 22 feet long, 8 feet wide, and able to turn 50 degrees to the right or left which makes them more nimble than most motorhomes. Less than 400 were produced, but there are still more than 100 of them navigating the highways of America so keep your eyes open for one. They are powered by the 6-cylinder Corvair air-cooled engine, so if you happen to be behind one while going up any type of incline, you should have ample time to study it.

Sixty-Onederful Chevrolet Impala

Advertisement. Chevrolet. Nanaimo Daily News, 14 January 1961.

This stunning Impala bubble-top represents the best of 1960s cool with iconic triple tail lights and dual rear antennas:

Engine choices in ’61 included the 235 6-cylinder, 283 V-8 with either a 170-hp 2-barrel carb or a 230-hp 4-barrel, and a 348 with 250 to 350-hp. A Super Sport package was introduced in the winter of 1961 that marked the first appearance of the legendary 409 and, incredibly, it was done with very little fanfare. The newspapers from that time have just the barest mentions of the momentous occasion, and most did not even reference the 409. This one, for instance, uses the occasion to mention the Ford 390:

Farren, Dave. “Automotive Views.” Courier Post [Camden], 14 March 1961, p. 13.

It didn’t take long for speed enthusiasts to take notice, however. This ad was in the classified section of the L.A. Times, and it didn’t mince words:

I am not sure what “1961 International Track Record Champ” means, but I think it must refer to Don Nicholson’s surprise win with a 409-powered Impala at the 1961 NHRA Winternational (the inaugeral running of the race in Pomona, Calafornia).


Old Trusty

We went to Clay Center, Nebraska, over the weekend to check out the Old Trusty Antique and Collectors Show. It was the 37th annual event, and it did not disappoint. If you like anything (or everything) with wheels, you will appreciate the acres and acres of antique cars, trucks, tractors and engines. The show included classic vehicles with four-wheels, two-wheels and even a half-track, early engines of all kinds, original horse (and donkey) power and a veritable sea of red, green and orange paint. Here is just some of what we saw:

1958 Dodge M37
1955 Ford Customline
1955 Ford Customline
1957 Oldsmobile
1957 Oldsmobile
Deuce Coupe
1931 Ford Pickup
1960 Nomad
’40 Ford Truck being hauled by a Mack Truck
WWII half-track

1919 Transcontinental Army Motor Convoy

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the historic military convoy that traversed America from Washington DC to the Pacific Ocean, following the Lincoln Highway from Gettysburg to San Francisco.  The Great War had just ended, and the development of military vehicles was one of the principal factors that contributed to winning that war.  As the commanding officer in charge of the convoy, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles McClure, put it, “Motor truck transportation saved France, but France had roads.” Realizing the importance of a federal highway system, the Secretary of War authorized the Motor Transport Corps (MTC) of the United States Army to conduct this First Transcontinental Motor Convoy.  The stated goals included the service testing of army vehicles, demonstrating the practicability of long-distance motor transport, encouraging the government expenditure necessary to a highway system, and recruiting for the MTC.

The convoy that left Washington D.C. on July 7th consisted of two complete truck companies of “war strength”.  Reports vary, but around 80 vehicles made the trip and included, among others, Cadillac and Dodge passenger cars, Packard, White, GMC and Mack Trucks and Harley and Indian motorcycles. 

Personnel numbered nearly 300, made up of enlisted men, officers and War Department observers.  One of those observers was the great Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a baby-faced Lieutenant Colonel, and you can find the official reports referenced herein, as well as the historic photos, on the Eisenhower Presidential Library website.

They made the 3,251-mile trip in 62 days, arriving at the Presidio in San Francisco on September 6th.  Over 54 percent or 1,778 of the miles traveled consisted of unpaved mountain trails, desert sands, alkali flats and dirt roads that quickly turned to mud when it rained. 

Again, reports vary, but the convoy of heavy machinery damaged or destroyed something like 100 bridges and culverts.  One of the Mack trucks, carrying a tractor, was the official tester.   According to an interview with McClure, this testing lead to the collapse of 16 bridges in a single day, and all destroyed bridges had to be rebuilt before moving on. 

Surviving Lincoln Highway bridge near Overton, Nebraska.
Photo credit: Marge Kauffelt

According to the official reports, this army motor convoy set a new world record for distance and, in doing so, garnered the publicity essential to achieving its purposes. One-ninth of the population of the United States was living within a zone ten miles wide along the Lincoln Highway, and it was estimated that local publicity in the states crossed brought the convoy to the attention of 33,000,000 people or nearly one-third of the population. The Townsend Highway Bill, legislation which established a Federal Highway Commission and appropriated funds for the construction of highways, was under consideration in Congress, and the fanfare surrounding the convoy helped convince the members of Congress to pass it. 

In terms of service-testing the equipment, some brands fared better than others. The Garford truck, for example, was roundly criticized.  The Dodges and Cadillacs performed admirably, and the three Packard trucks received high praise from those who took part in the convoy, including Eisenhower himself.  He stated “One Packard truck was badly overloaded the entire trip.  Its load was partially distributed in latter part, but when weighed near end of trip, its gross weight was still 1,500 pounds in excess of that of any other 1 ½ ton truck.  The performance of these three trucks is considered remarkable.” 

A consensus was also reached regarding the performance of personnel.  The repair, engineer and medical units were well-trained and disciplined, but the relatively new MTC apparently had room for improvement.  The Ordnance Observer, 1st Lieutenant E. R. Jackson, described it this way in his report: “During the early weeks of the trip, discipline among the enlisted men of the Motor Transport Corps was conspicuous by its absence.”  Eisenhower agreed with this observation and blamed inexperience and poor officers for excessive speeding, poor handling of trucks and unseemly conduct.  Unfortunately, no details were given as to what was unseemly about their conduct!

When the convoy passed through Kearney, Nebraska, the local paper noted the similarities between the pioneers in the convoy and the ones that had followed the Oregon Trail to the west in similar fashion not too many decades before.  The khaki canvas stretched over the steel supports of the army trucks was reminiscent of the white canvas of the covered wagons.  Like the wagon train, the convoy was also self-sustaining.  It included machine and blacksmith shops, water tanks, gas tanks and kitchen trailers.  Kearney is home to Ft. Kearny, and some of those watching the 1919 spectacle had almost certainly witnessed the wagon trains that were still rolling through in the 1860s.

To commemorate this historic transcontinental convoy, some organizations are retracing the path taken in 1919.  One of these groups is the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, and they just went through Nebraska a couple of days ago.  What a great idea, and what an impressive array of historic vehicles! 


“Army Motor Convoy Trip.” The Denison Review, 2 July 1919, p. 1.

“Army Truck is Try-Out For Equipment.” The South Bend News Times, 20 July 1919, p. 10.

“Billion Urged For National Road System.” Oakland Tribune, 7 September 1919, p. 4.

“First Transcontinental Military Convoy Over Lincoln Highway.” The Lancaster Daily Intelligencer, 5 July 1919, p. 13.

“Government Motor Truck Train Now Winding Its Way Across Nevada.” Reno Evening Gazette, 31 August 1919, p. 8.

Houlihan, Jim. “Official Greeting of Oakland Extended on Nevada Desert.” Oakland Tribune, 31 August 1919, p.1.

“U.S. Army Convoy Shows Tremendous Possibilities of Motor Trucks.” Los Angeles Sunday Times, 14 September 1919, p. 1.

“U.S. Army Truck Convoy Teaches Many Lessons; Automobile Transportation Factor in Progress.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 17 August 1919, p. 1.

“U.S. Convoy Half Way On Coast to Coast Trip.” The Washington Times, 2 August 1919, p. 9.